Metro style services on heavy rail lines

Source: Rail Technology Magazine March/April 2013

London is undergoing a rail revolution. The first part is London Overground, which is operated by the LOROL joint venture between MTR Corporation and Deutsche Bahn. MTR’s CEO – European Business, Jeremy Long, explains what lessons can be learnt for Thameslink and Crossrail.

London’s packed rail and Tube network is undergoing something of a revolution. The completion of the London Overground orbital railway was the first part of a story that includes the major upgrade of Thameslink and the opening of Crossrail. When this story is complete in 2019, heavy rail will have become an integral part of how people get around and through London – not just how they get into and out of the capital.

We have been playing our part, working with TfL on this revolution. The London Overground has been a major success story, with a very significant rise in passenger numbers: over 400,000 passenger journeys are made each weekday, up from 90,000 when we took over the concession.

One lesson we can learn is that a step-change in service and new routes can create demand way beyond conventional forecasting. We would expect to see a similar level of take-up by passengers using Thameslink once the services reach metro-style frequency, and on Crossrail once the full service begins.

Introducing metro-style services to heavy rail lines like these requires a particular skillset. MTR’s experience of operating trains in packed cities such as Hong Kong and Beijing was good preparation for the challenges presented by London Overground. Both here, and with MTR’s metro concession in Stockholm, we have achieved a steady increase in performance.

London Overground is now consistently one of the country’s top performing operators and passenger satisfaction is at the highest level of any franchise or concession in the UK.

A common feature of London’s new and improved rail lines is new rolling stock. We have successfully introduced a whole fleet of trains across all routes on the London Overground, working closely with TfL and Bombardier to iron-out the issues that inevitably arise when bringing new units into service. The operator of Crossrail will have to introduce a whole new fleet, as will the next Thameslink franchisee – which will have to oversee the introduction and operation of an ATO (automatic train operation) system through the core of the route, in order to make it possible to run 24 trains per hour through central London.

Each of London’s new and improved railways also faces the practical problem of integrating disparate services into one organisation. The next Thameslink franchise will merge the current Thameslink and Great Northern operations with Southern routes, whilst the Crossrail operator will take over suburban services from the north-east and west of London.

Such mergers bring operational and organisational challenges. MTR has faced such challenges in Hong Kong where, in 2007, we successfully merged the large rail operations of the KCRC (the Kowloon Canton Railway Company) into our own network. More recently, through London Overground, we worked closely with TfL on the reopening of the East London Line and its subsequent extension between Surrey Quays and Clapham Junction, which opened in December 2012.

Our experience has shown that a large part of the successful delivery of new and improved urban railways is through a strong partnership with the client authority. LOROL and TfL have worked hard to develop an effective relationship, which has benefited both the operations and customers alike. Indeed, LOROL’s recent contract extension to run the London Overground for another two years is a result of this partnership approach.

London’s transport network is going through a period of unprecedented change which will transform the way we travel through the capital. It really is the most exciting time to be working on London’s railways.

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