October 22, 2021

South Western Railway (SWR) – Staying on track

As an integral part of the key worker system, it’s been essential that the UK rail network has remained operational throughout the pandemic to get healthcare staff to where they need to be and to help keep the economy moving. From its corner of the country, South Western Railway (SWR) has strived to overcome the challenges of Covid and play its part by ensuring the maintenance of its 186 station-strong estate has continued, while at the same time progressing with its longer-term infrastructure improvement strategy. We recently caught up with two individuals who have performed a vital role in achieving both these objectives: Alistair Wright, Head of Station Property, and Natalie Edwards, Head of Major Projects.

“The simplest way to differentiate between the areas I look after and the role that Natalie holds is that whereas I tend to concentrate on smaller works, Natalie is more focused on larger scale projects, although occasionally there’s some crossover,” explains Alistair. “My responsibilities are mainly around repair, maintenance and asset management, including looking after station painting and toilet refurbishment programmes. I am also responsible for the upkeep and repair of all our SISS (Station Information & Security Systems) assets, which include the CCTV system, PA systems, Help Points and the screens within the stations that provide live information updates for passengers. Lastly, I look after the station tenancies including the retail outlets at the stations.”

While Alistair is very much involved in the works that ensure the smooth day-to-day running of the stations, in contrast Natalie’s main area of focus is on larger scale, longer term projects, the benefits of which will be seen months or even years down the line, as she outlines: “My role is more concentrated on capital expenditure (CAPEX) jobs and larger developments. These cover major refurbishments to our stations or the creation of new depots to support our long-term infrastructure goals, such as the introduction of new rolling stock.”

In terms of their respective main areas of focus, Natalie is currently involved in the development of depots and sidings that are at various stages, with one of the biggest projects being a major overhaul of the rail network on the Isle of Wight, which is nearing completion.  

“The Isle of Wight programme has been very interesting as it is a programme that has been progressing very aggressively,” says Natalie. “It commenced in January 2021 with the infrastructure side encompassing the track and signals, as well as some minor station platform overlays. The original date for it to be open for service was 31st March and while we had completed the main infrastructure works the programme has been delayed by the introduction of the new rolling stock. Despite usually being a Tier Two contractor, OSL have been the main contractor on the project and have done a good job in making the step up. The major focus now is on train operation, but we’re hopeful that everything will be in place by the autumn. It has been a very ambitious programme and it’s to everyone’s credit that it has progressed so well.”

Southampton Central waiting room refurbished

While Natalie has been focusing on large-scale, one-off type projects, Alistair has been busy pushing forward with themes that have had far-reaching implications for the wider network, as he outlines: “A couple of years ago we achieved ISO 55001 and one compliance that runs through everything we do involves continually improving our asset management process and systems. The most significant theme I am responsible for is customer experience, therefore ensuring the continuation of programmes dedicated to toilet improvements, waiting room upkeep and the painting of the stations. To give some indication of the scale of works I help look after, we are currently painting between 40-50 stations a year on a rolling programme.

“It is all about being of benefit to the customer. We have a huge investment going into the customer information systems side of our operation. We are working on fully integrating the live information displayed at stations and on the trains. This’ll mean that a customer can turn up at a station and see the same information that is being shown on the train. In time, they’ll also be able to access live loading details, so they know exactly where to wait on a platform for example if they want a particular seat or require wheelchair access.

“Accessibility is becoming increasingly important to the work that we carry out. It’s not just about wheelchair access, it is about how we present information to the elderly and customers with any sort of impairment, whether it’s visual or otherwise. Accessibility is shaping our approach in several different areas. It is all about giving the customer the best experience possible, especially as we all recover as a society from the impact of Covid. We are still a long way short of the passenger numbers we were seeing prior to the pandemic and we must make sure that every potential customer is catered for in the best way possible to prepare for any circumstances that could take place. This is a major focus area for us.”

Another vitally important area that straddles both areas that Alistair and Natalie look after is sustainability. As an industry, rail is committed to meeting very challenging targets on reducing its collective carbon footprint, so everything SWR is doing is increasingly focused on long term sustainability and, to a certain extent, reliability, as well as reducing maintenance costs. “It all links back into the strength of our approach to asset management,” highlights Alistair. “Reducing maintenance costs by installing the right equipment the first time around is also integral to our ability to reduce our carbon footprint.”

“Improving our performance within sustainability is certainly central to my own activities too, and many of the larger projects we’ve embarked on have had detailed plans put in place to identify the most sustainable ways of working,” says Natalie. “We are also liaising with some of our third-party providers, such as the local borough councils, to help drive improvements, as sustainability is an area that is focusing everyone’s minds at the moment.”

A freshly decorated booking hall at Richmond

Whether it’s on sustainability or more general areas of operation, SWR has developed strong relationships with its contractors and suppliers to help move the process along, as Alistair explains: “We have certain frameworks, especially for our professional services, and we utilise contract administrators to look after the JCT contracts that come off a framework list. Although in our tender process we go out to large numbers of contractors, it tends to be a small pool of three or four contractors that carry out many of our smaller programmes of work. Using a select number of contractors to deliver the same programme means that we can manage the workflow better and have a more flexible approach when needed.”

