The Price of Oranges: DfT ask TfL to take on Greenford and Upminster

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UPDATE: TfL have kindly provided us with a statement on this subject, clarifying their perspective on the matter. This can be found at the end of the article here.

There was some surprise back in June when it was confirmed that the DfT would devolve the West Anglia rail franchise to TfL, a major step towards the devolution of London’s rail services. Although not stated at the time, sources now suggest that the DfT have placed a price on this devolution of services, one on which the two parties are now negotiating terms – TfL must take on two other London branch lines as well.

Setting the scene

TfL have long argued that their concession model is far more appropriate for London’s rail services than the DfT’s current franchising setup. The DfT model, they claim, places too heavy a reliance on the ability of passengers to “walk away” from consistently bad services as a way of incentivising operators to deliver good ones. It’s a model that works well on long distance services, but fails on suburban and urban services within London. Here the high level of commuter traffic, and the fact that for many services there is supressed demand anyway, means that a fall in service quality does not lead to a corresponding loss of fares.

This, along with other reasons (related to the difficulty of long term planning across disparate franchises and the added cost within the contract if the operator is left to carry the risk) was why TfL opted to use a concession model for its Overground services – effectively contracting the operator to run services as stipulated by TfL, in return for a set fee and a small share of any operating profit. A model that on the London Overground at least, has proven to be highly successful.

That success is what encouraged TfL, with the support of both Mayor and London Assembly, to push for more services to be “devolved” to London’s direct control. The DfT, however, were reluctant to cede much in the way of control and a long battle – both in public and private – for control of rail services thus began, one that continues to this day.

A step towards devolution

In light of the above, the franchising announcement was thus seen by many as an important landmark. In the months leading up to the announcement, both TfL and the Mayor had talked openly about their desire to take on responsibility for both West Anglia and South-Eastern. Both, they argued, were prime candidates for devolution as they were overwhelmingly metro and commuter services within the London sphere of influence. Broadly speaking this argument received a considerable amount of backing – both from travellers who were keen to see their lines receive the “Overground treatment” and from politicians both local and national, who recognised the importance of good transport links and TfL’s track record of delivery. The public exception to this was in Kent, where the local council stood as a vocal opponent. Even Kent’s objections mellowed considerably however, at least in private, after a report commissioned by the council itself confirmed that Kent would stand to benefit, not lose out, under such an arrangement.

Indeed by the time of the announcement it was arguably South-Eastern, rather than West Anglia, that stood as the franchise perhaps more likely to be devolved first. For whilst Kent’s public objections had faded considerably, there was still an element to the north-east of the river who remained generally distrustful of the potential influence of the Mayor and TfL. In part, at least, this was due to the inherent conflict between the area’s airport interests (Stansted) and the Mayor’s push to see a new Estuary Airport elsewhere.

Ultimately, however, it was West Anglia – not South-Eastern – that received the DfT devolution nod. On the surface this has seemed so far to be something of a full concession to TfL’s demands, albeit one on which no doubt considerable discussion and debate happened behind the scenes. Sources suggest, however, that this move will in fact come at a price.

Paying the price – Greenford and Upminster

That price, it is suggested, is that the DfT want TfL to take over two other branch lines elsewhere in London. These are Romford – Upminster, and West Ealing – Greenford.

From the DfT’s perspective, it is easy to see why both of these branches are lines that they would be quite happy to see pass from their direct portfolio. The Greenford Branch consists of five stations on approximately four miles of track, with passenger services currently provided by First Great Western. Something of a “diesel island” in the middle of a sea of electrification, just how it would be operated in future has been a topic of debate within the DfT for some time.

Romford – Upminster is an even shorter line, featuring three stations over roughly the same number of miles. Unlike Greenford this branch line is electrified, but it comes with its own unique set of issues. Affectionally known as the “Romford push and pull,” the line is unsignalled and effectively operates in isolation from the rest of the London rail network, with a single train running back and forth along the length of the branch line to provide a half hour service.

A strong case for change

It is also easy to see why the DfT would feel that these services could easily fall within the remit of TfL. Greenford is already the site of a Central Line station and both lines will also be impacted by the opening of Crossrail. Greenford – West Ealing services will double once Crossrail opens, but only because they will not be able to run through to Paddington due to the new line’s impact on available rail paths. Crossrail will also serve Romford, with TfL likely to take control of station management there anyway as a result. Both lines also fall well within the boundary of influence that TfL has publicly stated it feels, in railway terms, is its by right.

Nonetheless, it is unlikely that TfL would be happy about taking both the branches on. That they would have to cede to what would be a rather clever bit of horse-trading by the DfT though seems certain, although no doubt there would remain some negotiation to be had on the final terms. For TfL the prize of West Anglia is too great, and having elevated devolution to a principle, rather than just a financial benefit, in the field of public debate they could not afford to be seen to reject two lines that – the DfT rightly argue – match TfL’s own criteria for devolution.

Challenges and opportunities

Just what the final terms of such a transfer would be, though, and how TfL would look to run those lines, would be interesting to see.

That they would be no easier for TfL to manage than the DfT is obvious, but every challenge is also an opportunity. Indeed this is precisely how TfL were able to embark on the Overground project to begin with. It is easy to forget now just how much of a basket case the North London Line in particular had become, and just how glad the DfT was to see that line go.

The situation with both Greenford and Upminster would, of course, be very different, but with GOBLIN electrification now secured, TfL will shortly (in railway terms) have a fleet of diesel 172s in need of a home. Whatever their original plans, Greenford may suddenly prove to be a potential alternative. Meanwhile the self-enclosed, and underdeveloped, nature of Romford – Upminster may well make it an attractive option for future “live” testing of systems or trains.

Whatever approach was taken, it is clear that TfL would need to think carefully about just what the “Overground treatment” really is. We have yet to see what their plans for West Anglia are, but the danger is that passengers will expect a similar step change in service to that seen already on the Overground, but that this will be something that TfL’s finances simply aren’t in the position to provide. If that’s a danger for West Anglia, then it would be doubly so for the Greenford and Upminster branches. TfL’s argument for devolution is largely based on the reputation that Rail for London (RfL) – TfL’s rail arm – have rightly built up as an “Operator of Exception” rather than the norm, and disappointed passengers on any of the three lines taken on would damage that.

If negotiations are indeed underway over these branches, then whatever the outcome (and indeed for West Anglia) was, TfL now have some interesting challenges ahead. They’ll be difficult, certainly, but right now there are few people who wouldn’t bet on orange.

18/09/2013: An Update from TfL

TfL have provided us with the following comment on the subject of West Anglia and any related lines, to clarify their position on the matter. Director of TfL’s London Rail, Jonathan Fox, said:

We are undertaking joint work with the DfT to establish and agree the future of the Liverpool Street to Enfield Town, Cheshunt – via Seven Sisters – and Chingford rail services and how they will be delivered. We are not yet in a position to comment further on this work. It is not the case, however, that the future of those services is contingent on TfL taking up a franchise of other services.

Written by John Bull