TfL must take over London’s suburban rail to help our commuters
Transferring responsibility for suburban rail could kickstart the long-overdue transformation of services for passengers in south-east London
As residents of a capital city, Londoners expect fast, frequent and high-quality metro-style rail services as a matter of course. As things stand, only some are lucky enough to receive them; it’s high time they all did, and replicating the success of London Overground across the entire London network is the first step.
Created in 2007, London Overground is now one of the best-performing railways in the country in terms of reliability and customer satisfaction.
Transport for London (TfL) runs London Overground on a flexible concession model, paying a fee to the train operator to run the service while taking the risk of fluctuating revenue. Under the model, the operator earns bonuses on performance measures such as customer satisfaction, punctuality and staffing levels, but is also penalised when performance falls short.
There is little doubt that the transfer of suburban services within franchises such as Southeastern to TfL would go a long way towards ensuring closer cooperation between the operator and Network Rail, and better planning of investment, resulting in increased capacity and more frequent services.
It is for that reason that a number of London MPs have long advocated rail devolution and why it has enjoyed firm cross-party support for many years.
Indeed, the policy of handing London’s suburban services to TfL and integrating them into the London Overground network was first proposed by the current prime minister during his tenure as mayor of London.
“Passengers in my Greenwich and Woolwich constituency suffer regular delays, cancellations and overcrowding”
Up until 2016, all the signs seemed to indicate that TfL would be handed responsibility for individual franchises as and when they came up for renewal, with the then transport secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, and Johnson putting their joint stamp on the policy in a document, A New Approach to Rail Passenger Services in London and the South East, published jointly by the Department for Transport (DfT) and TfL in January of that year.
While Johnson was not seeking a third term, it seemed clear that it was intended to be implemented regardless of who the new London mayor would be.
However, in May 2016 Sadiq Khan was elected mayor of London and, in July of that year, Chris Grayling was appointed as McLoughlin’s successor. Grayling vetoed London rail devolution, with many suspecting that he opposed it for the simple reason that he was determined, as he wrote in a 2013 response to Johnson on the issue, “to keep suburban rail services out of the clutches of any future Labour mayor”.
Thankfully, there are now strong signs that a more pragmatic mindset has returned to the DfT. The current secretary of state, whose Welwyn Hatfield constituency is served by Great Northern, has for some years been a vocal supporter of TfL taking control of Govia Thameslink railway services out of Moorgate.
As a result, discussions about the devolution of Great Northern services to TfL are well advanced and commuters along that route can reasonably expect to receive news of ‘in principle’ ministerial approval soon.
Passengers in my Greenwich and Woolwich constituency, who still suffer from regular delays, cancellations and overcrowding, will be hoping that the same rapid progress can be made in relation to Southeastern services.
It is, of course, a bigger and more complex franchise than Great Northern and the present focus of ministers will inevitably be on dealing with the franchise expiring on 1 April, but initial conversations between the DfT and TfL have taken place.
Our hope is that those conversations are stepped up in the coming months so that passengers across south-east London might look forward to the high standard of service that many Londoners already enjoy.
Matthew Pennycook is Labour MP for Greenwich and Woolwich