Rail 512: Yes, minister: Integrate to ease Kent planning ‘blight’

The uncertainty over the future shape of services south-east of London underlines the need for more long-term, strategic planning on the railway, contends CHRISTIAN WOLMAR.

When I bang on about integration in this column – which, poor reader, Iknow Ido-it is not just about bringing services and infrastructure under the samecontrol. That, ofcourse, is a no-brainer in terms of runninga railway but there is far more to integration than just that. Integration is about planning, investing in and operating a railway in a coherent, strategic way.

The present policy of a fragmented railway with many franchises, which do not last long enough to stimulate investment, effectively prevents the development of any longterm policy for rail. I would go further. The policy almost seems actively designed to prevent any long-term thinking about rail. And, of course, the railways, with their heavy investment demands, require, above all, a lengthy timeframe for planning. Let’s take, as an excellent example of the failings of the present approach, the current situation in Kent.

There is an awful lot going on there but, despite the fact that there are knock-on effects far afield, there is no single agency or body that is even attempting to co-ordinate what is happening. The Integrated Kent Franchise, which will replace South Eastern, and Thameslink are both at the shortlist phase in franchise renewals despite the various imponderables and unknowns facing the companies running services and passengers.

Aquick tour d’horizon of what is going on in rail services in and around Kent demonstrates that there are somany variables that it is plain daft attempting to set down the franchise requirements in stone before the future of many of these developments has been determined, and without any overarching policy being set.

First, there is the addition of domestic rail services using the Channel Tunnel Rail Link. The establishment of these services has always been stimulated more by the construction of the new line than as a response to demand. There are countless knock-on effects which are difficult to gauge. For example, existing services are being rejigged with the effect that there will be fewer stopping trains going fromAshford to Victoria along what the French call the ligne classique.

When local commuters pointed this out to the SRA, they were told that overall there would bemore trains generally intoLondon, but, of course, that is of no use to people living on the old line between, say, Ashford and Maidstone. Other unknowns about the likely effects of the high-speed domestic services include the impact of the 20% premium that passengers will be expected to pay.

That could mean an extra £600 on a season ticket, which, together with car parking at Ashford at £540 annually, means more than an extra grand a year. Moreover, for some commuters, driving to Ashford from their town or villagemay require the purchase of an additional car if other family members are no longer able to drop them off. Then, at the London end, do people really want to go to St Pancras rather than their existing London termini such as Cannon Street or Charing Cross which are more convenient for much of the West End and City?

Indeed, overall time savings for many people could well be marginal once the extra Tube journey is taken into account. Perhaps, like a friend of mine, they may find it easier and cheaper to drive to North Greenwich and take the Jubilee Line into work. And how will the premium work? Will those using existing services be able to upgrade if their train is cancelled? Will those who have paid the premiumbe able to run into Charing Cross or Victoria if that happens to be more convenient that day? In other words, will it be interchangeable? There are no firmanswers to any of this, and yet bidders are supposed to be able tomake informed judgements about these questions.

There remains, of course, a doubt about whether the order for the new trains for the domestic services will be confirmed after the election, but I will not even go there – except to say, as an aside, that the decision to build the second section of the CTRL was a big gamble given the uncertainty over the domestic services. Sure, it will do wonders for Stratford, but if the domestic trains order does not go ahead, the line will be barely used and effectively a £5 billion white elephant.

The second big issue is the future of the five platforms at Waterloo vacated by the Eurostar services moving to St Pancras. If the study into their future recently commissioned by the Department for Transport shies away from suggesting they are turned into a shopping centre, then one possible use would be to move South Easternmain line services fromCharing Cross and London Bridge to Waterloo, using the overpass originally used for Eurostar trains until the first half of the CTRL was created.

That would relieve the tremendousat London Bridge, one of the worst on the whole railway, and quite possibly allow amuch simpler version of Thameslink 2000 to be introduced more quickly. But trying to do this once the Thameslink and Integrated Kent franchises have been let would be near impossible because of the contractual hassles. Similarly, Transport for London wants more frequent inner-Londonmetro services with frequencies of 15 or even ten minutes which might become feasible with the new IKF operation if there are fewer trains into London Bridge. That would require extra spending, which may be available from TfL, but, again, premature leasing of the Integrated Kent franchise would get in the way of such long-term plans since such a decision would again raise complex contractual issues.

Meanwhile, the third big issue affecting train services inKent, theThameslink 2000 project, languishes, delayed supposedly by planning problems but really by the lack of any funding earmarked for it. The preliminary shortlist for theThameslink franchise has just been issued, which omits Govia, the present incumbent, because of its appalling service. But that creates more uncertainty among staff, and passengers have no idea what service they can expect in a couple of years’ time.

The fact that there is no money at the moment to fit out the box at King’s Cross which will eventually be the new Thameslink station, highlighted in this column in the last issue, is but part of the problem. And the final big issue: Crossrail. IfCrossrail is built, then trains will call at Abbey Wood where there will be a cross-platformchange to take them further into Kent. Now that, too, may suck a lot of people away from existing South Eastern services or, indeed, the highspeed domestic trains

People working in Canary Wharf, for example, may find changing at Abbey Wood much simpler than going into town. Crossrail may be too far ahead to take into consideration, but nevertheless it is a longtermissue that affects other railway planning in the area. Overall, therefore, there is a kind of railway planning blight over the whole quadrant of London’s hinterland between Brighton right the way round to the Thames which leaves existing and potential passengers bemused.

The doubts over the future of the Gatwick Express are another example of the damage that the lack of any overall thinking for the railway is doing. The policy of restricting Route Utilisation Studies to relatively small corridors, without regard for how decisions may affect neighbouring lines, is beginning to be demonstrated as fundamentally flawed. All this demonstrates that taking decisions about the timetable in Kent, or the vacated platforms at Waterloo, has a knock-on effect throughout several franchise areas and therefore such decisions need to be taken by a strategic body.

The poor old SRA never quitemanaged to do that, hamstrung by its uncertain status, but the fact that its franchising programme is being allowed to continue, without any thought being given to wider issues, suggests that the new structure will be no better at considering them than the old one. There is, of course, a counter-argument. Attempting to assess all these developments and shoehorning them into a coherent policy would take so long that there would be permanent blight.

But that is not true. Sure, it is a complex process, but that is what planning and strategy are about. The government needs to start from a few basic principles, such as: “The demand for railways is going to grow in the South East, so how can we best accommodate that increase economically and efficiently?” Such a policy should not be concerned with whether particular train operators may be adversely affected or on the fate of individual services but, instead, would be a way of mobilising all resources towards a particular end. Yes, minister, such decisions will have an impact on the market but that is what government is about.

The fact that South Eastern trains is currently in public hands should simplify the process, but the obsession with franchising operations out as quickly as possible has meant that opportunity has not been used.

As you read this, I will have just returned froma week in Germany. There, a new station is opening in Berlin in June 2006 (Hauptbahnhof/ Lehrter Bahnhof) which fully integrates the German ICE (high-speed line services), international services, long-distancemain line services of DB, Berlin-Brandenburg Regional Rail services, S-Bahn andU-Bahn services, in addition toBerlin local trams and buses. Maybe the first port of call for the new Transport Secretary should be to the German capital to see what integration means.

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