London Bridge is constantly evolving

Fencing issues that affect the integrity of the railway boundary also need to be dealt with, as well as the more unusual (and grisly). This morning, a dead badger has been found trapped in between the conductor rail and the running rail, and it must be removed. 

It is Goodwin’s job to dispatch staff to deal with such incidents. He receives information from signallers, station staff and other members of the railway fraternity to enable him to do his job.

Over at the Cotton Centre, RAIL meets London Bridge Station Manager Denis Kirk and Route Station Manager Jasmine Sen, who in turn reports to the Network Rail Commercial Manager (essentially, it’s Sen’s role to deal with the politics, relationship-building and stakeholder management). 

In the past few years, a lot of project work has been going on. The Shard, which overlooks London Bridge, was finished in 2012, while survey work for Thameslink started as far back as 2010.

“It’s more building site than station,” says Kirk, who remarks on how fundamentally similar the station layout is to that of the 19th century.

In January 2015 the rebuilding project entered Stage 2, after a 20-day blockade over Christmas. But congestion problems were growing.

“After it became obvious that the new layout wasn’t working so well, new Customer Information Screens came in, as there was crowding by one of the gatelines,” says Kirk.

Soon Platform 5 was lost to construction work, adding to the pressure. A communications plan to deal with the impact had been prepared, but at this point only three through platforms were available. 

“The weather was against us as well - fine drizzle,” recalls Kirk. Passengers naturally don’t like standing in the exposed, cold weather, and so canopies now stretch the whole length of the platforms. 

“Mark Carne and his team came to visit, and the executive team had issues highlighted to them,” adds Sen.

By this time the congestion issues at London Bridge had become the focus of the London and national media, and cracks were beginning to show under the strain. 

“Staff were having panic attacks and needing to walk away,” recalls Sen. “You could see it in their eyes that they were nervous.” 

There aren’t many Network Rail-managed staff on site, but there are lots of contractors (two agency teams make up the London Bridge team). Train operators fund NR to manage the safety perspective.

On March 3, an infamous photograph was taken showing a man ducking under the London Bridge gateline to escape the supposed crush conditions. As it turned out, there was no ‘crush’ - a sidegate had been opened, although this had little effect on the impatience (perhaps understandably) of some passengers. It was not, by all accounts, a good day. Issues on the London Overground at Canada Water had created a perfect storm, and people headed to London Bridge.

“At 1700 we started overcrowding straightaway,” says Kirk. “The same queuing system as had been used at the Olympics was put into operation. A lady started threatening a Customer Service Assistant. And mob rule smashed down barriers. People are used to the Underground shutting. But the London Bridge team needed to start closing doors.” 

The Customer Service Assistants were later to be credited with preventing accidents. Says Kirk: “There were no accidents on March 3 despite the chaos. And there hasn’t been a single deathly crush or safety incident. 

“It’s not been overly pleasant. But with London Bridge, people lose focus of the tremendous project that’s going on.”

Nor can the station just be closed: “Where would you send the passengers? We have half a station and we are trying to still run. We are trying to get more people through with half the capacity.”

In conjunction with the construction teams, more has been done to alleviate the pressure.

“Everybody is trying to leave off Platforms 1 and 2, so we worked with the project to get the buildings on those platforms taken away,” says Kirk.

The situation is still not perfect, but the team feels that progress has been made. For example, on one day towards the end of June, points failed outside London Bridge. Crowd control was implemented, with a one-way system adopted.

“We have a very good team. We have a very engaged team. There is now no long-term sickness,” enthuses Sen, remarking on how people have “pulled together in a crisis”. She pays tribute to her colleague: “People have a tremendous respect for Denis.”

Kirk, for his part, highlights the “very strong” relationship with the TOC represenatives at London Bridge, such as Southeastern Station Manager Gavin Smith and Southern Station Manager Simon Todd.

“There is no blame culture throughout all of this,” says Kirk, who adds that meetings held with Rail Minister Claire Perry have only served to demonstrate the political importance of ‘getting London Bridge right’.

Nevertheless, the impact of the reduced-size station is ongoing. 

“If the smallest thing happens we spend a lot of time dealing with questions,” says Kirk, who is focused on making information better for passengers in the future. 

“If you look at really excellent customer service organisations, there needs to be a culture change.”

All in all, there’s a lot going on at London Bridge - plenty of upgrades, as well as information improvements and new working practices for the staff.

If anything goes wrong, if anything is delayed, the centrality, importance and capacity of London Bridge means that the staff in charge have to bear the brunt of the inevitable flak on the front line. 

New flows for passengers and the demolition of internal buildings always cause disruption. But in a station such as London Bridge, that disruption could be construed as just the latest stage in a 160-year renovation project that is still not finished. And it is unlikely to be the last chapter in this old place’s history. 

A recent ORR report criticised Network Rail for its handling of the Thameslink project and the issues at London Bridge (RAIL 781). But away from the political friction higher up, the frontline staff are still working as hard as ever in the building site station. 

The station today has its Victorian trainshed and viaduct arches that carry on into the distance, as well as some 1970s buildings around the platforms and concourse. Soon it will have even more capacity, new platforms, and new facilities and structures. 

The entrance, however, for now, remains a dark and well-hidden maze, just about the same complaint you could have made of the place a century ago. The efforts of Network Rail’s army of workers will surely change this soon enough… and not before time. 

  • This feature was published in RAIL 782 (September 2 - 15 2015)

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