In the past few years, LOROL working under a concession agreement for Transport for London (TfL) has invested more than £35 million refurbishing 44 London Overground (LO) managed stations inherited from previous national rail operators.

Decades of neglect and under-investment had resulted in many of the stations becoming dingy, dirty and inefficient. Un-loved by their local communities, they were also under-used.

Step forward Ken Livingston and his agenda to get more control over suburban railway around London so that it could complement London Underground’s operation. As part of that, TfL secured agreement with the DfT to carve out a bit of the old under-nourished Silverlink franchise, and let a concession itself for the operation of that network.

Five years on, and this intense metro operation has grown considerably, in fact it has flourished in every way, with new routes and stations and a sideboard full of awards. Latest Passenger Survey Results show it to be up there with the best of the franchised or concession operations, with 93 per cent overall satisfaction, equal with c2c.

Mark Eaton, LOROL’s concessions director, attributes this partly to TfL being ‘very clear what it wants, with some very sharp performance regimes that help us focus on delivery of the contract’, and partly to just plain old good genes, inherited from LOROL’s shareholders. ‘MTR and Deutsche Bahn are both world-class operators, however our bidding process at the beginning took influence from MTR and Chiltern Railways, which historically has a reputation in the industry for being focussed on the customer and quality.’

‘I wouldn’t want to belittle the growth that most train operators have seen,’ continued Eaton pointing proudly to a PowerPoint presentation prepared for a visiting delegation of Japanese, ‘but ours is just so much sharper. Partly because we’ve opened a new rail route [the East London line in May 2010] but even if you strip that out, our North and West London lines have seen significant service expansion and passenger growth. This is thanks to a lot of investment by TfL and focusing on the minute-by-minute operation of the service and management of the stations.’

So LOROL has certainly delivered on TfL’s performance specifications, which are more exacting than those of a franchising arrangement: key elements being a train service regime that has driven up service from 91 per cent of trains being within five minutes of right time PPM in 2007 to just shy of 97 per cent now.

Mark EatonFrom downtrodden to high-spec

Back to the process of transformation, LOROL inherited a stock of 44 stations that, as Mark Eaton put it, ‘looked dreadful.’ Pointing to his presentation at pictures of environments that wouldn’t look out of place in a crime scene, he joked that they were the very worst examples, ‘but they were definitely run-down and often unstaffed in 2007. So one of the very first things we did was put staff in them to provide a human face, linking back to the Mayoral commitment to do so, and that lifted the atmosphere. The physical environment couldn’t be changed overnight though.’

But it certainly has been changed now, and turning over the page, pictures of gleaming façias, modern ticket halls and fresh paint abound. All of the stations have new systems to a very high spec – CCTV covering 90 per cent of the surface area and 100 per cent of the booking hall, such that one small station of two platforms can have nearly 30 cameras; PA; CIS and help points (one in the booking hall and one on each platform).

There was also an ‘ambience upgrade’ involving painted finishes, clean canopies, high quality roundel signage (branding that won’t change even if LOROL goes)…‘And’, Peter Kalton, LOROL’s head of infrastructure, pointed out, ‘we were huge in lighting, so a lot of time and energy was put into finding the ‘Lux’ level of brightness and applying that across stations. Most of the spec went to a higher level than Network Rail managed stations because it was partly linked to London Underground which is much brighter, and I think it has paid off.’

More than a quick lick of paint

One of LOROL’s main aims was that the refurbishment should be durable. Mark Eaton proffered the view that, while station refurbishment specifications aren’t rocket science, ‘many of those close to the industry will have seen quick lick and brush up type upgrades that often happen at the start of franchises and which after four or five years deteriorate and look quite shabby. This was designed to be a bit more deep-rooted and also put right a lot of outstanding repair issues that had built up over time, for example resurfacing the platform – leaving bits of degraded tarmac to look shabby wasn’t tolerable under this programme.’

All in all, the refurbishment went beyond what is traditionally seen as a Toc responsibility, as Peter Kalton explained: ‘It looked slightly beyond the lease areas and at the side of the platform edge. Essentially we viewed things from a customer perspective, not just thinking, ‘Oh we’ve leased this piece of land and therefore we’re only going to spend money on this section.’

Stations are a ‘front door’

Growth in passenger numbers is normally driven by big headline actions such as new train routes, doubling service frequencies, new rolling stock and so on, but Mark Eaton pointed out that LO’s North London Line has seen 27 per cent growth in the last year or so, with none of those actions taking place.

‘What happened is that people found our service to be reliable. They found our stations to be welcoming and freshly presented, and they feel safe and secure as Peter mentioned with all the CCTV and lighting work. We didn’t do that because we had a runaway crime problem, it was to deal with the perception that people had. Stations are our front door so if customers feel comfortable going through that, and first impressions count, then you attract more people to try the service. And they find the station is staffed, which is a big contributor, they find information systems telling them what they need to know. It all becomes very easy to use, and hey presto there’s the benefit that’s flowing out of the station refurbishment programme.’

