It seemed such a simple job. The Barking – Gospel Oak line was becoming so heavily used both by passengers and freight that upgrading and electrification was clearly needed. After much prevarication and pressure from the local user group, the need for major improvement was finally recognised in 2013 but now, six years later, the passengers are still waiting for their shiny new electric trains, hundreds of millions of pounds have been spent and the scheme has become an object lesson in how not to do things. Indeed, the saga exposes flaws in the current system and, perhaps more worryingly for those seeking a new structure for the railways, also highlights issues with devolution.
There has been little publicity so far because the line is a branch running through unfashionable parts of London and there have been other rather more prominent problems on the railways recently. However, when, on March 18th services on the line, which is heavily overcrowded in the peaks, will have to be halved to just two trains per hour because of a lack of trains, I suspect that the spotlight will shine on what popularly known as the Goblin. And so it needs to.
The line, which is my nearest railway, only survived the Beeching axe thanks to a local campaign (see my column in Rail 722, May 2013), but with services in 1980 reduced to one an hour – on good days – it seemed a pointless appendage to the equally underused North London line. At the time it ran only to Kentish Town but in 1981 it was rather fortuitously displaced by the electrification of the lines out of St Pancras and reverted to its old terminus of Gospel Oak with a half hourly service. Nevertheless, it festered for decades and its diesel trains were the most ancient on the whole network at privatisation.
When Transport for London under its brand London Overground took over the line in 2007 from Silverlink, which had been a no growth franchise, there were a series of improvements. Frequency was increased to three per hour, eight new Turbostar 172 trains were introduced and the timetable was extended later into the night. The local action group pressed for further improvements and after no fewer than three feasibility studies, Transport for London and the Department for Transport agreed that electrification and an increase in both capacity, with four instead of two car trains, and frequency was warranted. At last, in 2013 it was agreed that electrification was to go ahead, but initially no budget was available for the work. Eventually work started in 2016 with the expectation that it would be completed late the following year. No such luck as passengers are still waiting to see their shiny new electric trains using the wires which now, at least, are in place above the track.
It is fair to say that every aspect of this project has been shambolic: the improvements to the permanent way, the electrification itself and the train procurement. Moreover, at every stage, there has been a lack of transparency, a failure to communicate with the public and now, the ultimate humiliation, a train service on a busy line that is being halved because of contractual issues.
The work was supposed to be carried out in one long closure over eight months over 2016/7 but in fact there was a subsequent closure of another three months over the following winter because of difficulties encountered with ground conditions but also because of a series of errors. The scheme involved considerable track lowering to accommodate the overhead line equipment and there were several instances of sewers being broken. Indeed when I visited as recently as last November, there had been another breach in the sewer and a local road had to be closed to accommodate a temporary sewer above ground. According to members of the local users’ group, there were also problems with the steelwork and a series of mistakes with the right equipment not been available on time. There were tales of gantries being erected and then having had to be taken down emerged, as well as problems with embankments and bridges. Naturally prices soared from the original estimate of £57m to, according to a Freedom of Information request last summer, (which I wrote about in Rail 860), £172m though there are suggestions that it is now nearer £300m r more.
The current was finally switched on early last year and there were hopes that passengers would be enjoying the new trains by Easter…or the summer…or the autumn…or by early this year. The delays just kept on mounting and yet Transport for London never seemed to be clear about what was happening and why there were continued delays. The Class 710 trains on order from Bombardier are a 4 car modified version of the Class 345 Crossrail stock on the company’s new Aventra platform and were supposed to be in service by last spring but software problems and issues with visibility have meant they are only now ready for extensive testing. Indeed, remarkably, it is now the 30th version of the software that seems, fingers crossed, to be working properly.
The lease for the 172s, which belong to Angel Trains, ended on June 30th last year when they were then supposed to be transferred to West Midlands Trains for the expanded Leamington – Nuneaton service. However, an extension was obtained until March 15th this year but with the agreement that some would have to be transferred earlier because they need to be fitted with toilets and overhauled. Therefore one of the trains was taken off the line in November and immediately there was a slew of cancellations in the last weekend of the month. Transport for London, realising that more trains would have to be passed on to West Midlands in January, then came up with the idea of using some of their 378s from other London Overground services. One problem, though – these had been expanded to five carriages in recent years (originally from three) but had to have one removed in order to operate safely on the Goblin. TfL then had to remove a coach and obtain a safety case for the truncated train. Second problem – the services on which they used to operate have suffered from cancellations as a result. It is robbing Paul to pay Peter but has saved Barking – Gospel Oak users from an indefinite closure, the third shutdown in three years. So did, oddly, the timetable chaos of last year. Had it not been for that, the Leamington – Nuneaton service would have been expanded this December, and therefore all the Goblin’s trains would have been removed far earlier.
We will probably never know the total cost of this fiasco but just consider the various extra costs in addition to the initial construction overruns such as bus replacement services, train lease extensions, storage facilities, possession and operator compensation (which was listed at £16m already in last summer’s FOI, the work and safety case on the dismembered 378s and even the cost of leasing a Class 37 which has been following the 710 tests up and down the line in case of a breakdown!
The key failing for what is a modest little project that should never have got into this type of difficulty is principally the lack of any overall oversight. Transport for London, London Overground, Network Rail, the Department for Transport, as well as various private interests – Angel Trains, Arriva, MTR the former concessionaire, West Midlands Trains etc – are all stakeholders in this crazy merry go round but, just as with the timetable chaos of last May, the absence of an overall body to sort out these issues has been at the root of this chaotic state of affairs. Transport for London has not covered itself with glory over this fiasco and its failure to impose itself in order to push things through and to ensure Network Rail and its contractors delivered shows that devolution is no panacea when it come to developing an efficient railway.
The long suffering users of the Barking – Gospel Oak line which I can testify personally is very heavily used will now have probably three months of a half service on trains that are already overcrowded. It will give the detractors of the railway a new joke in the wrong kind of snow genre: ‘We apologise for the lack of service but we have run out of trains’.
Crossrail the bigger issue
Passing Old Oak Common, one can see that every one of the 42 roads in the Crossrail depot are now taken up by completed Class 345 trains delivered by Bombardier. There is as yet no date for when services might start but it is inevitable that these trains will sit out in the open for a year or more. A few may be used for testing but one dreads to think, therefore, what condition they will be in by the time they are expected to enter service.
In terms of added costs, Crossrail’s overspending will dwarf the wasted money on the Barking – Gospel Oak but both these sagas highlight what seems to be a fundamental British disease. We seem incapable of managing projects in a holistic way which ensures that the various components are taken together. In writing the Crossrail book, I was taken by what one of the managers, an American as it happens, told me about how the construction industry had changed in the couple of decades he had worked in the UK. Whereas firms used to be multi-skilled with permanent staff, now they are mainly contracting units which farm out work to other companies and employ a minimum of permanent staff. That is the root of so much of what is wrong with the way we do things and guess what, Chris Grayling agrees. This arch Tory privatiser, as dogmatic an ideologue as you will find in politics, said in evidence to the Commons Transport Select Committee last year: ‘At the moment the industry is too contractualised’. Well, I never….but will Williams really be able to address that?