Two of Our Carriages Are Missing: Bringing Twelve Car Services to Hayes

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If you use Hayes station in the peak period, you will notice that the trains stop about two carriages short of the buffer stops. This means that you, and everyone else, have to walk two carriages further down the platform than necessary. If you are clued up, you will realise the reason for this – it is because the ten car train needs to stop short so that the rear of the train is lined up correctly for the platform monitors at the London end of the station.

A five car stops short (the ten car marker, 40m short of the buffers, can be seen just ahead)

A five car train stops short (the ten car marker, 40m short of the buffers, can be seen just ahead)

There are various sets of monitors carefully positioned along the platform at Hayes. They are lined up so that four, eight and twelve car formations can stop at the ideal point to minimise the amount of walking along the platform that the passengers need to do, and yet Hayes has no twelve car services – making the extra walk here, and on the down platform at Lewisham (where a similar situation exists) somewhat pointless.

The monitors at the London end of platform (with redundant markers)

The monitors at the London end of platform (with redundant markers)

This is not a new situation, indeed it is one that has been this way for approximately the past twenty years, although perhaps if it had been suspected at then that the situation would persist this long, then the monitors may have been more suitably located.

It is a typically British mess, but the original plan was actually relatively simple – replace the old trains with class 465 “Networker” stock, extend the platforms, then buy the additional rolling stock and you have a 20% increase in capacity at relatively low cost. Indeed something similar had been successfully carried out in the early 1950’s, when trains were extended from eight to ten carriages.

This time, however, the plan came undone. Most of the platform lengthening work had already been completed when a recession came along and the government of the day ordered that any further work on the scheme should be stopped. Everyone assumed that this was a temporary blip and that work on the scheme would continue once the economy picked up again, but this was followed by railway privatisation and a scheme that required the co-operation of Railtrack, train operating companies, Rolling Stock leasing companies and Whitehall started looking like a tall order indeed.

One of the main problems was that commercially orientated firms had no incentive to sort the problem out. As Charles Tyson Yerkes famously said “It is the strap-hangers that pay the dividends”. Another problem was that one of the main assumptions of railway privatisation was that rail travel would continue to decline, so the mechanisms to facilitate expansion were not really catered for in the framework of the new railway structure.

It is only in the past few years that the idea of resurrecting the twelve car scheme has really taken hold. The now defunct Strategic Rail Authority proposed it in 2002 and since then it has been featured in just about every report that has looked at the issue of capacity. For a long time, a date of 2012 has been talked about by Network Rail. The Olympics may have given impetus to this, and given the expected long delays at London Bridge during the Olympic fortnight a target date of May 2012 at the latest made sense.

Meanwhile the urgency of the situation grows. One commuter, fed up with the overcrowding, describes the situation on Youtube.

The video clip illustrates the problem and shows it is not just an issue for the railway-obsessed. Curiously, the film-maker is told by South Eastern that they can’t put longer trains on the line because the power supply needs upgrading. This is almost certainly true, and indeed is the reason given to Parliament, but it is somewhat disingenuous to suggest it is the only reason, let alone the greatest one as we will see shortly.

There is also a somewhat urgent need to finding an answer to it, due to the forthcoming disruption at London Bridge. London Bridge will be extensively rebuilt as part of the Thameslink Programme and here, even at this relatively late stage, much remains to be decided. If, however, it proves necessary to thin out services so that reconstruction can proceed, it would likely be highly desirable to ensure that the trains still running are formed of the maximum length possible.

So what is the situation now?

Over the past few years it all seemed to be going so well. Network Rail’s CP4 delivery plan published in 2009 had a date of October 2012 as the date for implementation for this “proposed strategy milestone”. It also stated…

The lengthening of Southeastern’s services to Charing Cross and Cannon Street needs to be completed prior to Thameslink construction works affecting the through platforms. This sequencing will maximise passenger capacity during the works”

…so that all seemed pretty definite. The Kent RUS published in January 2010 also referred to this commitment in the delivery plan and state that:

the suburban area will see platform lengthening to allow 12-car Class 465 Networkers to operate by October 2012 as far as Dartford (via all routes), to Hayes and to Sevenoaks (via Grove Park).

Curiously another Network Rail publication, Route plans, had in 2009, Route 1 Kent also giving a date of October 2012 but in the next year Route A Kent now gave a date of May 2012.

It was not until the draft London and South East RUS was published in December 2010 that problems seemed to emerge:

train lengthening on non-Thameslink services is anticipated as a result of the rolling stock cascade when the new trains are introduced, is described earlier. The RUS assumes that this will eventually lengthen all high-peak suburban trains to London Charing Cross and London Cannon Street to 12-car, Brighton Main Line trains to 12-car and suburban trains via Sydenham to 10-car. By 2031 it is emphasised that delivering the full extent of the capacity increase on the Kent suburban network potentially requires alternative rolling stock to that in use today, given that selective door operation would be necessary at Woolwich Dockyard and if certain platforms at London Charing Cross were used. Maintaining turnaround times at London Charing Cross would require additional drivers.

