With Southeastern and parent company Govia seeing the door after 15 years in charge there’s much speculation on what future awaits for passengers, and whether TfL will finally take over Metro services.
In the near term the Department for Transport’s Operator of Last Resort takes charge, much as a government appointed body did back when Connex were chucked out. OLR also operate Northern and trains on the East Coast.
And does that mean substantial improvements? Well, almost certainly not anytime soon.
OLR will operate while some sort of strategy is worked out but don’t expect any decisions soon. Plans to reform the rail system using London Overground and DLR-type concessions under Great British Railways are not expected to start until late 2024.
Devolving services to TfL is what many politicians in London seek across party lines – but TfL is in a dire funding position.
The clamour to devolve services seems to overlook that doing so to a near-broken TfL risks an already poor service degrading yet further.
It’s essential that funding be made available if devolution is chosen. It’s also not easy to sort out issues with drivers only working for TfL or mid/long distance service post split. That requires money.
The announcement that Southeastern were being replaced with OLR did mention investment in rolling stock, but this appears to be £10 million on long distance trains without anything for clapped-out Networkers serving metro routes.
It’s mightily tempting for the DfT to pass off Southeastern inners to TfL who can then take any criticism for cuts without providing funding.
There was a previous agreement to devolve which managed to overcome one of the main obstacles: Kent County Council objection. A new board with TfL and Kent CC both represented was to be established.
Up-front money would be needed to finally provide all-day staffing at many SE stations and work to install barriers where needed. Some stations would need reworking such as Plumstead – which could dovetail into existing plans to rebuild.
Currently Southeastern Metro is a free-for-all. Most stations are open and see little staffing. Bigger stations like Woolwich Arsenal and Lewisham are staffed until 8pm, though Woolwich Arsenal’s side gate is often open for example rendering it moot.
In recent years we saw Deptford station rebuilt with barely any staff presence (long before the pandemic) before Kidbrooke station’s rebuild was cut back to remove barriers given a lack of funding for sufficient staffing.
In recent weeks a new entrance to Lewisham station built as part of a new tower development has been mothballed.
Even London terminals see open gates a fair bit more than expected, and every night after half 10pm.
Compare that to the tube and it’s night and day. Compare it to many other franchises in London and it’s vastly different. Southeastern Metro is ripe for gaining extra revenue from existing passengers who don’t pay because they don’t need to.
Some have said the DfT could fix staffing issues and there’s no need to devolve, which is true, yet they didn’t in 2006 when the franchise was awarded, in 2014 when given short term renewal, or 2016, or 2018 et al. You get the idea.
There’s probably little doubt that in time it’d easily pay for itself given what occurred at Abbey Wood when TfL took over in late 2017 in advance of Crossrail. People suddenly had to buy a ticket – and ticket sales shot up. Suddenly passenger numbers were up 650,000 on the year before.
Currently anti-social behaviour goes ignored. Few staff on platforms or stations and no on-board staff apart from the driver helps with that.
A staffed, safer network would also entice passengers to use, but that takes time to happen.
And there’s the catch again. This needs money (even if over time it pays for itself) and the Treasury wants to hit rail with heavy cuts.
Cuts of £2 billion are expected for rail and discussions are ongoing between unions and Network Rail.
In London TfL saw huge losses in revenue as a model imposed saw an almost complete reliance on fare revenue for operation. This went against how most major cities are funded worldwide with a mix of funding sources.
Passengers fell sharply in 2020, and so TfL’s income dropped too.
The same Government that installed that model of almost sole reliance upon fare revenue then stated TfL are irresponsible and hits them with the threat of service and funding cuts alongside additional borrowing.
This isn’t a great environment to devolve services.
Government always held the cards
What many forget is Government has exercised much control of the privatised network over the past 25 years, setting fares, service levels, staffing levels and rolling stock. Franchises operated services for a relatively small profit margin of three per cent or less and took the blame when government increased fares or failed to invest in adequate services.
For example, Southeastern do not own a single train with all stock leased – and any changes needed government approval.
In a lot of ways more power rests with civil servants now at the DfT compared to when nationalised. British Rail did operate at arms-length and a degree of independence – albeit with small budgets. Civil servants now micro-manage the “private” network.
The new Class 707s are only moving to Southeastern as Government were left in a bind after creating the South Western Railway franchise to ensure new stock arrived, leaving 30 nearly-new trains surplus to requirements.
Not a good look, so a home at Southeastern was found.
They would almost certainly have never come over to Southeastern if the franchise hadn’t seen nearly a decade without direction.
It’s another microfleet to complicate maintenance at SE depots alongside the 376s. Being 5-car trains is not much use long term for a network that is now capable of 12 or 8 car services.
Network Rail extended platforms and power supplies over the past decade for 12-car services to Charing Cross and Cannon Street. Modern trains to use them was the obstacle. Victoria services are limited to 8-car.
If the DfT hadn’t bodged the network’s future so often over the past decade it’s extremely likely that wholesale replacement for Networkers would have occurred, with trains geared around infrastructure to utilise 8 and 12 car platforms.
Services would have seen modern stock with Selective Door Operation to assist at Woolwich Dockyard and Charing Cross with 10-car platforms, with a 30+ year lifespan to deal with growing population after short term blips with reduced passenger numbers.
But it’s almost dreamland to think that will happen now. In the near term I see little change. In the mid term even more cuts could occur, and a downward spiral continues as 30 year old trains get worse, staff presence falls even further and people switch away if they have any sort of alternative.
If politicians and groups call for TfL control, they absolutely need to match that with demands for funding to run services, and hope the Treasury plays ball.