Ely underwent something of a revolution 20 years ago when the government authorised electrification and dragged its railway system into the modern age.
Its signalling was life-expired, the trains operating through the station were tired, and investment was required.
The city is an important railway junction, with five routes descending on the station, while a large amount of freight trains, mainly intermodal and aggregates, pass through the station everyday.
Its role as a commuter station has certainly grown from 1989, when just 20 season tickets were purchased between Ely and London (RAIL 107) - now it’s 400 according to train operator National Express East Anglia (NXEA). In 1987, when Network SouthEast took over services in the area, electric multiple units (EMUs) from London Liverpool Street ran only as far as Cambridge on a semi-fast service, after which locomotive-hauled trains took over to run via Ely to Kings Lynn using Class 47/4s and Mk 2s. In the early 1980s Classes 31 and 37 were used as well as the electric train heat Class 47s.
When govement approved the electrification scheme, East Anglia had the fastest growth rate. But this was on the coast and the Fenland region was, in comparison, ‘witnessing’ a less buoyant time.
Part of the reason was poor transport connections, with the A10 from London to Kings Lynn pretty much a single carriageway road, while trains hauled by the Class 47s took more than two hours to reach Kings Lynn, with an average journey speed of 47mph.
Following NSE’s introduction, seven trains per day ran between Cambridge and Kings Lynn, with an additional peak time train introduced using a pair of diesel multiple units. At the time of the West Anglia route electrification to Cambridge it was planned that Class 86s displaced by low utilisation on the West Coast Main Line could be used between the capital and Cambridge, hauling a rake of Mk 2s and connecting with a ‘47’ and Mk 2s which would run forward to Kings Lynn. A plan was also explored that involved electrifying beyond Cambridge to Ely and running a DMU shuttle to Kings Lynn, but this was rejected.
NSE research proved electrification was a much more viable option because of the amount of planned housing in the area, with a total of 5,000 houses to be built along the route north of Cambridge. It was felt that an attractive service would attract city workers to commute.
As part of the plan, the semaphores at Ely were to be replaced in a £3 million scheme sponsored by NSE, Provincial and Railfreight. This work preceded the electrification scheme, and allowed a number of speed restrictions to be lifted. BR delayed planned track renewals pending a decision on the electrification scheme for the Lynn line.
Between 1989 and 1992 the track was re-laid and the speed limit increased. However, until the Class 365 ‘Networker’ trains were introduced in 1994, Class 317s were used on this line.
A decision as part of the line electrification was for Kings Lynn trains to be diverted to London King’s Cross. This allowed faster journeys and solved a problem of capacity between Cambridge and Liverpool Street, although this issue has since reared its ugly head again.
It was felt that by transferring trains to King’s Cross more people would be attracted to the railways, and it was expected that trains would run between Cambridge and London in less than an hour. This is indeed the case, and today six of the ten busiest trains in the UK operate on this route. There are still two southbound trains operated by National Express East Anglia that run between Lynn and Liverpool Street, with three northbound services.
Ely also has an attractive direct service to London, including the 0654 Ely-King’s Cross service formed of a pair of four-car Class 365s which are often full.
Meanwhile, cross-country services running from Norwich to Birmingham were in the hands of Class 31s, while Norwich - Cambridge trains used DMUs. The line to Bury St Edmunds also used DMUs on trains between Peterborough and Ipswich, and the latter is still the case, although today modern Class 170 ‘Turbostars’ operates trains between London Liverpool Street and Peterborough via Bury St Edmunds.
From 1987 the Norwich-Birmingham and Liverpool services transferred to Class 156 operation, and ran at roughly an hourly basis. In 1991 newer Class 158s took over, with Provincial investing in a route today that is bursting at the seams with passengers, albeit still using Class 158s, and even ‘156s’.
Also in 1991, Ely gained access to the international market when direct trains using Class 158s started running between Stansted Airport and Birmingham New Street. Today these units are used by East Midlands Trains, which runs an hourly service between Norwich and the North West, providing an important link for East Anglia to the East Coast Main Line and the Midlands.
This service provides a useful train for leisure travellers and commuters travelling for onward connections at Peterborough (mainly to London), plus a faster and easier link for business travellers from the East of England. The two-car Class 158s are usually very busy by the time they reach Ely, and a healthy load is normally awaiting their arrival. These trains use all three platforms, and arrive and depart at the station from the north.
The ‘158s’, currently being refurbished by EMT, replaced Class 170 Turbostars after the Central Trains franchise was disbanded. Although the long-distance route has returned to older DMUs, passenger numbers seem unaffected.
CrossCountry serves the station, running an hourly Birmingham New Street-Stansted Airport service. Like EMT this carries a mixture of leisure and business travellers, as well as tourists heading for one of the UK’s busiest airports.
As well as running Kings Lynn-London Liverpool Street and Peterborough-London Liverpool Street services, NXEA also serves the station with its hugely successful Norwich-Cambridge service that was re-introduced in 2002 and which uses four two-car Class 170/2s built specifically for the service.
These have opened up business opportunities between the two cities. Again these trains are very popular and the two-car trains are often quite full by the time they reach Ely.
All but the three northbound and two southbound trains run by NXEA between London and Kings Lynn are operated by First Capital Connect, which has recently introduced the biggest change to the West Anglia timetable in 15 years, adding more capacity to trains.
The station itself, managed by NXEA, has three platform faces - two are on an island and one on the west side of the station where the station building is situated.
It is manned throughout the day, and the staff are helpful, with regular announcements made not only for the trains but also for connections.
The friendly feel is enhanced by the care the staff take of the station, with colourful flower arrangements as well as a plaque on a bench marking the death of a rail enthusiast who spent many hours at the station.
It is also a clean and tidy station, and actually has rubbish bins. There are toilets on each platform, along with two newspaper kiosks and a coffee shop, all of which are open during the peak periods.
In terms of freight, Advenza, DB Schenker, First GBRf and Freightliner trains pass Ely station. North of the station is Potter Group’s freight yard, which receives an aggregates train from the Peak Forest most days - often bringing one of the surviving Class 60s to the area, while an Enterprise wagonload train operates from Wembley using a DB Schenker 125mph Class 67. The King’s Lynn line also has a sand train that operates on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and the Class 66 that hauls this runs around the train in the freight loops to the east of the station.
Many engineers trains also pass the station, many originating from March Whitemoor Yard heading south. GBRf run most of these.
Ely certainly has changed, with its electric evolution contributing to the busy services running to London. And with Network Rail and ATOC considering electrification, Ely is a good example of what is possible by investing in wires and new trains.