Blimey: TfL to take over most of London's rail network, says government

Waterloo, London's busiest station: many of the services here could end up in TfL hands. Image: Getty.

So, last week, the Centre for London think tank published a report called "Turning South London Orange", which argued that Transport for London (TfL) should take over all suburban rail services in the south of the capital.

This morning, the mayor of London Boris Johnson and the British government's transport secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, released a joint statement, saying, basically: Okay.

Wow, that happened fast.


Actually the statement goes rather further than that, mentioning services into six different rail terminals. They're only proposals at this stage - "views are being sought". Even if it does happen, TfL will only take control of different routes once the various franchise come up for renewal, so the change will take five years or more to take effect.

But this is nonetheless a remarkable statement of intent that the capital's rail network should be run by the capital's transport authorities. It's a big deal.

Here, in no particular order, are some thoughts.

Which lines are we talking about here?

London has 14 main line rail terminals. TfL took over the suburban services into Euston when the London Overground was created in 2007; it swallowed those into Liverpool Street last year, as part of the preparations for Crossrail, and most of the ones into Paddington will follow when that line opens in 2019.

That leaves 11 terminals unaccounted for. Today's statement mentions six more:

  • London Bridge, Cannon Street, Charing Cross, Victoria, and Waterloo, which between them account for most of the south London rail network;
  • And Moorgate, which accounts for a couple of lines through north London into Hertfordshire.

The statement doesn't provide a map of all this (boo). But here's one someone (NERA Consulting) prepared earlier – specifically, in 2011 – which gives you a sense of what we’re talking about here.

Click to expand. Image: NERA Consulting.

If you've been counting terminals, you'll have noticed there are five left unaccounted for. Inner suburban services into two of them - Marylebone and Fenchurch Street – have effectively been in TfL's hands for years, in the form of the Metropolitan and District lines.

But the other three are a bit harder to explain. The suburban services into St Pancras and Blackfriars stations are served by Thameslink, which is sort of an unloved mini-Crossrail. Those into King's Cross will get added to the network once the works to expand it complete in 2018. (That programme, incidentally, was originally known as Thameslink 2000. Megalols.)


Today's announcement contains no suggestion that TfL will take over Thameslink. Hmmmm.

Also unmentioned is the tiny branch line from Paddington to Greenford. No word on what'll happen there either.

We need more colours

And so to the thing everyone really wants to know: how will this look on the map?

Contra the Centre for London report, it probably won't mean a sea of orange: it's already getting difficult to distinguish one London Overground line from another, so the lines will surely have different colours on the map.

But there is a problem that the human eye can only distinguish a limited number of colours without getting confused. You can tell, at a glance, which is the Piccadilly and which the Victoria line. You probably couldn’t do that with three more shades of blue on the map.

There a number of ways around this. The current London rail map uses a sort of candy cane pattern...

...but that's a bit ugly. Its predecessor used hollow tram lines to show mainline services...

Another option would be to use fainter, pastel colours for the overground lines, as in this amateur map by our old mate, the designer Jug Cerovic.

Click to expand. Image: Jug Cerovic.

This is not going to be an issue for a while, but rest assured that we're going to be thinking about it. A lot.

What would this mean for the humble commuter?

London Overground has done a very good job of improving services on the north London orbital routes which it's run since 2007. The routes it took over last year have yet to see any significant change, however.

So what does today's announcement actually mean for the rest of the network? The spiel promises for the following:

  • more frequent services, more reliable trains, better interchanges and increased capacity;
  • a London Suburban Metro service with the potential for more than 80 per cent of stations to have a train every 15 minutes, up from 67 per cent today, as well as the potential for more regular services via Clapham Junction, South East London and Kent;
  • a better travel environment, and improvements to accessibility and staffing;
  • delivering a seamless and integrated service with joined up travel information.

Some of that is going to require some serious investment: to clean up stations, change signalling, re-arrange track geometry so that you can run more trains without them banging into each other at inopportune moments.

But some of it will just require a different attitude to running a railway. And that, arguably, will be the key difference.

The possible timetable for change, laid out in today’s “prospectus”. Image: TfL/Department for Transport.

When a private rail franchise controls a route, its ultimate goal is to make money for its shareholders: running trains is the means, not the end.

By contrast, when TfL controls a route, its ultimate mission is to run lots of trains to help the city run smoothly. That's true even when TfL's role is contract management, and the actual trains are run by a private firm, as happens with the London Overground.

Some London train franchises have a history of cancelling train services at the drop of a hat, just because it's easier and cheaper than letting them run late. Maybe we're being utopian, but it's hard to imagine a TfL-run network doing the same. Even without investment, this would be a big change.

But why bother now?

The press release makes a lot of noises about London's growing population, the need for more homes and business premises and so on – all of which means we'll need more railway capacity down the line.

But why is this happening now? Variations on this idea have been floating around for years, and Boris Johnson is under four months from the end of his eight year tenure as mayor. Why propose such a big change, so late in the day?

The obvious reason is politics. Reaction to the news has been almost universally positive, even fom people you'd expect ot be opposed on ideological grounds. Sam Bowman, for example, the executive director of the free market think tank the Adam Smith Institute, just tweeted this:

Which is a mark of how popular this move will be across the political spectrum. While we're quoting tweets, Conservative party's candidate to be Johnson's successor sent this:

The message here is the Conservatives can be trusted to back Londoners against any big businesses that might be making their lives hell. It's almost as if there's an election coming up.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric and has thought about this way too much.

