24 September 2019 · South Western Railway – an Update

Presenter: David Wilby, Regional Development Manager, South Western Railway

A relative newcomer to railways, David’s background is in planning, including transport planning in his previous job at Wokingham Borough Council. He outlined what he would cover and explained that it was with some trepidation that he had agreed to talk to Surrey Branch having been in the audience for two years running, when his immediate boss Phil Dominey spoke about South Western Railway (SWR) two years ago, and then when SWR MD Andy Mellor gave a presentation last September. Illustrations included PowerPoint slides as well as some short videos, the first of which showed the change on a Class 450 from South West Trains (SWT) to SWR livery. The livery design has since been modified slightly, without the prominent stripes, as it has been rolled out across the fleet.

Part of the franchise conditions included having a small team to look at development and to find ways to bring third party money into the railways which is where David comes in. The franchise area has been split into three for this purpose with all three posts being written into the franchise. The posts cover Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, David’s area (which is the suburban network), and the Western area.

The franchise has five main objectives:

Customers – providing a great customer experience;

Colleagues – trying to ensure that SWR is a great company to work for;

Commercial – making it a sustainable business;

Safety – exactly what it says;

Performance – improving performance with better reliability, punctuality and all the other aspects that would be expected from a good business.

Progress after 24 months of the franchise followed and there have been some successes with objectives achieved such as automatic delay/repay now becoming expected throughout the railway network, rolling out new trains and refurbishing older units, an improved timetable, better real time information, wifi on trains and the introduction of new gatelines amongst them.

There was some research on the best places to install gatelines and the benefits of this can be shown by the example of Wokingham where there was a 40% increase in fares paid in the first week of gateline operation. David was fully aware that performance is not where it should be and that further improvement is required. Part of the problem is the ageing assets of the railway network with insufficient investment and enhancement in the past although work is on-going to remedy this. SWR is not blameless but they are looking at particularly congested spots where problems with just one service can have a ‘knock on’ effect on many others, and how best to make improvements.

SWR are also looking at other business opportunities as there is little or no capacity for peak time growth and one answer has been to put on extra services at weekends to grow the business that way. One of the less successful issues has been the use of refurbished Class 442s and the difficulties with the effects on the signalling systems, and issues with door sensors. The units are currently back in the workshop undergoing modification to solve the problems. Industrial relations were only covered briefly as this is not David’s field but he is hopeful that talks between SWR and the unions at ACAS will lead to a resolution as everyone would like to see it sorted out as soon as possible.

Other schemes either completed, in development or under consideration include the installation of accessible ramps at Chessington South and David commented on how expensive this is on the railways when compared to his previous experience with highways. Another important area involves working with Local Authorities (LAs) such as the expansion of the Sky offices in Isleworth where enhancements to the railway station were agreed as part of the planning consent with the LA – in this instance the London Borough of Hounslow. It is part of David’s job to push for this sort of investment in the railways, as well as encouraging community rail partnerships for which there is some funding set aside within the franchise. This can lead to a wide range of benefits depending on what has been agreed locally and all improvements – whether carefully tended flowerbeds or additional services, will help to promote the destinations served by SWR. Volunteer community ambassadors have been taken on to encourage those who would not normally consider using railways to do so, showing them how any difficulty they may have can be overcome and taking the fear out of trying something different – another way to grow the business. At this point David showed another short video of making the advertisement “Great Days Out” which was created to encourage more leisure travel using SWR services, highlighting some of the great places that can be visited by train and the good memories that go with great days out.

Another area badly in need of investment is the Island Line on the Isle of Wight and David was pleased to confirm that a substantial investment package has now been agreed in conjunction with substantial refurbishment work to be done by Network Rail (NR) on Ryde Pier. With rebuilt Viva Rail ex London Transport D Stock (Class 484) – almost the only part retained is the body shell, trains and services should be much better, and the addition of a passing loop will also enable better service patterns. The final piece is a new hybrid ferry that it is planned will connect up properly with the railway.

Then came what David described as the best bit of the evening – the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. This lays out details of mitigation in respect of new developments and the mechanism for doing so is detailed within the Act. While some developments would not need new road connections, they might require enhancements to the local railway station – for example around Woking, and this might go as far as contributions towards the long discussed grade separation and works to Victoria Arch to reduce the road bottleneck. Money is needed to make improvements so it is not unreasonable to request developers to contribute to the local infrastructure if they wish to develop. LAs can work together as one, as in the Battersea Opportunity Area around the former Battersea Power Station where the Northern Line extension is an integral part of the development. There were other examples too. David also mentioned a few where opportunities had been missed, and the need to be aware of what partnerships of this sort can do for the benefit of all concerned.

David summed up some of the ways to bring money in to help with enhancements on the railways to improve communities, accessibility and many other areas. But he also pointed out that for ‘big ticket’ items, it would be necessary to look to the government because of the vast costs of big projects.

Questions and answers followed after the refreshment break and covered more trains on Sunday stopping at Brookwood; targets for passenger comfort with a comparison between BR Mark 1 third class coaches compared with some modern rolling stock; Farnham to Guildford services – any progress? Where there were questions that David was unable to answer, he gave information on the best person to ask. Disabled seats and the unavailability of disabled toilets were raised; specific service issues where there have been changes and possibilities for improvement and a possible grade separation at Basingstoke. There were also queries about delays – the reasons given for the delays and better information for passengers. Longcross on the Reading line was raised as there is planning for substantial residential development with part of the planning consent bringing in investment to improve the station, local services, highways etc in and around the development. There is a long list of improvements that will go ahead as part of this package which is just the sort of thing that David raised in his presentation.

The vote of thanks was given by branch committee member Richard Whitehead who recognised that David had perhaps entered the field at a difficult time for railways, highlighted the local proposals for improvements in the Woking area, as well as providing an excellent broader picture of SWR.

It was refreshing to have a speaker who was not afraid to say when he could not answer a question, was happy to advise where to find the answers or who to ask, and who used plain English rather than corporate language in his presentation. An excellent presentation and it will be interesting to see his progress with SWR.