Rail 780: London mayor needs to control the trains

Over the last three years as a potential mayoral candidate for the 2016 London mayoral election, I have not been short of been offered briefings from various groups seeking to impress me that they offer the solution to London’s future. Subjects have included everything from how to democratise football and turning London into a National Park to what to do about improving a particular town centre (prizes for anyone who knows what borough Burnt Oak is in) but obviously numerous meetings have been about transport and, in particular, the railways.

I have already mentioned (Rail 775) about being pressed hard to support Crossrail 2, something which I was happy to do and in the same column I mentioned about the desire by Transport for London to take on more lines. This brought an invitation to a fascinating briefing at the Centre for London where Transport for London presented a plan to take over the world. Well, not quite, but certainly to bring London’s suburban railways into the fold.

There is much to commend this – and not just because if I became mayor I could play trains. London Overground has been one of the great successes of the post privatised railway – though of course apart from being a management contract, it is controlled by the public sector without any revenue risk being passed on to the private operator. And most important, it is the public sector which sets the standards, requiring fully staffed stations, and the timetable, as well as decisions over rolling stock.

Almost as soon as the most recent addition, West Anglia trains, was taken on by London Overground in May, that positive articles appeared in the press about the clean up to stations, the higher frequencies of operation and the prospect of new rolling stock. So far the approach has been very much incremental with odd lines being incorporated, rather than whole network.

As a result, London’s has a rather strange patchwork of ownership and management patterns which will become even more complex when Crossrail comes on stream. Indeed, what is the logic that means Crossrail will be a TfL project – even though it stretches from Reading to Shenfield – while Thameslink will be run as a conventional National Rail franchise (though at the moment it is a management contract that rather resembles the way London Overground services are contracted out). In addition, there will continue to be London Overground, which now includes routes from several London stations and is operated on a concession basis from Transport for London, the hugely complex situation of Southern and parts of SouthEastern which are now part of the mega franchise Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise and South West Trains which operates separately but is about to be refranchised. Meanwhile, the old C2C has now become Essex Thameside which has a 15 year franchise but oddly the old Thames franchise is now part of a mainly InterCity franchise, Great Western, and as a result does not received sufficient attention from its owner.

So when I suggest, as mayoral candidate, that I would like to bring more of these lines into the London Overground fold, I realise that this is no easy matter. How does one even begin to address this mess? Peter Hendy who has not departed to Network Rail was adamant that expansion of TfL’s rail operations was essential to improving services, and even the present mayor is keen. Devolution is the flavour of the month, and therefore all doors seem to be open.

However, as the briefing at the Centre for London meeting demonstrated powerfully, this is not an easy business and any incoming mayor will have to arrive with a clear vision of what to do and move very fast. The presentation, by Geoff Hobbs, TfL’s head of transport planning for rail and underground, demonstrated very sharply the contrast between north London, served largely by the Underground, and south London, where services are provided by National Rail franchises. A map showing lines with a 10 minute frequency or better was completely dominated by the north, with very few people in the south enjoying that level of service. Consequently, it is hardly surprising that journey times, reliability and customer satisfaction are all far lower in the south. So Transport for London’s aim is, as Hobbs put it, to make ‘the urban National Rail network act more like the Underground’. But how?

Hobbs presents a series of improvements that TfL would want to see – improved interchanges, higher frequencies, a reduction in junctions, simpler and more integrated timetables, all day staff and so on. London Overground has, thanks to similar improvements, achieved a 300 per cent increase in passenger numbers and TfL feels this could be matched.

However, this needs to happen before the franchises are relet. The renewal of the South West trains franchise has been brought forward as no agreement could be reached with Stagecoach over premium payments and consequently will be relet in early 2017. SouthEastern comes up the following year. Clearly, if these were relet on a conventional basis, none of this would happen.

The key, as ever, is politics. Lord Adonis, who has been working on ideas to improve London’s railways, said at the meeting ‘the new mayor must arrive with a clear plan and a determination to carry out’. This, he said, was a key time because once more franchises are relet and the devolution agenda runs its course, there will not be a second chance. The Department for Transport would have to be on board and the plans would have to fit in with its devolution agenda. It is all possible, but not easy.

If it fails to materialise, this would be a reprise of history. When the creation of London Transport was being mooted in the early 1930s, there was talk of including London suburban services but the minister of transport at the time, Herbert Morrison, vetoed it. Let’s hope that nearly a century later, ministers will not respond in that way and London’s railways will finally be integrated. Others Londoners might have to wait another century.


St Pancras not fit for purpose


I love St Pancras and use it as a location for many business meetings. In fact, to be precise, it is the Benugo upstairs, by the Betjeman statue where you will often find me deep in conversation with contacts and friends. The coffee is particularly good, there are nice cakes and most important, there is always room – unlike downstairs where finding a table at any of the numerous cafes can often be as hard as getting a ticket for the Cup Final.

However, this got me thinking about the fact that St Pancras is actually dysfunctional and poorly designed. The upstairs should not be empty while the downstairs is heaving all day. This is both a design fault and an operational one, but the two problems are interrelated.

The fundamental mistake was not to have departing and arriving passengers on Eurostar on different levels. This relates to the ridiculous design of the platform level where there is a huge unused space beyond the buffers, about the size of half a football field that is completely unused. I wrote a series of articles on this a few years ago and never got to the bottom of why it was designed like that, and was given conflicting arguments about safety and security. Nevertheless, in a rational world, people arriving would exit from there and jump into taxis under the arch at the north end of the station where there is a completely unused incline that was once a drop on and off point. This would greatly relieve pressure on the downstairs where arriving and departing passengers almost collide with one another.

The operational aspect is that there is very poor connection between the two floors. Indeed it is infuriating that the escalators at the end of the Midland Main Line platforms are permanently running downwards, which means getting to the higher level involves a lift or stairs a long way away.

Of course I realise that there is security downstairs for arriving Eurostar passengers but using the redundant space upstairs would surely be sufficient to deal with that – even if occasionally there was a slight backlog. When more trains are introduced (what routes are being opened with the new trains due to start arriving next year?) there will be too much pressure on the downstairs departure terminal anyway, and the space downstairs should be used as an extension. I know there is no connection between the two sections, but that could be sorted with a bit of innovative thinking.

It is not surprising that eight years after becoming ‘International’, aspects of the station need a rethink. And getting more people upstairs is a priority in order to relieve pressure on the lower floor.

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