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TfL's bid to control trains has much going for it

By 2031 there will be 1.3 million more Londoners and 750,000 new jobs in the capital. But getting those Londoners to those jobs will be impossible unless Transport for London (TfL) is able to wrestle control of suburban rail services away from the Department for Transport and its phalanx of train operating companies (TOCs). That at least is the view of TfL, which late last month went public on a very bold plan to take charge of routes currently operated by a bewildering array of 10 TOCs.

Its point is simple: more than 600,000 extra passengers will need to be carried at peak times by the public transport system by 2031, a large proportion by rail; Londoners make more than five times as many rail trips than the rest of England, and pay higher fares, yet receive only a quarter of the public expenditure per trip; significant long term investment is needed to avoid trains becoming more crowded and service quality falling. In short, without investment, London’s ability to grow and support the UK economy will be undermined.

The wheels are already turning on this one: London mayor Boris Johnson has agreed to provide transport secretary Philip Hammond with an independent review of the case for devolution of inner suburban services in London; TfL’s London Rail division has already commissioned one from NERA economic consulting.

The report has not been published, but TfL managing director for rail Mike Brown has told TfL’s rail and underground panel that it concludes that “TfL has put forward a compelling case for adopting a different approach to rail services in London, and for being given the powers to provide the leadership that is required in London”.

The report, Brown says, focuses on two devolution options: joint TfL/DfT franchising of rail services and TfL concessions. He says NERA finds that these options could deliver a higher level of services and standards but at a lower cost if revenue risk is transferred from the TOCs to TfL.

Industry experts who spoke to NCE were surprised by the boldness of TfL’s message. “I’ve not heard them [TfL] be as bold as that before,” said one.

But TfL is coming from a position of some strength, with the early indications that its London Overground concession is proving a storming success.

In April, London Overground was the best performing part of Britain’s national rail network, with 96.3% of trains arriving on time. This builds on 12 months of good performance – over the last year 94.9% of Overground trains were on time, the highest annual figure of any train operator in Britain. Customer satisfaction on the Overground has also reached an all time high.

Then May saw the completion of £550M of improvement work on the North London part of the London Overground network, delivering up to double the number of trains on a key Olympic rail route to Stratford, and following on from the introduction of new trains and refurbishment of stations. In total Transport for London has invested £1.4bn in the route since taking over the former Silverlink network in 2007.

It runs it through a concession, awarded to a joint venture of MTR and Deutsche Bahn and differs from DfT franchises because TfL takes 90% of the revenues for reinvestment in London’s transport network, leaving just 10% for the joint venture. The concession runs stations and the trains; Network Rail maintains the track and signals. TfL would use a similar structure to run other lines that come under its control.

Investment would largely be focused on providing 12 car trains on most routes, along with providing additional connectivity and capacity on the West Anglia Main Line through phased four-tracking. This makes the job not dissimilar to the work done on the East London and North London lines through London Overground, where capacity has been greatly increased through two or three significant infrastructure investments, several smaller scale junction improvements and a big investment in rolling stock and station upgrades.

The timing is good, should such a move come off.  The Greater Anglia franchise – which serves a massive planned housing development area in West Anglia – is currently out to tender for a short term replacement franchise that will start in February 2012 and run until July 2013, with a possible extension of up to 12 months. Stagecoach, Netherlands State Railways and Go Ahead are in the frame. The Southeastern franchise has been extended by two years and will now run until March 2014.

“It’s an important time for rail planning,” Brown told NCE’s London Rail summit. “It’s time to put our case.” And a good case it would seem to be.

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