Rail 695: London rail is booming but will it continue

Not much unites the two main London mayoral candidates, Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson, popularly known since the election is something of a celebrity beauty contest as Ken and Boris, except their joint desire to get control of London train franchises for Transport for London. Although the precise way this could be done is difficult to work out, since there would have to be a boundary somewhere – Network SouthEast running to Weymouth and Exeter was always a bit anomalous – the intention is clear. The London Overground has been such a universally accepted success that the mayoral candidates want to replicate it on other suburban services.

This attempt to grab power highlights the transformation of the situation of the railways in the capital over the past couple of decades. Rail investment is at the heart of the modernisation of London’s transport infrastructure and the fact that the local politicians are eager to seek more control over London’s rail network shows that they see it as a potential vote winner. Indeed, there is a cross party consensus in the capital that rail investment is necessary and the high level of spending of the past few years should be maintained.

This is a far cry from the 1970s when investment on the Tube had been at a ‘patch and mend’ level since the war and there was even a proposal to close the North London line, now a key component of London’s rail network. The Snow Hill tunnel had long been closed, separating north and south London on what is now the Thameslink route, and ridership on the Underground had slumped to a level that was below half today’s total of over 1.1bn annually. Suburban rail services were suffering from underinvestment and neglect and Marylebone station was threatened with closure and a proposal to concrete over railway tracks and use them for bus services was actually considered seriously by some politicians, as documented by the indefatigable E.A. Gibbins in his book, Railway Conversion, The Impossible Dream.

It is difficult to pinpoint the precise time at which all this changed. Indeed, such major changes in public policy are a lengthy process rightly compared to turning round a supertanker but there has been a pronounced U turn. The 1987 Kings Cross disaster on the Underground put the spotlight on the need for its refurbishment while the Central London Rail Study published in 1989 advocated an East West rail link and a variety of other improvements. Even then it was still an uphill struggle to convince politicians of the need for investment. The Jubilee Line extension was long delayed over the ridiculous requirement of private sector support, which in the event has been minimal, while the first Crossrail bill collapsed because of doubts over funding. Much needed investment for the Underground – the billion a year requested by then Tube boss Denis Tunnicliffe – was subject to the vagaries of Treasury annual allocations and the very name Thameslink 2000 became something of a national joke as the scheme was put off time and again.

However, now the long battle for Crossrail has been won and the only good side effect of the now defunct Public Private Partnership for the Underground is that it enshrined a high level of investment which has been maintained despite its demise. Consequently, Londoners are enjoying an unprecedented boom in railway investment. It really is a remarkable picture  and indeed the only odd aspect is that this it is rail revolution has attracted such little attention. Perhaps it is because it suits national politicians not to shout too loudly about just how much investment is going into the capital.

In addition to Crossrail, there is Thameslink delayed by a year or so but nevertheless definitely in progress, the continued development of London Overground with possibly extra carriages or additional trains and its extension to Clapham Junction, the recent extension of Docklands Light Railway in addition to its extra carriages, the sustained investment in the Tube including the transformation of several stations in conjunction with national rail developments such as Tottenham Court Road, Farringdon and Blackfriars, new air conditioned carriages for the sub surface lines and so on.. (A personal plea – please electrify my local Gospel Oak – Barking line and bring it up to London Overground standards.)

One characteristic of all this investment is that there is very little nonsense about the involvement of the private sector. This is public investment directed by public bodies, with little recourse to complex financial instruments such as the PPP. Crossrail, for example, is a straightforward ‘paid for in cash’ scheme, despite some of the money being raised through additions to the business rate – although watch out for some daft and complex train procurement contract – and Thameslink is largely being paid for by Network Rail which as we all know is effectively a public body. The London Overground is run by a private company but on a management contract basis with all the fares and the risk residing with Transport for London as is the Docklands Light Railway, that little railway that has become  significant network thanks to a series of incremental extensions.

