RAIL 833: Why Waterloo is so crucial

Every eight seconds for three hours during the morning peak, the equivalent of a full double-decker bus of people arrives at Waterloo station - that’s 100,000 people every weekday morning. Each year, 100 million use Waterloo, compared with 75 million at Heathrow.

Over the past 20 years, the termini’s passenger journeys have more than doubled. Waterloo has always been busy, but on the privatised railway it has absolutely boomed and now it simply cannot cope.

So, in the early hours of Friday August 4, a Network Rail ‘Orange Army’ arrived at the station to begin a 24-day closure and blockade of more than half of the station’s 19 platforms, for an upgrade that will increase capacity by 45,000 passengers each morning and night. It’s a huge and massively disruptive job, which is why NR and South West Trains have been warning passengers about it since January.

But to see the way much of the national media reported this massive £800 million South West upgrade, you’d think that NR had come up with the idea a week before, told nobody, and then unexpectedly wheeled in the diggers five days later. By the Monday morning, no fewer than seven media crews were hovering at Britain’s busiest station, no doubt hoping to catch the moment it all went wrong.

Before 0900 on August 7, the BBC website’s front page carried the headline “Waterloo station: Commuters hit by engineering upgrade work.” According to the BBC, “thousands of commuters are facing disruption” and stations in the area will be “exceptionally busy”. The accompanying photographs told a very different story, however - no queues at Wimbledon, sparsely populated platforms at Clapham Junction and empty seats on a Wimbledon-Waterloo commuter train, posted on Twitter by a “happy passenger”.

A Twitter storm in support of the railway followed. Many asked how passengers have been “hit” by engineering works, given that NR/SWT have been informing passengers since January to expect disruption and to plan accordingly - many did, arranging to work from home or take their annual leave. A Transport Focus survey backs this up - 91% of SWT passengers surveyed were aware of the work and 48% said they intended to take holiday or work from home. Only 7% said they had no alternative plans.

An hour or so in, the BBC’s headline had changed to: “Waterloo station: Stations quiet after upgrade warnings”, with the qualification that “disruption expected from major upgrade works…has not materialised, with trains quieter than expected”. A grudging acceptance that the railway bashing would have to be saved for another day… and the story swiftly dropped off the front page.

It did, of course, get busier. And yes, there have been some failures and delays. But, for the most part, no more than NR had expected and anticipated in its planning. With less than half the station available, platforms were allocated to trains at the last minute. Inevitably passengers took longer to board, leading to delays. 

As this issue of RAIL went to press, we were less than a week into a very complex blockade and even tighter operations, with very little margin for error and no flexibility in the event of a track circuit or signalling failure. But lessons from King’s Cross (2014) and London Bridge have been learned and NR is better prepared this time - rapid response teams were on standby not only on the four-mile approaches to Waterloo, but also further out at junctions at Surbiton and Woking.

It would be a miracle to get through the full 24 days without a major disruptive failure, but the mood is likely to be more forgiving because of NR’s much more extensive planning.

NR is faced with hundreds of projects, large and small, and all need this level of scrutinised planning. But the lack of a never-ending pot of cash means that only those with the highest potential contribution to the economy will - and should - succeed.

NR Chairman Sir Peter Hendy CBE and Chief Executive Mark Carne have repeatedly called for those who will benefit most from rail projects (a new station, a line upgrade or an extension) to help pay for them. But many would-be investors have been discouraged because of perceived barriers, not least NR’s slow and unresponsive culture. Hendy and Carne are right in their determination to change this, but they have a cultural mountain to climb.

The long-awaited Hansford report that emerged without fuss on July 31 laid bare the numerous stumbling blocks: inappropriate risk transfer; inappropriate application of standards (‘gold-plating’); lack of clarity over available opportunities… the list goes on.

The report, and NR’s response, is hugely important. There is almost universal confidence in a ‘wall of money’ waiting to be invested in the railway, if only we could efficiently and effectively draw it in. It would be naive to think that these obstacles can be removed overnight, but NR has expressed clear intent to swiftly move in the right direction by proposing a string of reforms (see Network News, pages 6-7). 

There is a long way to go before we can be sure that the reforms go far enough (some have already suggested that they don’t), but the key here is that Hansford has not been shelved within months of being written. NR has taken a significant and welcome step towards unlocking that bank of private funds. Now, given the potentially enormous outcome, it is crucial that Hansford’s recommendations are made real and that NR’s commitments to a pipeline of projects go hand-in-hand with proper specification and capable project sponsors. Hendy and Carne have committed to real change. They - and their Route Managing Directors - must now turn that intent into effective action.  

The bigger picture is a frequently overlooked or forgotten truth: what are we doing it all for anyway?

The wider media waiting for NR to drop the ball at Waterloo seem not to care that this work is clearly necessary (not least because, within the first days of the blockade, NR was removing rotten sleepers from the station throat - a consequence of the scale of the job leading to it being put off for too long). Increased capacity and improved performance don’t grab the headlines like passenger disruption.

Successful delivery at Waterloo will go some way to clawing back the reputation lost last year at London Bridge and at King’s Cross in December 2014, and then maybe the critics will be silenced. It was important for morale that Waterloo got off to a reasonable start. It did. Planning paid off in that respect, and the first couple of days were by no means the disaster the wider media had expected.

You only get the one chance to make a first impression and, on this crucial job, NR and SWT did just that. 

Nigel Harris will be back in RAIL 834.

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