Stories have been circulating for a few days that the devolution of Metro South Eastern rail services to Transport for London, and the associated benefits for longer-distance commuters, may be torpedoed by the Department for Transport in coming weeks.
Official replies to us, and to Sevenoaks District Council, say the Department for Transport are still evaluating the devolution proposal from TfL. But they’ve had three years to do this and TfL are promising a Benefit to Cost ratio of 4.3 : 1. So it should not take long!
Most of north London’s rail services – out to places like Watford – are already with TfL and deliver much better services, more reliable, staffed stations, reduced fare evasion, integrated and cheaper fares. Stopping services from Sevenoaks, like the rest of south London are the poor relation. If nothing changes we’ll stay that way.
Today’s announcement by the Secretary of State is silent on devolution. Instead it’s about some reorganisation within the rail industry, So it doesn’t address better services for customers, more focus on supporting economic growth in the region, stronger management of train operators, and greater local accountability that his own Department promised in January. Sources close to the ministers concerned say in response to the devolution proposal that ’they don’t want to reorganise the rail system in London’ – which is ominous. Yet today’s statement by the Secretary of State seems to be about a bigger reorganisation of the rail system everywhere! Better co-ordination between Southeastern and Network Rail would certainly be welcome; and the idea has been tried before on South West Trains. Indeed, as part of the change, we hope that the Department for Transport will remove the financial structure where Southeastern actually profit out of poor Network Rail performance – which hardly gives the train operator an incentive to help improve things.
But even if the Secretary of State wants to go ahead with his plan, there are at least four very good reasons to go ahead with devolution of South Eastern Metro commissioning to TfL now as well:
- TfL is the only rail operator which has experience of running track and signalling, so is much less likely to make a mess of things if the new system goes ahead. Indeed it could do a much better job of actively managing Network Rail as well as the train operator.
- The South East London Metro rail system is one of the most complex areas of the UK rail system, and would benefit from the experienced oversight that TfL would give. Conversely given the high operational, financial and political risks it is hardly the best place to try out what the Secretary of State is now proposing.
- The DfT/TfL Prospectus for partnership and devolution published in January was not just about Metro services. For long distance commuters it also promised substantial benefits, including: improved fast longer distance services to support commuting and regional growth; an improved travel environment, better accessibility and staff available to help; and the reinvestment of passenger fares in higher service standards.
- We know the TfL approach to commissioning train operators works to deliver better services, while the DfT approach doesn’t; if there are to be any gains for Sevenoaks in the next franchise starting in 2018 it has to be decided now, not after another ‘experiment’.
Achieving these benefits does not depend on Network Rail: it’s a matter of how the train service is specified, of how the operator is selected and managed and of better local accountability for services. Sadly the Secretary of State’s announcement today does not make any progress towards the goals his own predecessor set out earlier in the year.
It’s time for members and others to make their voice heard again. Otherwise the opportunity will be lost for a further cycle and we’ll be stuck with another franchise on the current, failing, model. So we would encourage our members and supporters to make it clear to their MPs, wherever they come from, that they want the sorts of improvements originally promised by the joint DfT/TfL prospectus – and which 74% of consultation responses supported. For Sevenoaks that’s Sir Michael Fallon and you can write him an email here. Other MPs can be contacted using https://www.writetothem.com/
Please also give us your views here.
We want the devolution plans agreed by London, Kent, Surrey and Sussex – and the previous Secretary of State – to go ahead now.