Running around 1300 trains a day through the heart of England, London Midland is responsible for delivering over 50 million passenger journeys a year from London in the south, to Birmingham in the Midlands, and up to Liverpool in the north west. The franchise began life as a completely new entity in autumn 2007, although it is carved out of some elements of former businesses Central Trains, Silverlink, and train maintenance company Maintrain. London Midland is owned by Govia, a partnership company between the Go-Ahead Group and Keolis.
Guiding the reins of London Midland has been managing director Mike Hodson, whose 37-year career in the rail industry has taken him from British Rail’s graduate scheme to the top of his profession following privatisation. Having worked for a number of train operating companies (TOCs) in various director roles, Mike joined Go Ahead in 2000 as commercial director at Thames Trains, which is now part of the larger Great Western franchise. Prior to assuming his current role, Mike held the position of operations and safety director at Southeastern, but his list of achievements also include the operational planning and introduction of high-speed commuter services on HS1.
Yet, at the end of this year Mike is leaving this impressive legacy behind having made the decision to retire. With the London Midland franchise currently at around the mid-point, Mike reflects upon the impact that he has made so far: “I think there is an awful lot to be proud about in what London Midland has achieved in four years. At the point I’m leaving, I think one of the most notable things has been the substantial delivery of a completely new train fleet, where the majority of our electric and diesel fleets have been modernised. By the end of this year with the delivery of the final Class 172s from Bombardier, the average age of our fleet will be well under ten years, which in the context of a train’s life of up to 40 years is a big shift.” Well invested
This new Class 172 diesel fleet consists of 27 new trains at a cost of £93 million, and despite being delivered late, passenger reaction to these vehicles has been superb. “Compared to the trains they replace, the Class 172s feel massively more spacious, with each car in the train being several metres longer. Internally we have put in bigger seats in a two by two arrangement, which results in a wider gangway than before. We believe this is the right balance of capacity because on very short distance journeys within Birmingham there is much more standee space in the vestibules and corridors, and then on longer journeys passengers have a comfortable seat. Unlike the old trains, they are air-conditioned and have passenger information systems (PIS) built in, so they are almost a generation change in how you see a train,” comments Mike.
In order to accommodate these new trains, as well as improve services in general, London Midland has made quite a few modifications to its timetables over the course of the franchise, with the latest of these set to be implemented in December. Crucially, this has boosted the number of trains coming into London Euston at peak times, which is difficult to do in terms of securing track capacity. In December, improvements will be focused in the West Midlands with an extra nine carriages for use in the peak periods around Birmingham, particularly the Walsall line, as well as making that service more regular.
Given that in 2007 London Midland had no established identity, today each of the 147 stations has been re-liveried and painted, and a lot of money has been invested into improvements such as CCTV security, PIS, and car parking. In fact, London Midland has adopted a very innovative approach to implement 1000 additional car parking spaces into stations. These easily bolted together single decks can quickly be erected over the course of a weekend, providing a cost-effective way of responding to customer needs – something that is not always easy in heavily infrastructure-driven businesses.Consistently performing
Whilst on the face of it the role of TOCs in delivering an effective rail service is a clear and simple one, when it comes down to the details clearly this is much greater task than it appears. “The fact that we are running a live environment means that some of the things that affect railways operations we all still struggle with from time to time such as very cold weather last winter. If you look at it in the long run we have made good progress with our current Public Performance Measure (PPM) at 89.3 per cent, and we will continue to drive that number upwards through our plans. We are spending a lot of time working with our colleagues at Network Rail (NR) to get reliability up to a sustainable level as one of the biggest causes of delay is infrastructure,” highlights Mike.
He continues: “What we have seen is real advancement in terms of the ability of the railway and its current timetable to deliver a very reliable service, and we are focused now on consistency. Looking at the London Midland network, the line in and out of Euston is probably one of the most intensely used bits of railway in the world, so we’re working with NR to understand the dynamics of how this railway is operating in this new environment, as it’s doing more than it’s had to in the past. The biggest element that we at London Midland control directly in terms of performance is the fleet itself, and we want to do that in a way that not only delivers services on time, but also runs the maximum capacity trains we can provide on a daily basis. In the long term though over the life of the franchise, all of our trains have improved in their reliability.”