Here we see the realisation (or at least we see it openly admitted) that stepping back (where the driver doesn’t take out the train he came in on but he takes out the next train to depart after that or even the next train to arrive at the same platform) will be necessary. This is to prevent extended turnaround times at Charing Cross. We will look at this in detail in a later article, but it does not take a lot of imagination to realise that this is potentially a recipe for chaos if not handled well.

For the first time we also see the issue of the lack of rolling stock to extend the trains being mentioned. It is really not clear why this issue was not addressed before. More worryingly, earlier on in the document we start to get some idea of the true timescale:

The carriages to facilitate this are not committed at present, but are anticipated to be provided by the major rolling stock cascade that can be expected upon completion of the Thameslink Programme.

If that were to be taken literally then we would not expect the stock to be available until the end of 2018. Hopefully it is not as bad as that, as the new Thameslink stock will be progressively introduced before then. However some of the old stock is already earmarked for use on Paddington suburban services after electrification, so South Eastern may not get any of the first batch to be available.

You would think it could not get much worse between the draft and the final version of the RUS but no – here we are starting to see further problems emerge:

Whilst full 12-car suburban operations would provide significant extra capacity where most needed, there remain significant operational issues to resolve, including the 11-car length of platforms 4 – 6 at London Charing Cross, operational constraints in that area and around New Cross/Lewisham, platform lengths at Woolwich Dockyard and power supply constraints. The RUS advises that further work is needed to resolve these issues.

So now not only are there further issues but these are also unresolved. It is only now that the third main element of lengthening electric trains – the power supply – gets a mention. We know from recent experience with class 375 on Southern that a power supply upgrade is not a big technical challenge, but it does require money and it does require lead time. The money can probably be justified especially as the trains are capable of regenerative braking but the sub-stations are currently unable to take advantage of it.

One might be forgiven for wondering why, in these days of Selective Door Operation, there seems to be a major issue with platform lengths at Woolwich Dockyard and Charing Cross. More pertinently, if this wasn’t an issue 20 years ago then why is it a problem now?

The answer is relatively simple – before GPS and transponder beacons were so universal, it was acceptable for the driver to just manually cut out the end doors of a train at a short platform. Applying the H&S “As Low As Reasonably Practicable” principle this is not seen as a good approach to take today, and red boards with “Do Not Alight Here” and emergency catwalks are not adequate mitigation. State of the art SDO could, of course, be fitted to the Networker fleet, but it is not cheap and one can understand the reluctance to do so to a fleet that is already 20 years old especially when it may not be used until the end of the decade. So the hunt is on to find an acceptable solution that does not involve modifying the Networker fleet.

Our story would now be brought up to date but for a couple of curious twists. The first one has been brought about by the Olympics. If you look at South Eastern’s Olympic timetable for London to Dartford, Gravesend and the Medway Towns you will see that no trains will call at Woolwich Dockyard. Why is this?

The reason given is so that people don’t alight there by mistake, but the local MP, Nick Raynesford apparently believes that the reason is because the 12-car trains will be unable to stop there.

It is possible he knows something that the rest of us don’t or that South Eastern wish to keep their options open just in case it does become possible to run 12-car trains during the Olympic fortnight. It would be an extremely risky strategy to introduce such a service without thoroughly testing it out first though, and currently there are no signs of that. There is also the danger that people would see 12-car trains operating and say “You could managed to do it for the Olympics. Why can’t you do it now?”.Even if there were genuine reasons it would be very difficult to convince sceptical commuters of their validity.

The second twist is the recent unexpected turn of events brought about by the resignation of Liam Fox – leading to Philip Hammond departing from the Department of Transport and Justine Greening, MP for Putney, becoming the new transport minister. As both a local MP and one time shadow minister for London with responsibility for transport, she spent much time campaigning for better rail commuter services for her constituents. A lot of that time was spent supporting the case for longer trains. She will be familiar with the issues involved. Now the ultimate responsibility for providing longer trains rests firmly with her. Will she adopt a “can do” attitude or will we find that her response will simply be to provide the stock answers given to her by her civil servants as to why these scheme cannot go ahead at the moment?

Unfortunately it seems that answers to these questions will take time to emerge. 2012 will likely come and go without any new twelve car services, unless by some miracle they appear in Olympic fortnight. By 2015 something may start to happen. By then we will be in the phase of London Bridge station rebuilding when the thinning out of services may take place. We may also start to see the beginnings of trickle of other stock becoming available. It would not take many trains. One additional twelve car unit means six existing services can be formed of longer trains.

All in all though, the plan to lengthen the trains does seemed to have suffered from the effects of the fragmented railway and what seems to be a lack of detailed planning. Meanwhile commuters in south east London continue to suffer and wait each morning on their twelve car platform for their crowded ten car train to arrive.

Written by Pedantic of Purley