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GTR – What now? Short-term changes?

Given the release today of the Commons Transport Committee Report on what went wrong in May 2018; and the predictable ‘not my fault’ push-back from Chris Grayling, what should happen now, in the short term.  This is especially relevant as he also indicated that the GTR management contract would not be ended until September 2021, which is its current end date. However, it should be noted that as the rail review is progressing, he might choose to extend the term – he is allowed to do so by up to 26-months so in theory GTR could go on until November 2023.

I haven’t changed my mind from the previous two blogs about an eventual elected regional transport authority.  However, in the short-term what needs to change?  I have two-thoughts:

My first thought is an extension to Oyster.  We have already had announcements that Oyster will be extended north to Hertford North and south to Epsom in January 2019.  Now it appears that Luton Airport Parkway and Welwyn Garden City will follow later in 2019; probably May or September.  But I believe the DfT should go further in an effort to try and improve conditions for GTR passengers.  I know DfT don’t see it as their job to improve things for passengers, especially as the SofS has been clear that he doesn’t run the railways!

However, what could be added to the recent ‘Oysterisation’ announcements?  Well, in my opinion Oyster should immediately be further extended to Luton (town station), Stevenage, Leatherhead, Reigate, Three Bridges, Crawley, Dorking and Hurst Green.  I have limited these suggestions to stations and services controlled by GTR. BUT – in addition to all these extensions a structured zonal fares system to be introduced within 12-months by bringing the current ‘ghost-oyster-zones’ to life.  They are currently:

Station Name

Ghost Zone
Broxbourne 11
Chafford Hundred 10
Earlswood (Surrey) 13
Gatwick Airport 14
Grays 10
Hertford East 11
Horley 13
Merstham 13
Ockendon 10
Purfleet 10
Redhill 13
Rye House 11
Salfords (Surrey) 13
Shenfield 12
St Margarets (Herts) 11
Ware 11
Watfird Junction 10

It has already been indicated that Elizabeth line stations out to Reading will be treated like this with Reading for example in ‘ghost-zone’ 15.

My next thought is that GN Metro services from Moorgate to Welwyn Garden City and Stevenage via Hertford North be immediately transferred to TfL as part of London Overground.  I know a lot of local MPs are I favour of this. But further than this, I would suggest a similar transfer of the currently Southern operated service from Milton Keynes to East Croydon be similarly transferred to LO when suitable dual-voltage rolling stock becomes available.  I am thinking of the highly efficient 350/2s being released by LNWR in late 2019/early 2020 – these units were built for dual-voltage operations but are currently only used for AC (overhead wire) services.  Fitting the DC (third-rail) shoes, etc., would be relatively cheap and very quick.  Also, a duty placed on NR to identify a viable path both north and south of the Thames to allow this service to run twice an hour.

Well this is just a quick two thoughts!  I’d be interested in hearing what you have to think – so please don’t hesitate to leave a comment here or tweet it to @DirectorSERG

Thameslink, Great Northern and all that jazz………..yawn! Some more thoughts.

Don’t worry I haven’t changed my mind since the previous blog.  Just some more musings about how to develop the concept of a Regional Transport Authority.  And a few other bits and pieces too!

First of all, an elected Regional Transport Authority incorporating TfL but NOT run by the Mayor of London of the GLA.  Any authority would need a fair and transparent governance structure just as much as a fair and transparent funding structure.  The problems in and needs of, for example, Epsom are not necessarily the same as those of Brighton or Islington or Cambridge or Maidstone or Slough. It’s vital that the structure reflects this so that different areas don’t get forgotten but also that local solutions can be evaluated as they may apply (adapted as necessary) to others. Equally that all areas don’t feel as though they are being swallowed up into some faceless amorphous mass.  That’s why purely local affairs and services must remain under local elected authorities, be they city, borough, county or unitary.

I hear you all saying, very good but not possible to achieve?  Well if you don’t try you’ll never know.  This is an idea we really haven’t tried in England before and with good will and consensus it IS achievable. IF we actually want to get something done for the good of all.

The operating side of the Authority must draw in the best professional and technical talent from Rail, Highways and Bus operations.

Next.  The region needs to assess exactly what it needs in terms of infrastructure and facilities to ensure seamless connectivity not only within the region but with adjacent areas and the rest of the country. Essential not only for people to get around but also goods and services to be delivered cost-effectively.  The region must facilitate all forms of transport for the good of all and for the economy in all its varied manifestations.  Now you might think I’m verging into some sort of politics – well I’m not.  This is all about the good of all – that’s not politics – it’s just plain good sense.