At the other end of the spectrum, the franchise has also embraced the explosion in social media to communicate with its customers through the channel Twitter. This innovative concept was a key force behind London Midland’s recent success in the Passenger Focus sponsored ‘Putting Passengers First’ category at the 2011National Rail Awards. Mike elaborates: “We have tried to approach social media in a very proactive way, and to recognise that this is not traditional information, that this is a dialogue with customers and as such a completely different environment. We recognise that passengers don’t want lots of information fed to them that is obtainable elsewhere, either via the net or more traditional ways. Therefore we try to keep our posts to a general level and highlight what will happen next for example in the case of a delay, and use this as a means of signposting to more details for those who want them.”
As a result of such measures London Midland’s national passenger survey scores have reached a high point of 87 per cent overall satisfaction, putting it into the top quarter of TOCs in the UK.Working in partnership
Another potentially major step change has been the recent signing of a new landmark Partnership Agreement between London Midland and Centro, the Midland’s transport authority. As such the business is now thinking about mutual co-operation between transport providers to ensure more benefit for the customer, and how to manage services to offer a seamless journey.
Since last winter, London Midland has been running a small-scale trial of its new ITSO compatible smart card development called ‘The Key’. This is about to be expanded all the way through Birmingham on the Snow Hill line. Having recognised that Centro is carrying out similar work with the bus networks, the business also sees the potential to integrate these ITSO products together to offer one card to take passengers between bus and train. “The great thing about this is that it’s about getting more for less,” adds Mike. “Therefore with each investment programme that we are committed to throughout our franchises, we are thinking how can we integrate this with other modes.”New stock
Currently, London Midland is in the process of securing around 20 new units of electric rolling stock. Only half of these trains are being secured for its own purposes though, with the business being used by the Department for Transport (DfT) to procure a series of new trains for First TransPennine Express to use on the route between Manchester and Scotland following its electrification in 2013. “Our role there is to simply procure and hand over the trains,” explains Mike. “With our own trains we will be running the majority of these at the Euston end of the network to improve those services, and the remaining few will be based in the West Midlands to strengthen the route down to Bromsgrove.”
He continues: “The design of these trains will be similar to our existing Siemens 350/2 fleet, however we will be making one important change in that the new trains will be capable of 110 miles per hour, whereas they are currently limited at 100. Whilst this has obvious benefits in making journey times shorter, one of the other advantages is that this releases more track capacity so we can run more trains. This is a really cost-effective way of increasing capacity in and out of a London terminal, compared to the expense of building a whole new track.”
London Midland is also the first TOC in the UK to fit every one of its electric trains, new and old, with a metering system. This provides data on energy consumption from each individual train, which can be used to inform maintenance, ensure efficient use of standby mode when trains are stabled, and monitor the energy used by different driving techniques. This doesn’t only offer environmental benefits, but also a substantial opportunity to lower costs by understanding how energy is used and therefore how to reduce it.Planning for the future
Certainly, value for money and reducing costs are hot topics within the rail industry, not least since the publication of the McNulty report, which signalled key areas where costs could be lower. The challenge for the industry is to find ways to translate these into a sustainable reality, by looking at those activities that are not fully justified in terms of value for passengers.
“The other area that is closely related to McNulty is the major reorganisation that NR is currently going through in order to devolve a lot more responsibility to the route organisations. As a TOC this is something that we absolutely welcome because it gives us a chance to get closer to NR, and concentrate our requirements,” describes Mike.
Whilst he may be preparing to leave the business that he has played a significant role in helping shape, Mike is in no doubt that this success can be maintained, even beyond the current life of the franchise: “We would obviously like the future of our franchise to still be with Govia, so a lot of our thinking is about our ability to offer good positive ideas about what should happen in the next phase when the franchise is re-let. I think there’s a huge amount that we believe could be done to develop our services even further in line with upcoming plans for faster services, and new timetables.
“In the very long term with the prospect of HS2 being introduced we could see a completely different world, as West Coast Mainline as it stands today will have lots of capacity to do the tasks that aren’t being done by HS2. This includes regional and local transport as HS2 won’t have those intermediate stations, so we have the potential to run an even better commuter service from the Home Counties into London, from the south to west Midlands, and up to Merseyside and the north west. Indeed although a lot of focus is paid to longer journeys, growth in short distance services is keeping pace with this, and therefore there is still the need for rail services that fulfil this.”
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