On Monday 14 December 2015 c2c introduced a new weekday timetable between Fenchurch Street and Shoeburyness. By the next day they had already made their first changes and those changes have continued, with the latest having been made on Monday 18 January. So what went wrong?
The answer, of course, is complex. Indeed it is not even clear that anything fundamentally went wrong as such. Here we explore the background and decisions which led to such a changeable situation.
The route – historically
As railways go the London, Tilbury and Southend (LTS), currently managed by National Express subsidiary c2c Rail, is pretty simple. In the late 20th century it would perhaps have been best described as a line from Fenchurch Street to Shoeburyness via Laindon and a loop between Barking and Pitsea, serving Dagenham and Tilbury. In the days of Tilbury Docks (when there was even a separate short branch to serve the docks’ steamboat traffic) the loop could be very busy indeed.
In addition to the main line and the loop, there was a single track line from Upminster to Grays with a passing loop at the only intermediate station, Ockendon. A new station at Chafford Hundred was added in 1993 to serve a new housing estate under construction there. Three years earlier Lakeside shopping centre had opened a short distance away on the other side of the busy (and wide) A126, and so the station also had the potential to draw shoppers as well.
The route – today
Although nothing physically has changed, the route and the timetable are seen very differently these days. In the year 2000 a substantial pedestrian bridge was built over the A126, linking Lakeside shopping centre and Chafford Hundred and station directly. In addition the decline of local industry (especially the Ford Motor Works) in the Dagenham area and the rapid expansion of Chafford Hundred as a dormitory town mean that the single track line has become part of the main route for trains from Fenchurch Street to Tilbury in preference to the route via Rainham. It provides a direct service between London and Lakeside, and Southend and Lakeside as well as a direct commuter service to London from Chafford Hundred and South Ockendon. Chafford Hundred station, with its single platform, is now the second busiest station on the Tilbury line.
Surprisingly, the single track section does not appear to lead to timekeeping problems but, undoubtedly, if the service overall were to be disrupted in a major way, the six kilometre single track section between Ockendon and the loop line to Grays would severely hinder service recovery, though there is at least the option of rerouteing the trains. The additional five kilometre single track stretch between Ockendon and Upminster certainly does not help.
Something that probably was not envisaged when the priorities were changed was the additional benefit of fewer trains being routed via Rainham, which led to fewer conflicts with the increasing number of freight trains serving London Gateway. It also very conveniently means fewer trains conflicting with any future London Overground service to Barking Riverside.
Identifying the problem
It is easy to give a short answer as to what caused the problems with the December 2015 timetable, but that doesn’t fully explain the issues. In an attempt to provide a more complete picture, we will very briefly look at the line’s growth.
An Outer Suburban and Essex Commuter Railway
Like many railways, the London, Tilbury and Southend started off with its predecessors gradually edging through the inner and outer London to the countryside beyond. The ultimate limit was the coast.
Unlike many similar railways, the LTS was able to divest itself of many of its suburban stations and concentrate on more profitable long distance traffic. Sometimes this was simply due to lack of use. Other times it was with the assistance of the Luftwaffe, with bombed suburban stations never replaced – or, in one case at least, not replaced for a very long time. In both cases, these closures came about because the District Railway (subsequently the District line) ran trains on tracks parallel to the LTS main line for a considerable distance. The parallel District Railway meant that most passengers from stations served by both companies often already preferred to use the Underground and those that did not would not unduly suffer if forced to do so. This was good news for the LTS, who were ultimately limited in most places to two tracks – a situation not conducive to a mixing of suburban and long distance services.
In time, the LTS also managed to divest itself of most of its branches, although some of them remained in place unused – something which later turned out to be very fortunate for the planners of the DLR.
The line quickly became established as offering a long distance commuter service with Southend-on-Sea being where many journeys began. Indeed, the seven outermost stations from Leigh-on-Sea to Shoeburyness were all located in the Southend-on-Sea urban area. According to Alan A Jackson’s seminal work, London’s Termini:
By 1909, seven full train loads were being brought into London from Southend in hours each morning with an average running time of fifty-nine minutes.
