Alexander Jan: Give London control of all of its rail services

Alexander Jan: Give London control of all of its rail services

Ever since the first passenger steam trains chuffed into what is today London Bridge station nearly 190 years ago, questions about who should own, control and develop London’s commuter railways and the other transport networks that serve the city, have been a matter of argument and debate.

Historians have recorded that as far back as 1863 a House of Lords committee recommended that “every system of internal railway communication for the metropolis should be under one management.” Forty years later, a Royal Commission on London Traffic recommended the setting up of a board to provide Parliament with strategic advice and analysis “on all transport and traffic matters in Greater London”.

During the 1910s Lord Ashfield, the most important protagonist of the development of London’s transport system, charmed and cajoled erstwhile competing private sector providers of underground and bus services to join the so called “Combine” – a collection of companies which agreed to co-operate on service provision and revenue sharing. This morphed into the quasi-public sector London Passenger Transport Board – better known as London Transport – in the 1930s that was empowered to enter into co-ordination agreements with the railways. However, it had little if any control over them.

The 1940s saw London Transport and mainline rail services fully nationalised. Whilst some bits of the London network were swapped between British Railways and London Transport and vice versa, London’s suburban rail services remained largely out of London’s control. The creation of the Greater London Council (GLC) in the 1960s allowed the return of underground and bus services to London, but command of suburban British Rail services remained elusive.

Margaret Thatcher abolished the GLC in 1986. Ironically, this resulted in London Transport once again being fully nationalised. A few years later, under John Major’s rail privatisation plans, dissolution of British Rail’s well-respected Network South East division – see map below – followed.

Fast forward to the year 2000. Ignoring for a moment the imposition of the ill-fated London Underground public-private partnership funding arrangement, the advent of the Greater London Authority and Transport for London (TfL) marked a turning point in the return of control of many transport services to the capital. However, once again, with the exception of those embraced by the London Overground, suburban rail services were largely excluded.

In early 2016 substantial proposals for rail devolution were brought forward by the then transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin in partnership with the then Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. Had they been implemented, these would have marked the most significant transfer of railway powers to London in the city’s history. Unfortunately, the appointment of Chris Grayling to replace McLoughlin and his antipathy towards Johnson’s Labour successor, Sadiq Khan, sounded the death knell for the McLoughlin-Johnson plan.

Since then, with the major exception of the Elizabeth line, which was destined from the outset to be integrated into TfL, central government has been largely opposed to what it fears might be seen as a pro-London rail policy or one that involves handing power to a political opponent.

Is there a case for rail devolution and, if so, what form could it take?

Firstly, there is likely to be strong support from Londoners for TfL to run more of their train services. It’s now a little old, but a 2015 London Assembly survey found that 54 per cent of respondents preferred TfL to run their trains compared to just 21 per cent who were in favour of existing operators. When the undecided were taken out, the pro-TfL number rose to nearly 70 per cent.

In some ways this was unsurprising. The complexity of railway and other centrally delivered public services often leads to frustration for those who depend on them, because of opaque and hard-to-understand delivery arrangements. Say what you like about the London mayoralty as an institution, if something goes wrong on the Tube or a bus you know who is responsible.

Mayors are directly accountable for the decisions TfL makes and for the consequences of those decisions. Simply providing the public with a much clearer accountability “line of sight” can improve the responsiveness of public service providers to the needs of their users.

The popularity of TfL is reflected in more recent research too. Transport Focus, a passenger watchdog, reported last month that in terms of customer satisfaction both London Overground and the Elizabeth line (and its precursor, TfL Rail) have consistently out-performed Whitehall-managed train operator companies. Currently, they are the only services in England to register user satisfaction at or above 90 per cent.

Unnamed 1

Secondly, TfL has in many ways proven to be a better commissioner of railway services than the Department for Transport. Once a ragbag collection of Cinderella lines, the Overground has been turned into a bright, well-used orbital rail network. Remember what the old North London line was like?

The stations have been transformed, the infrastructure has been upgraded and new trains have been bought. As that early 2016 proposal document pointed out, the first ten years of TfL stewardship saw the Overground’s ridership increase four-fold and delays cut in half. That record of success has continued. The Overground has been more punctual than other London and South East operators in every four-week reporting period since April 2019.

The Elizabeth line service has been another major success. It is now the busiest railway in Britain. Out of an estimated 200 million passengers trips a year, a third are thought to be new. In spite of recent problems with pre-existing Network Rail infrastructure to the west of Paddington, this service too has achieved a better performance than its DfT peers.

The ditched 2016 plan correctly argued that “Local knowledge means TfL can invest in improvements that will best meet customer needs”. And the fact that the government has commissioned TfL to extend its pay-as-you-go fare equipment to stations well beyond the M25 is testament to the organisation’s ability to deliver a complex programme of investment that compares well to most Whitehall IT procurement exercises.

Moreover, TfL’s success has not resulted from the outcome of any ideological battle. Under Labour and Conservative Mayors alike it has used both in-house and private sector providers to deliver its transport services. London Overground, the Elizabeth line, the Docklands Light Railway and the bus network are all examples of the latter.

Thirdly, devolving rail could create big wins for London from a planning perspective. One of the problems with the present set-up is that it is often time consuming and expensive to align suburban services with broader public sector policy objectives. Talk to anyone who has tried to get train frequencies or infrastructure changed to enable new housing areas to be developed and they will tell you what a tortuous process it can be. Mismatches between franchise lengths and the investment needed to increase services can be real stumbling blocks.

Transferring physical rail infrastructure from the ownership of Network Rail to TfL might be too much devolution for some, but it is not difficult to envisage ever closer working between the two organisations. With greater control over rail services, TfL could further enhance existing agreements to deliver more homes for the capital.

Any devolution of rail services would need safeguards to ensure that the interests of rail users outside of London were protected. But the government and TfL have long since outlined much of what would need to be done. And an invigorated Transport for the South East authority could allow a genuine partnership with London, providing transport devolution to an additional eight million-plus people.

Today, the permanent revolution of railway reform continues. The recently published Railway Reform Bill includes the creation of a new integrated railway body, widely understood to be an augmented Network Rail, that will function as an authority for the letting of contracts to passenger train operators and also as the rail infrastructure manager.

Should it make it into law, this may bring to an end – or at least take the edges off – the much-criticised separation of track and train that began with rail privatisation in the early 1990s. For an incoming government, it could also facilitate a London rail revolution.

The current government hopes these reforms will lead to a reduction of the “them and us” attitude that has been blamed for national service failures over the past 40 years. The same problem has cast a shadow over London. It is 161 years since the House of Lords recommended the unification of London’s railway management. Westminster should settle the question of who is responsible for trains in our suburbs once and for all by handing over the keys to the Mayor of London, whoever he or she may be.

Better late than never as they say…

Alexander Jan is the London Property Alliance’s chief economic adviser. and chair of the Central District Alliance and Hatton Garden BIDs. Follow him on X/Twitter. Support and its writers for £5 a month or £50 a year and get things for your money too. Details HERE.

Categories: Comment

1 Comment

  1. GaryJ says:

    What would you recommend for eg Charing Cross- Sevenoaks Line which serves both London and Kent? Kent travellers would be unrepresented if Mayor of London (via TfL) took it over.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *