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South East

An overcrowded future
By BBC South East's Tom Symonds

Nowhere in the country are the trains as full as London and the South East. The capital's commuters regularly stand for more than the statutory 20 minutes as their trains struggle along congested tracks.

Yet rail companies in the region are facing a 10-year increase in passengers of 66% on average, according to the Advanced Railway Research Centre, which has carried out a special study for the BBC.

The worst parts of the network for what the industry calls "capacity problems" are south of Waterloo and London Bridge stations. As a result South West Trains, and Thameslink are the most overcrowded railways in Britain, both over government limits.

Upgrade to ease the pressure

Thameslink is growing fast (forecast 48% in 10 years) but the service relies on a central London tunnel which severely restricts growth. In the next few years work will start on an upgrade called Thameslink 2000 which will allow a big increase in train frequencies to 24 trains an hour. This work has been delayed but it should be finished in 2006.

Until then Thameslink will have to make do, and try to limit the chaos caused by the building work. South West Trains is looking at solutions to allow the company to run longer trains - it has some radical proposals, and unlike Railtrack is now offering to find the money for them.

The government has now asked for bids to run two of the South East's franchises, Connex South Central and Chiltern. Chiltern's Managing Director Adrian Shooter wants to spend up to 50m on improving his line - paid for out of the company's growing profits. Most of the money will go on adding an extra track to the stretch between Aynaugh and Bicester to combat an expected 69% rise in passenger numbers. Chiltern wants an extended franchise to ensure the company gets a return.

Average performer Connex South Central is refusing to replace ageing slam door trains despite ARRC's predictions of 8% profits within 4 years. Connex's other company - South Eastern is also doing well financially having turned a 20m loss into a 7.3m profit in 1997-8.

Railtrack faces huge bills

Elsewhere in the region the premium Gatwick Express service, and the former Misery Line, London Tilbury and Southend are both making healthy profits.

Railtrack is faced with huge bills for adding new capacity in the South East. It has one estimate of 1bn just to upgrade the track into Waterloo. Cheaper options include the possibility of double-decker trains, or extending platforms to operate more carriages (12 rather than 8) on individual services.

Other areas of congestion include the Great Western line which is used by a lot of rival services such as Great Western intercity trains and Heathrow Express. Railtrack is offering to add new capacity. There is also a problem particularly on the approach to Kings Cross, and at the major bottleneck at the Hitchen junction.

The region's railways are at a watershed. More trains are running and that is affecting performance. Just one train three minutes late has been known to cause 500 minutes of delays to other services because of all the bottlenecks in the system. Yet London's economy continues to grow, and congestion on the roads makes a decent rail service an absolute necessity.