When I invited Londoners to share their views with us about National Rail services back in May, we knew already that the rail network was facing serious problems.
The London Bridge fiasco over the winter of 2014/15 was still fresh in everyone’s minds. The situation there has stabilised now, but passengers will remember how they had to suffer long delays, cancellations and overcrowding at the height of the Thameslink upgrade works, even after operators had started using a reduced timetable.
In the investigation conducted by the Transport Committee since then, the message that has come through very strongly is that, while this was an extreme case, it wasn’t completely out of the ordinary.
Overcrowding, poor reliability and a failure to provide good customer services are become increasingly normal on much of the rail network.
Passengers have a right to expect that, as the cost of their tickets increase –rail fares on London services have increased 62% in cash terms in the past decade – they will see a corresponding improvement in services. They haven’t.
Crowding has grown in seriousness over the past five years. 40% of trains arriving in London in the morning peak are now officially overcrowded, and that’s not counting the passengers left on the platform because they can’t get on to trains that are already too crammed.
Across other major cities in England and Wales, the average number of overcrowded peak trains is just 14%.
Reliability has also taken a hit in the past five years. In London, 16% of peak trains fail to arrive at their destination within five minutes of their scheduled time. This kind of performance creates a drag on London’s economy, as businesses lose staff working hours.
I have long believed that one of the solutions to these problems, that really can ruin a Londoner’s commute, is to devolve control of rail services to Transport for London. It’s not the only thing that needs to happen, but it’s a reform that is proven to work.
Our analysis showed that TfL transformed the Silverlink franchise when it was devolved in 2007, and the London Overground was established. This is now one of the country’s best performing services when it comes to crowding and reliability.
The capacity and frequency of trains has increased, stations have been modified and additional staff recruited. It is no surprise that passenger satisfaction has gone up significantly, while it has been falling for other London rail services.
What was unclear at the start of the Assembly’s investigation was whether the Mayor and TfL could win sufficient support to convince the Government to take the bold step of devolving more services to London. In particular, the large suburban franchises that serve South London.
While passengers north of the Thames can access high-capacity, high-frequency tube services, only a small part of South London is connected to the tube. This makes National Rail a much more vital part of the transport network.
The key decision coming up is whether the Government devolves suburban routes of the South Eastern franchise, between Kent and central London, which expires in 2018. . . We have been here before, of course. The Government rejected similar proposals from the Mayor and TfL in 2013.
This time around, the Transport Committee identified that objections from partners outside London had to be addressed, and if possible reversed. London’s rail services, after all, are a resource for people living across the South East.
By engaging with local authorities and district councils outside London, the Committee has proven that our neighbours are now much more open to devolution. Kent County Council said it would support the reform if sufficient safeguards are in place.
There was enthusiastic support for TfL when we visited passenger representatives in Sevenoaks, where frustration with the existing train operating company has been growing.
Another thing that has changed after the Committee’s investigation is that the views of Londoners on the devolution proposals are now being heard. We conducted the first survey of London rail users about devolution, and found that 68% of them supported the idea of TfL managing their train service.
Such a strong endorsement of devolution from passengers and other key stakeholders should be very difficult for the Government to ignore.
Read our report ‘Devolving rail services to London: Towards a South London Metro’
Val Shawcross is Chair of the London Assembly Transport Committee, stay up to date with the Assembly’s work via @londonassembly.