If you were to turn to C in the book of well-worn railway terms, the word ‘capacity’ would probably be emboldened and furiously underlined. Unlocking capacity on already busy corridors is becoming increasingly important. Often an engineering solution – new trains, longer trains, modern signalling – is the answer, but on some routes, there’s very little extra that traditional methods can eke out. London Overground Rail Operations Limited (LOROL), a joint venture between MTR and Deutsche Bahn (DB), is one operator in particular which is having to consider new options to keep up with passenger demand.
‘When we took over in 2007, we were just shy of 110,000 passengers per day. Today we carry more than 450,000 passengers on a daily basis, so there’s been a substantial amount of growth,’ said Gareth Biggins, LOROL’s head of concession management.
Gareth knows LOROL’s capacity challenge better than anyone, as one of only two people who has been with the organisation since the very beginning – the other being managing director Peter Austin. For several years, he was a regular passenger, commuting to work from his home in Kensal Rise. ‘My wife used to play hell because at weekends I’d be going to the station reporting problems if we were on our way out,’ said Gareth.
Gareth worked on LOROL’s bid for the Overground concession, which was let in 2007 by Transport for London (TfL) when it took over what was the North London Railways franchise from the Department for Transport (DfT).
The network has been extended several times since LOROL – an MTR/Laing Rail joint venture as it was at the time – replaced Silverlink Metro. The first major expansion was in 2010, with the opening of the East London Line. The line, which had been part of the Tube network, links Dalston Junction and West Croydon, and includes spurs to New Cross and Crystal Palace. The East London Line was later extended to Clapham Junction in 2012, creating the orbital network that Overground was always designed to be.
Says Gareth, ‘On the East London Line itself we’re seeing regularly a year-on-year growth of about 20 per cent, which for a route which is such regularly and frequently served as the East London Line core route, that’s quite impressive.
‘Elsewhere on the network, we’re regularly outstripping the London and South East average for growth and it just continues.’
LOROL and TfL have just completed a £320 million programme to increase the Overground’s fleet of 57 Class 378s from four to five cars – known as the London Overground Capacity Improvement Plan (LOCIP). For most of 2015, LOROL was without two of its trains, as units returned to either Derby or New Cross Gate depot for three weeks at a time to have the extra carriage added.
Says Gareth, ‘On event days or significant events like the Tube strike, we would use every additional train that we can, we’d re-plan our maintenance so that we could make every train in the fleet available. So we lost that flexibility and we obviously had to plan to undertake all the maintenance at night rather than during the course of the day.’
LOCIP was also a complex infrastructure project, requiring platforms to be lengthened and the creation of new stabling facilities at Silwood. Where platforms couldn’t be extended, Selective Door Opening (SDO) was installed. It’s the first time the system has been used on Overground and Gareth admitted that it was behind some of the project’s initial teething problems. However, it’s now been installed across the entire Overground network and has enabled LOROL to automate correct side door opening, as is the case on London Underground.
As expected, the additional 25 per cent capacity provided by LOCIP has been quickly swallowed up, so what do LOROL and TfL have planned for the future? Even longer trains of six, seven, eight carriages?
‘Six car is not really an option on either the North London Line or particularly the East London Line because of the constraints of the tunnels. So we need to look at capacity more holistically going forward,’ says Gareth.
‘I think in the short term it is a piece of work that the industry needs to do, not just Overground, around travel demand management and actually looking at passenger journeys and trying to influence those by identifying which trains are at capacity. Can we persuade people to travel at different times of the day.
‘We’re currently working on a project through our involvement with the Arriva Group… we’re working on a project with them that’s being co- funded by the RSSB TOC’15 innovation fund and what that’s doing is to try and make real-time train loading data available to our staff so that they can influence where customers stand on platforms, for example.’
Gareth believes that the start of Crossrail services in 2018 and the proposed takeover of suburban routes are another way of creating capacity on the Overground. There is also an opportunity to work with freight operators, Network Rail and the ORR to identify and use underutilised freight paths, as has already been done on the West London Line.
‘Clearly TfL has got aspirations to take over more of the suburban network within London; that will clearly make those parts of the network more accessible and more visually accessible to customers as part of the Tube network, or as part of the TfL network if you like.’
Gareth added, ‘What we may see on Overground is a reduction in customer numbers as Crossrail comes into being. Some people might see that as a negative, but actually I think it will have a positive benefit of creating additional capacity and then allowing growth to reoccur, so it might be that we actually see a patterning of the passenger numbers as people’s travel patterns move and change.’
Although LOROL and TfL are trying to look beyond traditional engineering solutions to capacity constraints, there are several major projects on the horizon. The electrification of the Gospel Oak to Barking Line will begin later this year, closing the line for eight months. In 2018, with the overhead lines up, new longer Class 710 trains will then begin to replace the Class 172 Turbostars.
The London Overground concession model was new to the industry in 2007, pioneering in the way it encouraged high standards and penalised poor performance. Gareth likened the early days to being ‘raked over the coals’ by clients every five seconds.
Nine years on, and with the new concession due to begin in November, the service has been transformed from the one LOROL took over in 2007. In 2015, LOROL scored 91 per cent for customer satisfaction, up from 57 per cent when it began the concession. The popularity of Overground was demonstrated by last year’s Tube strikes.
Says Gareth, ‘We saw a lot of customers who came to use the Overground service because they had no choice on those days and have actually realised that the Overground provides them with links that they wouldn’t normally have… And they’ve actually stayed with us as customers and have freed up capacity on the Tube network then as a result.’
Gareth made sure to acknowledge one other important component. Adding, ‘The LOROL people are the real success story behind what we as an operator have been able to achieve.’