Could TfL management save London’s rail passengers from Thameslink?

A Thameslink train at Loughborough Junction, south London. Image: Getty.

Here we go again. Heidi Alexander, the former Lewisham MP who recently quit to take a new job as London’s deputy mayor for transport, has given a speech demanding that Transport for London (TfL) be allowed to take over the London-y bits of the Govia Thameslink Railway franchise.

Here’s the key quote:

“The crisis with Govia Thameslink is blighting the lives of Londoners, and risks causing our city economic damage if it continues much longer. Transport for London’s record of running successful rail services in the capital shows that giving it control of GTR’s beleaguered routes out of Moorgate is a no-brainer....”

TfL stands ready and willing to take over the struggling franchise as soon as 2020, she said. She went on:

“We also stand ready to take over West London Line services between Clapham Junction and Willesden Junction, but our ambition doesn’t stop there – metro services across Southern, SouthWestern and SouthEastern should be our goal.”

The idea that TfL should gradually absorb the city’s various suburban mainline railway services isn’t a new one. London Overground has been growing steadily since its launch in 2007, and the idea that TfL should run more routes has had support from every mayor since Ken Livingstone. The main barrier so far has been the naked partisanship of the transport secretary Chris Grayling – and even though he’s displayed a superhuman ability to survive gaffes that must be the envy of most normal politicians, then logic suggests he will still go away some time.

In 2016, indeed, TfL even published this map of its ultimate ambitions:

Click to expand. If you want to see a really big version, expand it, right click and open the image in a new tab.

All the same, I’m not getting too excited about Alexander’s speech, for three reasons.

One is that, while Grayling is undoubtedly mortal, he is nonetheless likely to be the man who decides whether or not part of the solution to the GTR mess will involve passing a chunk of the network over to TfL. He’s made clear his opposition to such a move in the past, and there’s no reason to think that he’s changed his mind. (If I wanted to be mean I’d add that there’s no reason to imagine he even can change his mind.)

Another reason for wariness is more technical. Look again at the suburban rail map above, and you’ll note that one line on which TfL has no designs is Thameslink itself. That’s an odd exclusion in its way: if the service ever runs as intended – if – the central section, from Finsbury Park and Kentish Town through the City to London Bridge and Elephant & Castle, would make a helpful adjunct to the tube network.

So why doesn’t TfL want it? My guess is because it’s impossible to separate the long-distance and local services on the line, and TfL has no interest in running trains to Brighton or Peterborough.

But since the heart of GTR’s problem is Thameslink, it’s not clear to me that a solution that doesn’t involve Thameslink will magically make anything better. It probably will get better, because problems get solved and reversion to the mean is a thing, but it’s not obvious to me that TfL’s involvement would be the critical factor here.

Indeed, in some places – the Greenwich line, for one - I’m pretty sure that Alexandra’s plan would mean that Thameslink trains would literally be sharing tracks with London Overground ones. I guess this might work better than the status quo; but it if doesn’t, it might just mean that blame spreads from private train operating companies over to TfL.

There’s one more reason I’m suspicious of the deputy mayor’s plan. It’s that, despite what she implied in her speech, TfL actually already runs the West London line from Willesden Junction to Clapham Junction, and I’m a bit worried that the mayor’s office doesn’t know seem to know that.

All that said: TfL probably should run more of London’s rail network, and it seems unlikely it would do a worse job than GTR. I’m just not convinced the case for this is actually any stronger than it was six months ago.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.