London mayor Sadiq Khan’s desire to extend the Overground is matched by transport secretary Chris Grayling’s desire to stop him


Investment: new Overground trains at Bombardier’s Derby site



It was no surprise to see the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, recently renew his calls for more suburban rail services to be transferred to Transport for London. It will equally be no surprise to see Chris Grayling sidestep this and continue with preparations to let the next Southeastern franchise in November as planned.

But what should happen?

The case for TfL to extend its reach has two immediate factors in its favour: one is the success of previous transfers, and the other the considerable public dissatisfaction with the present level of service on lines run under the Govia umbrella.

London’s ambition to take control of suburban services into the capital is not new. As far back as 2004, TfL was arguing for the creation of a London Regional Rail Authority and while this did not transpire, the mood music helped bring about the transfer of the London parts of what had been the Silverlink franchise from National Express to TfL in 2007.

The London Assembly had been scathing about Silverlink, issuing a report in which it called its service “shabby, unreliable, unsafe and overcrowded.” On the occasions I used it, it did seem like the forgotten railway, and its unstaffed stations were widely seen as an invitation to free travel among a certain section of the population. There were positives – its PPM in 2006/7 was better than the industry average for the time, at 90.8% – but these were lost in the mix.

There is no question that the lines were significantly enhanced and revitalised after TfL took possession in November 2007. Stations were staffed again and given a makeover. The lines were rebranded with the standard roundel and given a new name – Overground – and a new colour, orange.

Significantly, Oyster pay-as-you-go was extended to the line, which now crucially was added to London’s totemic underground map. This addition was for many people a revelation that these lines even existed and people began to consider the opportunity for new ways to get to work, plus new journeys that could be made to visit Auntie Dot and Uncle Fred.

One downside, for lovers of the Underground map such as myself, was that the new Overground lines look to have been bolted on by some 12-year-old with no artistic background, so ruining the look of the iconic map, but perhaps that was a small price to pay, and this corporate vandalism could
yet be corrected. I urge TfL to do so. They will certainly need a redesign of sorts if more lines are added. The attractive simplicity is already being lost.

Buoyed by their Silverlink success, TfL identified further transfers that they wished to see and these were considered while I was transport minister at the Department for Transport in about 2012.

There was unsurprisingly strong support from within London for any transfer, but a good deal of opposition from outside the capital, particularly from MPs in Kent. Their view, and indeed mine as the MP for Lewes, was that on a congested network with a limited number of train paths, handing control over to TfL might end up with longer distance services being squeezed at the expense of improved suburban services. It would be natural, I argued, if the mayor and elected assembly members sought to improve services for their electorate and worry less about those beyond the London boundary without London votes.

Sadiq Khan has promised that one benefit of a transfer to TfL would be “more frequent services” on those lines transferred, which tends to reinforce that concern. With Victoria, Waterloo and even the newly expanded London Bridge chock-a-block, increased suburban frequency can only be delivered, certainly at peak time, by reallocating train paths from longer distance trains.

There was a view among my Tory ministerial colleagues that we should “help Boris out” by acceding to the transfer requests, an argument that I had little sympathy with. In the end we agreed a compromise with services to Cheshunt, Enfield Town and Chingford being transferred, but not the Kent lines. The tiny line from Romford to Upminster was later added, uncontroversial as it exists wholly within the London Borough of Havering, even if it did provide a distant and unconnected stretch for Overground.

TfL argued, with some justification, that they already provided tube services way beyond the London boundary, to places like Amersham and Epping. But the crucial difference here is trains from these far-flung outposts do not compete for track space with trains from further afield, and it is that matter that needs to be sorted, in my view, before any further transfers occur.

Actually, it should not be impossible to reach a way forward on that. Democratically, there should be involvement from elected councils outside London for areas that might be affected, but there is no reason why the DfT, with help from Network Rail, should not be able to hold the ring and ensure a fair outcome.

There seems little doubt that any transfer to TfL is likely to be welcomed by passenger groups, at least in the short term, and not least because people, when presented with an incumbent they don’t like, are generally happy to opt for an alternative, the merits of which they tend not to examine too closely. It is the reason why governments lose elections, and oppositions tend to keep rather quiet about their own plans.

And passengers on Southern and Southeastern in particular have had a torrid time in recent years, with major disruption as London Bridge was upgraded, a long-running dispute with the RMT about who opens doors on trains, and the reliability challenges that, because of the highly intensive use of track, are probably more acute on their lines into London that almost anywhere else in the world.

The Metro newspaper quoted one disaffected traveller, a Mr Ian McWalter, who tweeted: “353 consecutive delays/cancellations without ONE train on time in between” before adding some offensive comments, printed in the paper, about Southeastern’s management. These sorts of tweets, and the opinions they represent, have been far from uncommon.

And, responding to the anger of his constituents in the wake of May’s timetable meltdown, Grant Shapps, former Conservative party chairman and MP for Welwyn Hatfield, tweeted: “I’ve met the rail minister and urged him to end Great Northern’s franchise with their appalling new Welwyn Hatfield timetable. I support @TFL London Overground taking over the line and we’re making progress.”

“Democratically, there should be involvement from elected councils outside London”

So Sadiq Khan is pushing at an open door as far as rail users in London’s travel-to-work area are concerned. His 2016 offer promised more staff, a deep clean of stations, and a fares freeze for four years, all within his power to deliver if a transfer took place. He also promised more frequent trains and fewer cancellations, which is a taller order.

He can point to a sustained good, and popular performance by Overground. The approval rating last month was 88%, compared to 75% for Southeastern. Interestingly, TfL Rail, which operates out of Liverpool Street to Shenfield, only scored 69%. That line is of course due to be folded into the unimaginatively named Elizabeth line when it is finally ready, some time away still, it seems.

Southeastern, for their part, argue that in recent times, they have added 68 new carriages and undertaken £5m of station refurbishments. While this is doubtless welcome, it only spreads thinly across the sprawling Southeastern network. They have also appointed new so-called “customer ambassadors”, whatever they are – a ghastly job title if ever I heard one.

So Sadiq may see an open door as far as passengers are concerned, but it is one to which Chris Grayling holds the key and there is no sign he is about to unlock it.

The mayor, taking advantage of the postponement to November of the exercise to retender Southeastern, last month renewed his call for the devolution of services to TfL. This had the ring of a ritual statement about it, for it is clear that the transport secretary has set his face against this.

There are arguments against, as I have set out above, but the one that chimes with Chris Grayling is the inappropriate party political one. The decision that was taken after my time to transfer lines to TfL was a largely political one to help Boris, and the decision to cancel that and not to do so now is because his successor, Sadiq Khan, is a Labour mayor. This is not the way transport decisions should be taken.

Bob Neill, the former Tory minister, even called for Chris Grayling to go when it was revealed that the future transport secretary had written in, opposing the handover in case a Labour mayor was elected.

So it seems further devolution to TfL is off the table and will have to wait a while, at least for a new transport secretary. November’s refranchising of Southeastern, rather than being an opportunity for a creative new approach with TfL, looks instead like being a defensive exercise to keep the Labour mayor out.

Sadiq may have Underground and Overground, but it is going to be some time before he will be wombling free into Victoria, Waterloo and London Bridge.

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