The first day of the month of December in the year of our (well, yours; he’s nothing to do with me) Lord 2013. And it’s not snowing. Now the Daily Express promised me it’d be snowing by now. But the Daily Express doesn’t tell lies, folks. I’m sat behind a keyboard for the first time in a long time; to what end have I made this momentous decision, I hear you ask? Well, dear reader, I have noted that the Internet is criminally under-served in the sphere of Anorak Blogging and this is a situation that cannot be allowed to endure a moment longer.
The year or so since I last wrote have seen a good few changes on my patch of railway. For a start the alliance between Network Rail & SWT has been formalised, resulting in changes both superficial and substantial. In superficial terms it means that all the managers have been given new name badges (in some cases also crayons and shoelaces), and in substantial terms SWT have become far more involved in the process of running and maintaining the routes that they operate over. I must admit I was one of those who looked at the idea of a deep alliance with Network Rail with a good deal of cynicism, but I have seen a good deal of common sense thinking trickling down to us scrotes on the ground. For example, SWT are now providing the crews to run the Network Rail Leaf Buster MPV trains that help to keep the rails clear of leaf mulch during the autumn months. As the autumn gives way to winter, these trains will be retro-fitted for laying de-icing fluid on the 3rd Rail to keep trains running in the event of snow & ice (assuming the Daily Express weren’t telling porkies) – and all crewed from within the company. NR & SWT commendably decided “one of us has the trains, the other has the drivers – why are we going to a third party to provide train crew when we can do everything in-house?” As the old hands have wryly observed, this represents the Re-Invention of the Wheel – infrastructure and operations under one roof. Less bureaucracy, more efficiency and quicker responses to problems. And it appears to be working. MPVs are out and about, doing more mileage and getting more work done than in previous years. Of course this is the first year that SWT have crewed the trains, and lessons being learned now will be applied to next year to make the process smoother. Hopefully this is the start of SWT & NR bringing more work in-house. Could we be running engineers trains and ballast workings within the next few years? From this driver’s stand point I hope so. The variety of work increases, we get more traction and routes to sign off on – more work and more knowledge to use means more job satisfaction for me. Mind you it’s not as though I wasn’t enjoying myself in the first place.
It would be remiss of me not to note that, from my point of view, the infrastructure over which we run seems to be becoming increasingly fragile. I can’t recall signal failures cropping up as often as they have in the past few months. I’m not qualified to comment on whether the alliance has made this either better or worse, or whether it’s simply a case of ageing infrastructure requiring a little more TLC than previously. None of you are blinkered to the fact that the London & South Western mainline isn’t bullet-proof and, with such a demanding timetable to run, when a failure occurs it doesn’t take long for the effects to be felt a long way from the source of the problem. On a national scale it does beg the question of why Network Rail are underspending on their maintenance budget, but that’s probably a subject for another blog. It’s not all bad news so far as infrastructure is concerned, though – solid improvements are coming in the shape of platform extensions and the (final) re-opening of Platform 20 at Waterloo International. The rolling program of engineering work to replace rails, points and signals goes on over-night and at weekends – with luck the passenger will see a consequent improvement in their railway. I’ve always thought that the number and vociferousness of complaints about railway breakdowns is inversely proportional to how reliable the railway normally is – dealing with these complaints when they happen is where another positive has crept in; Twitter. Initially Twitter was the domain of a few enthusiastic staff, and in the event of problems (remember the cable theft a few years ago that stopped everything from Waterloo to Woking for 5 hours?) a few of us were Tweeting information to help get our long-suffering passengers home. SWT soon cottoned on; at last count their Twitter feed has 75,500 followers. They Tweet engineering work updates, individualised responses to passenger queries and even details of which of our Class 458 units have been fitted with Movember moustaches. Twitter has broken down a wall between the operator and the passenger – its pleasing to see the company embracing social media to such good effect.
That’s your lot for now, folks. The battery is dying on my trusty laptop and it’s about time I went for a bite to eat. Catch you soon. And for the benefit for the one person who asked, the 8-car Desiro carrying the legend “Potter Birthday Express” on the 16th September did indeed have yours truly at the helm. If I’m going to work on my birthday, everyone’s going to know about it.