An increase in Overground operations

Austin reveals that funding has just been approved from Transport for London to put handrails into the Class 172s - a small improvement, although no replacement for a lack of capacity.

“It will help people move down a little bit and make their journey more comfortable, although I know that’s not a long term solution.”

Until a new fleet arrives, Austin (or whoever will be running the Overground concession post-2016) knows that measures must be put in place to mitigate the congestion. 

“Another benefit of having staff at stations, on Gospel Oak-Barking, is that we can tell people where the trains are. We can help the driver get the people away on the train.”

Those standards extend to the non-moving parts of the railway. The Overground is noted for its cleanliness, and for the care and attention given to station maintenance.

“Stations will get a day one deep clean. They’re not in a bad state, but we think with a little investment and attention we can do better. We’ll adopt our quality regime on them from day one. We’ll have a zero tolerance approach to graffiti and litter.”

Also as part of the West Anglia takeover, the dated-looking Enfield Town will be a forerunner for a programme of works that LOROL won’t be delivering directly, but which will include signage, rebranding, new ticket machines, CCTV improvements and lighting. “They’re working hard to get that ready for the launch date of June 1,” says Austin.

Nor is the human element forgotten. TfL wants staffing on the stations “from first to last”, says Austin, who adds: “We will have staffing on the stations from day one.”

Staff aren’t necessarily involved in helping people on and off trains, as LO stations that have level access also operate a turn up and go service. “People don’t need to book in advance with us.”

What impact does enhanced staffing at stations have?

“All our customer service satisfaction scores have been moving in the right direction with Overground,” says Austin. “It helps reduce the perception of crime. It gives people assurance. It gives people information. People like that human interaction. If you see someone in uniform at a station, you’re more likely to buy a ticket, or touch in.”

What’s more, staffed stations are of a wider benefit to the railway’s operation, says Austin. “If our drivers have problems, or have ill passengers on the train, our staff are trained to help ill people on the platform until help arrives. Not only does the ill passenger get the right attention, other passengers’ disruption is kept to a minimum.”

In recognition of their importance to TfL, all West Anglia route staff will have the brand new TfL uniform.

LOROL has held the concession since 2007 - ultimately a nine-year concession. Is that enough for LOROL to do what it wants to do as an operator, regardless of what TfL might want? Does the concession need to be shorter or longer to meet corporate objectives?

“There are pros and cons of longer and shorter contracts. Where devolution has worked with Overground is that TfL has been good at saying: ‘let’s not ask the operator to do that, let’s ask Network Rail to do that, or fund NR to do that, or push NR to do that, or we’ll do it ourselves and ask NR to fund it’.

“The length of the contract has been long enough for TfL to see the transformation in the service that it wanted. It’s unrecognisable.”

Indeed, there has been so much change, it’s almost overwhelming. Has the Overground been a victim of its own success?

“If I was to put a client hat on, I would probably say there has been so much change on the Overground, so much change from what TfL originally wanted. They didn’t want five cars, they didn’t want West Anglia, they didn’t want the extension through to Clapham. It probably is time for them to step back and look at what happens next for Overground, and re-group.”

Even so, Austin feels like “a hell of a lot” has been achieved in nine years: “Seven years would have felt too short.”

The current LOROL concession of six years and four months was originally due to end in March 2014, but was extended last year to November 2016. And Austin would “bite their hand off” if TfL offered another two-year extension tomorrow!

Indeed, there is no shortage of plans for the Overground, principally electrification of the Gospel Oak-Barking line and a related extension southeast to Barking Riverside (a further public consultation on route options opened as this issue of RAIL went to press, see panel).

Is Austin confident that the electrification work will be completed in the current April 2014-March 2019 Control Period?

“Electrification is not yet funded. But if people want to develop those houses , it will need to have transport links. Buses alone won’t do it. I think it will happen. TfL has ambitions to see more frequent services on the North London and East London Line, and potentially weekend and night running as well.”

A lot has changed in ten years, not least technology - such as how tickets are sold and additional gatelines at stations. One positive outcome is that the North London Line no longer has its unkind, less than politically correct ‘loony line’ reputation, as gates and roving inspectors have driven down crime and problematic behaviour such as fare-dodging. Yet in ten years’ time, things such as closed ticket gates may be a thing of the past. Austin says the danger of a contract that is too long is that obsolete technology can be “built in”.

“With a client like TfL who have sponsored those developments, it’s worked. If we had sponsored those developments, it would be too short to get the payback.”

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