Gareth Bacon is the Leader of the Conservative Group on the London Assembly.
As the Assembly Member for Bexley and Bromley I have a particular interest in Transport for London (TfL) gaining control of mainline rail franchises. My constituents are served by the Southeastern rail network, which has suffered from a depressingly poor service for some time. This is also true of other networks serving part of London, notably the Southern rail network, whose problems have become very well covered in the media in recent months. Not all of the problems can be laid at the feet of the respective train operating companies, but in certain areas poor service has become so endemic that the argument for a change is becoming irresistible.
Hope appeared on the horizon in January of this year, when a prospectus jointly produced by TfL and the Department for Transport (DfT) was published, in which the DfT and the then Mayor of London Boris Johnson argued for the establishment of a partnership between the DfT and TfL that would provide a more joined-up strategic direction for the specification and management of rail passenger services across London and the South East.
Crucially, this would feature the gradual transfer of the mainline rail franchises that operate mostly or wholly within Greater London from the control of the DfT to TfL. The model selected would be that of London Overground network, which has seen a major improvement in service since control of the franchise was moved to Tfl, who write the contract, set fares, procure rolling stock, decide service levels and then award responsibility for running the daily service to a private operator.
Under the DfT/TfL prospectus the franchises would be transferred in order of renewal date, with Southeastern transferring first, in 2018, with other franchises (including Southern) following. The development of this prospectus has cross-party support at the London Assembly and has been years in the making, involving both previous Mayors – there has been a careful, strategic push initially from (to be fair) Ken Livingstone and later from Boris Johnson, which culminated in the pre-election joint announcement from the DfT and TfL that suggested we were 90 per cent of the way there.
I have no doubt that the concession model that has vastly improved the level of service on London Overground would transform the passenger experience for commuters in Bexley and Bromley.
Similarly, I have no doubt that a Zac Goldsmith victory in the Mayoral election last May would have seen work on the transfer continue to proceed smoothly. Sadly, that did not happen, but a Labour Mayor need not be a death blow to rail devolution, provided the government feel that they can trust the Labour Mayor and do business with him.
Unfortunately Sadiq Khan’s behaviour both during the election campaign and, particularly, since his election is putting all this progress at risk.
Firstly, he constantly brags about having found the money within TfL’s budget to freeze fares, and lambasts the government for failing to force the train operating companies to do the same.
There are two things wrong with this: his “fares freeze” is only partial – contrary to his breezy pre-election rhetoric about Londoners not paying a penny more for travel in 2020 than they do today, Sadiq Khan’s fares freeze does not include Travelcards or Oyster daily and weekly pay as you go caps, so as many as one million Londoners will not benefit; and he has not yet actually found the money – as the recent cross-party report produced by the Assembly’s Budget Committee showed, not only is the Mayor half a billion pounds adrift of the figure required, the £117 million he has found so far is a long way short of guaranteed. My colleague Keith Prince was able to pin down the Mayor on his duplicity on fares here.
Secondly, he has used the ongoing and highly prominent problems of the Southern rail network currently run by Govia Thameslink (GTR) for his own ends. He has been very critical of the train operating company (with some justification, although I have previously written about why the situation is far more complicated than the Mayor pretends) but has also been continuously playing to the media gallery with regard to his stated desire for TfL to take over the running of the Southern franchise, again lambasting the government, and this has clearly not impressed the DfT or the new Secretary of State for Transport, Chris Grayling.
At the monthly Mayor’s Question Time, I questioned Mayor Sadiq Khan about his oft-stated desire for Transport for London (TfL) to run Southern Rail. My reason for doing so was a general concern about the impact his actions might have on wider rail devolution, and the specific consequence this might have on the Southeastern franchise and therefore on my constituents.
I was keen to ascertain what he actually meant by “run” and whether he understood the difference between mainline rail devolution and backdoor nationalisation, which his desire to “run” Southern Rail seemed to suggest. The Mayor admitted that he had used “run” when he meant “control”, which on the face of it was reassuring.
Since the Mayor has offered to put his “senior TfL team in charge of the GTR Southern franchise”, it would be reasonable to assume that the necessary people at TfL had been assembled, briefed and were ready to go, so I asked him to name the TfL officers who he would have put in charge had the DfT agreed to his demand. Unsurprisingly, he was unable to give me a single name, first stating “I’ve not got the names to hand” and then “I won’t give you names.” He then also refused to tell me how many people are in that potential team, saying: “I’ve not got the numbers to hand.”
He then refused point blank to intercede with the RMT union that has contributed mightily to present difficulties on the Southern network with a series of damaging and entirely unnecessary strikes. Despite boasting pre and post election of his excellent working relationships with the trade unions and his commitment to achieving zero days of strike action under his Mayoralty, he dismissed the idea that interceding on behalf of Londoners was any part of his remit, suggesting that to do so would be “megaphone diplomacy.” The irony of that statement on the one hand whilst lambasting the train operating company and the government as loudly as possible on the other seemed entirely lost on him
It is hard to avoid the suspicion that the Mayor does not have a team in place, that he hasn’t the slightest intention of dealing with the trade unions and that the driving force behind his statements on this has simply been to get good publicity for himself whilst attempting to blame the government for the train operating company’s continued failings. In so doing he risks jeopardising the chances of the government agreeing to devolve power to TfL.
There is a major policy win that could be achieved in the form of rail devolution, but it will take a mature approach to governing, time, patience and good negotiation on the part of the Mayor to achieve it. The more that the Mayor seeks to grandstand and chase short-term newspaper headlines rather than focus on persuading the Government that he represents a safe pair of hands, the more likely it is that they will decide that giving power to TfL represents too great a risk. If that happens, the fault would lie entirely with the Mayor, who risks overturning more than a decade of hard work over just a few months.
For the good of Londoners as a whole, not least for my constituents, Sadiq Khan should get out of campaigning mode, get into governing mode and put the long term interests of Londoners first.