It was called the London, Tilbury and Southend for a reason
The name London, Tilbury and Southend was ultimately very suitable. Most of the significant traffic centred on the urban area of Southend, the busy docks at Tilbury and, of course, London.
Then as now, the LTS (or c2c), terminates in London at Fenchurch Street, the most intensively used London Terminal in terms of train departures per platform. Its five trains an hour from each of its four platforms marginally beats the usage per platform found at Charing Cross during normal (not Thameslink works amended) service.
With the decline of the steamboats and subsequent decline of the ocean liner and freight traffic, Tilbury is not now nearly as significant as it was. It is true that London Gateway has replaced Tilbury but c2c is exclusively a passenger railway and is only relevant to this article to the extent that freight reduces the number of passenger trains that can be run. With passenger services tending to be on a half-hourly cycle, a single freight path (whether used or not) an hour generally means the loss of two passenger paths per hour.
A suitable comparison with the Southend urban area could perhaps be Brighton & Hove, although distance-wise Southend is only slightly further out from London than Gatwick Airport. Like Brighton, it is important not to forget about traffic to Southend-on-Sea in the morning, a lot of it being school children and students. This traffic, welcome though it is, increases the complexity of deciding which services need to have the extra carriages.
Moving to a modern railway
In 1961 the line was electrified and at around the same time the few remaining calls to stations between Bromley (now Bromley-by-Bow) and Upminster, with the exception of Barking and Upminster themselves, were abandoned. The railway had only three intermediate stations (Stepney East being the third) on its main route out of London to what is now the limit of Greater London.
The main line Misery Line
Whilst the Northern line was often dubbed the Misery Line, the epithet was also given to the LTS in British Rail days. It was never a strategic line, easily forgotten by the BR Board at Marylebone, and almost exclusively run using second hand rolling stock not designed with the line in mind. Maintenance seemed to be done on the basis of simply stopping the line from falling apart, rather than trying to make the service attractive. Being largely a commuter service with little off-peak traffic it was never going attract enthusiastic investment at board level under the nationalised regime.
Stepney East and the coming of Docklands
Despite its 1960s rejuvenation as an electric long distance commuter railway, the LTS retained an anachronistic reminder of its inner suburban history in the form of Stepney East station. By the 1960s this become a station that British Rail’s managers would likely have been happier if it didn’t exist. It had few passengers and certainly didn’t have tender loving care lavished on it.
All this was to change with the revival of the Docklands and the coming of the Docklands Light Railway. The DLR was to have a separate adjoining station at Stepney East using the abandoned route that branched off just to the west of the station. The DLR platforms would be built on the site of former Stepney East platforms serving this branch.
One concession was made to Stepney East to cater for the new DLR station and that was a new entrance to make interchange slightly more convenient. On its own it didn’t really amount to that much as the stations were on a viaduct and a change from one to the other meant steps down to street level and steps back up again. Despite this, it did at least provide a relatively convenient way for LTS commuters to commute to the increasingly important Canary Wharf area.
What’s in a name?
Shortly before the arrival of the DLR at Stepney East the station name was changed to Limehouse. In reality, the change was long overdue as the station was never really in the heart of Stepney. Indeed explanations differ as to why it was called Stepney and then Stepney East. One reason given was that, when the the station opened, there already was a Limehouse station (it closed in 1926). Another possibility was that, as Limehouse was a particularly seedy and poverty-ridden part of London well known for its Chinese Opium dens, the railways, not for the first time, decided to call it by a geographically inaccurate name to reflect a more salubrious area – at the time Stepney was considered a much more desirable place to live.
Whatever the reason, it eventually proved a good move to rename the station to Limehouse. Today Limehouse is regarded as a more desirable place to live than Stepney – particularly if you wish to moor your yacht near your front door.
