Much like the train set you were given when you were young, which had perhaps a simple oval of track and a few carriages, the London Overground concept has been faithful to the original marketing of ‘London’s new train set’, with the addition of new track and plenty of new trains.
An amalgam of the old Silverlink Metro and virtually empty London Underground East London Line networks - neither of which were being exploited for their full potential - the Overground’s success has matched the capital’s economic success story.
In ten years, the extension of the East London Line north to Dalston and Highbury and further south onto existing Southern Region lines has turned into a much bigger project that has aimed to better connect (and indeed market) some relatively disparate and unloved parts of the capital’s rail network.
It was factors such as London Overground that ensured a successful bid for the London 2012 Olympic Games, and LO formed part of the highly regarded public transport operation that duly supported the Games.
The success of the Overground has been due in no small part to generous and consistent funding for its development. But passengers have responded with a rapid and grateful return on that investment - passenger numbers on the various lines have risen by 400% since 2007, and the network is one of the most reliable in the UK.
To help meet the growth in numbers, a programme is under way to introduce five-car trains across the North, East and West London Lines.
And on May 31, the Overground map will get 25% bigger, with the addition of the West Anglia routes from Liverpool Street to Cheshunt, Chingford and Enfield Town.
On the same day, Liverpool Street-Shenfield Metro trains will also join the Transport for London network, in preparation for the beginning of Crossrail services in 2018. Although this will be managed under a separate concession, ownership will be under MTR (which part-owns, with Arriva Trains UK, the current LOROL-operated concession for London Overground).
All of this must surely herald considerable changes within LOROL?
Managing Director Peter Austin insists that change is constant, and part of the everyday business. Now LOROL is delivering one more big change before its concession is up.
“The West Anglia, although we’re well versed in change programmes, is going to be one of the biggest that we’ve done,” he says.
It involves 300 train services and some 31 additional trains - LOROL will inherit a mix of BR-vintage rolling stock, in the form of 17 Class 315s dating from 1980 and 14 slightly newer Class 317s.
One of the major successes of the current concession has been new rolling stock, including the £88 million order for the 57-strong Class 378 fleet introduced progressively from 2009 onwards. So is Austin concerned that the introduction of older rolling stock may affect reliability?
“A lot of the rolling stock is going through existing C6 examinations anyway, which will help address some of the problems they’ve been having,” he says. “We are doing some minor work on reliability, and Abellio Greater Anglia has been helping us with that - doors and batteries on the ‘317s’.”
While the ‘315s’ are slightly older, Austin says that they are the more reliable of the two fleets, and more suited to the work they will be doing.
“Some of the 317s have been out of service and in storage for a while, and AGA is helping shake those down and get some service mileage,” he says.
Bringing the rolling stock up to an approximation of new train LO standards is the next task.
“The stock is going to get a slight refresh - moquette seat covers and orange poles. At the same time, AGA branding will be neutralised.”
In addition, the existing fleet currently contains eight two-car Class 172 diesel multiple units used solely on the Gospel Oak-Barking line (a diesel ‘island’ in the capital). Eventually, the yet-to-be-placed order for 39 new electric multiple units (for which the procurement process is under way) will release the ‘172s’ for use by grateful operators elsewhere, possibly even another company owned by Arriva UK Trains, Chiltern Railways.
Does Austin have any concerns about the rolling stock he will be inheriting? After all, he’ll need to manage the transition between current rolling stock and new stock, when it is expected to arrive in 2018.
“I think there have been some lessons learned from when we first took over in 2007,” he says. “The Silverlink franchise was being managed on a low-cost basis. Perhaps the mistake that everybody made at the time was the promise that ‘London’s getting a new railway’.” (Well, it wasn’t entirely new, but from personal recollection and commuting experience, it was a radical improvement on what had existed before.)
“But, of course, the new trains didn’t come until two years later. We’re trying to be clear in the messaging about what we can deliver. It won’t be revolution, but I’m pretty confident we can make some major inroads in the 18 months between now and the end of the concession, bringing the West Anglia up to the same standards as the rest of the Overgound.”
While new electric rolling stock for Gospel Oak-Barking and the West Anglia services is on the way, with TfL responsible for its procurement (and awarding of the post-2016 concession), it remains to be seen whether LOROL itself will introduce it.
Says Austin: “Gospel Oak-Barking has been - is - a huge success. We’ve gone from Class 150s two trains an hour, to Class 172s four trains an hour.”
However, that success is tempered by the lack of suitable rolling stock, wires or no wires: “Unfortunately, until the line is electrified and we get the new fleet, there is little we can do. We have looked at getting an additional fifth path, but it does not exist.”
Austin adds that there is neither additional rolling stock nor path available. “We are sweating the assets as much as we can. We put additional trains in the peak. But occasionally they do get cancelled, as we don’t have as much flexibility as we’d like due to maintenance.”