Why capacity won’t increase on Southeastern Metro any time soon

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Way back in 2011 we wrote a piece called Two Of Our Carriages Are Missing. It was about the long term failure to provide 12-car trains on Southeastern Metro services via London Bridge to Charing Cross and Cannon Street. Then, as now, it was generally considered that, aside from squeezing more people into the same number of carriages, the only realistic solution to solve the capacity problem on Southeastern Metro services was longer trains.

At the time the article was written we did not expect to see anything happening soon. Nethertheless, we did expect to see progress eventually. It was surely simply a matter of time.

S-l-o-w progress

It is true that there has been some snail-paced progress and that 12-car trains have started to appear on Southeastern Metro services. These are, however, few and far between. No extra carriages appear to have been provided and the only reason that there is enough rolling stock for the longer trains seems to be because of the slight reduction in the number of trains serving Cannon Street in peak hours – a result of rebuilding London Bridge. In other words, the number of trains is slightly reduced, but the overall capacity is the same because some of the remaining trains are a couple of carriages longer.

Although capacity has been maintained, what is really needed is an increase. The last major lengthening of trains in the South Eastern metro area took place in 1954 when train lengths increased from 8 to 10 cars. There have been subsequent capacity improvements which have been centred around track layout work and signalling enhancements. These have enabled more trains to be run but the limits of this appear to have been reached. The fundamental restriction on the number of trains that will be possible in a post-Thameslink-rebuilding era will be determined by the train capacity at London termini. This puts a maximum of 28tph into Charing Cross and a current maximum of around 22tph into Cannon Street, with some possibility in future that this may approach its former level of 25tph if suitable track and signalling modifications are made.

No infrastructure showstoppers

Increasing suburban train length to 12-car in the Southeastern metro area involves various localised issues that have been covered extensively before on London Reconnections. They include the difficultly of making Woolwich Dockyard suitable for 12-car trains and the fact that space, lengthwise, is very tight at Charing Cross, which restricts the formation of any 12-car train.

The very narrow ends of platforms 1-3 at Charing Cross. Notices prohibit passenger access to the narrow platform at the end of platform 3 when boarding, but permit passengers to alight onto it.

In simple terms a suburban train must consist of a maximum of three separate “Networker” units, otherwise the train is a metre or so too long. There are also a couple of minor issues with signal sighting affecting one or two platforms, and of track circuit positioning affecting a couple of short spurs. None of these issues are fundamental challenges in that they can either be easily fixed or a workaround provided (e.g. don’t schedule 12-car trains to call at Woolwich Dockyard).

You can’t run longer trains without more carriages

Until very recently we would have added that there was an issue with a lack of trains or – more accurately – carriages. We now seem to be in an era where procuring electric multiple units is not the problem it used to be, although there may be some shuffling around required to get suitable units available to enable Southeastern to provide longer trains.

This is not to say that Southeastern has sufficient trains – just that getting sufficient trains does not appear to be an insuperable problem (or at least it shouldn’t be). In fact, if more new trains were needed, the indications are that the DfT would either be prepared to buy them or look favourably upon the next franchise bidder that offered to do so.

Do we have the power?

One other potential problem is that of power supply. We say ‘potential’ because trying to get to the bottom of whether or not this is a problem has proven surprisingly hard. Certainly there are contradictory messages. The situation is complicated by the fact that there are two components to this. The first is the need for an adequate power supply to be available from the National Grid to one of the main feed points on Network Rail. The second is the presence of the infrastructure necessary to distribute the power within Network Rail itself.

It is hard to fathom out exactly what the situation is, but it would appear to be that Network Rail’s ability to distribute was, until recently, the crucial factor. They have now done sufficient upgrading work though to enable the Train Operating Company (TOC) to be able to make use of all the power available – just not necessarily where the TOC wants to use it. The latter point is significant because Southeastern and its predecessors have a history of sending trains over multiple different routes during the course of a day in order to minimise turnaround times at London termini and optimise efficient use.

Still can’t run 12-car trains to Hayes

It would appear from the relevant Network Rail sectional appendix (page 156) that the Hayes line is still out of bounds to 12-car trains. This despite the infrastructure (as in long enough platforms, suitable monitors) now seeming to be in place. The obvious explanation for this is that the substations on the line have not been upgraded. Nevertheless, Hayes branch excluded, the power supply cannot be that much of a restriction, because some 12-car suburban trains are run and because, in some cases, long distance 12-car trains have run for years along the same tracks.

