The Future of the Overground Part 3: Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit

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“Opening new railways is London is less a case of building new ones and more a case of finding old bits you can reopen.”

– Howard Smith, COO of TfL London Rail

“When they see the Roundel people expect quality. We thought hard about putting it on the Overground. We’ll think hard about where it goes in future.”

– Peter Hendy, London Transport Commissioner

In the first part of our series on the future of London Overground, we stepped back and took a look at how it all began. In our second, we looked at what the future holds for the orbital railway the London Overground has become.

In this final instalment, we take a look at something we touched upon briefly in both pieces – that the future of the Overground is as much a question of where TfL go next in their relationship with the DfT and other TOCs as anything else.

In Tango Clad

When looking at the London Overground, it is very easy to forget that beneath the orange paint and performance statistics still lurks that original, simple goal – to provide a coherently branded orbital railway that delivers at least 4tph peak service as a minimum across its length. In many ways the successful Concession system that emerged on the Overground was thus simply a means to an end – the best approach for a franchise that happened to effectively fit that model. That the concession system has proven to be successful is not to be denied, but proving its worth was never the primary goal of the exercise.

On first glance this may seem like a somewhat irrelevant point, but it is in fact one that goes to the heart of understanding what the Overground’s future holds. For it is easy to look back on the last five years and see a progression of London’s railway lines taking on a tangerine hue and extrapolate it forwards. The reality, however, is that all of those lines had some part to play in the establishment of the orbital, and all of them were lines that in some way TfL had gained a claim on as early as 2005.

Consistency London-wide

“It’s not about some kind of power grab.” Howard Smith, COO of TfL London Rail commented recently when an opportunity arose to talk to him about the future. “It’s about saying ‘Okay, what’s the standard we want to see across London?’ and seeing what needs to be done to meet that.”

Just what that “minimum standard” means is something that once again the HLOS2 response helps us understand. There, we find six points that TfL consider should universally applicable:

Service frequency – all stations should receive a frequency of service of at least four trains per hour throughout the week, wherever appropriate.
Station ambience – all stations to achieve a standard for cleanliness and condition that is equivalent to that currently maintained by the Overground.
Station staffing – this broadly translates to making sure that staff are visible and available at all times.
Help Points and CCTV – All stations should be equipped with Help Points. CCTV should be provided offering pictures of a quality
sufficient to be used during court proceedings and be actively used to address anti-social incidents as and when they arise.
Customer information systems at stations – All stations should be equipped with information systems that provide passengers updates in real time.
Cycle parking – All stations should have cycle parking facilities

As Smith describes it, just as the initial objective with the Overground was to create the orbital railway, the objective for much of London’s Rail now from TfL’s perspective is to see the above achieved – it’s not so much about expanding the Overground as it is about expanding the Overground experience.

Smith thus describes TfL’s approach going forward as being based on a “ladder of involvement.” Franchises will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, with TfL pushing to be involved as little or as much is necessary to achieve the above standard. The lowest level of that ladder might see TfL involved as a sponsor on station upgrades within a franchise, the mid-level might see TfL involved in the gating of stations, timetabling or rolling stock acquisition (the new Southern franchise being a good analogy here) whilst the highest level of involvement would be absorption into the Overground itself.

Achieving the Standard

In this light, its easy to see why TfL’s HLOS2 response focuses as much on recommending improvements on lines that don’t fall directly within the Overground’s remit as it does on those that do (and is well worth reading for those recommendations alone).

Here, the response divides its comments into corridors, based on the general approaches the railways take to the capital.

A summary of most of those recommendations can be seen on the graphic above, but it is worth expanding on several which TfL consider key to London’s Transport future (particularly issues of capacity).

Firstly, the partial four-tracking of the West Anglia Main Line to allow more frequent all-stations services to operate on segregated tracks between Brimsdown and Stratford. Secondly, TfL recommend the Lengthening of services that run fast between Bromley South and Victoria. Enhanced services on the Catford Loop in advance of completion of the Thameslink Programme are suggested, also serving Peckham Rye and Denmark Hill. Finally, Train lengthening and platform lengthening (where necessary) on various routes on the Essex Thameside, South Central, South Western and Great Western corridors is suggested.

Developing Devolution

Of course whilst the standards based, “hands off” approach may well prove the most common outlet for TfL in the world of surface rail, it remains the fact that at the top of the Organisation’s “ladder of involvement” sits full-blown integration with the existing Overground network.

The need for that level of involvement may be limited, but that doesn’t mean it won’t potentially exist. There are several current franchises (or group-able parts thereof) that are not dissimilar to the devolved NLR in terms of London-specificity and which would arguably benefit greatly from a similar approach.

Standing proud amongst these is the Greater Anglia Franchise – specifically the Lea Valley lines and beyond. Sources suggest that some tentative discussion over TfL involvement here has already taken place.

It is also noticeable that this is one of the areas that gets a good amount of attention in the HLOS2 response. In summary:

– No additional infrastructure at Stratford, with committed investment
assumed to allow 6 tph to turn back from the West Anglia route
– New double track from the Temple Mills lines just north of the former Lea Bridge station to south of Tottenham Hale
– New single track through Tottenham Hale station to maintain
affordability of scheme by avoiding major bridge and platform works
– New double track from north of Tottenham Hale to south of Brimsdown
– Single track approach to new bay platform at Brimsdown
– Closure of level crossing at Northumberland Park station (Tottenham
Hale Gyratory scheme improves road access across the railway nearby
as well as the bridge at Leaside Road)
– New pedestrian access to Angel Road station from the south to serve
Meridian Water development site
– Enhanced turnback facilities at Seven Sisters to allow extra shuttle
service to operate

The rather large elephant in the room, of course, is the very question over whether the DfT will devolve further franchises to TfL at all. It’s a question that TfL largely dodge in their HLOS2 response (you’ll find one paragraph on it in the entire 77 page document), but one on which they’ve already come out swinging on elsewhere. There have been suggestions for some time that TfL have been pushing the DfT on the issue, with an internal report on the viability of devolution grasped firmly in hand.

A recent piece by Mark Hansford writing for NCE (although sadly behind the paywall) confirms this is in fact the case. In the piece, not only does Mike Brown, MD of London Overground and London Rail, openly confirm that such a report exists, but also that it clearly recommends the use of the devolved Concession model elsewhere in London or – at a bare minimum – joint TfL and DfT franchising. The piece also suggestion East Anglia as a potential battleground, and it is tempting to suspect that Brown may well have (explicitly or not) encouraged the use of that example.

Whether that is true or not, what is clear is that when it comes to the future of franchising, TfL are drawing up their battle lines and preparing to fight. With a government that (superficially at least) is committed to local devolution of services, questions over the franchise system being raised, key franchises soon up for grabs and the Overground standing as a shining example of a competent blend of public and private sector thinking, the time for TfL to grab back some control over franchising would seem to be at hand.

“You didn’t expect us to, but we passed your little test,” TfL seem to be beginning to say to the DfT, “so what are we going to do about it?”

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, it seems that the future of the Overground may not entirely be what some people suspect it will be. The success of the Overground so far does not necessarily mean that we will see vast new swathes of the transport map painted orange in the coming years.

What it does mean however, is that we may well see the tangerine creep outwards to the likes of Chingford, whilst Overground-level performance begins to become the rule on all other lines as well.

It seems that in Franchise terms, the future may well be bright, it just might not be as Orange as some people think.

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.