Late 20th Century Improvements
Prior to the redevelopment of Docklands the future of the LTS could, at best, be described as managed decline. The effect of the Docklands, or any other development, increasing passenger numbers had not been anticipated. Indeed the four track approach to Fenchurch Street had been largely reduced to two tracks largely because British Rail offered the other two to enable the DLR to reach the city on dedicated rail lines instead of street running. In hindsight, for London, it was a fortunate offer. Nevertheless, c2c probably wish that their predecessors had made sure those tracks were still available to them.
The late 20th century also saw rail privatisation. It is probably fair to say that the London Tilbury and Southend is one line (Chiltern is another) that has subsequently improved remarkably under privatisation. This would be partly down to senior managers focusing on the line rather than being distracted by other responsibilities and partly down to new purpose built rolling stock.
West Ham station has a long and complex history. Here we concentrate on the southern pair of east-west platforms that served the LTS. These were bombed in 1940 and subsequently removed in 1941. In 1999 the Jubilee line came to West Ham and the LTS platforms were reinstated to enable c2c passengers to alight at West Ham in order to catch the Jubilee line, again with Canary Wharf being the main anticipated destination.
It was inevitable that, not only would passengers alight from the inward c2c service in the morning, but that others would join for the ten minute journey to Fenchurch Street with, at worst, one intermediate stop. Possibly more surprisingly, there is supposed to be a thriving flow of passengers using the line for the one stop between Barking and West Ham. Wittingly or unwittingly, c2c’s predecessor was starting to revive the line’s former role as a suburban railway.
In fact, initially, the c2c platforms at West Ham weren’t as used as much you might think because signalling restrictions limited the number of trains that could call there. Nevertheless it was a well used interchange and the introduction of the DLR in 2011 on the former North London line north-south route through the station only increased its popularity further.
The 2006 timetable
In December 2006 c2c attempted to introduce a revised timetable. The purpose was basically to squeeze more trains in by taking out any slack that there may have been in order to deal with a rising number of commuters. It quickly became apparent that the timetable wasn’t working with crowded trains and massive delays.
All this must have been quite a challenge for the new managing director at the time, Mark Hopwood. Seen as an aspiring railwayman who was going places, he had been promoted to run c2c only in April that year, when the development of the new timetable would already have been well under way. Once implemented it soon became clear that the new timetable would not work and calls to bring back the old timetable began. After two or three weeks, Hopwood did just that.
Normally resurrecting an old timetable is quite unthinkable, impractical and totally against perceived railway wisdom. It also set a dangerous precedent for future timetable reversions. Hopwood was fortunate that such a decision was possible as the LTS is relatively self-contained. It was still a brave move, but one which ultimately did him no harm. In 2008 he became Managing Director of First Great Western (now GWR) where he remains to this day.
Limehouse station Updated
In 2008 authorisation was given for a scheme to enable c2c passengers alighting on the up platform at Limehouse to transfer to the eastbound DLR platform, by now three cars long, without having to go up and down stairs. This simple-sounding objective cost £1.9 million and is probably an indication of how important the ability to interchange at Limehouse had become. It also showed that c2c services to and from London could no longer be treated as only catering to commuters from Essex travelling to the terminus at Fenchurch Street.
The 2015 conundrum
By 2015 c2c was becoming ever more popular with Essex commuters and services needed to be adjusted to reflect this. In general, this meant that in the morning some of the trains needed to start from further out of London than they currently did.
At the same time it was clear that there was a large, unmet demand for suburban traffic. In particular West Ham had links not only to Canary Wharf but also to Stratford via Jubilee and DLR. c2c would have liked to reroute some trains via Stratford to Liverpool Street, but that was clearly not possible in peak hours nor practical off-peak during the week. This has now been achieved with two trains per hour at weekends, however.
