End of the line for South West Trains?

Reducing dwell times will also be a priority. But double-deck trains make for longer dwell times, because more passengers are passing through the same number of doors. 

A 30-second dwell time is equivalent to a 90mph passenger train travelling three-quarters of a mile (say 750 passenger miles). If the dwell time rises to three minutes, the cost is 4,500 passenger miles. So this equation is far from simple. And that is before considering the track lowering that will be required beneath bridges and through the tunnel at Micheldever. 

Beyond 2019, a new flyover at Basingstoke will be needed to separate conflicting movements, while a dive-under at Woking for the Guildford and Portsmouth line is also proposed. There would be improvements to the track between Basingstoke and Eastleigh, and station alterations at Clapham and at Guildford. How will these be funded?

Rival bidders may also consider Driver Only Operation (DOO) to keep costs down. 

Years ago, Stagecoach put up mirrors at some stations in preparation for DOO. But Sir Brian Souter did a deal with the unions and promised to keep a guard on every service, including on those trains that were capable of operating without one. It was a deal he never regretted - industrial relations on SWT have been better than on many other franchises. 

Customer service scores in the National Rail Passenger Survey have also held up well, despite overcrowding with passengers standing throughout the 45-minute journey from Basingstoke and even during the hour-long trek from Reading. 

More issues remain further from London. The route between Southampton and Portsmouth is approaching full capacity. The Class 158/9 DMU fleet in Salisbury remains impressively reliable, but by the end of the next franchise the trains will be very tired. 

SWT plans big timetable changes on the West of England route from December. Yeovil will get a half-hourly service (an extra eight trains a day) by extending services that previously terminated at Salisbury. A connection between Yeovil and Yeovil Pen Mill will be restored, with services for the first time since Beeching. And Bruton and Frome will get their first-ever through services to Waterloo. 

These are big deals for Somerset, and it won’t be easy for a rival operator to top that. The single-track line west of Salisbury is filling up, and the rolling stock will be fully utilised. 

Almost every constituency served by South West Trains is Conservative. Labour holds just one SWT seat - in Southampton. The Liberal Democrats now have none. 

Maria Miller, the former cabinet minister who holds Basingstoke, has formed a group of MPs along the South West Main Line. In early July she met Transport Minister Claire Perry to demand an end to what she has labelled “cattle class travel” on SWT. And she has welcomed the decision not to give Stagecoach the job for another two years. 

“Basingstoke residents face unacceptable levels of overcrowding on trains every day, with standing room only at peak times,” she says. 

“We need a 60% increase in passenger space on Basingstoke trains if they are to cope with increased numbers anticipated in the next 25 years. Basingstoke needs more, faster, longer trains now, with WiFi that works. We also need to see an increase in the reliability of train links to Reading and west through to Salisbury. 

“Basingstoke into Waterloo is the only part of the entire British train market to make a profit,” she claims, although other operators may disagree with her assertion. 

“Yet we have seen some of the lowest levels of investment in the country. This has to change.”

Richard Drax, MP for Dorset South, has also been lobbying for more investment. In the House of Commons in July, the former BBC reporter pressed for an upgrade to the power supply west of Bournemouth.

Currently SWT can run only five-car trains to Weymouth, one at a time. Put more trains on the track and, like a model railway with two trains drawing the same limited power, they will move more slowly and eventually just stop. The power supply was installed during the 1980s, when it was not anticipated that there would ever be a need for more or longer trains. 

With regard to the new franchise, McLoughlin has told stakeholders: “A key part of this process will be a full public consultation that will invite passengers and stakeholders to tell my Department what they want to see.”

All good proposals will certainly require investment in infrastructure. Rarely does a week pass without a signal or track circuit failure in the Wimbledon area. The infrastructure is worn, and working at full stretch. More trains run between Clapham and Waterloo every hour now than will run on the completed Thameslink tracks. That is without Thameslink’s £5 billion makeover, and before the new capacity enhancement project even starts. 

Stagecoach is certainly not going without a fight. “We will be bidding for a new franchise, and we believe we are in a strong position,” confirms Stewart. 

“There should be no reason why opting out of the short-term deal should count against us. At some point the franchise was always going to be re-tendered. If it were not for the West Coast franchising issues back in 2012, we would have been looking at 2017 anyway. 

“It is an attractive franchise, one of the most high-profile in the UK. We will submit a powerful and attractive bid.

“The process tends to take about 18 months. Work backwards from an autumn 2017 start date. We’ll expect some news before too long.”

There is a precedent. FirstGroup handed back the keys to the Great Western at a seven-year break point in its ten-year contract. Years later, it is still there, securing a further three and a half-year deal in March 2015. First has also been in place since privatisation in 1996 and is now managing a period of upheaval. 

Competition will be strong. SWT operates 1,600 trains a day and manages more than 200 stations. It also covers the most wealthy commuter region in the country - as long as the economy of central London thrives, it practically guarantees that the rapid rise in passenger numbers will continue. 

And it is one of only two rail routes in the country capable of operating entirely without government subsidy across track and trains (East Coast Main Line is the other). So a deal involving large premium payments to the Government is anticipated. 

Everyone will recognise that the timing is far from ideal. It was not planned to be this way. But in a few months, the bidding battle will commence. 

  • This feature was published in RAIL 780 on August 5 2015

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  • ALAN JOHNSTON - 03/07/2016 23:47


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