22 September 2020 · South Western Railway

Presenter: Mark Hopwood, Managing Director (MD), South Western Railway (SWR)

We welcomed Mark as the speaker at our first virtual branch meeting. He explained that he was only supposed to have been acting Managing Director at SWR for three months but he has enjoyed his extended time here. He has had a personal interest in railways since childhood which has continued throughout his career on the railways.

Covid-19 was easily introduced as this was a virtual meeting with all those attending gathered round their screens! Everyone has had to deal with the situation and SWR have kept services running throughout although statistics showed clearly how passenger numbers have been affected. So what has SWR done? The first efforts were to keep key workers moving while engaging with the NHS and working with local authorities to meet the needs of key workers, as well as helping to promote government health advice and offering spare PPE to the Emergency services in the SWR area. There has been a massive impact on the business but fortunately, SWR has not lost any staff through the illness although some have faced a challenging recovery.

Before Covid-19 performance was improving but the significant reduction in passenger numbers does affect the business. However, Network Rail (NR) took the opportunity to carry out engineering works and other improvement measures while services were reduced. The work includes reducing the number of speed restrictions that can cause journey delays in the SWR area.

Covid-19 Recovery has been very much a partnership working together with local authorities, schools and colleges amongst others, using both website and social media posts and contributing to town and city centre recovery plans. Commercial recovery followed, highlighting the need for flexible planning due to current uncertainties about the future, such as efforts to spread the peak demand, managing social distancing, supporting local business and working with others for example. He was asked to come over to SWR because change was needed to produce significant improvements and find a way to resolve the industrial action. The graphs shown here made it clear that there have already been some significant improvements.

There are always plans for new rolling stock so the Arterio fleet was introduced which is aimed at shorter suburban services rather than longer distances; Mark outlined which routes these are intended for and the difficulties in trying to design a train to meet every need. Class 442s were covered with a detailed description of their origins, the changes, difficulties to overcome, as well as highlighting that bringing these back was part of the original First/MTR bid for the SWR franchise. Other classes mentioned included the 444s and 450s, the class 47 locomotives replacing the class 50s, and the diesel class 158/159s. However, with decarbonisation on the agenda, these units will have to be reconsidered.

There was an update on the outgoing 1938 underground stock on the Isle of Wight, and Mark’s comments that he never expected to be managing any of these. Replacing these will be five Class 484 units coming from Viva Rail which will be a conversion of former D-stock units. There are also programmed improvements of the infrastructure in partnership with NR, the DfT (Department for Transport), Solent Local Enterprise Partnership and the Isle of Wight Council enabling a new 30 minute timetable to be introduced in May 2021.

SWR are also providing Class 423 heritage support with refurbishment work being carried out at Strawberry Hill depot where they are hoping to fit basic safety systems to enable use on the main line. Other community achievements include Access for All, work on community rail partnerships and station adoptions – a great success story encouraging local involvement. In addition there have been special events to encourage those who would not normally do so to use the train, as well as working to bring unused station spaces back into community use.

So what happens next? It is difficult and these have been horrible times but perhaps it is an opportunity too, so the plans for the next twelve months were outlined listing what SWR plans to achieve including developing business cases for ‘Restoring your Railway’ – a complex process with a big name. In addition SWR are working together with NR on proposals for investment as well as expanding working with other stakeholders. There is awareness that the government is struggling financially but in spite of CrossRail 1 issues, Mark made the case for CrossRail 2 which led on to the proposed schemes to connect the SWR lines to serve Heathrow and provide a through service that would help encourage more sustainable travel and reduce road traffic congestion. Other aspects involve looking at the case for re-opening disused railway lines where possible. The principle has already been proven with work on a joint project with Hampshire County Council, NR and others, looking at the line down to the Fawley Refinery where there has been no passenger service for over 50 years and where freight services ended in 2016.

The decarbonisation agenda was covered with details including buying more electricity from sustainable sources to consideration of bi-modes and battery trains.

As this was a virtual meeting, questions and answers were handled differently with the audience being invited to email their questions to the meeting host so that they could be presented one at a time to the speaker. This worked well. Questions ranged from the long tabled proposals for a Woking ‘flyover’ and the widening of the road passing under Victoria Arch in Woking, to new fare deals and government involvement – easy to criticise, not so easy to resolve! The final question was about franchising and where will this go. Mark speculated that the new system is more likely to be vertically integrated and that there will be much closer working between TOCs (train operating companies) and Network Rail.

At the end of an excellent presentation the vote of thanks was given by Tom Kolisch.