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Mayor of London – Rail Pledge

(First published on 9 January 2017 on our old blog site)

Sadiq Kahn recently issued a pledge of what he would do if he was devolved powers to run the suburban rail services in and around London http://www.london.gov.uk/rail-pledge and I would recommend everyone to read it and sign up for it, to support its intent. I am very much in favour of devolution and would suggest you also read my blog http://sergblog.southeastrail.org.uk/towards-a-devolved-and-dynamic-south-east-network

However, each of the 5 points does need to be put into some perspective especially about timescale and funding.

Now to some degree funding is the easiest one to comment on. When TfL was given control over the old Silverlink Metro lines in 2007 to create the original London Overground, the DfT was only too grateful to get it off their hands! They even gave TfL a large chunk of cash to fund infrastructure improvements, stations, etc., which also allowed them to procure new trains (the Class 378s although this was done through leasing rather than outright purchase). When TfL took over the West Anglia Inners in May 2015, the DfT transferred it ‘as is’ in other words there’s no cash and any improvements had to be funded within TfL’s overall budget – hence the slow progress with station improvements, etc.

If TfL is granted the devolution of suburban rail I can guarantee that it will be on the same terms as West Anglia ‘no cash transfer and improvements come out of existing TfL budget’.   That budget is already being severely squeezed.

So let us take a look at each point in turn:

  1. Fares frozen until 2020 While the Mayor has frozen TfL fares across London’s transport network, the Government has allowed private train companies to increase rail fares by an average of 2.3 per cent this year.  If TfL assumes responsibility for suburban rail services, fares on these services would also be covered by TfL’s fares freeze.’ 

Yes he can do that immediately BUT only for those fares he directly controls. Given that TravelCards and capping have to be coordinated with National Rail and that DfT policy is that fares rise each year in line with RPI so that commuters pay the lions share of the service they use – it’s not likely he can 100% honour that pledge. Just as some fares rose for commuters this year whilst TfL controlled fares didn’t.

  1. More trains and fewer delays ‘Fit-for-purpose higher performance trains will lead to reduced time waiting in stations and faster journey times. Working alongside Network Rail, improvements to track, junctions and signalling will lead to increased train frequencies.’

Several comments here. Almost all trains on the services he is proposing to take over are very modern. The 377s on Southern, the 375s and 376s on SE, the 450s on SW and the soon to arrive 717s on GN Inners. They are already fit-for-purpose higher performance trains. Reduced waiting time in stations is governed by a number of factors but generally lack of modern trains isn’t one of them. Faster journey times depends on capacity and infrastructure, which leaves improvements to track, junctions and signaling – which are of course owned and controlled by NR and funded by DfT – not TfL. (Quick fact! Did you know that the only part of London Overground where the tracks and stations are owned by TfL is the section between Dalston Junction and New Cross Gate!)

The kind of money needed to solve the problems of the south London rail network are not within the gift of TfL. Point 2 can only be achieved in medium to long term – say 10-15 years.

  1. Safer stations ‘TfL would ensure there is staffing of all stations at all times, from the first train to the last train. More ticket barriers will also be installed at every London station to tackle fare evasion and make the network safer with stations cleaner and brighter.’

Yes he can do most of this in the short-term. It will cost money that will have to be found from within the TfL budget. As for ticket barriers even on West Anglia TfL are not proposing to install barriers at every station because of cost. If you look at a number of LO stations on the original ex-‘Silverlink’ lines there are no barriers at about 25% of them. This latter point about ticket barriers was perhaps superfluous or at least should have been reworded with ‘where needed…’ and will be almost impossible to achieve in the short-term.

  1. Less disruption ‘There are fewer strikes, delays and cancellations on TfL services compared to commuter services like Southern, Southeastern and South West. The number of days lost to strike action on TfL services has reduced significantly since Sadiq Khan became mayor.

  The evidence is clear that commuters get a better service when organisations like TfL engage and talk with train unions. This is in contrast to the Government which has completely lost control of the Southern crisis.’  

Oh dear! I am writing this on a day with a tube strike that he was unable to stop – this whole point 4 becomes very much a ‘hostage to fortune’. Let’s not also forget that the tube dispute has been rumbling on since the last days of the Livingstone mayorality so to claim there are less disputes and a good relationship with the unions on TfL is to say the least hopeful, to say the worst disingenuous. The point about a reduction of disputes since he became mayor (in May 2016) is to say the least irrelevant and makes him look foolish based on todays events – whoever wrote this for him needs a serious lesson in political writing style – or a new job writing the scripts for ‘The Thick of It’.

Whilst I don’t want to discuss Southern, I wasn’t aware that there had been continuously ongoing and serious industrial disputes on SE and SW. Again, this makes the whole thing look political, even amateurishly political rather than sympathetic to the plight of commuters.

Timeframe for all of this? Unknown!

  1. Better service ‘TfL would run services using a model where the operator focuses purely on train service reliability and high quality customer service. Services would be fully integrated into the rest of London’s transport, including Oyster and contactless payment at every station where it doesn’t exist today.’

Timeframe – Immediate. This is just stating the blindingly obvious and not really a pledge except for a handful of stations that would come into Oyster – like Epsom, which is the constituency of Chris Grayling!!


Towards a Devolved and Dynamic South East Network

(First published on 31 December 2016 on our old blog site)

First, let me deal with a myth – TfL taking over London suburban rail network will cure all of its problems overnight. Well, sorry but it won’t! However, what it will do is place the control of those services under local elected bodies more able to respond to the needs of the local travelling public who also happen to be their electorate. Of course, there are questions of governance and accountability but that could be easily dealt with by amendment to statute to add representatives of the local county authorities outside the GLA to the TfL Board. Thus TfL would truly become a representative sub-national transport authority. Other advantages to the region would spring from that and not just rail but also bus and integrated smart ticketing.

