Are the Government blocking TfL's takeover of Southeastern commuter trains?
It was all looking so promising back in January. Both London Mayor Boris Johnson and Transport Minister Patrick McLoughlin put out a document which suggested just how keen they were for TfL to takeover further London commuter services, starting in 2018 with the beleaguered and long-overlooked services serving south-east London.
And why shouldn’t TfL takeover the services many wondered, including those with power across the political spectrum. Wherever TfL have taken over we have seen passenger numbers sky-rocket. Passenger number rise sharply, satisfaction increases as does staffing providing a safer railway, and fare evasion plummets.
Yet things now look a bit more worrying. Boris has gone and so has Patrick Patrick McLoughlin from the Department for Transport. They never did much for Southeastern, and the promise of an announcement of additional trains made back in January in the Commons by his deputy Claire Perry still hasn’t happened.
But the TfL takeover was something. Now Chris Grayling is in the role. And people are worried. Will some silly dogma now stop a transfer that could bring massive benefits to the population and businesses of London?
TfL state in this month’s board papers that when they’ve previously took over routes they spent around two years preparing. They worked with the DfT and existing operators to ensure the handover was smooth. Southeastern’s franchise ends in June 2018. Less than two years and the ball isn’t rolling as the DfT are feet dragging. Alarm bells are ringing.
Unless politicians and people in the area fight hard on this, and quickly, a great chance for improvement could go begging as south east London misses out on benefits much of the rest of London receive.
So why the clamour for TfL? Well, just look at changes since they took over routes in east and north-east London from Greater Anglia in 2015, as seen in the newest meeting papers:
This is the results of independent Passenger Focus surveys. That’s a big jump in satisfaction with staff, cleanliness and information. Fare evasion has plummeted now staff are present from first to last trains, and a 27% increase in journeys is just a year is huge. They’ve even seen less delayed trains. Network Rail are normally responsible here, but even in this regard closer working pays dividends.
They also wasted no time in ordering new trains in 2015. Now, this is perhaps unlikely for Southeastern Metro given they are 10 years younger than what trundle around over the river (though are as shabby inside) but shows how pro-active TfL often are in comparison to the DfT. From the TfL press release:
“Thousands of customers on London Overground routes in East and North East London will travel on new air-conditioned trains from 2018, after TfL today announced that a contract with a capital value of around £260m will be awarded to Bombardier Transportation to build a new fleet of trains.”
Another benefit of TfL becoming the authority with control over services and standards is that fares have risen at a slower rate or been held. That will continue for four years under new mayor Sadiq Khan’s TfL only fares freeze. Not so for Southeastern passengers.
If these improvements happened with Southeastern then passengers could at long last could look forward to staffing at stations that didn’t knock off at 8pm at the busiest places like Greenwich, which would help locals and the numerous visiting tourists.
Places like Deptford, where passenger numbers have quadrupled from 300k a year to 1.2 million in just a decade still have barely any staff presence. And just this month many shop units are opening beside the station along with a block of flats, as Deptford Market Yard finally completes. TfL would capitalise on this. The DfT are distant and ignorant of these changes. Franchise operators aren’t exactly pro-active either, and normally just do the bare minimumof what the DfT specify.
A TfL takeover would ensure barriers are manned and paying punters wouldn’t see people without tickets travelling with impunity.
Southeastern Metro fare evasion levels are likely to be above 15% that existed on Greater Anglia routes, what with no guards on trains and 90% of stations lacking barriers or left open. You just have to see how many people get up and rush off when inspectors rarely appear. Half the carriage did that on a recent journey travelling from Charlton to Westcombe Park. It was pretty comedic but showed the scale. It’s far from the only time seen.
And the Southeastern fare premium would go. Currently, if you use London Overground and switch to the tube or DLR en route, you don’t pay more. With Southeastern you pay an extra £1.50 when switching from the train in central London to a tube.
Admittedly, other areas get this benefit even without TfL running their services. c2c passengers in east London don’t pay this premium, nor do people using Great Western train. It’s more of a south of the river thing, except for many Southern passengers who now have the London Overground option. However, despite it not being solely a TfL benefit, the Department for Transport isn’t going to extend that to people in south-east London. TfL very likely would.
Southeastern passengers also get a 5-10% increase on pay as you go fares each and every year without fail, regardless of the cost of regulated season tickets. TfL passengers will not have this for four years with Sadiq Khan’s fares freeze. At least a 2018 takeover should prevent two years of that for SE passengers. Without it, SE passengers will likely be paying at least 20% more by 2020 above and beyond most of the rest of London. As it is, they’ll probably be lumped with ‘just’ 10%+ rises.
