If this column had developed a motto during its 21 years of existence, it would be something like ‘politics prevails’ (perhaps one of my more learned readers could provide the Latin). That is the only explanation for the announcement, rather out of the blue, that Transport for London is being granted a large land grab by taking over control of London’s suburban services.
This was universally welcomed. Transport for London has longed pushed for the right to expand its London Overground operation but despite being given West Anglia services to Enfield Town, Cheshunt and Chingford last year, the mayor, Boris Johnson, was rebuffed as recently as 2013 in his attempt to take various Kent services. Local MPs and councillors opposed the move arguing, as the MP for Dover and Deal Charlie Elphicke said at the time: ‘This power grab by the Mayor would have meant higher prices and worse services for people in Kent.’ He was playing on fears that suburban and short regional services would have taken priority over services used by his constituents.
Now, however, in a complete about face, negotiations between Transport for London and the Department for Transport, TfL is to ‘become responsible for services mostly or wholly within the GLA [Greater London Authority] area’. This will involve taking over services from the franchises currently operated by South West Trains, SouthEastern (now officially the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern, actually a management contract) and South Central.
This has been widely welcomed by all sides. Indeed, TfL has been pushing for an expansion of its control over London rail services almost since its inception. The creation of London Overground out of a disparate set of mostly poor services, was one of Ken Livingstone’s most important achievements and resulted in not only the massive improvement in services, but also the revival of whole swathes of East and South East London. If ever politicians need convincing of the importance of transport to economic regeneration, the London Overground is the classic case history.
The tremendous success of the Orange roundel, the logo for London Overground, is one of the reasons for the announcement. It has become synonymous with good service, new trains, high frequency and staffed stations. But here’s the rub. While everyone has welcomed the announcement, some reporters rather swallowed the PR guff wholesale without examining the detail. The Evening Standard, for example, said that ‘all suburban services in the capital will be rebranded as London Overground’ which is clearly not necessarily the case since no details have been given. Moreover, given the lack of precise information, there is no guarantee that the high standards of the existing Overground service, most crucially the staffing during all operating hours, will be introduced for all the newly branded services.
The commitments in the joint statement from TfL and the Department were not at all clear. Some services would be upgraded to 15 minutes per hour and there is plenty of guff about improving passenger ‘outcomes’, whatever they are, and possibly building new rail lines. However, there was no information on exactly the nature of those improvements. In any case the announcement merely spoke of a consultation with the implication that no firm decision had been made. Without going into extremely complex negotiations, the only realistic time to take over services is at the end of a franchise term or at a break point and this means 2017 at the earliest with some not going over till 2021 or even possibly later.
There are still political obstacles to overcome, too. Some politicians and commuters in the Home Counties feel there is a democratic deficit being created, and are concerned that the all powerful TfL will tailor services to the needs of Londoners to the detriment of those coming from further away. Frankly, I think this is a red herring. TfL has no reason to do this, since its job is to ensure that there is transport for everyone who wants to get to work in London, and I suspect that ministers and the regulator would get involved if there were a hint of discrimination against people not living in the capital. Nonetheless, as mentioned above, it was precisely these concerns that stymied the transfer of Kent services three years ago.
The interesting question is what has changed since that failure? The answer is simple: politics. Zac Goldsmith, the Tory candidate for London mayor, has so far found that his good looks have not been enough to convince voters that he is the right man for the job. While Sadiq Khan, his Labour rival, has not exactly lit up London with his own efforts, he is 10 points ahead in the polls and seemingly coasting to victory.
Therefore, this is intended to be a New Year’s gift from Boris and Patrick McLoughlin to Zac Goldsmith. . Zac can claim credit that this is the fruits of having a Conservative government working with a Conservative mayor, and electing Sadiq will damage this relationship. If the Tories are to win the mayoralty, it is the outer London voters, who are most dissatisfied with rail services, who have to be won over. This announcement, then, is a nakedly political one. However, I doubt whether it will really change the way many people vote and it could well rebound on the Tories, as they find that they have to hand over a large swathe of extra services to a Labour mayor.
There are other ironic aspects to these changes, too. In a way, this represents a renationalisation of services since TfL is owned by local government, though London Overground will likely contract out the operations to a private company, as happens with its existing services. Even more ironically, the statement represents a recognition of deep underlying dissatisfaction with the franchising process, particularly with suburban services in London.
Don’t get me wrong. This is generally good news for London and for the railway. It will undoubtedly mean an improvement in service for many Londoners and gives TfL the chance to think more strategically about the rail network in London. However, as with all devolution of services, there needs to be financial support to underpin any improvement in services. It was noticeable that when interviewed, Boris Johnson refused to say that TfL would need more money when it takes over these services, but there is no doubt about the fact it will. The big question is that if Sadiq Khan wins the election, will the Conservative government make it harder for him to access those funds than if Zac were to win ?. As I mentioned at the beginning, ‘Politics prevails’.
Cycle spat highlights problems of takeover
Not everything, of course, is rosy in the Transport for London garden, a fact that was neatly encapsulated by a commuter, Bob Colover, who used to take his bike on the West Anglia services out of Liverpool Street during the morning rush hour. Since he was travelling against the peak flows, Abellio, the cycle friendly train operator which used to run the lines, allowed him to take on his bike.
However, when the line was taken over by TfL, he could no longer do so as London Overground has a blanket ban on carriage of bikes during the rush hour. This is understandable on routes such as the North London line which, as an orbital line, has peak flows in both directions. This does not apply to the West Anglia services, which operate out of a main line station in the centre of London and consequently the trains leaving during the morning rush hour have plenty of space.
This logic, though, had not percolated through to the management of TfL which justified its ban to Mr Colover by saying: ‘A consistent policy across London Overground enables our staff to be clear when unfolded bikes can be used, our experience before then was that it was almost impossible to enforce the complex policy such that unfolded bikes were brought onto our busy services with significant complaints from customers that unfolded bikes were taking up valuable space and making their journeys hazardous’.
This is typical bureaucratic gobbledegook and thankfully, after an assembly member, Val Shawcross intervened, along with the Cycling Commissioner Andrew Gilligan, the policy has been reversed and common sense prevails. Mr Colover can get back on his bike and London Overground can cope with the complexities of a few people using their bikes. What this shows, in fact, is that because TfL is controlled by the mayor, who is elected, such interventions will be easier than with a train operator which has no such accountability, allaying fears about a democratic deficit mentioned in the main piece.