All change as new era dawns for rail commuters on some of London’s busiest routes.
London’s Overground has been in existence for less than a decade but it has already had a huge impact on service provision; it has quite literally reshaped the rail map of the capital. This weekend sees further change as West Anglia’s inner suburban services are brought under its jurisdiction. What difference will these changes make? John W E Helm investigates.
The case for rail devolution has gradually been gaining ground. In some parts of the country plans are in hand to devolve rail management to more locally based bodies –to make them more accountable – but they have made little headway so far. However, in London this process has been underway since 2007, and Transport for London will go one step further when it takes West Anglia’s inner rail services under its wing at the month end.
The routes in question – from Liverpool Street to Chingford, to Enfield Town and Cheshunt (via the Seven Sisters route), and on the separate Romford to Upminster line – will transfer from the custodianship of train operator Abellio Greater Anglia(AGA) to London Overground (LO) on 31 May. A separate organisation -TfL Rail run by MTR – will operate the Liverpool Street to Shenfield services as part of the first stage of Crossrail (for which MTR also holds the concession).
TfL says new trains are on the way, and that 80% of current train journeys will cost less than they do at the moment – some by as much as 40% – and that no passenger will have to pay more because of the changes.
Since its inception in 2007, it’s been a steady roller coaster ride for London Overground (LO). Unlike most other train operating companies, LO is franchised by TfL, not by the Department for Transport. Operations began in 2007 when it took over the North London Line (NLL) train services from Silverlink Metro, and subsequently acquired those on the East London Line (ELL) in 2010, and on the South London Line (SLL) in 2012. LO already operates six lines and serves 83 stations, mainly in the Greater London Area.
LO carried 135.7 million passengers during the year ended 31 March 2014, and the inner West Anglia services should add another 20 million. The Overground fleet is made up of 57 Class 378 four car EMUs (leased from QW Rail Leasing) and eight Class 172 two car DMUs (leased from Angel Trains).
LO is currently run by LOROL (London Overground Rail Operations Ltd); a 50:50 joint venture between the MTR Corporation of Hong Kong and German state railway Deutsche Bahn AG. TfL sets fare levels, procures rolling stock and determines service levels; the revenue split between TfL and LOROL is 90:10. The concession was renewed in March 2014, and it runs to November 2016.
TfL has received several expressions of interest for the new LO concession that will succeed it. The new concession will run for seven years and five months with a two year optional extension, but no further details are available at this stage.
What difference will TfL management make to West Anglia Inner (WAI) rail services? That’s one of the questions LTT put to TfL’s Managing Director of London Rail, Mike Brown:
“Our franchising model – a management concession model rather than the DfT franchising model – gives a better deal for passengers. It provides a better focus for suburban and urban routes in and around London focusing on a reliable railway, rather than being there to generate marginal income growth for the train operating company. Most importantly, the way we reward and incentivise the train operator is based on punctuality and performance. So our model of a concession, rather than the traditional franchise, is that we are heavily geared towards punctuality, reliability and improving services.
“People will immediately notice that we will have staff on stations – all the times the trains are scheduled to run – which is different for many of the stations on the routes we are taking over. LOROL will take on around 300 more staff; 200 of these will transfer across from Abellio Greater Anglia (AGA) and there are around 100 new roles.”
Brown – who is also responsible for the Docklands Light Railway and the Croydon Tramlink, as well as being Managing Director of London Underground – is confident that the extra cost of recruiting extra staff will be more than recouped by the additional traffic the improved services are expected to generate:
“We’ve had a 250% growth in demand on the North London Line since we took it over in 2007. There’s no doubt about it, there’s going to be an increase in demand to all these places (on the inner West Anglia network) over time. We’ve just introduced five cars on the East London Line and are now doing the same on the North London Line. But these are filling up as soon as we provide them because of the increasing size of the London population.”
As for the priorities that lie ahead and the challenges of running these newly acquired services, Brown says:
“Many of the stations need much work to bring them up to standard. To start with, they are going to be properly deep cleaned. We will do some painting, put in help points, install cameras, improve the gating, provide better lighting and proper customer information, and so on. To be honest, this has been a bit of a run down railway. There are reliability issues, and station challenges in terms of security.
“It’s not going to be easy. It’s not like handing over something which is in prefect working order. I’ve had discussions with Network Rail senior management (which control the infrastructure) to ensure that they prioritise these routes to make sure we get off to a good start.”
Brown believes that integrating the West Anglia with the rest of the LO organisation can be easily accommodated and quickly accomplished, though there may be some problems in harmonising different staff terms and conditions of employment.
TfL would like to improve WAI service frequencies but feels inhibited by factors outside its control:
“The problem is that peak services are constrained. We have to tie in with longer distance train services provided by other train operators. We can’t just unilaterally change our service frequencies, and these are not the most modern signalled parts of the rail network. Initially, the opportunities are likely to be evenings and off-peak in the early months and years, then we’ll have to look at what can be done with a bit of investment (as we did in the case of the North London Line and East London Line when we assumed responsibility for those services).”
