The case for partial devolution of London’s rail network

TfL has made great progress with the small part of the rail network it was given control of


The point of devolution of public services must be to ensure the best possible and most appropriate service for the most efficient cost. Generally speaking, local management and decision making is more responsive and provides the conditions for more accountability when things go wrong.

London’s rapidly growing population means that the public transport system is drastically overcrowded to a level that passengers elsewhere in the UK would find difficult to imagine.

While Transport for London (TfL) have done a good job of maximising the capacity of the tube network by improving signalling, the rail network in London is in crisis. In many areas the above-ground rail network is simply full and passengers struggle with cattle truck conditions and poor, unreliable services.

Prior to the election there was a lot of talk of nationalising the railways. With the London Assembly Transport Committee firmly laying the blame for London’s deteriorating railways on the organisational structure of rail, and the lack of accountability for train operators, it’s clear this debate has not gone away.

The dramatic failures in services operating through London Bridge recently provided the last straw for Londoners tired of paying ghastly fares for appalling service reliability and the privilege of spending hours crushed into each other’s armpits.

What this situation brought home to me was the abundant opportunities Southern and Network Rail have had to pass the buck simply because one company runs the stations and trains and the other the infrastructure, tracks and signals.

This set-up, a fragmented rail service, means issues such as reliability, comfort and passenger satisfaction fall through the cracks, though not, of course, huge fare income for shareholders.

Devolving control to regional government has already been proven to work. Since 2007, TfL have controlled London Overground, which has proved extremely popular and largely reliable. TfL took franchises away from failing operators. Increased the number of trains, improved information for passengers and upgraded to spacious new metro trains offering more space and faster loading and unloading.

How can a state-run organisation make so much progress where the private sector could not? They paid the train operators a flat fee to run the service and focused only on reliability and punctuality, instead of giving the companies the fare box which incentivised hiking prices and packing passengers in with no regard to quality.

Any additional fare income made by the service is retained by TfL and reinvested into the railway – not into the pockets of shareholders. There is dedicated and knowledgeable local management and a sensible level of integration with the rest of the transport network. Stations are upgraded and disability access vastly improved. What’s not to love about the way TfL runs the small part of the rail network that it has been given control of?

What is interesting about this practical rail devolution agenda is that within London it is a matter of local cross-party consensus. It’s not an ideological issue but the heartfelt plea of elected representatives who can no longer stand to see an asset so scarce and precious as our rail networks so badly run.

The current system of fragmented rail companies doesn’t provide good value in any way and this must be addressed. It’s clear that placing a public body, such as TfL, in control of our city’s railways has major benefits and is politically achievable.

This can be seen with the advent of ‘Devo Manc’ and Transport for the North establishing a strategic transport body for key northern hubs. The TfL model might not be full nationalisation, but it shows that regional government can make a major difference for its residents if it is allowed – a true accountable and public-led partnership with private companies, for the benefit of passengers.

Val Shawcross AM is the London Assembly Labour Transport spokesperson. Follow her on Twitter

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.

2 Responses to “The case for partial devolution of London’s rail network”

  1. Paul Wash

    TfL hasn’t done a good job of all signalling upgrades. The resignalling of the sub surface lines is years late, massively over budget and now on its third contractor.

    Network Rails Rebuilding of London Bridge was always going to be very difficult to deliver. There just isn’t the space to manage the peak volume of passengers and rebuild it at the same time. Prior to the works there should have been recognition that this would be difficult and ticket prices reduced for those that were to be affected.

    Running a largely self contained, separated railway like the London Overground is quite different from the spaghetti of lines in South London, with its continual flat junctions where any delay will cause ripples of delays on other trains. London Overground is one of the highest subsidised railways in the UK, the investment it receives as a result is testament to this. This is the central reason governments of both colours have sought not to extend it further.

  2. Dave Stewart

    “overcrowded to a level that passengers elsewhere in the UK would find difficult to imagine.”

    Are you trying to be funny. I have lived in London and the North of England (Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool) and the commuter crush into those Northern cities in the morning and evening is just as bad as that into London. The difference is in London you get nearly 10 times the amount of money per head invested as in other areas. Everytime London services get new trains the old ones are shipped north so outside of London everyone has to make do with London’s reject carriages. While I don’t deny that London has serious rail congestion to claim that it is unique to London is insulting. Many people living outside of London would love to have a similar level of public transportation as London.

Leave a Reply