If, like me, you got caught up in the recent chaos at London Bridge station – you’ll know all about how much misery it created for many Londoners and commuters from outside the capital.
Although in the long term the Thameslink upgrade programme will help improve capacity and reliability on a key part of London’s rail network, we passengers are rightly angry that operators could not deliver even a reduced timetable without significant delays and cancellations.
According to Network Rail data, 11% of London metro services on Southeastern and 16% on Southern – the main franchises serving London Bridge – arrived at least five minutes late at their destination in April.
Most frustrating was seeing trains departing the station almost empty while people were waiting to board. Overcrowding is a huge problem in London: the capital’s busiest commuter service carries twice as many passengers as there is capacity on the train. In this context, watching an empty train go by can be infuriating when you’re trying to get home.
When the London Assembly Transport Committee met with Network Rail about these issues in March, it became clear that the sources of problems are not limited to London Bridge. They are systemic. Infrastructure on key routes serving London needs improving. Service delivery is fragmented between multiple public and private organisations, which have not worked together well enough. Information provided to passengers can be sketchy and unreliable.
Long before the upgrade works at London Bridge began, the Mayor proposed a reform of the way National Rail services are run in London. He asked the government to devolve control of suburban rail routes in London to Transport for London, beginning with parts of the Greater Anglia and South Eastern franchises. The Transport Committee is now investigating how devolution could help improve services for passengers.
The model for this change is the London Overground network. When the orange line appeared on London’s transport map in 2007, it was not an entirely new service. It replaced the unloved Silverlink service, after the government devolved control of this franchise to TfL. This led to investment in new infrastructure, rolling stock and station facilities.
Usage has increased significantly, and according to the National Rail Passenger Survey, customer satisfaction on London Overground is among the highest of any rail service in London. In the 2014 National Rail Passenger Survey, 88% of Overground passengers said they were satisfied with the service.
Despite this success, the Mayor has had only limited success in convincing the government to go further. His proposal to devolve parts of the South Eastern franchise, which serves south east London and Kent, was rejected.
The Mayor was more successful with proposals for the Greater Anglia franchise, which has now been partially devolved to TfL and is being integrated with the London Overground network. I will be going to see what TfL is doing to transform this service during our investigation.
More importantly, passengers travelling on the lines from Enfield Town or Chingford to Liverpool Street can now judge for themselves whether they think devolution is making a positive difference. One thing they will surely welcome isTfL’s announcement that 80% of pay as you go fares on the network will be reduced, with the remainder unchanged.
But let’s be clear: the Mayor cannot assume devolution is a simple or complete solution to all of the problems facing London’s National Rail services. Separating out London suburban services from longer-distance services is a complex process that could benefit some rail users more than others. Whoever controls the services, there is a need for sustained investment over a long period. Passengers won’t welcome devolution if this doesn’t happen.
Nor can the Mayor assume that he is proposing the right model for running devolved services. What works on the existing London Overground network, largely contained within the boundaries of Greater London, might not work when applied to a larger franchise.
This is one of the many thorny issues that Assembly Members will be exploring. Train operating companies, local authorities, public bodies, rail industry workers, campaigners or transport experts can have their own say by submitting views to the Committee.
We are also giving passengers the opportunity to tell us their ideas on the way forward for London’s National Rail Services.
We’re asking people who feel passionate about their train service to send us a short film or video blog (no more than 1 minute long). Send Vlogs to firstname.lastname@example.org before the end of June.
Val Shawcross is Chair of the London Assembly Transport Committee, stay up to date with the Assembly’s work via @londonassembly.