Next.  Could this apply to other areas of England?  Well, yes it could, given the same general provisos and considerations as stated above.  I could foresee England split into a total of 5 Transport Regions.

Lastly.  As far as the (greater) South East Region is concerned, we need action now!  Apart from rescuing us from the mess that DfT has made of the rail timetables, we need rapid action to enhance services and facilities.  Now don’t interpret ‘rapid’ as overnight……it just isn’t possible. But we do need a short to medium term programme say achievable in 5-10 years from the get go.  Enhancement of capacity on key urban and inter-urban rail corridors; regionwide smart ticketing; an emphasis on facilities for the disabled; personal safety and security for all; cost-effective delivery of services for all; bus-service franchising and re-establishing services; highway repair and maintenance; upgrading key road junctions; encouragement and facilitation of walking and cycling (perhaps region-wide cycle hire also linked to the ticketing system?); car-clubs keyed into ticketing, so you have a hire vehicle waiting at your destination.   These are all just headline ideas and not exclusive or limiting others.

I’m not imagining a paradise on earth (theological or political), just a situation that will allow everybody, be they a driver, a pedestrian, a cyclist or rail or bus passenger a fair ‘crack of the whip’ in every sense.

Thameslink, Great Northern, and all that jazz……….…yawn!

Well over a year ago I wrote a blog about how we need to aim for an integrated network in the south east and I haven’t changed that view.

I could write a long technical essay about the recent mess with timetable changes but frankly I don’t intend to do that.  Firstly, it would bore people to death and secondly the DfT keep making things worse day by day.  They, after all are responsible for most of what’s happened by flogging a flawed timetable specification and refusing to take the advice given by all sides, TOCs, NR and even independent consultants that the spec was too rigid and needed adjusting as well as more time to implement……………..see…….you’re bored already!!!

So, is there a magic bullet that will put everything right overnight?  No.  Nationalisation is the answer…….No…….how much more than (currently) 90% government control and chaotic small-minded micromanagement do you want?

I still believe that local devolution and a comprehensive restructuring of franchises is the answer.  But that has to be linked with the recreation of the Strategic Rail Authority as an independent transparent representative body with real powers; matched with the DfT being there to look after higher policy and be the interface of the industry with Parliament.

So, if I had my wish, how would I go about this?  In the South East Region, we need a regional transport authority covering all the Home counties around Greater London BUT incorporating Greater London as well, looking after metro and Inter-Urban Rail as well as Buses and Highways.  For far too long we have suffered a form of silo thinking on transport.  Civilisation doesn’t end at the GLA boundary!  So, TfL, TfSE and the county transport departments are merged into a single authority. BUT.  This authority must NOT be dominated by or even run by the GLA or the Mayor of London.  It must be a truly democratic transparent institution equally representing all within its boundary and reflecting local as well as regional needs and priorities.

In terms of rail how might this work?  Well, instead of franchising we would use the successful concession model of TfL.  The metro services should be incorporated into the London Overground model as originally proposed in 2016 by the then SofS for Transport and Mayor of London.  However, I would go further and suggest that the ‘rump’ Thameslink line (with perhaps a modicum of remapping south of the Thames) becomes Crossrail 2, again run under concession as per Crossrail 1 (the Elizabeth line).  The current Crossrail 2 project gets renamed CR3 and is pushed forward rapidly.

With regard to what is left south of the Thames after remapping of Thameslink CR2, that is the remnants of Southeastern, Southern and South Western be grouped under the name of Southern Railway (a nod towards history but by no means nostalgia) and let by the new SRA as a long-term franchise but one which is co-specified and co-signed with the SE regional authority, including full integration of ticketing/smart-ticketing in the SE system and the same standards of public information, timetable integration, staffing and the welfare of disabled passengers.

North of the Thames, the same such standards be applied to LNER, GWR, Chiltern, LNWR, EMT and GA services within the SE regional area.  No, I haven’t missed out c2c!  That would be incorporated into the Overground.

Fares?  A comprehensive and fair zonal system based on the TfL model incorporating an updated Oyster card with contactless as well. All aimed to eliminate the current plethora of systems and exceptions that require you have a master’s degree in logic in order to just get from point A to point B.   This integrated system would also apply to Buses within the region, much as it does today in London.

Now of course I won’t claim that this a panacea and everything will get better over-night. It isn’t, and it won’t.  And, a system of fair funding is essential from all authorities within the SE Region area.  But it is a basis to begin. And it will enable the region to develop a fair and cost-effective integrated transport system. However, this will not subsume everywhere into London – extremely undesirable, nor will it favour one area over another – it mustn’t.  But what it will do is enable a wonderfully diverse region to realise and facilitate its potential in a modern country.

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.