Rail 775: How London Overground is changing the face of the capital

As a Labour supporting QPR fan, it has not been a great couple of weeks for me. However, as an inveterate optimistic, instead of dwelling on grief, I want to focus on a positive, which is what is happening to rail travel in the capital and in particular the need to ensure that the investment does not stop once Crossrail and Thameslink are completed.

While out canvassing in parts of London I do not normally reach, I was struck by the transformative nature of the London Overground section that runs from Highbury & Islington, near where I live, through to several branches in south London which was created by Transport for London out of the old, and pretty useless, East London line and various bits of underused or closed railway line. It took imagination, real impetus from Ken Livingstone (who remember was also responsible in a previous incarnation for reopening the Snow Hill tunnel), a successful bid for central government funding and the work of some brilliant railway people to bring it about.

Travelling at all sorts of hours, including at one point coming back on a midnight train from Peckham to Highbury & Islington, it is quite extraordinary how many people are using the service. Indeed, when I am asked to name rail projects. So successful has the line been that fewer than five years after opening, the trains have already been boosted by an extra carriage, from four to five, at a cost of £88m for 57 carriages, even though several of the stations are too short which means selective door opening has to be deployed.

Moreover, because the frequencies of the train are metro-style and the stations are fully staffed for the whole duration of operations, making them feel very safe, usage does not tail off in the evening as sharply as on some suburban lines where travelling late feels like a risk too far for women and the elderly.

Bringing up the National Rail services to London Overground standards is a key objective for Peter Hendy, the Transport Commissioner for London. In a recent interview in Management Today magazine, he rounded on the national rail train operators with a ferocity that inevitably got him a rebuke from the unions: ‘On SouthEastern, the trains are like the wild west. They are shit, awful. And then every now and then some people who look like the Gestapo get on and fine everyone they can. It doesn’t improve your day, does it?’ This is all part of a turf war as Hendy, backed by his boss, the London Mayor Boris Johnson, wants to gain control of more of the National Rail network. Already, on May 31, the West Anglia route between Liverpool Street and Enfield Town, Cheshunt (via Seven Sisters) and Chingford, as well as the Romford to Upminster service of Abellio Greater Anglia will become part of the London Overground network but Hendy and Johnson had wanted the Kent suburban services to go over as well but were thwarted in their efforts by opposition from Kent MPs. Even though the election result has not been helpful in this regard, showing what investment and the badge of London Overground will do to the greatly underinvested services on West Anglia could swing the Kent politicians over to the cause. There is, of course, a financial aspect to this. London Overground is not cheap and staffing it during all operating hours is a burden which the National Rail train operators have refused to take on.

My feeling is that the transformative nature and the true significance of the London Overground has been underestimated. There is a tendency in the railway industry to go for big projects and that once an idea comes up, to pile as much ‘future proofing’ and bells and whistles on to it whereas the London Overground did not require enormous sums of investment (OK £1bn or so plus around the same on rolling stock is not chicken feed) and has grown somewhat organically. The other example of this approach is the Docklands Light Railway which was never planned to be as large as it has now become but which steadily went from one relatively short line to a whole network.

The most powerful effect of the London Overground has been on Hackney, a central borough with no Underground station and an area that was until 20 years ago synonymous with urban decline. Now it is booming, to such an extent that it is becoming unaffordable for most ordinary Londoners. Indeed, this is a great irony of transport projects – successful ones lead to such an uplift in house values that they price out precisely the sort of people that the schemes have originally been designed to help. Anyone finding a solution to that little conundrum can send me a postcard…

London is, of course, being blessed with two major transport projects in Crossrail and Thameslink. I have written before about the scale of the £15bn Crossrail project and it is indeed something to behold. This is not a cramped Tube line being squeezed under London but a massive full scale railway line that will add 10 per cent to London’s rail transport capacity. Thameslink too, currently under attack due to the mess at London Bridge – which is what prompted Hendy’s attack – will also provide a massive boost in capacity when it comes on stream. All this served by a fantastic array of new and rebuilt stations and there is much to celebrate.

So here is the difficult bit. The next project after those should be Crossrail2 which including trains and optimism bias (the Treasury’s habit of putting a third on to the price of schemes as an estimate of cost overrun) will cost something of the order of £27.5bn (do you remember the days when £1m seemed a lot of money, and now billions are bandied about rather recklessly?). Crossrail2 is again a full; scale railway line under London, running in tunnel from Wimbledon to Tottenham Hale and New Southgate, connecting with National Rail networks in Surrey and Hertfordshire. It is, like Crossrail, a regional RER type concept, not a metro type scheme with lots of stations nearer together. There are advantages to both but a consultationin 2013 decided on the former.

Selling the idea is going to be a difficult ask in the context of austerity, HS2 (although if it does finish at Euston the case for Crossrail2 is strengthened) and overspending on electrification and other projects. Moreover, as I mentioned in my last column (another Mystic Wolmar failure since it was addressed to a new secretary of state as I never predicted we would get Patrick McLoughlin, the old one back) Northern politicians, already angered about the emphasis given to rail developments in the south east, are likely to want to see, for example, HS3 go ahead before yet another scheme in the capital.

Persuading the opponents that London is a special case is not easy but is essential. Transport for London needs around £250m to develop Crossrail2 sufficiently so that it could go into Parliament as a Transport and Works Act straight after the next general election. Yet, in fact, TfL’s budget has been cut by a similar amount for the current financial year. There is much special pleading going on behind the scenes and perhaps this is the first issue that needs to come across the Patrick McLoughlin’s desk. Meanwhile, though, TfL also needs to look at smaller schemes where improvements to Cinderella services, or bringing back sections of unused line can make radical improvements to an area, as has happened with the Overground. Putting all the eggs in the basket of a big scheme would be a mistake. There are quicker wins to be had.


Industrial relations still a sore point


By the time you read this, the proposed rail strike will have either been called off (Mystic Wolmar’s prediction) or have disrupted Bank Holiday services. While I sympathise with those who have been disrupted, the managers at Network Rail who long enjoyed ridiculous levels of bonus for simply doing their jobmust be seen as to blame for this dispute.

Taking these huge bonuses, but then offering very small one off rises to the workforce is a hugely provocative act. I do defend the unions’ right to strike, but feel that with goodwill on both sides, many disputes can be avoided. Such a spirit of conciliation, however, needs the right culture and big bonuses for a few very senior staff do not help that. I hope that the decision by the present boss Mark Carne to reduce these bonuses, the culture is changing. and a better climate of industrial relations can be fostered in the company.


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