“The pandemic has certainly made some of our contractors less profitable because they were tied into contracts and had to find new ways of working within the restrictions and the guidelines on social distancing guidelines,” says Natalie. “Between us we introduced bubbles of workers to reduce the risk of cross-contamination. From the contractor side, they operated under their own risk assessments, so they continued to work throughout and put their own methodology in place for safe working.

“The biggest effect that we are seeing now is that our supply chain is struggling to source materials in many areas, which is partly because of the Covid pandemic, partly due to Brexit and partly because of the blockage of the Suez Canal that lasted several weeks, which caused industry-wide issues. The material supply is difficult in terms of steel, timber and cement, so that has had a huge impact on tender returns and cost increases and even labour. The cost of skilled site labour is going up somewhere near 3% which we are seeing in our tendering results. Our contractors can only hold prices for two weeks, which is particularly difficult for us in the railway environment because our procurement process is so long. It is usually around three to four months, so two weeks is nothing. We can’t afford to be flexing on that. We need a price that our suppliers can hold for the whole of that duration, so that is proving really difficult.”

Given the challenges that have stemmed from the dual impact of Brexit and Covid, the progress SWR has achieved on both its maintenance programme and larger scale projects has been all the more impressive. Since the beginning of the lockdown, strict working guidelines have been in place to ensure the safety of staff so vital engineering work could continue. 

“As a business we are coming towards the completion of a major project that will see a new rolling-stock fleet of Class 701 Arterio trains start operating as part of a massive investment in our railway,” says Alistair. “This will see 750 new carriages replacing much of our older rolling-stock and they are due to start coming on line at the end of this year. It is a rolling programme for the delivery of those and the phasing out of our older rolling stock.”

“A large part of what Natalie is doing has been in preparation for the new fleet. In 12 months, a number of the projects that she has been working on for several years will be reaching completion, and in the process enabling the new fleet to operate. The development of the Feltham depot will also be key to this.”

The Feltham depot will be home to ten 10-car Class 701 Arterio trains when the fleet is phased-in over the next few years and will provide modern facilities for SWR’s drivers, engineers, and train presentation teams to clean and maintain each train each night. Specialist servicing and train washing equipment will also be installed onsite.

The project received funding from the Department for Transport (DfT) to install technology that automates shunting to provide a safer working environment and help quickly stable trains during significant periods of disruption.

The £60m depot is part of SWR’s commitment to invest in a new fleet of trains to completely transform services offered to passengers travelling on SWR’s suburban network. The new trains are close to a £1bn investment in more modern, faster and reliable services for passengers travelling to and from London Waterloo station. Fitted with the latest technology, these new trains will help more passengers arrive on time in the morning and during evening peak periods on one of Europe’s busiest rail networks.

As part of SWR’s commitment to sustainability, Feltham is designed to meet BREEAM’s ‘Excellent’ standard – an industry-wide benchmark recognising projects that reduce energy usage, material waste and help protect the natural environment during construction.

Following on from the Feltham project, SWR will be endeavouring to continue with its current programme of works, both routine maintenance and larger scale projects, while also being guided by the demands of the Government. “We are a highly regulated industry and everything we do is driven by the Department of Transport,” says Alistair. “We know our assets very well and have identified the areas where we need to invest in to make proper improvements for the customer. For me, much of what we will be delivering in 12 months’ time is a continuation of the works we are doing today.

Natalie adds: “Going forward, my area of focus will be much the same, as the larger projects I’m involved in have a longer development time, so we’ll still be working on them in 12- or 24-months’ time. It is effectively delivering them within the scope that the internal clients want and it’s my role to meet the requirements for the operators to make their jobs easier.

“It’s therefore more of the same for me – a continuation of the work I have been doing already. I would really like to see the supply chain settle down and have a bit more stability on that front, because that is proving quite difficult in terms of getting projects off the ground.”

From Alistair’s perspective, meanwhile, his focus will continue to be on the steady stream of maintenance work taking place across the estate, while he will also be keeping one eye firmly on the rail industry’s evolution in the years ahead.

“We are just commencing various refurbishment programmes totalling circa. £5m per annum that are going to shape our railway for many years to come,” says Alistair. “The other major development for the wider rail industry is GBR, Great British Railways, which was announced by the government several months ago. It is going to be interesting to see how we as an industry will come together more with Network Rail to shape our future. How UK rail will look in the years ahead could be vastly different to what we see today. It is going to be an exciting time for the industry, and we want to make sure we contribute fully to this process.”

Given the success it has had in overcoming the challenges of Covid and the role it has played in helping keep the nation moving, SWR looks well placed to continue its excellent work, both internally and as a key organisation in the development of the UK rail industry generally.