New routes, trains and alliance working mooted for South Eastern
New routes, high-capacity Metro-style trains, integrating train and track operators through an alliance and even getting rid of First Class seating on the busiest routes are all ideas that have been put forward today in the DfT’s South Eastern franchise consultation.
The 41-page consultation, set to close on 23 May, seeks views on radical redesigns of the South Eastern franchise, as had already been promised by transport secretary Chris Grayling late last year.
Although its routes are no longer being considered for devolution as originally intended, Grayling has nevertheless promised to revamp the currently poorly-rated franchise by integrating train and track teams, similar to what will be done in East West Rail.
“It is clear, that while Network Rail and the current operator have worked hard to join up their operations, not all their priorities are the same. We need to bring together the operation of track and train on the railway. It will mean that it is much easier to focus on providing the best service to passengers, and meet the challenges of today’s network,” said the consultation.
“This new franchise is the right moment to bring things closer together. We are exploring how the train operator can form an integrated operating team with Network Rail, incentivised to deliver the best possible service for passengers.
“We could also require the alliance to continuously improve the whole passenger experience. This could include regular reviews of the timetable to ensure that it meets passengers’ changing needs, and a commitment to optimise the timetable to provide a reliable service with trains that are as frequent and fast as possible.”
Private sector funding
As well as being required to form an alliance with Network Rail, the winning bidder will also have to focus on how to maximise private sector funding so that investment is not “held back”.
“The department is looking to rail operators and other parts of the private sector to propose models which could bring in better services for passengers. This could include longer, concession-style franchises and specific investment in key projects,” the document explained.
The franchise will therefore build on the East West Rail model to encourage innovative proposals for private funding, which could range from “upgrading and sharing in the success of part of the South Eastern network, including infrastructure, through to providing new shops in stations”.
The DfT has also mooted the possibility of developing a new “fast and frequent London orbital service” comprised of the Ashford to Tonbridge Line, which connects Redhill and Reading under other operators. The new route would be designed to take pressure away from the M20 and M25.
The extension of high-speed services to Hastings, Bexhill and Rye has been proposed to speed up links between Hastings and the capital, given that the two centres are only 65 miles apart but take up to two hours on a direct train.
There is also an option to split the current Brighton to Ashford service, operated by Southern, to run longer electric trains between Brighton and Hastings, a route plagued by overcrowding.
“If the Hastings and Ashford leg was incorporated into the next franchise, the operator could focus on service enhancements including more frequent services, to deliver better connections to London-bound high-speed services from Ashford International,” added the consultation document.
New trains – and no more First Class seats
Building on the success of certain Underground lines and of London Overground, which proved that “redesigning the layout of trains is a solution to achieving optimal capacity”, the DfT also floated the option of introducing new high-capacity Metro-style carries on South Eastern’s busiest routes.
It is also considering whether to remove First Class seating on the busiest routes, which would open up needed capacity during peak hours – despite recognising that First Class tickets remain popular on certain routes.
As expected, the new operator will be required to focus on technology and innovation, especially as the next franchise will run until at least 2025 – by which point “technology and work patterns will be different to those of today”.
“More people, for instance, may want to travel outside traditional commuting hours, work partly from home, or travel to new centres of employment,” the department said. “We are therefore considering more radical, new approaches to transforming the service provided on the South Eastern network.”
Smart ticketing and digital technology
One of the cornerstones of innovation will be centred around “ambitious” smart ticketing plans and smarter payment systems, including mobile phones, to move away from the paper ticket. By 2018, over 125,000 franchise passengers will be able to transfer to a new, government-funded smart ticket system.
Similarly, the next operator will have to explain how it will modernise and simplify the overall journey experience by learning from other sectors. Once again, the airline industry was cited as a notable example of moving high volumes of passengers whilst maintaining good customer service.
New technology will also include the roll-out of digital railway, the consultation revealed, adding: “As the chief executive of Network Rail indicated recently, improvements such as new digital signalling systems could allow much more efficient use of rolling stock and could be funded jointly with outside organisations. Better capacity on the railway should not come only from new trains.
“A Digital Railway Traffic Management System is planned to be introduced onto the Thameslink area on the South Eastern network. This will benefit passengers by providing live train running information and it will help the operator restore services more quickly after incidents. In future, it is likely that all South Eastern trains will be compatible with this technology.”
Looking to the future, the DfT will also consider whether the current size of franchises, and the area they serve, “provides the best outcome for passengers”. For example, smaller franchises could allow new and more innovative entrants to the market.
“It could also be possible to create local innovation zones – hubs of high technology industry – with the rail service tailored to match its needs, for example by the innovation of specific services or even a light railway. The Thames Gateway would be an example of a region where this approach could be introduced,” the department said.
‘A more punctual and reliable service’
In his foreword to the consultation document, Grayling also listed improved compensation arrangements as one of the major areas of improvement for the next franchisee. This will be tackled through the alliance with Network Rail, with teams working together to clamp down on delays and offer a simpler repayment system.
In a statement, the secretary of state commented: “Passengers on a new South Eastern franchise from 2018 will enjoy modern trains with more space and a more punctual and reliable service.
“This consultation sets out what we expect the next operator to deliver for passengers, including working more closely with Network Rail to ensure a focus on performance, and innovative use of technology to improve both ticket buying and compensation if things do go wrong.”
Local councillors welcomed the franchise proposals, with Kent County Council cabinet member Cllr Matthew Balfour encouraging everyone who uses the service to take part.
The leader of London Borough of Bexley, Cllr Teresa O’Neill, added: “As one of the few London boroughs without a tube line Bexley’s residents rely heavily on the rail service. This kind of opportunity to have a say on priorities for the future provider should not be missed.
“I would encourage as many people as possible to take part in the survey or visit one of the information events so they can help inform the final decision.”
(Top image c. Class466cuxton)