Anyone who has squashed onto a train heading to Waterloo in the morning knows that the line is packed, and a report from Network Rail has looked at what can be done to improve things, in the short term, and up to 2050.
The lines into Waterloo can be roughly split into the Main Line services via Wimbledon and Woking, and the suburban services which cover the regional traffic to southwest London, and out to Windsor.
The first phase of the report looks primarily on the Main Line between Waterloo and Woking, and the post-covid baselines in the report all predict that demand will exceed seated capacity by the mid-2020s, and was unable to identify any mitigations that could be delivered in time to prevent this.
Seated capacity is affected by the nature of the line, as many of the fast commuter services from beyond Woking are non-stop to Waterloo and that journey takes around 30 minutes. Current government guidance recommends that people shouldn’t have to stand for more than 20 minutes on a train service.
Also, the customer service surveys are showing a gradual decline in satisfaction across the service, which is likely to only get worse as they are fast running out of space on the line, particularly in the peak hours.
What the report has done is focus on how to increase peak hours capacity, which currently deliver 24 trains per hour into Waterloo in the morning peak.
The main suggestions are to reduce the gap between trains to as little as 90 seconds, potentially using resignalling at Wimbledon, along with capacity enhancements at Woking.
At Woking, a long-standing problem is the flat junction, where trains often have to pause to let another cross tracks in front of them. The Woking Area Capacity Enhancement programme would fix that the same way they enhanced capacity on the approach to London Bridge, by building a flyover so trains can cross tracks without conflicting with each other.
A third intervention would see changes to Queenstown Road station to reopen platform 1 and add a new crossover junction so that Empty Coaching Stock movements to Clapham Yard during the rush hour won’t affect the rest of the passenger-carrying trains. After all, if you’re sending more trains into Waterloo, you need more space to get them back out again.
The reason they run some trains out of Waterloo empty rather than carrying passengers is that picking up passengers means the train is sitting in a platform for longer, so it’s better to empty the train and quickly get it back out again so the platform can be used by the next train packed with commuters.
All these changes could raise train levels to 31 trains per hour at Waterloo, which is the lower estimate of what’s needed, and while the station could cope with that, the tracks approaching Waterloo can’t cope with even that level of traffic. At the upper level of the predictions, neither station nor tracks can cope with predicted demand.
This is where Crossrail 2 comes in.
As the report states, “The importance of delivering Crossrail 2 cannot be overlooked when considering the current and future strategy of the SWML”
This is because it takes a lot of slow suburban services off the mainline and puts them in a tunnel at Wimbledon.
The report says that “removing these services, the seven trains that currently cross from the Main Slow Line over to the Main Fast Line into London Waterloo can then operate on the Slow Line for the duration of their journey, therefore freeing up a significant number of paths for additional Main Fast Line services”
Under the current – on hold plans – Crossrail 2 services will make use of a new, outer, pair of tracks between New Malden and the tunnel portal at Wimbledon, thus freeing up existing Slow Line capacity for use by some services that currently run on the Fast Lines throughout.
The prediction is that seven main suburban services that use the Up Fast line in the morning high peak and run fast from Surbiton could then be transferred on to the Up Slow line thereby freeing up seven train paths on the Up Fast line that could be used for Main Line services from Woking or beyond.
It’s the most effective way of increasing capacity in the rail network.
In the meantime, the report identifies the key priority is to improve the headway — the gap between trains — from the current average of 120 seconds to 90 seconds. Not only can that let some more trains run, but much more usefully it gives more capacity to the overall line to recover from micro delays — more often than not caused by passengers holding doors open at stations — that cascade down the line to minutes of delays for the trains following behind. Improving the reliability of a service is often cited as the most important thing passengers want for their commute.
That requires signalling upgrades along the line to be carried out.
While that will deliver some improvements the projected passenger demand needs a number of interventions across the entire line between Waterloo and Woking for the capacity to be unlocked. Doing one or the other won’t have a material impact on capacity.
The issue though, as the report notes that at the moment, is that it’s unlikely that funding for upgrades will enable them to deliver improvements before the line is maxed out by the late 2020s.
Ultimately though, all the interventions that Network Rail can deliver will simply push the overcrowding problem further into the future. Without Crossrail 2, services into Waterloo will always be overcrowded.
The full report is here.