Charles Wright: Government national rail plan praises TfL system. But is there a catch?

Charles Wright: Government national rail plan praises TfL system. But is there a catch?

The government’s “Great British Railways” plan unveiled this week, promising Transport for London-style contracting and ticketing across the national rail network, amounts to a rare government “vote of confidence” in London’s transport system”, according to Sadiq Khan.

The current franchise system for train services, a “structure that has had its day”, will be replaced by service contracts similar to those “used by Transport for London on its successful Overground and bus networks”, the plan says.

The capital’s Oyster and contactless ticket schemes, showing that “upfront investment can be more than repaid by cost savings elsewhere and by making travel quicker and more attractive for passengers”, are set to become the model nationwide too.

There’s recognition of public transport as a “catalyst for job creation, investment and prosperity”, and that “this applies especially to cities, the engines of the British economy, and most of all to London, the most productive city in the country.”

There’s even a defence of alleged higher investment in the South East, which the report says looks “markedly different” when given as investment per journey in each region, and has contributed to a “virtuous cycle of growth and investment”.

The London Mayor and other devolved authorities will keep their transport powers to award contracts and set fares too, the plan says. So far, so positive – and a distinct change in tone compared to the government’s pre-election jousting with Khan over TfL and its finances. So what’s the catch?

Predictably, it’s money, with the government looking for savings overall as well as planning to shift transport investment away from London and the South East – regions which the report says have effectively had their share already in recent years from investment in Crossrail, new rolling stock and Thameslink upgrades. 

No Crossrail 2 any time soon then and also a suggestion of continuing pressure on TfL budgets and difficult negotiations to come, with the network still surviving on government money and its latest bailout extended only till 28 May. 

Whitehall’s vote of confidence in London’s systems still needs to be backed up with cash, says Khan. “It’s essential that government provides adequate financial support to TfL to enable it to continue to deliver the sort of high-quality public transport services that it is now seeking to replicate nationally.”

And is there just a hint of uncertainty in respect of devolved powers? There’s no mention of further devolution of suburban services, where progress stalled during Khan’s first term. Pre-election, the Mayor pledged to press the devolution case with government as it reformed the national network, with Great Northern services from Moorgate a particular target. 

Instead, existing devolved rail authorities like TfL will be expected to support the “single national network”, including consistent branding and standards. Great British Railways will have a regional structure and new “partnerships” between those regions and local and regional government are on offer. 

For London and the South East combined that will mean a “new strategic partnership” bringing together Great British Railways, TfL and local authorities and businesses across the region. It has a particularly wide brief to coordinate investment as well as timetabling and passenger standards, and also “to support housing, economic growth and the environment across the highly interconnected transport network in that part of the country”.

Could this cut across existing powers, or stand in the way of further devolution of suburban rail? Further details on the “involvement of local leaders in rail and other transport services and the levers available to them”, the report says, “will be set out in the levelling up white paper in due course.”

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