Improving Southern’s performance

''Our performance was not winning us any friends,” says Ellie Burrows, with commendable understatement. “Safety performance on Southern was a step-change down from Eastern, where I had been previously. Across the board, we were really struggling.”

Burrows arrived at the start of this year, stepping into a vacant post on a temporary basis. Nine months on, she has been confirmed in the role, and it’s time to get to grips with some of Network Rail’s most intractable problems. 

“We had a sustained hot, dry summer. Everywhere on London clay dried out. That brought a lot of speed restrictions as a safety mitigation against the moving track. Then we had a cold patch in January, and the long freeze with a sudden melt had quite a significant effect.” 

There were landslips - including a spectacular one on the South Western Main Line at Hook, which closed the route for days and disrupted schedules for weeks. 

Network Rail admits it does not have the funds to maintain all its assets to present standards. Making the 6,000 clay embankments across southern England resilient to climate change would cost billions of pounds and take decades. It isn’t going to happen. The phrase “managed decline” is being heard more frequently. 

“In the way we are funded, we will see assets ageing,” Burrows explains. 

“Which means some of them will decline further than has been the case in the past. Mitigating that risk will be really hard. 

“We have increased our spend on earthwork stabilising. It would be unaffordable to tackle every single risk, so monitoring becomes very important - surveys at the higher-risk locations that are constantly observed. 

“One of the biggest changes at Southern since I last worked here, seven years ago, is that remote condition monitoring is in place on many embankments. I think this region is leading nationally on it. Clearly, the aim is to know of movement before the train finds it, to remove the derailment risk.” 

'' Performance is my biggest lever for passengers and freight. We need to win them back, and passengers have a lot more discretion when it comes to travelling now. The way I can most help with that is by bringing performance back.''

Read this article in full in RAIL issue 993 here

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