Then there’s the “little” things, such as promotion and advertising, like installing large and brightly illuminated signage to attract passengers. The amount of half-hidden stations that currently exist is ridiculous.
And TfL have once again stated they would transfer services with no cost at all to the Department for Transport, and even pay transition costs, as shown here in the latest TfL board papers:
So what’s happening? The change in Prime Minister, Chancellor and Transport Minister has disrupted events. Are the newcomers too stuck in dogma that they wont authorise a policy that has been proven to work and won’t cost the Treasury or DfT a penny? Has power-hungry and centralising instincts taken hold again? The UK is the most centralised developed country in the world. Whitecall calls the shots in many areas regardless of whether it knows best. It almost never does.
TfL have contacted the DfT on this issue but are still waiting to hear back. In Parliament questions to Chris Grayling go unanswered. Will he throw the area under just to make a silly point? If he does then Tories in the area, many of whom support a TfL takeover, will suffer from angry commuters.
This week the Tory GLA member representing Bexley and Bromley, Gareth Bacon, only mentioned Southern rail in a written question to the Mayor and ignored Southeastern passengers difficulties. It seems as though making silly political points comes above advancing what’s best for who he represents. I bet the many people commuting from Bexley and Bromley boroughs loved that. It might be worth emailing him here – firstname.lastname@example.org
One issue is that TfL finances are stretched. This should not impact upon a transfer but could be at the back of some minds. TfL are trying to make up for this by selling land around stations, such as Kidbrooke as I covered here, but will that come close to maintaining funds let alone increase as the population shoots up?
Projections are for 1.4 million more people in London over the next 15 years. That’s conservative and it already looks very possible that the 1.4 million extra people will be here closer to a decade and not 15 years.
In their wisdom the Government announced they are cutting funding by almost £200m a year for TfL despite huge population increases. Nationally they deemed that transport was worthy of the biggest cuts of any department – 37%. Absolute stupidity at a time of such rapid rises in the population.
Additionally, central Government makes it very difficult for the Mayor of London to raise revenue locally to fund transport in contrast to most cities in the developed world.
So is a takeover affordable for TfL? Well, they’re likely well aware of the large amount of ticketless travel on Southeastern. Couple that to far greater visibility and publicity and there’s still scope for more passengers and income, particularly off-peak. Though there’s also scope for more peak capacity.
Relatively simple things like altering the internal layout of tired Networker trains to replace bays of three seats with bays of two would help. In fact, the entire interior really needs a refurbishment after 25 years of service, but of course the DfT never bothered specifying that in previous franchise awards and extensions.
The evidence is clear that TfL taking over suburban services has resulted in massively increased passenger numbers, or paying passengers as any rate. Frequencies go up, though mainly off-peak as peak time train paths are limited. This was one objection Kent County Council had, but even they have been assured that TFL takeovers will only see off-peak increases which do not impact upon Kent services.
When off-peak frequencies are only, say, 50% of peak levels, they can be boosted by 10-20% and still have more than enough spare capacity for longer distance off-peak increases.
What to do?
This issue is of critical importance to south east London and areas in Kent such as Dartford. I’ve written quite a few posts in the past with the intention of alerting people to issues. This is well up there in importance. A takeover would be transformative in a whole range of areas. It being blocked will hold many things back. People clearly do not want another 6 year or more with Southeastern. With the DfT calling the shots that’s likely, when it’s been shown time and time again they couldn’t care less.
It’s time that Southeastern passengers contacted MPs and GLA members en masse. Local groups have a role to play to eg click here to find details of a group campaigning for Dartford passengers. You can find your MP and GLA member here to contact them asking to push hard on this before the window for change closes.
Other areas of the country have organised and gained results quickly. c2c over the Thames already have lower fares and fare higher punctuality stats. They were also due more trains in 2019.
Earlier this year timetable and crowding issues occurred. Passengers protested at Fenchurch Street, ensured the media covered it and what happened? Almost immediately the DfT agreed to provide six trains from early 2017 until the 2019 order arrives.
For Southeastern passengers time is of the essence and if local Tories in particular get the message that people want change they will hopefully be banging on the door of their colleagues at the Department for Transport. MPs like James Brokenshire (Old Bexley and Sidcup), David Evenett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) and Gareth Johnson (Dartford) are in the spotlight.
They may think that Corbyn’s Labour renders them safe. Well, things can change quickly and who knows what other parties will look like in years to come or how boundary changes affect things. If people in 2020 are stuck on a neglected Southeastern franchised train day in and day out they may think twice about voting Tory knowing they’ve inflicted it on them.