Prediction: South Western Railway will be awful

Prediction: South Western Railway will be awful

In 2016 and 2017 you read the news and it feels like history is repeating itself. You keep saying jovially "maybe it'll be different this time".

That's how I feel hearing the news that First Group/MTR are taking over the South West Trains franchise. First Group, may I remind you, had one of the lowest passenger satisfaction scores in history (75% when they ran First Capital Connect). First Group lost the North Western franchise, they lost the ScotRail franchsie, they lost the Capital Connect franchise. The rumour is they're worried about the Great Western franchise.

But! They've talked the talk in the winning bid. And Stagecoach's operation of the South West Trains franchise, which they've held for a long 21 years, is not that popular with its users.

I'm going to try to step back for a minute and provide some facts (and speculation) on what this actually means for rail users.

I should start by confessing (or announcing) that I have been a small cog in the works of both Stagecoach and First Group, so I know a bit about how they work. My feeling is that both companies are bloated at the top, Stagecoach's structure is much more inefficient, but the layers of management have a lot more respect for staff and customers.

South West Trains Class 450

Who will make up the new company?

The new company is owned 30% by MTR, a Chinese firm responsible for Hong Kong's efficient metro service, and 70% by First Group, a Scottish bus and train operator who recently overcome a number of problems caused by it trying to be too big.

Such 'fronting' is common with commercial services. The popular train operator 'Virgin Trains East Coast' is actually owned 90% by Stagecoach (sister of South West Trains). Virgin literally just provide the pretty coat.

The branding for the new franchise is South Western Railway, with a hint at one of the region's earliest train operating companies.

How will passengers actually benefit?

There are lots of websites which have blindly copy-and-pasted the Department for Transport's press release which is full of promises to make the service better. Do not believe a single word of it for a second.

Half of that press release is stuff which was going to happen anyway. New trains and refurbishments were already planned for next summer. All train companies fiddle with their timetables every few months. That's not news, it's spin.

The other half of that press release will never happen. In the 2015 election campaign, the current government promised more electric railways for northern England and was cancelled as soon as they won because it was "impossible". They started improving the railway between London and Swansea but then stopped the work at Bristol because they're running a year behind and have run out of money.

All politicians do tricks and make mistakes like those. That's how news works.

I'm not trying to discredit First Group: I believe they will start a project to improve trains, stations and services with good intentions, but it will take much longer than they say and will outlast this contract. That happens all the time.

Basically, you will get new or refurbished trains, you will get revised timetables, and you will get improved stations, but only because that's what every train company in the UK does. You won't get any less or more of it.

Large train station

What aren't they telling you?

Most of the tracks in southern England are physically full. You can't provide any more trains without taking away from someone else. Look out for lots of that being brushed under the carpet.

Although the details of the new timetables aren't public, you should be suspicious that all the benefits in the press release/box of spin are measured to London. Reading to London will be faster, apparently. Why is Reading to Richmond not included? It's pretty obvious for every winner that gets bigged up there will be a loser.

The UK's railway industry is one of the most backward jobs in the world. They don't take change well. If First Group propose any dramatic changes for staff, you can expect a lot of strikes. I know Southern customers are used to daily strikes, but South West Trains hasn't had a strike for as long as I can remember. Uncertain times for staff means uncertain times for customers.

But hey, maybe it'll be different this time.

How is the bid decided?

The government claims they look at a whole range of issues before making the best decision for the tax-payer. The reality is they just go for the lowest bidder.

That's not a criticism: the UK doesn't have a lot of money to throw about gold-plating things. I just wish they'd be honest about it.

I'm not party to the details of each bid. I don't doubt First Group put together a really good bid which massages the government's beliefs, and that Stagecoach were too complacent. I also suspect the government liked the idea of new owners because it makes it look like they are pro-actively doing things to improve services. They know how much men in suits hate trains.

What does this mean for the staff?

In theory, all frontline, operational and administrative staff will transfer from one job to the other.

I don't want to worry any staff who may be reading this: you need to get answers from your managers. However, if you look at First Group's neighbouring franchise (Great Western), most of the administrative jobs are outsourced and many of the services don't have a guard.

Arguing about the importance of guards is what is causing all the strikes at Southern, Northern and Merseyrail.

Whether the staff will have a reason to be worried or not is irrelevant, the fact is they have uncertainty ahead and uncertainty does not motivate people to do a good job.

I must also add that South West Trains already do quite a bit of outsourcing. And also Great Western's staff are a real asset to them. But who should take the credit for that?

South West Trains staff stand to lose a lot of company benefits, although they will gain travel to Penzance.

Old underground train on Island Line

Will services get any better?

The maintenance works at Waterloo, running from August 2017 to December 2018, is going to cause extreme disruption. No train operating company will come out of it looking well.

I'm not psychic. Maybe First Group will let experts run the services - they have some on board from MTR.

I have to say honestly, as somebody who regularly uses both, I find Great Western Railway's services less reliable and their stations much more untidy. Please prove me wrong, the long-suffering passengers deserve it. Maybe it'll be different this time.

Why are South West Trains so bad? How can they actually be fixed?

This is simple. Every section of track South West Trains run over is over-worked and worn out. Network Rail can't repair all the faults because there are too many trains.

There are not enough tracks and the tracks are not wide enough, so what trains do run are usually overcrowded.

Not only all that, but most of the tracks take historic old and bendy routes which can't be used to travel quickly too. Take a look at how many sharp bends there are between Southampton Central and Portsmouth Harbour.

What should be done? Investment is provided by the government (currently the Department for Transport). In order to provide suitable capacity on the London routes, many buildings would have to be knocked down between Woking and Waterloo. They will never provide the money for that.

All of the problems with railways across the UK are caused by chronic government under-investment over the last 50 years. People like to shout "bring back nationalisation" but they have such short memories: look up British Rail on YouTube and you'll see customers were complaining they were always late, the staff were rude and the trains were dirty. And insiders said it was because of under-funding.

The situation is now so bad any attempt to improve it will be expensive and chaotic. You can't re-build a track without closing it first. No politician has the backbone or the budget to begin major changes.

If you don't believe me, look at the state of the roads. It's exactly the same! Chronic under-investment, always taking the easy option, coming up with silly re-branding and publicity stunts, constantly re-releasing old news, failure to predict the effects of population increase, people at the raw end having to make do with shoestring budgets. Let's not start on the buses.

That is the one point I hope you can take away from this page. It doesn't matter what name is on the trains or what colour they are. In fact all these ridiculous and offensive government publicity stunts do is waste time and money that could be spent working out how we're going to get out of this terrible mess.

But hey, maybe it'll be different this time.

Portsmouth Harbour; Winchester; delayed trains sign

What really bothers you about this?

If the public name of the company is changed, that'll mean they'll have to stop using Phil Sayer (RIP)'s voice in the announcements. And he'll always be Mr. Railway to me.

Tedious about the author bit

Travel historian, presenter, producer. I love the places people pass through along their journey.

I research and write about how our need to get around continues to shape our world through roads, railways, airports and whole new towns.

My thoughts and/or research have been published by the likes of Truck & Driver, BBC local radio, Daily Express, The Guardian, Mail Online and The Independent (detail).

I can't tell you how many toll booths I've been through. But it's a lot of toll booths.

Legally bland

Any similarities with real-life events or wealthy international firms is probably coincidental. No products endorsed. I'm powered by Monster Munch.

© 2020 Johnathan Randall.