A Good Spark is Getting Hard to Find: SWR and the December Timetable


In early July 2018, South Western Railway (SWR) released a statement on their website. In it, the Operator reiterated their desire to run additional services – something they had included in their franchise submission for December 2018. Unfortunately, the statement said, this was now no longer possible. The long-promised extra services would not be implemented until May 2019 at the earliest. So what went wrong? In a word: Power.

A beleaguered franchise

South Western Railway have, in a roundabout way, been one of the major beneficiaries of the ongoing troubles with the May timetable. Not because it has had a positive impact on their services, but because the issues it caused have drawn attention away from the significant problems (and failings) it is experiencing. Put bluntly: the mainstream media have limited space to cover the railways, and the issues on Thameslink and Northern Rail have been hogging the limelight.

Yet south (west) of the river, significant issues have existed with SWR’s services for some time now. The reasons for this are varied (and we will tackle them all in more detail in a more in-depth upcoming piece), but they can broadly be summed up as a mix of mismanagement, issues with infrastructure work by Network Rail and ongoing industrial strife. These have all been compounded by some things outside SWR’s control – a certain amount of negligence on the part of the outgoing franchisee and the problems upgrading Waterloo.

As a result of all this, SWR’s performance statistics since taking over the Franchise in August 2017 have been poor. By way of example: ORR statistics show that total delays on the network have increased by approximately 25%, and this figure hasn’t shown any signs of getting better.

One of SWR’s consistent promises to its increasingly dissatisfied customers has been that services will both improve and increase. The December 2018 timetable has been marked out since takeover as the point at which those improvements would begin to appear. South Western’s recent announcement, however, made it very clear that this is not, in fact, the case now:

Since before we started the South Western Railway franchise we have been preparing for a major timetable change in December 2018 to provide customers with access to additional services and extra capacity throughout the day.

We are therefore disappointed that we will not be implementing any changes to the December 2018 timetable and instead rolling over the May 2018 timetable. Preparations to deliver the extra services, capacity improvements and reduced journey times started well before we took over the SWR franchise  and will continue as we are determined to deliver what our customers and stakeholders expect.

We are mindful of the disruption to customers that happened with other major timetable changes elsewhere in May 2018 and despite SWR’s desire to deliver the increased capacity and extra services as soon as possible to customers, it has been decided at a national level that a period of stability is needed.

Breaking down the statement

On the surface, South Western’s statement seems to place the blame for this delay on the issues caused in May. Yet regular London Reconnections readers may well have spotted more in the wording of the statement than meets the eye. Most notably, the comment that preparations started well before the SWR and that they are determined to deliver what stakeholders expect. Both of these hint at the real, underlying cause of SWR’s current inability to introduce services.

It isn’t about drivers, or timetable clashes. It is down to cold, hard physics: South Western do not have sufficient electrical power available on their network to run the level of service they agreed to run.

What went wrong

The South West Mainline (SWML) has long been known within railway circles for its power problems. Roughly 150 miles long, running between Waterloo and the South Coast via London’s south-western suburbs, it was first electrified in the early 20th Century. Or rather, part electrified (mostly the Surrey section) using DC 3rd rail technology. Electrification of the rest of the line wouldn’t happen until after 1967, with Weymouth itself finally electrified in 1988. Indeed as late as 2007, dual-headed trains (diesel and electric) could be seen in service on the line.

The SWML’s power issues aren’t solely because of this pattern (or type) of electrification. Its proximity and interactions with other lines (including the Underground) also don’t help. The end result, however, is a line that has always struggled to provide the levels of power required to run the service patterns a succession of operators (public and private) would have liked to.

Indeed a visitor to one of our regular pub meetups once recalled that his first job on the railways as a young apprentice had been to stop the power tripping on sections of the SWML every rush hour through the novel application of a piece of wood to the breakers.

In light of the history of power issues on the line, it is perhaps unsurprising that was going to cause issues for South Western. A key part of SWR’s bid was that they would run more services. More trains mean more power. As with the introduction of Siemens 444s and 450s on the line almost 15 years ago, this means new power infrastructure is required.

What is more surprising, however, is how the situation has unfolded so far. This was a solvable problem, requiring some major – but not overly complex – engineering work from Network Rail. Yet it has not been solved.

Given the previous sentence, once could be forgiven for assuming that the majority of the blame for this particular failure should accrue to Network Rail. Certainly – as an Office of Rail and Road (ORR) report highlighted back in March – many of the current issues on the SWML can be traced back to issues with work they have or haven’t completed.

Yet in this instance, the blame largely doesn’t lie with Network Rail and that is why this issue is worth highlighting on its own, before we dive deeper into SWR elsewhere.

The issue arose because of a failure on the part of the Department for Transport (DfT) – and to a lesser extent SWR – to realise that more power would be required at all.

