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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.