The current speculation about how long South Western Railway (SWR) will keep the franchise for train services on the West of England rail line from Exeter to Waterloo, including Gillingham, comes as ‘no surprise’, says a local rail user watchdog.
In an open letter Bruce Duncan, chair of the Salisbury to Exeter Rail User Group (SERUG), says that the speculation over SWR’s future follows ‘another poor year of performance for the train operator, which operates many of the services in our area’.
And he adds: ‘The previous operator, South West Trains (SWT), certainly wasn’t perfect, but it’s clear that services have deteriorated since SWR took over in 2017. Given that the majority of the existing SWT staff transferred to SWR, with the timetables, rolling stock and maintenance depots remaining the same, the only real change was the senior management and the franchise agreement with the Department for Transport (DfT) which specifies the way the franchise is run – that is where the blame must lie. Staff morale is at an all-time low.’
Mr Duncan says that even without the lengthy December strike, performance throughout 2019 was ‘woeful’. ‘Analysis of on-time performance on the Exeter route shows SWR missed their on-time arrival target (89% of trains to run on time) on 271 days last year. Effectively, this means that there’s a 75% chance that you’ll travel on a day when SWR fail to meet their punctuality target,’ he writes.
‘Although the much-publicised strikes and staff shortages have monopolised the recent headlines, the real issue on the Exeter route is the lack of investment in infrastructure and modern trains. Most of the line between Salisbury and Exeter is single track, so trains can only pass one another at the few “passing loops”. One late running train is likely to cause delays to many others,’ says Mr Duncan.
SERUG says it is lobbying government, local councils, Network Rail as well as South Western Railway to make the necessary improvements. ‘If just four new (or longer) passing loops with double track were to be installed at Whimple, Yeovil, Gillingham and Tisbury, a step change in performance would be achieved, offering better timetable resilience and faster journey times,’ writes Mr Duncan.
‘We also believe that the current rolling stock is now the oldest in mainline service in the country, but there are still no plans whatsoever to replace these 30 year old trains either. SERUG intends, with passenger help, to draw up a train specification and lobby to enable cleaner and more reliable “bi-mode” trains should replace the 30 year old diesel units.
‘Our lobbying has not been without success,’ he continues. ‘SERUG has been asked to join a study group, chaired by Network Rail, to research investment opportunities.
‘However, the pipeline for infrastructure improvements is a slow one and it will be at least 12 months before any decisions on the Study Group’s work are made. More details of SERUG’s plans can be found on our website at www.serug.co.uk and on Facebook.
‘Meanwhile, can rail users expect any improvements in 2020? That’s very unlikely. SWR have recently announced a new – and experienced MD – in Mark Hopwood. Clearly, his role is to turn the franchise into an efficient passenger focussed railway. I wish him every success but one can understand a degree of scepticism…Network Rail will also have to improve their performance.
‘Fares rose again at the beginning of January and the RMT union is now considering further strike action in February or March over who closes the doors. Given that drivers control doors on many other routes across the country there is no justification in claiming that this is a safety issue. It seems that the hapless passengers continue to be the RMT’s pawn and will remain at the bottom of their priority list,’ Mr Duncan concludes.
In response to complaints about its performance South Western Railways has said: ‘SWR’s recent performance has been affected by issues including infrastructure reliability, timetabling delays and industrial action.
‘We continue to be in ongoing and constructive discussions with the [Department for Transport].’