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London’s railways

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There’s a lot going on in London’s railways at the moment. Network Rail is rebuilding several major stations, Thameslink is well underway, Crossrail is starting, and transport plans to support the 2012 Olympics are nearing completion. It was therefore no surprise that around 200 railway executives from a variety of organisations gathered in the Capital at the end of June for London Rail 2011.

A conference organised by the New Civil Engineer, it took place in the interesting surroundings of the International Coffee Organisation Conference Centre just off Oxford Street. A small display by companies such as Comply Serve, Topcon, Siemens and CH2M Hill greeted delegates on their arrival, and representatives were on hand to discuss their offerings.

The conference programme included several topics that have been covered in detail in the rail engineer before, including new EVO trains for the tube, the McNulty Report and Crossrail. However, there were three presentations made in the morning that gave some real insight into the long-term plans of both TfL and Network Rail.

London Transport

The day’s proceedings commenced with a keynote address from Mike Brown, Managing Director of both London Underground and London Rail. Mike started by looking forward to 2031. Current expectations are that there will be 1.3 million more residents in the greater London area than there are today, with 750,000 more jobs resulting in 40-50% more daily rail journeys.

This of course will put a great load on London Transport, so Mike then ran through the changes that were being made to accommodate all that extra travel. These include the new signalling system being installed on the Jubilee line, with the Northern Line next on the list. The new Bombardier-built stock on the Victoria Line has now completely replaced the original. Stations are being improved to make the throughput of higher passenger numbers easier. The sub-surface lines upgrade is underway, with more new trains from Bombardier and new signalling incorporating automatic operation which gives better service through all the flat junctions.

On the Overground, the North London Line, which had been “dilapidated with poor services”, has been upgraded with new trains and will form part of a new outer orbital route which will soon be completed as far as Charing Cross.

There will be extra trams for the Croydon system, and the DLR now has three-car compatibility throughout the line and will shortly be extended to Stratford.


Stratford has been greatly expanded. Tottenham Court Road is already very congested and major works are under way. Bond Street will soon be “unusable” and too congested so capacity needs to be improved there. The Paddington interchange with Crossrail is being built. Victoria has a bottleneck in the interchange between the mainline station and the Victoria Line and that’s being addressed. Bank-Monument is “just not fit for purpose” as it can’t cope with the numbers using it – a major upgrade is planned.

New technology is coming, including wave-and-pay ticketing and new deep tube trains. The long-term intention is that there will be only two types of train, one large one for the sub-surface lines and one small one for the deep tube.

On top of all this, London Underground staff are constantly busy with all the work needed just to keep the system running, such as replacing track, maintaining trains and rebuilding escalators. As a result reliability on all lines is increasing, journey times are coming down but demand keeps going up.

The gap in the jigsaw

However, what Mike called “the gap in the jigsaw” is the relationship with main line rail. London Underground has reached out and got involved with main line rail by establishing London Overground. Now, main line rail needs to “step up”. Interestingly, there are far more rail trips per person per year inside London than outside. However, government expenditure on rail is higher outside London than inside. New and longer trains are coming, but not enough.

Mike believes that devolution of the railways gives the chance for more services to be under the control of the Mayor. This will lead to better use of facilities, better relationships with staff, better ticketing systems, including a wider use of Oyster, and a better return on investment on railways in London. An investment of £220 million will have a benefit:cost ratio of 4:1, which is “excellent”.

Mike finished by stressing that more investment in National Rail in London is needed, as is devolution. Interesting stuff indeed!

More detail

Geoff Hobbs, Head of Rail Planning for Transport for London, picked up where Mike Brown left off by speaking in more detail about franchising and devolution. “One size doesn’t fit all” was his comment about franchises, and he called negotiations involving the ten TOCs that run into London “interesting”. In fact “herding squirrels” was the analogy he used. He firmly believes that the franchising budget should be devolved to London.

TfL estimate that £300 million can be saved by devolution from the introduction of gross cost contracts. There will be a cost associated with this, estimated to be £120 million plus £40 million of administration costs, but that is still a net saving to the industry, and the taxpayer, of £160 million!

To do this, there is a five-point plan.

1. The Mayor (or regional authority if appropriate) is allocated a rail budget for inner suburban passenger services

2. As franchises come up for renewal, inner suburban services should be specified to Overground standard with the same performance indicators

3. The Mayor could also be co-signatory to franchises where it is not possible to efficiently separate suburban from longer distance services

4. At least regulated London fares would be set by the Mayor

5. …and with the above, inner suburban services could be branded ‘London Overground’.


Geoff stressed that users outside London, and freight operators, would not lose out. He concluded with a few simple statements that made TfL’s stance very clear. London depends on rail, and rail travel in London is pretty cost effective. There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution for future franchises; the TfL approach improves cost efficiency. It is vitally important to continue to invest, and TfL has delivered and can play a major role.

Network Rail

Following a short break, and a presentation by conference sponsor Comply Serve in which CEO Chris Rolison outlined the company’s products and offerings, it was back for a session with Network Rail.

Charles Robarts, Director of Planning and Regulation, welcomed the government’s continued commitment to investment in the railways as it reflects the desire of both passengers and freight operators to increase their use of the railway. However, he acknowledged that whole industry costs are too high.

Charles asked two questions of his audience. Are all players willing to work together? And are everyone’s targets and aspirations in line?

Network Rail is already responding to these challenges by devolving power and decision making, looking to negotiate commercial “alliancing” agreements with train operators, introducing a new way of working with suppliers, and introducing external benchmarking and competition. Charles stressed that reform mustn’t compromise the existing commitments to efficiency savings – 21% in CP4 on top of the 27% achieved during CP3. However, reform is needed across the network, particularly in improving the “co-operation deficit” between Network Rail and train operators.

Devolution, which will be complete by March 2012, will result in Network Rail getting closer to customers. Responsiveness will increase while reducing industry costs. Charles hoped that it would enable them to offer a seamless service at routes level, while support from the centre will maintain the benefits of being part of a national organisation. The network still needs to operate as a network, as many passenger as well as freight operators run across several routes.

Competitive tendering

One problem that Network Rail faces is knowing how competitive its own delivery units are. Cost savings can be judged, but how cost-effective are they in the wider scheme of things? This can be discovered by requiring projects teams to compete for work. By operating in a competitive environment they will be able to establish a true benchmark.

So Network Rail will compete for a few large contracts against the industry’s leading contractors – to see how competitive they can be.

That should throw up some interesting results!


  1. “… and will form part of a new outer orbital route which will soon be completed as far as Charing Cross.”

    Clapham Junction surely?


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