Routes banned to 12-car Networker trains

So, currently, it seems that if one wanted to run 12-car trains on Southeastern suburban services there is potentially enough rolling stock and, in the short term at any rate, sufficient power supply to permit a modest increase in carriages deployed. In the longer term though one would expect that a long-planned power supply upgrade would be complete and so power would not be an issue. As such, a lack of power thus shouldn’t preclude a long term plan to order additional trains, so that the existing stock can be reformatted to provider longer, but fewer, trains.

…but it happens elsewhere

The ability to run some 12-car trains on some Southeastern Metro services seems to be confirmed by the MD of Southeastern, who has publicly stated that:

At the moment, we can only run 11 x 12-car trains each day, as compared with what we want. We have asked the DfT for more trains.

The last sentence seems to imply it is trains, rather than the power supply, which are the immediate critical factor.

Unfortunately, another factor seems now to have joined the critical list of requirements – depot space.

Railways historically awash with potential depot space

Historically, the railways haven’t had to worry too much about depot space. In London, at any rate, the quantity of land owned by railway companies used to be huge. In particular there were marshalling yards, other freight yards, steam locomotive depots for maintenance, engine works for construction as well as extensive track that was found to be unnecessary once more efficient means of signalling were devised. On top of that, as trains became more reliable and needed less maintenance, a smaller fleet could do the same job as a formerly larger one. Despite the massive sell-offs that took place over the years as land became surplus to requirements, there always seemed to be space that could be found for a depot when necessary and the gradual reduction of freight traffic seemed to help to ensure a continuing trickle of available sites.

…but land sold off

What seems to have happened in the past few years, in London at least, is that we have reached the point where finding any kind of stabling area for passenger trains is becoming problematic. What’s worse, the need for that space is rising, not falling. Recently we have seen a couple of examples of that desperation. Chiltern Railways were forced to utilise a less-than-ideal long and narrow site at Wembley to retain some maintenance and storage facility in the London area, and London Overground resorted to creating a small cramped site at Silwood sidings to accommodate the extra space needed for their 5-car trains on the East London Line.

Its even worse for London Underground

The problem of depot space is even more pronounced when one reads reports of London Underground planning for extra trains on existing lines. The Northern line is especially problematic, leading to the cost of increasing the frequency of the line involving figures that exceed the simple cost of the new trains that would be needed many times over. This is despite already having a new signalling system capable of supporting the increase in the number of trains.

…especially when underground

Even more difficult for London Underground is the situation where underground extensions are planned. Already, on the Northern line extension to Battersea Power Station, there is talk of storing trains overnight in the platforms at Nine Elms. The latest Bakerloo Line Extension consultation talks of storing eight trains in overrun tunnels beyond Lewisham and a ninth in the platform. Ominously, Lewisham, is in the heart of Southeastern suburban territory.

Nine Elms is an unlikely possible overnight stabling location on the Tube

One could also look at Crossrail within London. Originally it proposed a new large depot at Romford, but this encountered a lot of opposition. A lot of juggling went on to make Old Oak Common available, which was more acceptable as it was already a railway depot. More space was required so Ilford has been reconfigured and, late in the day, Crossrail realised it needed to store some trains near Abbey Wood – luckily again largely on existing railway land.

A lesson from History

In World War II, on the 9th April 1940, the Germans invaded Denmark. The time from invasion to capitulation was around six hours. Whilst the reasons for such a rapid capitulation were many and varied, the annihilation of the Danish Air Force before it even got off the ground was a major factor that made continued resistance quite untenable. Lining the planes up in a nice neat row along the airfield might look terribly organised in a military sort of way but does nothing to ensure the safety and security of your air force.

In Britain, the Royal Air Force did not make that mistake and carefully positioned its planes in protected areas around the perimeter of airfields to ensure that a lone enemy aircraft, or even a squadron attack, could not inflict too much damage. The thinking behind this was not lost on pre-nationalisation Southern Railway prior to World War II and the many ex-forces managers who ran it, who were fully aware that their engines were a potential target too.

… and Southern Railway had already learnt it

As a consequence of the need to disperse trains in preparation for facing up to a possible war, Southern Railway had a proliferation of scattered electrified sidings that could store only a few trains and sometimes even only a single train. Ideally such sidings would be north-south aligned so that the chances of a Luftwaffe bomber pilot hitting a train stabled in the siding was minimal.

