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TfL bosses seek control of suburban rail services

Transport for London (TfL) bosses have gone public with a bold bid to wrest control of suburban rail services in the capital away from the Department for Transport (DfT) and a host of train operators.

TfL managing director for rail Mike Brown and head of rail planning Geoff Hobbs set out the bold move at NCE’s London Rail conference late last month.

The push for control is a direct response to the McNulty rail review which called for more devolution of budgets and accountability to regional bodies.

“Now is an important time for rail planning, and it is time to put our case for integrated rail services in London,” said Brown.

TfL believes that by taking control of budgets and operations it is better placed to secure vital investment in London’s massively overcrowded commuter routes.

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.

“The gap in the jigsaw is mainline rail,” Brown told the conference. “The expenditure in London is hugely less than the rest of the UK.

“Devolution gives better co-ordination, so we will continue to put our case to government for it to hear our arguments to devolve control [of suburban routes] to the mayor’s control. “If government did that, we would get improvements in services,” he said.

TfL’s vision is largely centred on rolling out 12 car trains across the whole of the suburban rail network between now and 2019.

It is concerned that the current system will not deliver the upgrades to stations and trains needed because train operating companies (TOCs) see the move as generating too little return on their investment.

“We worry a little about giving greater freedom to TOCs in the context of an urban railway,” explained Hobbs.

“There are large aspects of London’s railways that are not commercially viable – for example the last train and off peak services. But they are vital for London business,” he said.

Too many TOCS

Hobbs also said that logistically having services provided by 10 TOCs was fundamentally inefficient.

“Having 10 TOCS is like herding squirrels,” he said. “Like cats, but even harder.

“We believe a better way is to devolve control to TfL. We think we can get more for less and can save £300M over 20 years,” he said.

Hobbs set out a five point plan that would see London mayor Boris Johnson allocated the DfT’s London rail budget and given the power to regulate fares, as is already the case on TfL operated services.

New rail franchises would then be awarded along similar lines to the London Overground, a relatively small section of the network in east and north London currently operated under a TfL concession.

The concession is let 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. The jont venture runs the stations and trains, with Network Rail managing and maintaining the track and signals.

Brown and Hobbs’ comments were immediately endorsed by TfL commissioner Peter Hendy.

“TfL has made the case for devolution of rail services in London and the [McNulty] review proposes greater devolution of budgets and accountability to regional bodies such as passenger transport executives (PTEs).

“TfL will take this opportunity to press the case for devolution in London,” he told a TfL board meeting the day after the conference.

Hendy stressed that while the McNulty review found UK rail services to be up to 40% more expensive to operate than other European railways, this was not the case in the capital.

“Although UK rail costs are high, the report shows that London and the south east performs well in terms of net cost to government compared with regional railways and long distance services,” he said.

London services have a net cost per passenger mile of 4.8p compared with 31.1p for regional franchises, the McNulty review found.

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