The alternative was to have all trains call at West Ham. With signalling now in place that makes this possible, it seemed the desirable thing to do. Because the railway is only two track it also made sense to have all trains call at Barking and Limehouse to avoid a mixture of stopping and fast trains on the busiest section. Stopping all trains at Upminster could also be justified on the basis of passenger numbers and this meant that all trains via Upminster would call there and all trains would call at Barking, West Ham and Limehouse on their way to Fenchurch Street in the morning. The arrangement would be reversed in the evening.
The additional stops provided in the London area were not really optional. One part of the franchise commitment was to reduce passenger overcrowding west of Barking. This approach, it must be noted, relies on the assumption that if you have more trains calling at the relevant stations you reduce overcrowding. This turned out to be a dangerous assumption and the effect of having more trains call at West Ham and Barking appears instead to have unleashed instead an enormous unmet demand.
The franchise commitment to reduce suburban overcrowding means that, even if they wanted to (which apparently they don’t) c2c do not really have the option of omitting suburban stops from too many trains. This, as we shall see, rather limits c2c options and resolving some of the problems recently encountered is not simply a matter of non-stopping trains at suburban stations as used to happen.
Regardless of problems that have occurred in practice, in principle, a big advantage in having an all stations arrangement for c2c services in the London suburban area is that it makes it so much simpler for passengers. The result was a train every three minutes in the peak and no need to worry about which train to catch if travelling to or from Fenchurch Street. It was bound to make the service much more popular – too popular as it turns out.
Clearly, if the trains start from further out and they call at more suburban stops there are going to problems unless either you have a lot of existing spare capacity, which c2c didn’t have, or you increase capacity. A lot of timetable optimisation produced dividends but that wasn’t enough, so c2c also carried out the train operators’ favourite wheeze of refurbishing some of its rolling stock so that it had fewer seats and extra standing capacity. These they rather cheekily describe on a web page under the headline of New Trains.
The plan seemed logical. You run more trains and you get them to call them at inner suburban stations. They will be crowded for short journeys but long distance passengers should get a seat in the morning and not have to stand for too long in the evening. What could possibly go wrong?
Preparations and consultation
c2c didn’t undertake this timetable change lightly. In fact they claim they spent two years planning it. They ran a consultation which only 4.5% of passengers responded to. They also made tremendous efforts to explain why they felt it necessary to make the change. This included videos on their website, a “letter” from the Managing Director prior to the new timetable going live and heavy use of social media. It was recognised from the outset that not everything would run smoothly from day one and c2c were active both in trying to get this message across and in soliciting feedback.
Even before the timetable came into use some small changes were made to answer some criticisms. Running trains from Southend without stopping at all London suburban stations was going to be very problematic as would be the reverse in the evening, but nevertheless passengers from Southend wanted this retained. As a concession, in the morning the 06.48 from Shoeburyness would run fast from Benfleet to Fenchurch Street and the 07.18 would run fast from Chalkwell to West Ham and then fast to Fenchurch Street. A very token gesture was made in the evening by removing the Barking stop from the 16.58 and 19.28 departure from Fenchurch Street to Shoeburyness.
In the past, trains had started at Laindon where, very conveniently, there were three platforms. This meant one could have a “suburban” service starting from there calling at West Horndon, Upminster, Barking, West Ham and Limehouse. In an ideal world though this service would start at the busy station of Basildon, one stop further on, but there are no suitable terminating facilities there. Despite only opening in 1974, Basildon station generates a lot of passenger traffic with almost 3 million passenger journeys per annum starting or finishing there.
The problem for c2c is that once you stop all trains at all stations from Upminster to Fenchurch Street it doesn’t really make any sense to have trains starting from Laindon. Of course that is not going to go down well with the people of Laindon or West Horndon who have been used to a seat and plenty of space on the train – at least for part of the journey.
As a result of disquiet about the Laindon starters being removed, it was decided to retain two of them (at 06.33 and 07.05) in the December timetable and to ensure that Laindon had additional trains calling there to compensate for the loss of the starters.
