‘It’s certainly been a challenge,’ said Andy Mellors, the new managing director of South Western Railway (SWR), standing in Waterloo’s old international terminal in front of the first Class 444 to bear the new livery.
FirstGroup and MTR took over the franchise on 20 August. In its first week in charge, the new operator had to juggle its timetable around one of the largest station redevelopment projects of recent times – a challenge made more complicated still by late signalling problems and a passenger train derailment the week before.
Says Andy, who was speaking to RailStaff at an official launch event earlier this month, ‘I think we shouldn’t underestimate the significance of the works that have just been completed at Waterloo because they have enabled us to operate longer trains into and out of Waterloo and provide much-needed additional capacity.’
In August – as Stagecoach bid farewell to the South Western franchise after 21 years – two Class 707 Desiro City trains went into passenger service on the Windsor route, beginning what will ultimately be a short-lived spell on the route.
SWR will begin running 10-car Class 707 trains into Waterloo in a couple of months’ time. More new trains have been promised as part of a £1.2 billion investment in the service between now and 2024.
New suburban fleet
Around £900 million is being spent on a fleet of new Bombardier Aventra trains. From its factory in Derby, the manufacturer will supply 90 new Class 701 trains: 60 10-car and 30 five-car trains. SWR is also refurbishing and re-engineering 90 Class 442 carriages for the Portsmouth line.
The Class 701 fleet will replace several of the South West’s existing suburban fleets, including the brand new Class 707 Desiro City trains built by Siemens.
‘The suburban fleet of trains that we’ve inherited with this franchise are a wide variety of trains built to a number of different designs over many years,’ said Andy, explaining why SWR has opted for a Bombardier-built fleet instead. ‘What we really want on our suburban network is a homogenous fleet of trains that really drives the maximum possible performance and capacity on the existing network that we’ve got.’
A homogenous fleet provides consistency with stopping points on the platform, said Andy, and a familiarity with the onboard layout. The new 701s will also have something that none of the current fleets have, including the 707s – a toilet.
When questioned to what extent it had been a financial decision, Andy added, ‘As part of the FirstGroup and MTR bid there was an evaluation of the various options for the rolling stock fleet and it was decided that the most appropriate rolling stock solution was to get a brand new fleet of homogenous trains introduced to all our suburban services, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do for the December 2020 timetable.’
Transport secretary Chris Grayling, who attended the launch of the new SWR brand on 4 September, said he was confident that the 707s wouldn’t gather dust.
‘The franchisees have no obligation to use the existing trains… This is a different strategy. It’s about having a more harmonised fleet of trains that improves efficiency, improves ways of working.
‘It does mean that Angel Trains has a fleet of Siemens trains that won’t have a home after 2020, but we’re not in a position today where we have got a surplus of trains on our network and I’m absolutely certain they will find a home and help deliver longer trains and more capacity in other places.’
Asked about how involved the Department for Transport (DfT) would be in ensuring the fleet was acquired by another operator, he added, ‘I think you can safely say that we have a view on where we’d like to see longer trains and people who want to win franchises in the future will, I hope, respond to our view about where we want to see longer trains if they want to win the franchises.’
Stagecoach bids farewell
The new South Western franchise covers a network of almost a thousand kilometres and 186 stations – including those on the Isle of Wight’s Island Line network. SWR has said it will spend £90 million improving its stations, including major modernisations of Southampton Central and Wimbledon.
Further growth is expected across the route, which currently operates around 1,700 services a day and carries 230 million passengers a year.
Martin Griffiths, chief executive of Stagecoach Group, issued a statement thanking the 5,000 or so staff at South West Trains for all their hard work over the past 21 years. ‘Collectively, they work hard day in, day out as one railway to deliver a great service to customers.’
During the brand launch event, Andy presented three SWR drivers with golden whistles and said the operator would invest heavily in staff training and development, including creating more than 100 apprenticeship places each year – the largest apprenticeship scheme to be run by a UK train operator.
Says Andy, ‘We’re really keen that we ensure that this franchise is put on a sustainable footing and that means making sure that we invest in our people, not just our current employees but also future employees as well to make sure that we leave a legacy within this franchise of the right people with the right skills to drive this railway forward.’
National good news story
The investment planned for the South West is ‘part of a national good news story’ said Chris Grayling, who uses the route regularly.
‘The positive story will start on my part of the network in about two months’ time when we get 10-coach trains and eight-coach trains,’ said Grayling. ‘We are spending as a government, and the train operators are spending as companies, more on improving the railways than has happened for decades and decades and decades because demand is rising and rising.’
Correction: SWR will refurbish 18 5-car Class 442s (90 carriages) not 90 trains as originally stated.