Staff and money troubles add to Island Line misery

Last week, the IW Observer revealed South Western Railway’s (SWR) unconventional procurement process to find replacement wheels for Island Line trains. Needed because of excessive and uneven wheel wear, in January, SWR told the Department for Transport (DfT) wheels had been sourced from a “scrap metal merchant.”

We also shared that Ryde Pier will be closed for further work by Network Rail this autumn, aiming for completion by Easter 2025.
This week’s focus is the service’s declining performance. Once widely regarded as a bastion of punctuality, Island Line’s recent figures tell a very different story.

In January, almost 1 in ten (8.9%) Island Line services were cancelled — significantly higher than SWR’s network average of 3.3 per cent. That doesn’t take into account February’s downgrade from half-hourly to hourly trains outside peak holiday times. Without a permanent change to the timetable, a PR nightmare for the government and SWR, those figures are going to get a great deal worse.
Yet, the service’s woes aren’t solely due to the 40-year-old, revamped 484 rolling stock. A Freedom of Information request unveiled that, in January, when only one out of the original five trains was operational, there were also concerns about increased long-term staff sickness. The primary reasons for cancellations are said to be “train crew availability and on-going fleet issues”. Since June of last year, there were several references to high rates of staff sickness along with “a reluctance to work overtime” by RMT and ASLEF union members.

The Department for Transport’s £26 million investment in Island Line was based on projections that government subsidy would decrease. Before the network closed, throughout most of 2021 to be ‘upgraded’, in 2018/19 Island Line received a £5 million subsidy (the most recent figure available). Passenger numbers have subsequently dropped by over half a million. Passenger numbers are not released by SWR, but are estimated by the Office of the Rail Regulator based on ticket sales. Prior to the new trains coming on track, many passengers travelled without a ticket, so that is likely to be a serious underestimate.

Jim Richards, a high-ranking Department for Transport official, said in December: “Minimising the expenditure must be the focus and given the economics of this railway and the significant expense already incurred, I’d not want to us to be spending any more than is absolutely essential.” He made clear that any further expenditure would require approval.

Showing himself to be a master of understatement, he commented: “It is disappointing that, again, we are discussing a delay to the completion of this project.”

It’s all a far cry from the rose-tinted vision in 2020, when SWR’s programme manager, Andrew Mundy, confidently told the IW Bus & Rail Users Group that there would be a regular 30-minute service, with the option of increasing it to a 20-minute service.

An SWR spokesman said: “We’re sorry for the disruption our Island Line customers have experienced. It was a difficult decision to reduce the Island Line timetable, but one we had to make because our trains need more maintenance.

“By reducing the timetable now, our fleet of trains will be ready for the two trains an hour timetable during the busy holiday periods, which we know are so important to the Island.”

It is probably not worth asking for more information using the Freedom of Information Act. What the government is saying, behind closed doors, is probably unprintable!