Turning designs into reality

The original specifications for the main programme of refurbishment came from TfL, so it was important to start with the two having a ‘very clear and close working relationship’ according to Mark Eaton, in order to get clarity around what the spec meant and how it could be transmuted into designs. ‘As soon as the concession kicked off, we mobilised a project team within the business – aided by personnel from Chiltern, which has done a lot of project work – and that first year was very much about pinning down specifications with our colleagues at TfL.’

One issue at that stage was that TfL’s specifications were quite generic according to Peter Kalton: ‘The question was how to apply them across stations that varied considerably from 60s to Victorian. So each station had to go through an iterative design process which required a lot of cooperation with TfL, and there were some challenging debates around that. After all, a Victorian listed station by its very nature could suck up millions of pounds.’

‘Another challenge the industry always faces with station refurbishment,’ added Mark Eaton, ‘is that you start to uncover things. You find the condition of the footbridge metalwork is much worse than anybody thought, or the drains or power supplies. So there was a need for common sense designs and outputs in light of that.’

It’s also worth remembering that aside from LOROL and TfL, the freeholder is Network Rail, said Peter Kalton, ‘so adding NR to the mix, which had a budget that was pre-determined in CP4 meant we could potentially have had a project to refurbish a station that didn’t necessarily reflect in NR’s budget, and it might have had different priorities.’

Peter remembers an awful lot of discussions between TfL, LOROL and NR on how to deliver a refurbishment that NR was happy with, that TfL was happy with, and arguably most importantly, that the customer wanted, as well as being seen to be value for money. ‘Balancing all of that was tricky to be honest, but I think we did it well in the end, and we learned some lessons along the way.’

Balancing risks with cost

Mark Eaton described pinning TfL down to a final build specification that met everyone’s expectations as the most demanding phase of the project, and one that took far longer than expected. ‘But once you’ve got clear agreement on the outputs then normally it’s a relatively straightforward process to procure contractors.’

So it seemed almost unnecessary to ask if there were any challenges around that? ‘Yes! said both men looking at each other knowingly. ‘Getting the right procurement strategy for delivering a package of works was an issue,’ said Peter Kalton.

‘We could have gone to a contractor and asked it to design and build the stations and seek our approval, but we designed the stations ourselves using GCP, and then went to Mansells to do the build.

‘In general the problem with the rail industry is that there are lots of unknowns and risks; limited records of what’s been laid underground, a lack of information on the original plans of a Victorian station and so on. Combine that with managing the aspirations of user groups and you have to be a little bit restrictive on what you do otherwise you’ll never pin down the specification.

‘So we went out to tender, because the risks are so great for a contractor to do both that it would be price inhibitive to be able to deliver the output we wanted for TfL. Work on the railway isn’t cheap so it’s about trying to find a way of delivery that achieves value for money considering those risks..’

LOROL was responsible for managing Mansells and acted as the bridge between TfL, making sure its aspirations were being met. Formal sign off from TfL was required at the design stage and once the stations had been built.

But it was a painstaking process, as Peter Kalton described it: ‘TfL would say ‘go and build South Hampstead station we like the designs’, and then right at the end it would say, ‘but on the designs you said you would put a shelter here and there isn’t one’. Having those discussions when you’re refurbishing an awful lot of stations requires a lot of work.’

Teams that change with the project

In terms of managing the contractors, how was that? Did you work well together? Both men laughed heartily but it was clear that ultimately there was a mutual respect.

‘It wasn’t easy is the short answer,’ said Mark Eaton. ‘The key contractor as we said was Mansell and we also had Amey delivering the station systems. The programme was phased, but we did have multiple stations live at points in time and that meant we needed an experienced project team within the business.

‘That team needed to be flexible and change its nature as the project progressed. In the early days it was all about project design and specification, procurement of suppliers and getting best value for money. Then as we moved into a construction phase we needed our best design expertise, but also more construction site management experience. We needed people out there, not interfering with the contractors’ business, but making sure they delivered on the designs.’

Peter Kalton painted a picture of the nitty gritty: ‘It’s worth considering that at the same time as we were refurbishing the 44 stations and managing TfL, LOROL was constantly developing its operation and NR was extending our platforms to go from three to four car.’ Smiling in a way that revealed it wasn’t so enjoyable at the time, Peter gave the example of LOROL working on lighting design for a three car train, making sure it was correct, ‘and at the same time we had an extra 20-odd metres being added in. So the question was ‘Who’s doing the lighting for that? and What standard are they delivering it to? We’re putting new PA speakers in the three car bit, who’s putting speakers in the new section? Is it LOROL? Is it NR – because NR has different standards to LOROL?’

I was starting to get the idea along with a headache. ‘So you can see there was an awful lot of work required by LOROL to coordinate that,’ Peter continued. ‘But obviously we had already gone out to tender with Amey for our systems installation contract, and Mansells, so quite often the question was ‘Who is going to be on site?’ Even practicalities such as that were a big challenge.’

