Will Commuters Even Notice?

South West Trains, South Western Trains. You say tomato.

Window sticker warning of rail disruptionIn January 2016, it was reported that my local train operator, South West Trains had achieved 81% customer satisfaction. It always seems to me that there is a general feeling that our trains are no good but I think that’s a pretty decent figure. So, when Transport Focus’ autumn 2016 survey reported that the number was 83%, you’d think the company was moving in the right direction, wouldn’t you

As I noted in my piece about the upcoming disruption (starting in just a few hours) at Britain’s busiest station, London Waterloo, there are already plans to increase capacity by 30%. This increase is, in part, achieved by lengthening platforms to allow longer trains to run. This is in addition to the extension of most of the suburban platforms on the network and the extra carriages introduced in 2015/6 as well as the previously announced £210 million Desiro City trains that are due to enter service after the works are complete (part of the “biggest increase in capacity on this network for decades” [source]) adding 150 new carriages.

Given the frequency of trains at peak hours, this must mean that the lines are pretty full. From my local station, there are 12 off-peak trains per hour (or 1 every 5 minutes) into Waterloo. Network Rail are squeezing extra capacity in but that means massive disruption to get us there. But what next?

Well, despite all these longer platforms, extra trains and high customer satisfaction score, South West Trains lost their franchise. From August 20 2017, and for the next 7 years, First MTR South Western Trains Ltd (a joint venture between & Hong Kong’s MTR Corp) will run the service.

South West Trains 1990s LogoSouth West Trains been the only private operator of the service since I moved to London. Prior to 4 Feb 1996 the service was public, part of British Rail’s Network South East operations. I imagine over the coming months somebody may repaint the train. I’m sure there will be stickers over the old logo and I imagine that there will lots of promotion for new a shiny new web site and some new social media feeds.

But, really, will anybody actually notice?

South West Trains, South Western Trains. You say tomato.

Of course, franchises are not awarded on train colours or fancy logos. They’re awarded on the promises of service and money (this franchise is actually a net contributor to UK finances). I can’t argue the money part (see this article about “payments over the core period with a real net present value of £2·6bn”) because I can’t really work out who spaying who at any point in time. So, I’m looking at their services,

The first, “30% more peak seats per day at London Waterloo by December 2020” seems to be remarkably similar to service improvement already promised by South West Trains (and noted in my piece about Waterloo).

“Simpler fares with pay as you go smart cards” seems to me to be a decent proposal but no details on how it’s better that SWT’s existing smart card offering.

Of course there are promises of community engagement (“Increased engagement with local stakeholders” and “The biggest rail operator apprenticeship scheme in Britain”) which are all welcome but will have limited impact on the core railway issue: service provision.

Top of the promise list is “The introduction of 750 new suburban coaches” which are promised by 2020 (so will be in service for about two-thirds of the franchise). But these are, ultimately, replacing the new Desiro City trains that are coming later this year (they haven’t even been introduced yet). In 2020 it seems that its a case of out with the new, in with the new.

There are currently 1400 train carriages on the SWT network. It’s not clear from any of the promises (both from the incumbent and new provider) how many are really additional carriages rather than shiny new replacements.

Yes, there are train refubushments (unless you’re on the Isle of Wight there are only promises of “proposals”) which include wifi and at-seat charging. These changes are welcome if you can get a seat to plug your phone into & the on-board wifi isn’t over capacity because the train is full.

All this seems to me a change for limited gain. The new franchise will benefit from the improvement works at Waterloo and the introduction of the Desiro City trains but so would the existing supplier, who arguably, doesn’t see any benefit from all the work they have put in to get to this point. The new operator is adding new trains but taking away new trains and, even if they are better in some way, they won’t be here for a while.

I don’t doubt that there will be improvements but, as a humble commuter on the busiest line in the country, it seems to we’re getting either things that have already been promised or cosmetic changes. I wonder, has it been worth all the expense of the franchise process? As I mentioned in my last piece on the topic, if passenger growth continues, where will real new capacity come from in a few years when the promised 30% is filled?

So, what does the Mayor’s Transport Strategy propose as a solution to the overcrowding problems on the south west lines into London?

Crossrail 2 anyone?

{Have something to say about this post? I also published on Medium so why not comment there?]

Author: jon

Jon Curnow writes on curnow.org about things that interest him. The site has been around for many years in various forms and he always wants to write much more here than he does.

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