The Future of the Overground Part 1: Tangerine Dreams

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In March 2011, 96.7% of London Overground services arrived on time, ranking the line second out of all rail services monitored by Network Rail’s performance surveys. In April, the slightly lower figure of 96.3% was achieved, enough to move the Operator into first place for that month. Indeed the cumulative total for the last 12 months currently stands at 94.9%, putting London Overground above all other Operators in terms of performance. They’re impressive numbers, especially when combined with the positive feedback the line received in Passenger Focus’ survey last Spring.

That the London Overground has been a success is difficult to deny. Whilst it has certainly had its share of delays and difficulties (such as with the rollout of the 378s), its current performance and satisfaction figures accurately portray the step change in service that has happened on the NLL and elsewhere since the Operator effectively made its debut in 2007. In a city where other Operators such as South Eastern are increasingly feeling the heat from passengers over the level of service they provide, London Overground’s performance also serves to highlight that there are effective ways to address the challenges that London’s railway infrastructure brings.

With Control Period 5 looming, therefore, and the current package of investment on the NLL and ELL coming to completion, it is perhaps unsurprising that talk is now turning to the question of where London Overground goes next.

Initially, its a question that would seem well suited to the discussion of routes and infrastructure opportunities at which our commentors are so well versed. Whilst that does form a key part of the answer, however, it is not the totality. More than any other line that we’ve looked at in our recent survey of the London & South East RUS and beyond, the issue of the Overground’s future is as much one of strategy as it is of stations, of ideology as it is of infrastructure.

The future of the Overground is implicitly tied into TfL’s aspirations for London Rail as whole. Whilst it may not initially be obvious, the Overground’s success has reopened the debate on TfL’s relationship with other TOCs and with the DfT. In surface rail terms, it has given TfL a bargaining chip that is almost as powerful as Oyster, and thus any look at the Overground’s future must not only consider where physically it might go next (something that is much easier to do now that TfL have released their response to HLOS2), but also how it feeds into TfL’s surface strategy as a whole.

Before doing both, however, it is important to take a step back and look briefly at how the Overground, as we know it, began. For, as is as often the way, this has a major impact on just where things go next.

London’s New Train Set

On November 12th 2007 then-Mayor Ken Livingstone stood on the bay platform at Willesden Junction and announced the birth of London Overground to assembled media. Officially, the newly-formed company had taken over the North London Railway Concession the day before, but it was here that Livingstone laid out his vision for the future of the NLR and beyond – a clean, reliable, trusted, orbital service.

The origins of the North London Railway lie in the East & West India Docks & Birmingham Junction Railway, which opened in 1850 and ran services from Camden to the Docks. This was renamed in 1853, becoming the North London Railway. Over time, its lines and connections merged and changed. In 1979, it was merged with the Eastern Counties and Thames Junction Railway, creating the North London Line and laying down a pattern of routes that would be broadly familiar today. As the years passed, further additions were made and other sections removed – with both the East London Line and (later) the Docklands Light Railway claiming parts of the line.

The North London Railway as it was in 1899 can be seen on this map

By 2004, the North London Railway Franchise comprised the 12 stations and 13.5 miles of track that formed the Gospel Oak to Barking Line (GOBLIN to its friends), and the 28 stations and 22 miles of track of the Richmond – North Woolwich North London Line (the NLL). These fell within the Franchise held by Silverlink as “Silverlink Metro.”

Speaking to a commuter or local resident about the NLL during its Silverlink days (the Franchise was extended twice to take it up to 2007) is an exercise likely to yield significantly more negatives than positives. Indeed in any debate over the current state of the Overground it is generally quite easy to spot those that used the Line then – they’re the ones with the haunted look, sitting in the corner murmering “you weren’t there man, you don’t know…” Services were overcrowded, stations understaffed and unkempt, trains crowded and unsuited to their purpose, and the signalling and infrastructure was failing.

A 313 in service on the Line

Some of the Line’s problems stemmed from the failings of Silverlink, but much was due simply to the sheer lack of investment in the Line over the previous twenty years. Wherever the blame lay, the simple fact was that it was one of the poorest performing lines in the Capital, and arguably in the UK. Indeed in 2004 a full quarter of services were at least 5 minutes late.

Given the above, it is perhaps unsurprising that as the new millenium dawned, the DfT were ammenable to an idea that would take responsibility for the Line off its books.

The Outer Outer Circle

The origins of that idea began to emerge in 2001. The Mayor’s Transport Strategy issued in July of that year argued that Crossrail was not the only major railway improvement that London needed to deal with its growing passenger numbers. It also needed something else – “OrbiRail.”

As the name suggests, OrbiRail would be the full integration of London’s orbital railways – the loop around the edges to Crossrail’s dash through the middle. Better integration and services along these lines would, Mayor Livingstone and TfL argued, not only improve services for those already living along those lines, but also have a positive impact on London’s radial traffic. This is because it would provide an opportunity for people to interchange onto other services further out, syphoning off a portion of the traffic that normally travelled into the Capital only to travel out again, or to join a Tube line that they could theoretically have joined further out.

Attaining a standard of service for OrbiRail that would allow the above, however, would require a great deal of cooperation and synchronisation – “joined up thinking” to steal a term more frequently used on here by the illustrious Mwmbwls. Ideally, it would also require all those orbital services to share a brand and for services to run at true metro frequency.