Quality of people is crucial

Talking of teams changing, does that happen in contractors’ teams? Is there anything they could or should have done differently in LOROL’s experience? Mark Eaton stated the bare bones of it: ‘Ultimately it depends on the people. On a station, and I suspect it would also be the case if we looked at a group of stations, we had sets that worked really well because they had the right site management in place, and other locations where it was more challenging.

‘I don’t want to make motherhood and apple pie statements but clearly you need everybody involved to be open and honest in terms of the issues that emerge. And with all contracting or build-type operations there are always commercial considerations running along in the background – people have tight programmes and tight cost budgets to maintain, and I think the ultimate challenge, and this is one of the philosophical points we’ve been careful to stay focused on in our relationship with TfL, is to flag up issues early and focus on solving the problem. As well as that, try to avoid the commercials getting in the way of the common sense outcome – don’t let them drive the wrong course of action.

‘Although we had some difficult commercial debates at times, we enjoyed good relationships with all our suppliers. There will always be issues that drive up expense and they need to be dealt with and swiftly closed out.’

Since the substantial part of the programme was completed a year or so ago, LOROL has been working through the inevitable post-rectification work, ‘and that has been carried out well by our colleagues from Mansell’ said Eaton. ‘So often in these schemes, there’s a protracted period of people making claims after the event and it’s not unusual for that part to last longer than the project (Peter Kelton agreed, with a loaded ‘Yes’). We could have been side-tracked with commercial close-outs distracting us from the challenges of last year including the Olympics and whatever we needed to do as a train operator but that hasn’t happened.’

Working with Network Rail is also a ‘very positive’ experience for LOROL according to Mark Eaton. ‘Again it’s about having the right people in the right jobs. But one of the challenges for train operators is that NR is so often driven by the delivery of the day-to-day service and state of the infrastructure, and that means our relationship around stations and refurbishment is further down the list of priorities. So you have to work very hard at that because as soon as you take your eye off the ball there’s a natural tendency in the industry to say, ‘oh it doesn’t really matter about refurbishment we’ll focus on the train service today’.’

A growing body of expertise?

Surely there must be a huge body of expertise in the rail refurbishment industry now, and it must be getting easier to carry out? More knowing looks pass between the men.

‘Within LOROL obviously the projects team has now gone but we still have a station infrastructure team which is very knowledgeable,’ explained Peter Kelton, ‘and that means NR will pay us to do some of its works because it has confidence that we can deliver.’

But overall, Mark Eaton believes it’s a brave statement to say the industry finds it increasingly easy to do station refurbishment. ‘I think since privatisation if we go back to the mid-90s, stations have been recognised as an increasingly important part of the total railway offer. They have certainly moved up in LOROL’s agenda and there’s the NSIP (National Stations Improvement Programme) that NR is leading at a national level, all evidence of everybody recognising that they want stations to provide a very professional and credible gateway to the network.

‘The downside of course is that there’s a bit of a sore tooth effect in terms of activity, linked slightly to the fact that when franchises and concessions kicked off, you always wanted to do it in the early years to get maximum benefit, which goes back to the national debate around the rate at which networks are re-franchised and how that affects the station conversion programme. The NSIP programme is helpful because in many respects it’s separated from the franchise process but looking at the big picture, it’s a bit more franchise-linked.’

LOROL’s lessons

So what advice would LOROL give to others in a similarly structured network?

For Mark Eaton it would be to build ‘rock solid partnerships or alliances, including with NR, because ultimately you are changing its assets.’ For Peter Kalton, having a clear scope of what a refurbishment is right at the beginning is important. ‘You need to get everyone to buy into it because you don’t want to get to the end and have a mismatch between stakeholders on what’s going to be delivered.’

Speaking of contractors, Peter Kalton points out ‘We do seem to come across the same companies and I think the industry needs more. Even on small-scale works, while we want to use a contractor that’s familiar with the rail environment, we do seem to go around in circles with the same few names.’

Maintaining the look

TfL’s concession also has rigid specifications around presentation of the stations as Mark Eaton explained: ‘Now that they have been refurbished, it’s important not to let standards slide and the contract incentivises us to focus on those areas.’

Peter Kalton remembers the KPI regime for keeping standards at stations as ‘very challenging when it first came in because it was new to the industry in a way. The thoroughness and scope that we faced was much greater than any train operator had encountered before.’

I wondered if LOROL had been aware of that at the time? ‘Yes we were but things still went through,’ said Eaton, ‘It’s one thing to see something on a tender document but trying to get our head around how it might work in practice meant a fairly sharp learning curve, which was tough but ultimately rewarding.’

A social and economic boost

LOROL’s programme has paid off in a number of ways. There have been lots of rewarding conversations with local user groups and customers who, as Peter Kalton proudly says, ‘have put pressure on other areas of the rail industry using LOROL as an example of best practice.’

Station refurbishments have also helped with the social mobility of London according to Mark Eaton. ‘They form part of a package of what the Overground offers, which has made it easier for folk to get around from borough to borough, opening up job opportunities.’

Is station refurbishment a means to an end in itself? ‘Probably not’, believes Eaton, ‘but it would have been a tremendous shame if we had made all the other improvements but left the front door looking dowdy.’