A brave new world

The Thameslink franchise was, to a large extent, a brave (if apparently flawed) attempt by the DfT to follow a franchising model similar to the concession system pioneered successfully by TfL. Yet it wasn’t the only innovation in contractual governance to emerge from Marsham Street in recent years. Almost as soon as he was appointed Secretary of State for Transport in July 2016, Chris Grayling began to push for a more direct relationship between rail operator and infrastructure, and a more ‘hands off’ approach by the DfT. The most extreme example of this so far has been East West Rail, announced in December 2016, as a private sector project to rebuild and connect key areas of the railway in East Anglia. This is to be carried out by the private sector, with little-to-no direct Network Rail involvement. Grayling explained his logic in a speech at the time:

Network Rail is a committed organisation with a fantastic safety record, the safest major railway network in Europe. But it has been too cumbersome, has not always been an unqualified success in delivering the upgrades our railways need; and does need to focus much more on passengers…

But every monopoly needs competition. So I want to go 1 step further, and bring new skills into the challenge of upgrading our railways – to test the ways we are doing things right now, and find ways of doing them better.

Grayling’s desire to “think different” however, had already influenced other projects as well, including the South West Franchise. The franchise handles almost 4 million passengers a week – ranking it second behind GTR in terms of size.  In 2016, the DfT asked the incumbent operator, Stagecoach, to continue operating the franchise for two more years, but the operator weren’t keen – or rather they weren’t keen at the price that the DfT were willing to pay. The line had a number of issues and the Waterloo rebuild would bring more, Stagecoach explained. If the DfT wanted them to continue running it, they wanted more money. The DfT declined.

This meant it was necessary to retender. Bids were sought, and bidders were encouraged not just to be aggressive in terms of potential service provision, but to think about ways in which they would work directly with Network Rail without DfT input going forward. SWR’s bid embraced this. The company, a joint venture between First Group and MTR, offered up a plan that, amongst other things, included the staggered addition of new services over successive timetable changes. Their price, and profits were based on this.

It is here that, in hindsight, the first issues seem to have manifested. In a move that will be thematically familiar to anyone who has followed our coverage of the issues on Thameslink, LR sources suggest that the information provided to bidders by the DfT wasn’t entirely reflective of the power situation on the ground. More specifically, that DfT Rail Franchising pushed forward with the franchise specification without confirming with either Network Rail or DfT Rail Infrastructure that the power setup on the SWML would support the service patterns they were encouraging bidders to submit.

Left hand vs right hand

SWR’s successful bid was predicated on the delivery of these services, and the DfT duly signed off their initial proposals for a new timetable and new trains.

Even at this point, the power issue was solvable, if addressed in time. The problem, however, remained largely unnoticed until September 2017 when – beginning the long process of preparations for this December’s timetable change – SWR submitted the track access requests their anticipated timetable would require to the ORR. This represented the first time that their specific plans were exposed to anyone outside of SWR and the DfT. The ORR duly sought Network Rail’s opinion on the feasibility of the timetable and were informed, in no uncertain terms, that the power supply on the SWML simply was not capable of supporting the timetable.

Luckily, Network Rail indicated, there was still time to correct this. The engineering work was perfectly feasible, although Network Rail also warned the ORR that until those improvements were in place they would be unable to properly assess whether SWR’s timetable was definitely deliverable or not.

The ORR duly passed all this information back to SWR.

He said, she said

SWR’s response to the rebuttal of their provisional timetable was a mix of confusion and annoyance. They pointed out, in a response to Network Rail and the ORR, that all of their plans had been signed off by the DfT. A series of fraught interactions followed, leading to a particularly blunt message to SWR from Network Rail in December 2017.

The DfT may have told SWR they could run the trains, Network Rail explained, but they certainly hadn’t told Network Rail to build the required power infrastructure on the SWML. More importantly, the DfT hadn’t given them any money to do so.

Unfortunately for SWR, Network Rail pointed out, this meant the work would not be done. They also pointed out that the franchise agreement specified that, ultimately, it was incumbent on the operator to run a timetable deliverable within the constraints of the infrastructure, not the other way round.

Caught between the two sides, in March the ORR ordered SWR and Network Rail to try and find a resolution to this issue. With no money forthcoming from the DfT, in June Network Rail submitted back to SWR and ORR a less-intensive timetable that would work with the existing infrastructure.

To say that SWR were unhappy with this timetable would be an understatement. Timing-wise it seems that it was this, rather than any of the other issues they are experiencing, that really triggered July’s statement. It was also this that has resulted in SWR returning to the DfT and requesting that the franchise be renegotiated.

It is hard to blame SWR for seeking this. They seem to have been dealt a somewhat unplayable hand. They bid, and expected to deliver services (and profits) based on the understanding that the infrastructure required to deliver those services already existed. Not only was this not true, but there has been no real move to correct this situation by the DfT.

The knowledge gap

We will explore all of the ongoing issues with SWR shortly in a more thorough piece, but the power issue is worth highlighting in its own right. Not only is it the cause of another major loss of services (albeit potential, but very much required ones) for passengers, but it speaks again to many of the issues facing both the railways in general and the DfT in particular.

As with Thameslink and Northern, it reveals the critical importance of understanding the sum of the operational railway, not just its parts. It also highlights, just how important it is – under the current railway governance model – for those commissioning services to have that level of knowledge.

In a way, SWR’s power issues prove Grayling’s point – it is vitally important that someone understands the impact of every strategic decision on the working railway. Unfortunately for the Secretary of State, as with Thameslink and Northern, the SWR experience suggests that under the current model that ‘someone’ needs to be the DfT.

Next week we will explore SWR’s wider issues in more detail.

Written by John Bull
John Bull is the Editor of London Reconnections. A transport journalist and historian, his writing often focuses on the political or strategic challenges facing London's transport network and beyond.