Entrance to wartime north-south aligned siding just south of New Beckenham still in use in 1971 when this photo was taken

On the current Southern Railway suburban area the policy continues to some extent, but this is largely driven by a desperate shortage of stabling at the main suburban depot located at Selhurst. Meanwhile, on Southeastern, the dispersal policy was largely abandoned and the isolated siding, often now too short for modern trains, generally saw a return to nature.

New sidings for Networker trains

The catalyst for rationalisation of storage locations for Southeastern suburban services was the introduction of the Networker train around 1990. The stock was much more advanced than the slam door stock it replaced and much more valuable. The need for concentration of maintenance facilities and the convenient availability of the former Hither Green freight yard meant it was seen as both possible and desirable to house Networker stock at the existing large depot at Slade Green, and at the extended Grove Park carriage sidings which by now stretched as far as Hither Green. In both cases the long berthing sidings meant that capacity was generally unaffected by train length. You could store a train of whatever length you wanted. Train length merely restricted the number of trains you could store along a given length of track. Effectively each track could store a number of carriages and it didn’t matter much whether the trains themselves were long or short.

Grove Park and Hither Green sidings

Where have all the sidings gone?

To give some idea of the loss of stabling areas, on the Hayes line alone a train used to be stabled at a siding at Hayes station, another was stabled at a wartime siding at New Beckenham and on the associated Addiscombe branch there was space for four trains at Addiscombe depot, with further sidings around the station itself. Now there are none, although there is a limited berthing facility on the Beckenham Junction spur.

A train entering Addiscombe with entrance to sidings to the immediate right and the depot building beyond

So short of space is Southeastern that it stores trains in the platforms at Charing Cross and Cannon Street at night, despite these locations being wholly undesirable. An example would be the train that departs at around 0020 from Hayes and runs non-stop to Cannon Street to spend the remains of the night in one of the platforms there.

Storing trains at the London termini means that the TOC is running first and last trains, generally out of service, in the direction where there is little demand. Apart from wasted mileage and unproductive use of drivers, this is minimising engineering time available overnight and risking putting a terminating platform out of action in the morning if for any reason the train won’t start.

This can’t be a new problem – can it?

It is not clear what the plan was for Southeastern depots when the introduction of 12-car trains was originally proposed back in the 1990s. It does not seem to have been mentioned, but that could have been because it just wasn’t seen as an issue with so many sites still available. Many stations such as Bromley North had masses of railway land still available for use, but these sites have generally been built on now or are earmarked for development. There were also formerly suggested sites such as at West Wickham, which was originally safeguarded as a Fleet line depot. At the time there was still the possibility of keeping Addiscombe open as well and even expanding it, as plans for Croydon Tramlink had not yet been finalised.

In all probability Crossrail has not helped. There was great potential to extend Plumstead sidings. Failing that it could have at least been reinstated to its former size, but Crossrail has put paid to that. There are currently only three berths available at Plumstead – nothing near the critical mass necessary to make the location worthwhile as a drivers’ signing-on point.

The obvious solution

Finally there was the possibility of extending Slade Green depot. This would have seemed such an obvious choice, especially as the land was available, so it was hard to understand why this had not been done. It was thought that perhaps environmental issues concerning Erith Marshes was the problem.

Slade Green depot as shown on Carto Metro

Gibb Report tells all

We now have the Gibb Report to thank for the explanation for not extending Slade Green Depot being made public. His brief involved looking at Thameslink, which he took to include the proposed service to Gillingham, so Gibb decided to look at the issue of depots on Southeastern territory as well.

In his report Gibb states:

North Kent – the original plan was to increase stabling facilities at Slade Green, but this has now been established to cost £72m and too expensive. An alternative is urgently needed.

To some people, this must be the most mindblowing statement in the entire report. Just to be clear, it is obvious from more general comments coming out of Southeastern that it is the government, or rather the DfT, not Gibb or Southeastern who regard it as too expensive. Then again, it is easy to regard something as not too expensive when you are not paying for it.

£72 million – not a lot really

Within the broader picture, £72 million is not a lot to extend a depot. London Underground would probably be delighted if any of its desperately needed depot expansion programs could be done for £72 million. Putting it in context, it is probably about the same as the cost of four 12-car trains. It is also less than the quarter of the sum of money given to Network Rail recently to catch-up with the backlog of work that needs doing on the Brighton Main Line. Yet this smaller expenditure on Southeastern could unlock the solution to its capacity problem, although obviously the extra trains will still need to be bought.

