How bad can the disruption be for passengers, when one of Britain's busiest railway stations is closed for more than three weeks?
Investment in Waterloo Station is welcome. But this major engineering work was a considerable challenge, particularly as the franchise was changing from South West Trains (SWT) to South Western Railway (SWR) during that time.
Our focus has been to ensure that the interests of passengers who use the service are at the core of the upgrade management. We conducted various research of passengers' views before, during and after the work. Our staff was also at the station during the work, monitoring the effects and social media. Any issues we identified to SWT, SWR and also Network Rail responded to issues we identified, resulting in improvements for passengers.
Overall, the disruption was managed well for passengers. But the experience and lessons that emerge from this will be relevant to major works at other stations such as Euston and Liverpool Lime Street.
Building on our work in this area, we were asked by Network Rail and SWT to monitor passengers' awareness of the engineering work from when the information campaign began to within weeks of it starting. Nine in ten were aware that the work was happening and why mostly through information at the station itself and posters and leaflets. Some wanted information that was relevant to them and their journey, such as a revised timetable, so they could start to plan or make other arrangements. In fact, one in four told us they would be taking leave and one in three that they would be working from home during the period.
So once the work began, key changes were the closure of some platforms and the temporary re-opening of the old Eurostar platforms. There were some crowd control measures in operation and quite a lot of industry personnel available to help.
Some particular lines were served by the temporary platforms that were some distance from the main concourse. Initially, passengers would wait for their train to be signalled from the main concourse. So some had to run with just a few seconds to spare or, perhaps missing the train. Following our feedback SWT secured better signage so that those passengers knew where to wait for their train.
The derailment on 15 August caused an additional three platforms to be closed resulting in a significant disruption to services. But it took some time to explain the cause of the disruption. We asked our transport user panel who were affected by the derailment disruption whether they had enough information to help them decide their best journey option. Over half (54 per cent) said they did not.
Bus stops around the station were moved to different locations. We spoke to a number of staff on hand at the station about how to catch different buses, but they were unaware of the location of the stops and there were no visible signs on the station explaining where they should go. After pointing this out, SWT briefed its agency staff and volunteers about the changes and maps showing the location of the bus stops were also issued to staff and passengers.
Perhaps one of the most confusing of all issues during this period was whether and what compensation was available to passengers. The way that trains companies calculate compensation is complex and open to confusion. Passengers on our panel indicated they were unclear how to make a claim. We fed our concerns through to SWT. So we welcomed their announcement that monthly and annual season ticket holders would have two weeks free travel as compensation during the works.
Overall, our panel survey found that the majority of passengers felt that the works were handled well/very well (72 per cent) while 21 per cent felt that it was handled poorly/very poorly. This is consistent with the view given by passengers on surveys carried out every few days during the works. The first week of 'business as usual' travel following the works also mirrored this. So not a bad rating.
The time chosen was probably the least-worst option as many passengers would have more flexibility to go on holiday or work from home during August. Any changes in franchises would also need to be managed well during such a period.
But here are some of our suggestions for what should happen with another major station upgrade:
• Information is key. Provide it early to help passengers know about the works and why they are being done. Make it as specific as possible so passengers understand the implications for them. During the work, passengers need frank, clear information when problems arise. Also, providing information about the end time is useful. But being categorical that the work would be completed at a particular time might mislead passengers. It might be better to say that it was an 'intention' and that people should check before their travel to be sure. We intend to test relevant wording on this through our panel.
• Ensure that any changes to other means of transport, such as buses, are well communicated.
• Provide clarity about any compensation that might be available, who can qualify and under what circumstances.
• Have plenty of staff on hand to help – as there were at Waterloo – and ensure that they are well briefed to be useful to passengers.