Orangewatch (3)The golden brand
By any recognised measure, the first ten years of the Overground have been an enormous success. New parts of town have been linked together. The trains are clean, and generally run on time. Passenger satisfaction is amongst the highest of any rail provider in the country. London is very fortunate to have its golden trains. So what went right?
a) Control: Plans for an orbital rail network in London had been on the drawing board for years, repeatedly held back because there was no money for a bit of track that needed building. Only when TfL was granted some regulatory clout in the mid-2000s did these plans finally start to come to fruition, and the transfer of lines from other franchises began.
b) Vision: Applying TfL norms to a disparate collection of rail lines raised expectations, whilst also giving users a good idea what to expect. They also linked parts of the capital many passengers hadn't previously realised were linked, simply by including them on the tube map. London's remaining rail services are run by a broad church of operators with very different philosophies, not all of them positive.
c) Brand: The Overground was strongly branded from day 1, using an arresting name, grabbing an unused colour and running with it. You see the orange and you know what it stands for. If the service had been awful that could have been a disaster, but the Overground was always going to be an improvement. We may not like that none of the individual lines have proper names, but maybe calling them all the same thing was the masterstroke.
d) Connection: Ten years ago suburban London, especially suburban north London, didn't really do orbital train travel. But an improved service on radial lines means you no longer have to go all the way into the centre of town... which saves time, and money. Just look at how much busier these trains are now compared to how they used to be - it's a capacity-enhancing triumph.
e) Visibility: Once the Overground lines were under TfL control they started appearing on the TfL website, and maps, and lists of engineering updates, and now those ubiquitous apps, in a way that the Hounslow Loop and Orpington fasts never do. It's been like stepping up a division, while the poor sods on Southern and Southeastern get left behind.
f) Frequency: Providing a more regular service has changed behaviour. On the railway, passengers check the timetable. On the Overground, TfL prefers to hide the timetable and encourage a turn-up-and-go mentality, which better conceals how late a train is, and reduces moaning.
g) Reliability: ...and trains aren't generally late, not significantly so. A mostly self-contained network is easier to run reliably and efficiently. Also it's easier to focus well on inner suburban railways when you don't have any complex long distance commuter services to prioritise.
h) Cleanliness: Overground trains scrub up well, not least because most of them are much newer than the older carriages they replaced. Even where the trains being used are still the old stock, one of the first thing TfL did when they took over was to give them a good clean and brush-up, because they know first impressions count.
i) Accessibility: Making underground stations step-free is a costly nightmare, whereas Overground stations are invariably above ground so are much easier to fix. Improving accessibility on the Overground is therefore a problem TfL can genuinely solve, and so they are, which looks good on them, and is good for you.
j) Staffing: Many of the swallowed-up stations were dark unfriendly places, and generally unstaffed, but TfL added youths in hi-vis jackets to the stairs and platforms, and that looked reassuring, even if they didn't generally do very much. TfL may be about to take this idea even further by closing all the ticket offices and making everybody wholly visible, but passengers like that don't they?