You can follow him on Twitter here, and like us on Facebook here.

 
 
 
 

The Thessaloniki dig problem: How can Greece build anything when it’s swarming with archaeologists?

Archaeological finds on display in an Athens metro station. Image: Gary Hartley.

It’s fair to say that the ancient isn’t much of a novelty in Greece. Almost every building site quickly becomes an archaeological site – it’s hard to spin a tight 360 in Athens without a reminder of ancient civilisation, even where the city is at its ugliest.

The country’s modern cities, recent interlopers above the topsoil, serve as fascinating grounds for debates that are not just about protecting the ancient, but what exactly to do with it once it’s been protected.

The matter-of-fact presentation that comes with the many, many discoveries illustrates the point. Athens often opts to display things more or less where they were found, making metro stations a network of museums that would probably take pride of place in most other capitals. If you’re into the casual presentation of the evocative, it doesn’t get much better than the toy dog on wheels in Acropolis station.

That’s not even close to the extent of what’s available to cast an eye over as you go about your day. There are ruins just inside the city centre’s flagship Zara store, visible through the glass floor and fringed by clothes racks; Roman baths next to a park cafe; an ancient road and cemetery in an under-used square near Omonia, the city’s down-at-heel centre point.

Ruins in Zara. Image: Gary Hartley.

There is undoubtedly something special about stumbling upon the beauty of the Ancients more or less where it’s always been, rather than over-curated and corralled into purpose-built spaces, beside postcards for sale. Not that there isn’t plenty of that approach too – but Greece offers such sheer abundance that you’ll always get at least part of the history of the people, offered up for the people, with no charge attached.

While the archaic and the modern can sit side by side with grace and charm, economic pressures are raising an altogether more gritty side to the balancing act. The hard press of international lenders for the commercialisation and privatisation of Greek assets is perhaps the combustible issue of the moment – but archaeology is proving something of a brake on the speed of the great sell-off.

The latest case in point is the development of Elliniko – a site where the city’s decrepit former airport and a good portion of the 2004 Olympic Games complex sits, along the coastal stretch dubbed the Athens Riviera. With support from China and Abu Dhabi, luxury hotels and apartments, malls and a wholesale re-landscaping of several square kilometres of coastline are planned.

By all accounts the bulldozers are ready to roll, but when a whole city’s hovering above its classical roots, getting an international, multi-faceted construction job off the ground promises to be tricky – even when it’s worth €8bn.


And so it’s proved. After much political push and shove over the last few weeks, 30 hectares of the 620-hectare plot have now been declared of historical interest by the country’s Central Archaeological Council. This probably means the development will continue, but only after considerable delays, and under the watchful eye of archaeologists.

It would be too easy to create a magical-realist fantasy of the Ancient Greeks counterpunching against the attacks of unrestrained capital. The truth is, even infrastructure projects funded with domestic public money run into the scowling spirits of history.

Thessaloniki’s Metro system, due for completion next year, has proved to be a series of profound accidental excavations – or, in the immortal words of the boss of Attiko Metro A.E., the company in charge of the project, “problems of the past”.

The most wonderful such ‘problem’ to be revealed is the Decumanus Maximus, the main avenue of the Byzantine city – complete with only the world’s second example of a square paved with marble. Add to that hundreds of thousands of artefacts, including incredibly well-preserved jewellery, and you’ve a hell of a haul.

Once again, the solution that everyone has finally agreed on is to emulate the Athens approach – making museums of the new metro stations. (Things have moved on from early suggestions that finds should be removed and stored at an ex-army camp miles from where they were unearthed.)

There are other problems. Government departments have laid off many of their experts, and the number of archaeologists employed at sites of interest has been minimised. Non-profit organisations have had their own financial struggles. All of this has aroused international as well as local concern, a case in point being the U.S. government’s renewal of Memorandums of Understanding with the Greek state in recent years over protection of “cultural property”.

But cuts in Greece are hardly a new thing: lack of government funding has become almost accepted across society. And when an obvious target for ire recedes, the public often needs to find a new one.

Roman baths in Athens. Image: Gary Hartley.

Archaeologists are increasingly finding themselves to be that target – and in the midst of high-stakes projects, it’s extremely hard to win an argument. If they rush an excavation to allow the quickest possible completion, they’re seen as reckless. If they need more time, they’re blamed for holding up progress. 

Another widely-told but possibly-apocryphal tale illustrates this current problem. During the construction of the Athens Metro, a construction worker was so frustrated by the perceived dawdling of archaeologists that he bought a cheap imitation amphora in a gift shop, smashed it up and scattered the fragments on site. The worthless pieces were painstakingly removed and analysed.

True or not, does this tale really prove any point about archaeologists? Not really. They’re generally a pragmatic bunch, simply wanting to keep relics intact and not get too embroiled in messy public debates.

It also doesn’t truly reflect mainstream attitudes to cultural capital. By and large, it’s highly valued for its own sake here. And while discoveries and delays may be ripe for satire, having history’s hoard on your doorstep offers inconveniences worth enduring. It’s also recognised that, since tourists are not just here for the blue skies, good food and beaches, it’s an important money-maker.

Nonetheless, glass malls and shiny towers with coastal views rising from public land are good for the purse, too – and the gains are more immediate. As the Greek state continues its relentless quest for inward investment, tensions are all but guaranteed in the coming years. 

This is a country that has seen so many epic battles in its time it has become a thing of cliché and oiled-up Hollywood depiction. But the latest struggle, between rapacious modernity and the buried past, could well be the most telling yet. 

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