A new report by the London Assembly has proposed that Transport for London (TfL) takes control of London’s suburban rail services. This means they would take over lines currently run by operators such as South West Trains and Southern.
At a basic level, the rationale is that TfL did a great job in improving the old Silverlink network (now the London Overground) and if it can work its magic on our suburban rail routes, it can improve both punctuality, satisfaction and make fares simpler (and in some cases, cheaper).
TfL would, in theory, increase capacity, improve reliability, increase access for disabled passengers and better integrate wider investment.
But this is not an easy nut to crack. There is a whole host of political and practical obstacles to get over. Plus if this was to come to fruition, it would take three years for the first new franchise to be brought under TfL’s wing; 14 years for all of them. All of this while London’s population continues to balloon.
These timescales don’t worry the London Assembly Member who chairs the Transport Committee, Val Shawcross. On the contrary, she says, it allows some breathing time.
“We’d do this as the franchises came up for renewal,” Shawcross told us, “it would be phased approach because of the intense level of management time, and improvements with rolling stock and stations. This wouldn’t be done in a big bang.”
While Shawcross admits that she has not discussed the plan with Zac Goldsmith or Sadiq Khan (the respective mayoral candidates for the Conservatives and Labour), she did say it has cross-party support.
“The Silverlink franchise was taken over by TfL under a Labour Government and a Labour Mayor,” Shawcross said, “The Greater Anglia franchise was taken over under a Conservative government and Conservative mayor. We have cross-party support and I saw that Sadiq tweeted his support for this earlier!
“There is lots of debate about nationalisation [of railways] under Jeremy Corbyn. This isn’t a part of that; this is about getting the best value out of our highly rationed infrastructure in London.”
The Rail Delivery Group, an organisation representing train operators and Network Rail, takes a different view. They argue that the service should stay similar to the status quo. Their spokesman told us:
“Some of the best rail passenger satisfaction levels in London and the south east are being achieved on services commissioned by both TfL and the Department for Transport [DfT]. Private train companies already work effectively with TfL, whether by operating London Overground or ensuring that passengers can use their tickets to travel across both TfL and national rail.
“The railway is carrying record numbers of passengers, and substantial investment is delivering improvements for customers including major projects in London. The rail industry is ready to work with national and local government to deliver even better rail services that meet the needs of commuters living inside and outside the Greater London area.”
Shawcross challenges this logic: “These commissioning arrangements do not push the private sector out — the London bus fleet is an example of this. You might see a big red TfL bus, but these are operated by firms such as Arriva and Abellio.
“There is some evidence that non-overground rail passengers are unhappy and fed up with their services. The survey we commissioned of over 1,000 rail passengers shows 68% said they want TfL to run their rails services.
“It’s more accountable because you’re not just a passenger, you’re also a voter. If you’re not satisfied with the response, you can go to the mayor. It brings it under democratic control.”
Would you prefer to see TfL running more of the suburban rail services in London? Tell us why, or why not below.