Modern Railways Article
As part of “getting the message across” the Managing Director of c2c was interviewed by Modern Railways and an article describing the proposed changes and the preparations that had been made for them appeared in the September 2015 edition. As well as issues discussed here there are comments on other considerations such as raising line speed, wi-fi and issues involved in running 12-car trains.
Day one issues and emotions
It was always going to be impossible to know for sure how passengers would react when their trains were retimed. Would they go for an earlier one? Or later? Would the improved suburban service attract new users from Day 1? To what extent would people vary their time of departure to catch a faster train?
There must have been a mixture of emotions on the day the timetable was put into service. Hope, anxiety and probably a feeling of “this has got to work, there is no plan B”. In the months leading up to the new timetable passenger numbers had continued to rise, meaning that the 2006 option of simply going back to the old timetable wasn’t really a long term option.
It has subsequently also become clear that c2c has been determined to hold its ground and take the consequences. It can often be very hard to get the message across that, just because something used to work, it doesn’t mean it can work in the future with the changed circumstances. This didn’t mean that changes couldn’t be made – just that a wholesale retreat was not something that could be contemplated.
No battleplan survives contact with the enemy
It very quickly became apparent on the first day that some trains were hopelessly overcrowded. This had the knock-on effect of long dwell times at critical stations. In the evening it also had the effect that at Fenchurch Street long distance (the term is used relatively on c2c) passengers couldn’t board their train because of short distance hoppers.
Something that assisted c2c enormously on that first day was not having to wait for anecdotal evidence or physically count passengers and collate the figures. With trains able to report their passenger load by weight it meant that on the first day the approximate loadings of every single train was known.
Changes for day two
By day two the first changes had been made. One exceptionally crowded 4-car train in the morning was extended to 8-cars. The only way this could be achieved was by taking a train off maintenance. Clearly this was not a viable long term solution.
A more surprising change was made in adding a stop at Upminster to the 07.10 departure from Fenchurch Street. The review of changes resulting from the feedback from day one claimed this was to alleviate the problem of local overcrowding of trains arriving at Southend at around 8.00 a.m.
Advice was also given as to which trains were particularly overcrowded and how passengers could catch an earlier or later train to avoid this. One of c2c’s concerns must have been that passengers would modify their behaviour during the week and if too much is changed too quickly then passengers would not be able to meaningfully try out different options.
Changes for Day four
By day three it was decided that from the following day c2c would omit some stops at Barking in the morning peak and at West Ham in the evening. It would appear that some discouragement was necessary to reduce the number of journeys made on c2c between these two stations. It was also announced that in future there would be a lot of switching around 4-car trains and 8-car trains (and the very occasional 12-car train) in the New Year to better match supply and demand.
A significant retreat
By the end of day four, three things had become clear.
- There was nothing wrong with the timetable as far as operating it was concerned. Trains were already running to time to the minute.
- The idea of calling all trains at West Ham and Barking in the peak direction was not going to work. It was fine in principle but some of the trains could not handle the number of passengers wishing to use them with passengers being left behind.
- The fairly desperate shuffling of longer and shorter trains to provide a least worse option showed that there was a fundamental shortage of rolling stock.
In fact, everything pointed to the fact that the only real reason that the timetable didn’t work was because a lot of the trains weren’t long enough.
Revised timetable for January 4th 2016
With the ability to fairly accurately ascertain passenger loadings on a daily basis using train weight information, the revised timetable for January 4th 2016 saw the previously announced shuffling of 4-car and 8-car trains being implemented. In addition it saw modifications made to where trains started in the morning and new services added with existing ones removed to compensate. In particular Laindon saw new 08.02 and 08.32 starters. The station now had four trains in the morning peak that started from there.
Make it up as you go along
At some point, if you introduce a new timetable and then make lots of changes one tends to ask at what point you argue that the timetable was abandoned. It is probably fair to say that by January 4th that point had not been reached on c2c, and in any case it was only the peak period trains that were being altered.