Even more dramatically, one can look at the £72 million and compare it to the £7 billion being spent on the wider Thameslink Programme. Southeastern services, incredibly, are reportedly actually below Thameslink services in the customer survey satisfaction league – a distinction they only shares with Southern services. Spending £72 million on a depot and buying a few more trains to eliminate one of the main causes of dissatisfaction here would appear to be really low-hanging fruit indeed.

One has to wonder what the mindset is of the DfT if it cannot see that £72 million is an absolutely bargain in railway terms for increasing capacity in an area where it is desperately needed. It is strange that TfL did not propose expanding Slade Green depot in its proposal to take over Southeastern, but one suspects that if they had taken over, even cash-strapped as they are, they would have understood the issue and found the money pretty quickly.

There are two simple, obvious answers to why the DfT baulked at spending £72 million on extending Slade Green depot. The first is simply that it is real money that the DfT has to find which has not been budgeted for. The political impetus is not so great that they feel this is a necessity.

The other possible reason for the DfT not wanting to spend on Slade Green depot is that it is not perceived as doing anything for the travelling public. Or, alternatively, spending £72 million on expanding a depot is not seen by passengers as something that tangibly improves their commuting lives. In this they are wrong of course, just as spending money on renewing signalling improves their lives. Until you get announcements on the platform to the effect that an unexpectedly short train is due to the lack of depot space, however, the travelling public probably won’t get the correlation.

The Southeastern alternative

We also have the Gibb report to thank for spelling out what Southeastern’s alternative policy is:

South Eastern have suggested several complicated options involving Gillingham, with trains being serviced at the depot and later moved to a remote stabling siding.

Suggestions such as these just smack of being half-baked. Less-than-ideal solutions tend to cause long term problems and, in a railway environment, usually end up in the long term meaning more money is spent operationally than is saved in initial capital expenditure. Slade Green Depot is superbly located with three suburban routes to London – four if you count Dartford-Victoria – and only a short distance away from Dartford, which is a natural place whence to start trains in the early morning and terminate them in the evening. Surely it is far better to spend the money on the good solution rather than a bad one?

The Gibb alternative

Chris Gibb, as an alternative, suggests Hoo junction. To quote:

I think a dedicated GTR Thameslink stabling facility should be built at Hoo Junction, near Gravesend. There is a large former freight yard there, on both sides of the railway, which now stables engineering trains for Network Rail. This should be rationalised and space created for stabling all the North Kent Thameslink Class 700s, in sidings with newly created servicing facilities. Progress on this is urgently needed. This responsibility rests with the DfT’s Thameslink Programme Board. GTR should lead this project on behalf of the Board.

Now, a few things need to be borne in mind here. First, this is hardly an original idea and it is the obvious location. Unfortunately for Chris Gibb, it is safeguarded for Crossrail to Gravesend so there might be some issues. Secondly, it is clear that in this context Chris Gibb is thinking of a solution from a Thameslink perspective. He is not looking at solving Southeastern’s woes. Finally, from a Southeastern perspective, £72 million would probably go a lot further if it is used to increase the size of an existing depot easily capable of being expanded, rather than to build a complete new facility from scratch in the middle of nowhere.

What is a real pity, but understandable as it was not part of his brief, is that Gibb does not explain to what extent, if any, building a depot at Hoo Junction solves Southeastern’s depot problems. It might mean that Southeastern’s problems simply go away. Alternatively, the Hoo Junction depot might do very little to relieve Slade Green depot.

No good news

There never seems to be any good news when it comes to more capacity on Southeastern Metro. One would have thought with his rejection of TfL taking over the service, that the Transport Secretary would be anxious to show that the DfT doesn’t need devolved railways to provide a good commuter service. But then, one would also have thought the Kent Route Study would have drummed home the need to provide 12-car trains almost everywhere on Southeastern Metro services.

At the end of August, for four working days, Hayes commuters will find their peak hour service reduced from six trains to just four due to work with the Thameslink Programme. The platforms will be long enough for 12-car trains and enough carriages will be available to provide those longer trains. Will they be 12-car trains? The answer is probably obvious to everyone.

Cover photo by Chris McKenna. Thanks to Graham Feakins for the historical photos and background information

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Written by Pedantic of Purley