Capacity is a problem not just on the West Anglia routes, but just about everywhere on the LO network; traffic is increasing along with the size of London’s burgeoning population. The NLL – running from Stratford in the east to Richmond in the west and serving many places in between – is a key artery and a major freight route with connections to every main line north, east and west of the capital. It also serves part of the southern network. NLL’s current line capacity is 12 tph (trains per hour), but is handicapped by the ‘double block’ signalling section required for the (1,166 yard long) Hampstead Heath tunnel. Reducing signalling headways could add more capacity and speed up the traffic, otherwise station platforms would need extending to accommodate trains longer than the five car units currently permitted.
Brown says that not all the allocated freight paths are taken up: “We run eight trains per hour on the core NLL route, but the four freight paths per hour are not always used. We know that because we’ve done the research. There is some residual capacity, which if we could utilise would make a significant difference.”
New trains are on the way: an OJEU (Official Journal of the European Union) notice was issued in April 2014, initially for 39 (since increased to) 45 four car EMU sets. 30 are for the Cheshunt, Chingford and Enfield Town services (to replace 28 EMUs currently working there); 8 will operate on the (soon to be electrified) Barking to Gospel Oak (GOBLIN) line; and one is for the short Romford to Upminster working. The additional 6 sets are for the London Euston to Watford DC stopping service.
The ITT (invitations to Tender) for the new trains will be issued later in the year and they should see service in 2018. Brown says they will have longitudinal seating (like the Class 378s), but decided not to order more Class 378s because: “We want to keep our options open and need to get the best value for money. We owe that to the taxpayers and the passengers. The 378s are good units, but this a reasonably competitive market to shop around.”
In the meantime, the current WAI services will continue to be worked by a mix of 17 Class 315s and 14 Class 317s of pre-privatisation era vintage. Train interiors will be spruced up (‘refreshed’ in official parlance) and these units will soldier on until replaced. 44 Class 315s will also be transferred to TfL Rail from 31 May to operate the Liverpool Street to Shenfield service.
28 stations on the WAI routes and another 12 on the Crossrail Shenfield line will be added to LO’s steadily expanding network when the changeover occurs. But the transfer has been far from a straight forward process. The TfL Board reported in December that:
“The station transfer is complicated by the fact that all but one (Stratford) are currently operated by AGA under 99 year FRI (full repairing and insurance) leases. AGA is currently only one of two train operating companies (TOCs) to have 99 year station leases which were introduced at the start of its franchise in 2011 under a DfT initiative.
“This contrasts with the station lease arrangements for other TOCs including LOROL under its standard industry lease, where the operator takes a short term lease coterminous with the franchise or concession period and only has responsibility for day to day maintenance. TfL is not a train operating company so could not take on the existing 99 year leases from AGA and sub-let them to its concession operator in its current. This has necessitated negotiation of a new form of lease.”
The 24 WAI stations transferred to the Overground are: Bethnal Green, Bruce Grove, Bush Hill Park, Cambridge Heath, Chingford, Clapton, Edmonton Green, Emerson Park, Enfield Town, Hackney Downs, Highams Park, London Fields, Rectory Road, Seven Sisters, Silver Street, Southbury, St James Street, Stamford Hill, Stoke Newington, Theobalds Grove, Turkey Street, Walthamstow Central, White Hart Lane and Wood Street.
Cheshunt, however, will remain the responsibility of train operator AGA, and Upminster with C2C; Liverpool Street stays with Network Rail.
The 12 stations on the Shenfield line to be managed by TfL Rail for Crossrail are: Brentwood, Chadwell Heath, Forest Gate, Gidea Park, Goodmayes, Harold Wood, Ilford, Manor Park, Maryland, Romford, Seven Kings and Stratford.
The station improvements will cost around £25m, and the train ‘refreshments’ will add approximately another £2.5m (which also includes the Shenfield stock), both of which will be TfL funded.
What of the future? It’s no secret that TfL wants to take over more inner suburban workings. Advances south of the Thames to acquire the Southeastern ‘metro’ services from Victoria, Cannon Street and Charing Cross to Dartford, Sevenoaks, Hayes and Orpington were recently checked following objections from Kent County Council. KCC feared any moves in this direction might adversely impact long distance services to the Kent coast.
Brown does not accept this: “I think it is a strange argument they are putting forward. They appear to be saying that because we are running a more reliable service that this will somehow disadvantage their medium and long distance passenger trains. I think the reverse is the case: It is much less likely for one of our local stopping services to impede a medium or long distance service if it’s running to time.
“I also think – and I made this point to them forcibly, along with the mayor and his deputy –that the vast majority of people in Kent use the railways to commute to London for work. So the boundary which is sometimes put up around the end of London is a purely artificial one. We should set our sights strategically, and – dare I say it –I think the balkanised nature of the rail industry has been brought into sharp relief in the last few months at London Bridge.
“We think it’s a good idea to bring in other lines of route into the LO network, particularly in south and south east London where the Underground network does not penetrate very far. It makes sense to give the commuters of these parts the same quality of service, in terms of frequency and reliability, we now enjoy on other parts of the Underground.”
Brown doesn’t rule out joint working agreements or management arrangements between TfL and KCC (or any other neighbouring county council for that matter) and takes a pragmatic stance about rail devolution:
“We’d look at all models; it doesn’t have to a fully devolved one as we have here in London. If you have a common strategic planning approach and a common service to passengers in terms of information, Oyster card provision and decent staffing levels, etc, in a sense you operate and who is the controlling mind may not matter providing you specify those two ends – the inputs and outputs in a consistent way. But I’m afraid that doesn’t quite happen at the moment.”