With all this investment in place before the end of the decade, London’s transport system is going to look very different. Journey patterns will change. That is well illustrated by the introduction of high speed trains linking Kent with St Pancras which has created all kinds of journey opportunities that did not exist before, allowing, for example, passengers to avoid the crowded mainline stations serving the south. That is recognised by the massive extension of Farringdon station which will become a hub for the system, the crossover point between Crossrail and Thameslink, as well as being on the Circle and Metropolitan lines.

There is a wonderful irony here. The London Underground celebrates its 150th anniversary in January next year and consequently I am updating my history book on the Tube, The Subterranean Railway. The book recounts the fact that at one point there was a suggestion that there should be one major London station sited at Farringdon to serve the whole country. That might have been an exciting prospect but it was vetoed by a subsequent commission because it would have entailed destroying much of the existing City of London. Instead, we got the Circle Line and the girdle of stations around central London. However, oddly, now Farringdon is going to become a key part of the rail network, one of the busiest stations and a departure point for destinations on all four points of the compass.

The book will have an extra chapter which sets out how the advent of Thameslink and Crossrail will blur the differences between national rail and the Underground and create something of a de facto integrated railway. The challenge for the new mayor (well, retread old mayor whoever wins, actually) is to try to convince central government that this means blending in all London rail services so that people can travel seamlessly throughout the capital and beyond. Of course, handing more franchises or parts of them to Transport for London would make sense. So would extensions of the Oyster Card, which have, some of which have been ruled out, as mentioned in this column recently Rail 691).

However, despite allowing the creation of London Overground which took over previously franchised lines, and enabling Oyster Pay As You Go to be accepted on London suburban rail services, central government has been reluctant to allow London’s rail network to become a subsidiary of Transport for London. The recent government paper on decentralisation, issued in March at the same time as the Command Paper, devotes surprisingly little to London and effectively rules out any further devolution of powers to TfL. The reason given is that services out of London stations require a strategic overview, with the implication that a London government would favour local over long distance services.

Surely, though, that is what the regulator is for? More control for the London mayor would enhance democracy and accountability. It would, too, encourage investment. London needs an integrated railway and TfL would be its natural fat controller.


Vandals on the tracks


May 10th marks a remarkable decade of rail safety in which there has only been one passenger killed in an accident, the unfortunate 84 year old Margaret Masson in the Grayrigg crash of 2007. That is a commendable record for the industry, but there always a risk of complacency setting in. While the likelihood of accidents from two major causes of past disasters has been lowered through the introduction of the Train Protection & Warning System to reduce the risk of signals passed at danger and the much more sophisticated approach to track monitoring afforded by new technology, there are numerous remaining risks and one of the most troubling is vandalism. The railway relies on a high level of societal support and as last year’s riots showed, once that is lost, pretty much anything can happen. The railways are particularly vulnerable to vandalism since the tracks are virtually impossible to police. One way of reducing the risk, however, is to ensure that there is nothing at hand for an opportunist hooligan to use and it seems that Network Rail is failing in this regard.

In my various train travels, I have noticed that there is an alarming amount of redundant material left lying between or next to the tracks, including sections of rail sometimes quite short enough to be lifted relatively easily by a couple of strong youths. A regular train traveller and JP, James MacLeod, spotted this too. He cites numerous examples from his commute: Just to the west of Barnes station, near the Vine Road level  crossing on the down (south) side of the tracks, two whole sections of
crossover (sleepers and rails) have been dumped at the lineside. They have been there since the crossovers were modified at least three years ago.’ He adds there is another pile of discarded rail sections at Barnes station itself. And so on.
However, Mr MacLeod’s efforts have been in vain as, despite writing both to the chief executive David Higgins and after receiving no proper reply, to all four members of the company’s Safety, Health and Environment Committee, response there has been none. Network Rail, which sometimes seems overly concerned averting tiny risks (and bombards us with ridiculous warnings about ‘inclement weather’ at its stations), should ensure that this problem is tackled quickly before the inevitable happens.


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