Waterloo’s railway is generally reckoned to be Britain’s only profitable route. Income from passengers exceeds the costs of running trains and operating its tracks. Government benefits from the surplus.
Those tracks and trains have long been the busiest in Britain. They have also been a victim of their own success with the sheer number of trains and passengers making it hard to expand and improve the railway.
First Group and MTR took over the trains in summer 2017 in the middle of a major closure at Waterloo to lengthen Platforms 1-4. This was a project that Network Rail had cancelled in 2011 amid fears that it would reduce track capacity because the longer trains it would allow would take more time to cross junctions. Today Waterloo has its longer platforms and the change has reduced train capacity (but has brought more seats). Running 10-car trains rather than eights has harmed punctuality, not least because of the 15mph restriction applied to Platforms 1-4 across pointwork designed for 20mph. Planners predicted this, noting that the rest of the route has to run without delays for Waterloo to work.
That was always going to be a forlorn hope. The route into Waterloo rarely runs without delays, not helped the 70 temporary speed restrictions imposed on it, according to South Western Railway Managing Director Andy Mellors, who reckons that during 2012’s Olympics there were just 12. Performance has been falling for South West passengers since 2011. Back in 2014, Network Rail and South West Trains were working together in a ‘deep alliance’, headed by Tim Shoveller. When I quizzed him for RailReview back then, he painted a picture of a neglected network on which Network Rail struggled for time to fix track faults and SWT struggled to run a reliable service.
Today Mellors talks about “managed decline” and ageing infrastructure with renewal rates lagging behind deterioration.
When SWR took over it came with a franchise commitment to review performance. It appointed Atkins to the job and the transport secretary appointed Michael Holden as its independent leader. Holden brought years of experience, having recently chaired East Coast and in previous years run Railtrack’s Southern Zone, which included the routes from Waterloo.
Holden’s review exposed South West’s turbulent past. Stagecoach ran the franchise from privatisation in 1996 until First and MTR took over in 2017. This apparent continuity masked considerable changes over the years. The deep alliance that Tim Shoveller ran lasted from 2012 to 2015 and SWT changed managing directors in 2016 and 2017. SWR changed all the directors on takeover. On the operational side, Class 456 EMUs arrived in 2014 as did rebuilt and lengthened Class 458s. The same year saw the first re-tractioned Class 455s start work. In 2015, SWT started 10-car services on its Windsor Line. 2017 saw Waterloo’s remodelling, Class 707s start work, 10-car trains running on the Main Suburban network and Network Rail’s control centre move from Waterloo to Basingstoke.
The impact of moving control cannot be overestimated. Waterloo Integrated Control Centre placed controllers close to their decisions and close to their passengers. It brought an urgency to fixing problems when they could see a concourse crowded with passengers and platforms bereft of trains.
Basingstoke is different. According to Andy Mellors, it’s sterile and distant from the operating railway. Staff drive there rather than catching a train. He noted the WICC staff started leaving from the time the move was announced, taking with them their years of knowledge and experience.
Network Rail saw a similar loss of expertise when it centralised timetable planning Milton Keynes. Many experienced planners did not move from regional offices. While the reasons for last May’s timetable meltdown stem more from late government decisions and late NR delivery of infrastructure, the situation was undoubtedly made worse by this loss.
Holden describes the Basingstoke move as causing a “serious loss of operational expertise and command and control capability.” He notes that SWR’s timetable – which has not changed since 2004 – is under pressure from more passengers increasing dwell times, a progressive increase in defensive driving, a shortage of fully trained drivers, longer trains taking longer to clear junctions and too many speed restrictions.
In addition, SWR finds it harder to recover from delays because there’s been a “severe loss of capability to control train crew during disruption”, a shortfall in route and traction knowledge and inadequate knowledge of key diversionary routes.
Mellors agrees, telling RAIL that not all of his drivers have route and traction knowledge for all the services they’re expected to drive across their whole roster. This means that crews must be switched from other duties to cover gaps. Such work would have fallen to train crew supervisors had they not been abolished in 2011. Now there are train service managers, each responsible for 60 services and crews. Mellors notes that when things go wrong, it can take around six minutes to brief a crew about changes but there are trains every minute. Managers quickly become overwhelmed as a result. SWR started recruiting more drivers in June 2017 before it took over from SWT, he adds.
Problems identified by Tim Shoveller in 2014 remain today with SWR still very short of siding and stabling space. Waterloo’s remodelling of Platforms 1-4 replaced two sidings with just one, giving controllers fewer options when delays snowball.
Holden found that 10-car trains started on Main Suburban services without “commensurate infrastructure upgrades required in perturbation” and that there were insufficient stabling facilities for the new Class 707 fleet. This reinforces the feeling that Britain’s busiest railway has been neglected and that there’s been little attempt to delivery a joined-up railway. There’s some naivety in managers agreeing changes that depend on the rest of the railway running perfectly.
Further evidence of unthinking decisions comes from the different performance targets being asked of SWR and NR. Holden told RAIL that SWR had to achieve 91.5% punctuality but NR was only asked to provide a railway for 87%.
To counter some of these problems, Mellors told RAIL he was returning some control aspects to Waterloo and spending money to improve train reliability, particularly on Classes 455 and 458 and the Desiro fleet maintained by Siemens. He told me he’d “shaken up” arrangements to review performance, noting that the joint team had become “a bit cosy”.
Top of Holden’s short-term recommendations is an overhaul for performance management, planning, reporting, analysis and forecasting. He calls for SWR’s managing director and NR’s route managing director to overtly support a relaunch of SWR’s performance management system. Crucially, he calls for action from NR to reduce the number of temporary speed restrictions.
In the medium-term, Holden calls on SWR and NR to improve the way they manage trains and crew and suggests creating ‘service management pods’ at Basingstoke for mainline service and Waterloo for inner-suburban services.
SWR is replacing its mixed inner-suburban fleet with Class 701s from Bombardier. This fleet should give passengers more space and make maintenance easier across a single rather than several types. However, SWR continues to be embroiled in industrial action with the RMT union which is unhappy that guards will lose control of door operation.
When I saw Andy Mellors just hours before the National Rail Awards, almost this first thing he said was: “Who’s been asleep on the job for the last eight years?”. I suspect the answer is many people. Under the apparent continuity of SWT’s long-established brand, there were frequent management changes, there were failed negotiations for a direct award to Stagecoach, the collapse of the deep alliance and NR’s subsequent management changes. All these changes distracted managers and staff from the day job of running punctual trains.
There’s more change coming with new trains. However the RMT and SWR settle their dispute – Holden recommends more driver controlled operation which will alter the guard’s role – it will mean change for one or other side. Meanwhile, NR’s challenge of maintaining a busy railway continues.
The one change that must happen is to shift punctuality upwards. Anything else will disappoint passengers. And they’re the ones paying for this railway.
This articles first appeared in RAIL 862, published on September 26 2018.