Speaking in January, Mayor Boris Johnson said: "Our railways have been the workhorse of the London and South East economy since Victorian times." As the population rises and passenger numbers increase, this workhouse is working harder than ever, and the strain is beginning to show.
Data from the Office of Rail Road shows 297.4 million franchised passenger journeys occurred in the London and South East sector between 2014 and 2015, a 2.8% rise. As this demand grows, the ugly issues of capacity and frequency rear their heads.
The powers that be at Transport for London (TfL) and the Department for Transport (DfT) believe that one answer is to transfer responsibility for inner suburban rail services from DfT to TfL – in effect a huge expansion of the current Overground system, operating from London Bridge, Victoria, Charing Cross, Cannon Street and Moorgate, reaching places such as Sevenoaks, Epsom, Chessington, and Hertford. The aim is for 80% of stations to have a train departing at least every 15 minutes, up from 67%.
"Railways matter so much," says Geoff Hobbs, London Rail’s head of transport planning. "Take the Overground as an example. The railway that was there before, Silverlink Metro, was such an underused resource and poorly performing railway. It had always been our thought that it could perform a much bigger role in meeting London’s transport challenges."
Ridership on the Overground has since gone up by an estimated four times and Network Rail’s public performance measure shows that 93.2% of trains arrive at their terminating station on time. But how could this transition work in practice?
Current franchises: failing to meet passenger needs
Under the existing Overground model TfL sets specifications for train frequency, station facilities and performance. It is also responsible for fares and revenue, while London Overground Rail Operations manages stations and trains on a day-to-day basis.
Realistically, the first franchise that could come under the new TfL umbrella is Southeastern, which operates out of Victoria, Charing Cross, Blackfriars and Cannon Street, and is up for renewal in 2018. Southern, Thameslink and Great Northern services could then transfer by 2021.
A look at current performance levels shows some franchise holders are failing to meet passenger expectations. A Which? survey, released in February, reveals Thameslink and Great Northern, and Southeastern both score 46% for overall satisfaction. Southern only scored 2% higher, while the worst services for delays were operated by Arriva Trains Wales, Thameslink and Great Northern, First Great Western/Great Western Trains and Southern.
Some of this has been attributed to ongoing work at London Bridge station and a Southeastern spokesperson highlighted its £70m investment programme as it bids to tackle the problems. Govia Thameslink Railway, which runs Thameslink and Great Northern, has also stated that it is working with Network Rail to reduce "delays within our control". However, MPs recently debated Southeastern’s performance, with Tom Tugendhat, MP for Tonbridge and Malling, labelling it "woeful".
South Western, which operates in central and south west London to towns and cities in Berkshire, Devon, Dorset, Hampshire, Surrey and Wiltshire, is up for renewal in 2017, but Hobbs says it is too soon for TfL to take over as the procurement exercise is already underway.
"It is a fairly well-worn process. Various passenger service groups transfer from one franchise to another, and that is essentially what it is," explains Hobbs. The original Overground formation is an example of this.
"That means that you work out your preferred new geography depending on what is best and most feasible operationally, the changes regarding how it is going to switch from DfT to TfL, and then procure an operator."
If this transfer of powers is rubber stamped, the contractor becomes TfL, not the DfT – in a sense handing the baton to an organisation with greater local knowledge and accountability, and a track record with the Overground that stands up to scrutiny.
Tackling the financial question
Sam Sims, a member of the Centre for London think tank and one of the authors of the Turning South London Orange report, says that while the system would change from a franchise to a concession, "we should not assume that the current franchise holder, or possible franchise holder, is somehow going to lose out from this", adding: "It will still be a network operated by concession holders – private train operating companies."
Jonathan Roberts, a consultant who also worked on the Centre for London report, believes it will allow operators to narrow their focus on quality. "There isn’t this ‘Oh, we are not sure if can afford to take the risk of investing in an inner suburban rail service where the average fare revenue is one or two pounds per journey’," he says. "TfL takes the commercial risk for the fare structure and the operator is focused on the quality aspect."
One of the challenges for TfL is financing, however. The UK Government has announced its intention to phase out the organisation’s funding grant and expanding the rail network would see any surplus or deficit on the current franchises transfer to TfL. But, Hobbs is upbeat that TfL could incorporate the cost and then start to formulate improvement works to the network. "Through improved service you often get an increase in revenue," he says.
This view is shared by Val Shawcross, London Assembly member for Lambeth & Southwark and chair of the London Assembly Transport Committee. She has long pushed for greater devolution to TfL and claims that the size and revenue of the organisation allows it to make upfront investments, resulting in a pay-off further down the line with increased passenger numbers. Still, at this early stage, nailing down a concrete figure is difficult.
In response, the Rail Delivery Group, which represents Network Rail and train operators, said in a statement: "Running a good railway requires bodies who commission services and train companies to work closely together through agreements that focus on the best outcomes and meeting the needs of both passengers and the wider economy. Whether it is the DfT or TfL which commissions train services in the capital is for the government to decide."
Meeting London’s future demand
"Meeting the needs of passengers and the wider economy" goes to the heart of what the DfT and TfL are proposing. The belief that TfL management will improve journeys for those commuting into London is widespread; the case put forward often links back to the aforementioned success of the Overground.
"If you want to simplify the argument to a single sentence; we expect demand in South London to increase by 100% by 2050," says Sims. "[This means] you have either got to build a very expensive new tunnel main line – essentially a new Crossrail – or you can upgrade the existing suburban rail lines, which are not being used to their full potential".
Hobbs describes it as running to stand still; a constant battle to provide frequent services in the face of an estimated increase of London’s population to ten million by 2030.
"The key driver from our point of view is [better] service standards and frequency, and better, more modern trains," says Shawcross. When the London Assembly ran a survey of 1,000 passengers, approximately 68% were in favour of devolution to TfL. "This is not just about transparency, accessibility and accountability, but also catering better for the population and economic growth needs of London and the South East," Shawcross adds.
What of the Oyster card or contactless ticketing? In Hobbs’ words, a "logical" boundary would have to be set for contactless ticketing. "Note the word contactless there. Technically this is more flexible."
Ticketing is just one aspect that needs to be looked at. "There is a lot of feasibility to do, to work out what the best possible geography will be in the future, in terms of which passenger service groups transfer over. We will also need to do feasibility on the best possible time," explains Hobbs. Speaking to local authorities will also be central to the agenda. Back in 2013, Kent County Council was firmly opposed to the idea for fear that long-distance commuters could lose out, although the council’s stance seems to have softened.
In fact, finding opposition to the plan is difficult. The indicators on growth – passenger and population alike – demonstrate that the time for talking cannot go on much longer. The already packed-out commuter belt services are suffering.
In an attempt to study what can be done to relieve the strain, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has recommended overhauling the current system by increasing the number of additional – also known as open access – services or by splitting up franchises.
By allowing train companies to offer services on the same lines, it would effectively remove the monopolies that operating companies hold on each route. The more radical approach is to scrap the franchise system entirely in favour of multiple licensed operators, driving greater competition – which can lead to better performance or better value for money if done correctly.
If TfL does pull off its Overground expansion plan and becomes the contracting authority, it could consider following the first recommendation. Such a model might also require a degree of flexibility on fare structure, in order to reap the benefits of competition and avoid yet another monopoly on services.
Even so, there is a long way to go and legitimate questions regarding budgets and execution of the plan do have to be asked. "I think the debate now is about implementation," says Shawcross, while Sims believes that "there comes a point when to keep the city moving, we have to back this sort of significant investment in order to keep London a functioning place."
The time has come to rejuvenate the workhorse.