Those requirements thus led to a simple idea, but one that would be vital if OrbiRail was to work – TfL needed to be much more involved in the running of those orbital lines. Arguably, it possibly even needed to run those lines itself.

Over subsequent years, these plans continued to progress. OrbiRail would become “The Overground” and the early years of the new millenium turned out to be an almost-perfect circumstance for it to develop in, now that the idea had champions in the form of both TfL and the Mayor. The NLR Franchise was due, the ELL was to be completely upgraded, and investment was available both from Government and Olympic coffers.

In many ways, “London Overground” theoretically emerged as a branding exercise in 2003, when TfL worked with a number of TOCs to bring a unified look and feel to various lines. In truth though, it had quickly become clear that only through some kind of local devolution of control to the Capital would the goal of a proper orbital service be achieved. Here, one key objective soon emerged – London should gain control over the NLR Franchise.

As we touched on above, the failing NLR Franchise was one that the DfT were not feeling particularly precious over, but from London’s perspective it was a hugely important one – particularly if the orbital was to be realised. Negotiations thus took place over the Franchise’s control.

In its most basic form, the argument put forward was that London had already taken back a large amount of the responsibility for running itself with the founding of the Mayorship and the GLA. TfL oversaw the Underground, the DLR and its buses so why shouldn’t it control certain franchises as well? Just because it hadn’t been in the original 1999 GLA act didn’t mean it wasn’t a good idea, the argument ran, and the underperforming NLR was the very epitome of a franchise that should fall within TfL’s remit – it was a London-only franchise, with no implications for long distance traffic.

It was an argument that appeared to have benefits for both sides, and the DfT began to come on board with it. In 2004, the Department’s “Future of Rail” Whitepaper cautiously supported the idea of a “London Regional Rail Authority.” That Authority would have a certain amount of control (to be established at a later date) over London’s surface railways. It was not quite a call for the return of the old LPTB, but it accepted that some test activity in the area of localized control should take place.

The Franchise is Devolved

With the passage of the 2005 Railways Act, the legal framework for exactly that came into place. On 14th February 2006 the Department for Transport handed over franchising responsibilities for the NLR to the Mayor and the newly formed “TfL London Rail.”

This was, the DfT was keen to stress, an experiment. As a GLA Transport Committee report released in 2005 rather nicely summarises:

The NLR will be seen as a test bed for futhering these ambitions across all London’s rail commuter routes. It represents a stern test indeed.

The opportunity is there for TfL to set new standards as a commissioner of rail services and to provide an alternative management model for rail – management characterised by buck passing and contractual quagmires since rail privatisation in the mid 1990s.”

Or, in short, the DfT was prepared to give TfL enough rope to hang itself with.

Making Concessions

The model TfL opted to take for the operation of their newly acquired Franchise was different from that used by the DfT. In part this was in order to gain the greater control and synchronicity needed for the orbital. It was also, however, an attempt to try and tackle some of the perceived problems with the franchising system mentioned above – the “buck passing and quagmires” that many felt plagued the system.

The NLR would be operated as a “Concession” not a Franchise. Network Rail would obviously manage the infrastructure and someone else would operate the services. TfL, however, would set the fares, decide service levels, procure and manage the Rolling Stock and basically take a more “hands-on” approach to daily decision making. The concession would arguably be closer to the way in which the DLR was operated rather than a traditional franchise – not so much a case of setting boundaries and then taking a hands-off approach, as setting ongoing goals and managing their achievement.

This would limit the freedom within which the chosen operator could work, but that operator would get a rather large payoff in return – unlike with existing National Rail franchisees, Tfl would absorb the overwhelming majority of the revenue risk – up to 90% of it. This made the Operator’s books much easier to manage and their profit margins clearer, a worthwhile payoff for the tighter working restrictions.

On July 2nd 2007, the contract was signed with an MTR and Laing Rail Joint Venture for a seven year concession with a two year potential extension. This company, swiftly renamed “London Overground Rail Operations” (LOROL), were the people who took control of the NLR on that November day in 2007.

The Overgound Today

Going Back To The Future

It is here that our brief sojourn back to the birth of the Overground ends. Much of the story that comes next will be known to regular readers of this site. The rollout of Oyster onto the newly born Overground, the deep cleans of the stations, the rolling stock rollout, the rebirth of the ELL, the massive investment in the NLL that is now drawing to a close – all these are key parts of the Overground’s story, but that is something, perhaps, for another time.

Hopefully, however, all the above has provided some context for what comes next – the detailed look at “where now?” It hopefully begins to highlight some of the points set out at the beginning of this article for those who may not have been aware of them before – that the Overground is not just another Franchise, and that discussion of its future is as much about TfL’s relationship with the DfT and the rest of London’s suburban rail network as it is about track and services along its new orbital network.

With the Overground, TfL took a major gamble – that it could do what the existing franchising system had failed to do, and that it could completely change the way London thinks about its orbital links. Whilst some issues and complaints remain and need to be addressed, it’s a gamble that has arguably paid of larger – and quicker than anyone expected.

The Overground has changed the game, and now its time to look at how it is to be played from now on…

Written by John Bull
John Bull is the Editor of London Reconnections. A transport journalist and historian, his writing often focuses on the political or strategic challenges facing London's transport network and beyond.