The physical problems we have with our dense network of railways in London and the southeast region stem from a number of causes, some of which are: the fact that they are ‘sewn together’ from the hotchpotch of the four pre-1948 private networks (which themselves were ‘sewn together’ from the myriad of smaller railway companies that existed over time up to the 1923 grouping); the results of the Beeching and other cuts in the 1960s and 70s; the almost total lack of major capital investment between 1955 and 2000 and perhaps the most tragic of all, the absence of any real political commitment by any government over the last 60 years.

So, how should we remap the railways of London and the southeast? What possible formula can we use? Well, there isn’t one. There is no immediate silver bullet. In fact it would probably take 20-years of sustained investment and commitment by all to get things even near to right. Now I am not decrying such things as Crossrail 1 or Thameslink – they are needed and very good in themselves – but they are not a complete strategic regional solution, just individual ‘building-blocks’ that need in fact to be ‘built upon’.

Ok that’s a brief background. But what can we do what about the current Southern crisis? Well, any kind of solution that just looks at Southern in isolation will not work. Why? Because it does not address the wider issues of providing reliable integrated services.   However, we do need to start somewhere and Southern is the most urgent, so read on!

The GTR ‘franchise’ was a ‘franchise too far’. It threw together three previously separate operations: Southern, Gatwick Express and Thameslink/Great Northern (formally First Capital Connect). On paper it looked quite sensible, if slightly ambitious, but in reality the paper exercise was as far as it went with no original thought whatsoever, about what was actually needed over and above a super-TOC. Combined with a ‘franchise’ that was a management contract (a pseudo-concession) with revenue risk held by the DfT and a TOC management overwhelmed by the task and hamstrung by even more heavy-handed micro-management by DfT than in a ‘normal’ franchise and hay-presto we end up with the current situation. See my previous blog ‘Southern – What Now?’ for background to the current dispute.

What then, is the next step in extricating the network from this mess? As I said before, there is NO silver bullet, no quick fix. But there are steps that can be taken in the short to medium term, though they will still be painful and still disruptive, but they need to be taken.

First, the Government needs to acknowledge that this can’t go on and that devolution of services is what at least 90% of the southeast travelling public wants. They also equally want a reliable and user-friendly value for money service even beyond the devolved area.

This will NOT happen so long as the dead hand of the current Secretary of State is present. A sensible move by the PM would be to acknowledge the disastrous error of appointing the hapless Chris Grayling, sack him and immediately parachute the previous SofS Patrick McLoughlin back in accompanied by the equally competent Claire Perry to replace the obviously ‘out of his depth’ Paul Maynard. Such a move would give the PM much kudos (although not with Grayling and Maynard) for having the courage to make such a sensible and decisive move.

Next would be to urgently implement the rail devolution blueprint mapped out earlier in 2016 by Patrick McLoughlin and the then London Mayor Boris Johnson. This might need some modification of timings and scope, as you will see below; a much broader and comprehensive devolution programme on a truly regional scale:

  1. the most urgent would be to immediately hand GN Inners and Southern metro services to TfL. This is a big chunk to absorb so the next phase should be delayed to the autumn of 2018 and that should be
  2. Southeastern metro
  3. followed by South Western metro in autumn 2019.

Why this order? Well, step 1 would take some immediate pressure off GTR, and the following steps in order to allow TfL and London Overground time to absorb the operations.

However, at the same time I would be even more radical and recommend that a slightly remapped Thameslink be re-designated as Crossrail 3 and becomes a concession modelled on the Crossrail 1 contract with TfL as lead in partnership with DfT. That would include integrated ticketing, stations manned from first to last and appropriate upgrades to stations. Now you might say that such would be too far geographically, but to put it into some form of context, Crossrail 1 stretches about 69 miles so TL at 87 miles is not such a vast or unmanageable distance.

Gatwick Express should become a stand-alone franchise once more perhaps with GoVia as interim franchisee for a 24-month period or DOR (the DfT operator of last resort pending a new competition) if GoVia is not interested.

I would also suggest that residual services be remapped too. So GN Outers from Kings Cross to Peterborough, Cambridge and Kings Lynn could perhaps go to VirginEC (and be operated exclusively by new 110mph air-conditioned class 387s); the West London line service from Milton Keynes to Croydon goes to LM (and be operated by their relatively new 110mph dual-voltage air-conditioned Class 350/1s), and any left over Southern routes outside of the scope of TL or metro could be added to an expanded and renamed GatEx (with additional 387s) or and perhaps more practical, be geographically and logically shared out to SWT or SE. This is just my initial thoughts, so not a firm plan but something to be considered. I’m sure others can suggest equally valid and workable permutations!

But whilst this shares out the remains of GTR, other equally urgent major infrastructure upgrades need to be put in hand, for example the creation of extra capacity to Brighton, the reopening of Uckfield to Lewes, rationalization of south London junction layouts, etc. I could produce a whole list but most improvements are obvious to everyone.

Likewise, planning for Crossrail 2 needs to be accelerated so that this can all fit together within a rationalized network. Of course, allied with CR2 north of the river are things such as the four tracking of the Lea Valley line between Copper Mill Junction and Broxbourne, which amongst other things would allow speeding up of Stansted Express services.

As you can see once you start to scope out a truly dynamic integrated regional railway system you begin to see other areas where improved infrastructure would yield huge gains and boost the economy, generating housing and business expansion.