Little sign of greater Transport for London control of suburban rail in government plans, Assembly hears

Little sign of greater Transport for London control of suburban rail in government plans, Assembly hears

Prospects for a further Transport for London takeover of suburban rail services in and around the capital appear to be receding. That was the message today as London Assembly Members quizzed Keith Williams (pictured), author of the government’s review of rail across the UK.

The review will see the end of Network Rail and the current franchising system for rail services, and the creation of a new Great British Railways (GBR) body, controlling the system nationwide and awarding contracts for passenger transport along the lines of those overseen by TfL on its London Overground network.

The overground arrangements, along with TfL’s integrated ticketing systems, was the “base model for what we are looking at,” Williams told the Assembly transport committee. But he was lukewarm about any extension of the TfL network, urging greater involvement in decision-making from communities and local authorities across the south east rather than changing devolution arrangements.

Sadiq Khan has consistently argued for further devolution of suburban rail services, including in his election manifesto earlier this year, but progress towards an agreement with government stalled during his first term.

TfL pressed its case in evidence submitted to Williams in 2019, suggesting that its limited takeover of suburban lines had “yielded great benefits for passengers and indeed wider economic goals such as catalysing house-building,” and that wider “metroisation” would offer “simpler service patterns, higher frequencies, faster journey times and better interchange”. 

But although the Williams plan says devolved authorities, including City Hall, will keep their powers to award rail contracts and set fares, they will also be expected to support the “single national network”, with consistent branding and standards, and operate within a new “strategic partnership” bringing local authorities and businesses together with GBR across the whole of the south east.

The recommendations, accepted by Whitehall, were setting alarm bells ringing for Labour AM Joanne McCartney, a long-time campaigner for expanding TfL’s remit. “We’ve always said more should be devolved to TfL,” she said, “because we’ve seen that London Overground has delivered more efficiency and better value for money, such as six trains an hour off-peak.

“It is efficient because we have control over it, the ability to adapt and grow. When you are talking about common branding and common ticketing, how do we make sure we still have our distinctive regional voice, our orange roundels at our London Overground stations?” 

Many questions remain unanswered about the way the new system will work, added Emma Gibson, director of London TravelWatch, the official watchdog representing transport users in and around the capital, including commuters.

“It is really unclear how big a voice TfL, the Mayor and the GLA will have at that table. Or will this be the kind of meeting where GBR tells London what’s happening?” she asked. “And will the Mayor keep the power to set fares and keep them affordable?”

A “blueprint” with more detail was needed for joint working between GBR, the devolved governments and mayoral authorities, amid wider concerns about branding and ticketing, agreed Duncan Henry, strategy director for the Rail Delivery Group of train operating companies.

“It’s a question of ongoing engagement and greater local input,” said Williams. “It’s all about making sure the regions have sufficient input because they are closer to what passengers want in their area.”

The new system would not be a “like for like” replacement of the current franchises, and there would be opportunities to consider different arrangements under a new bidding process, he added. Anit Chandarana, Network Rail chief of staff, said consultation would take place with TfL on fare arrangements. “I don’t think a system working that well in London would be shaken up,” he said.

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