One could regard the January 4th changes as an act of desperation. Alternatively one could see it as an exercise in creating the best timetable one could, given the constraints. Ultimately c2c is very lucky that its network has very little impact on anyone else and it is relatively free to tinker with the timetable.
A sign of the future for intensive timetables?
What is apparent is that now we have the combination of having the trains able to report passenger loading by weighing the contents of the carriages and also the existence of social media, meaning that timetable changes can be reported back to passengers very quickly, timetable tweaking can be done much more dynamically than could ever be done before.
As we try and squeeze more an more out of existing infrastructure this dynamic change to timetables shortly after introduction may become the norm and not the exception. Certainly Southern and SouthEastern passengers using London Bridge around early 2015 seemed to have had weekly minor timetable changes for months on end. This was combined with varying train lengths as the TOCs involved attempted to use the rolling stock they did have to best effect.
New trains to the rescue eventually
New c2c trains are planned for 2019 (a franchise commitment). This does not seem to be soon enough to sort out the problems they are experiencing today. c2c say they are leasing additional trains as an interim measure but have given no indication of when they will arrive.
The new trains originally planned only amount to 17 four-car units in 2019. These would be followed by a further 4 four-car units in 2022 and 4 more in 2024.
And finally? …
On January 18th yet more changes were made. These now were so substantial that one has to ask how much of the original peak hour timetable remains. There are a lot of Twitter comments indicating some people are very unhappy with the new timetable and one MP has decided he is “at war with c2c” based, it seems, on the fact that his postbag (presumably, in reality, his inbox) now gets substantial complaints about the timetable.
As c2c’s Your questions answered explains:
Last autumn, we were carrying on average over 20,800 passengers out of Fenchurch Street each evening. Last week, that average was over 24,900 – up 20%. This growth is very real, and very unexpected. It has not been matched by the growth in the morning peak, which is why we have made more changes to our evening services this week.
Meanwhile the directors of c2c are adamant that the old timetable was not fit for purpose and they won’t go back to it. They also report a 20% surge of usage in passengers in the evening peak at Fenchurch Street in the past few months that they can’t fully explain and point this out as one reason why they can’t go back to the old timetable. Recognising that passengers have suffered, they have instigated a cash back scheme for those badly affected.
More carriages to the rescue soon?
It seems that the c2c directors have kept their cool and recognised that no timetable will overcome the fundamental problem – there are just not enough carriages on the trains and no timetable, old or new, is going to overcome that. Although they are coy about where new carriages are coming from, the money here in LR Towers is on them subleasing two 5-car 360s from Heathrow Connect.
Since rolling stock is tightly diagrammed and you can’t magic it out of nowhere, one presumes that passengers using Heathrow Connect will suffer to some extent as a result, but not nearly to the extent that those currently suffering on c2c will be relieved. One also has to query how much difference an extra 10 carriages can really make. Effectively, this means that the two most overcrowded peak trains that are not already 12-cars can be significantly strengthened by four cars, and two further trains get the equivalent of an extra carriage – but that is all.
A warning to all about elsewhere
A lot of people blame c2c and there is concern that they have caused this problem. In fact, c2c have probably done the all that they reasonably could have done. The bigger concern should perhaps be that they haven’t done anything wrong, at least nothing that was reasonably predictable, and that there is no easy solution. Maybe we have seen a tipping point where a railway simply cannot handle the number of passengers that wish to use it with the resources they currently have. With passenger numbers going up on services to London Bridge despite the disruption there, the bigger worry is whether c2c is simply going to be the first London commuter railway that cannot really handle all the passengers wishing to use it, but whose journeys is such that there is no realistic alternative.
Many thanks to Unravelled who made a special trip to take all the photographs (except the one of Chafford Hundred footbridge). His complete set of c2c photos for that day can be found within the London Reconnections photo pool here.