A rail revolution in south London surburbia? Don’t hold your breath

Plans are afoot for improving suburban rail services across south London. But when and to what extent? 

Travelling into central London by train from any of the southern counties can be an extreme test of patience. It’s worse if the journey starts within south London, where services can be as infrequent as two trains per hour and the chances of finding a seat at peak times practically non existent. Main line railways serving south London Boroughs have been bad enough for so long that members of the London Assembly have been calling for change.

The wishes of the Assembly and many others appeared to have been answered in January, with announcement of a new partnership between the Department for Transport (DfT) and Transport for London (TfL). At its core, the transfer of services from DfT franchises into TfL hands.

The news generally brought a triumphant response. While some national and local media welcomed the changes as full re-nationalisation of railways in south London, even those that opted for a softer line could see the positives in devolving services to TfL. London’s transport authority has already shown what it can do in the form of the ‘turn up and go’ Overground system – created on upgraded lines to the north and east and now forming an orbital network, albeit a discontinuous one, terminating at Clapham Junction from both directions and going no further to the south.

Handing more services to TfL will allow extension of the Overground and there are compelling reasons for doing so, but more on that later. First, a reality check: the plans do not involve devolving any of the South East, Southern and Thameslink or South Western franchises to TfL in full. As and when these come up for renewal, they will be respecified to run alongside some suburban services transferred to TfL.

Time lines

The first to undergo this change will be the South East franchise in 2018. South Western is due for renewal earlier, in 2017, but DfT has announced that First Group and Stagecoach will bid to operate services on routes between Exeter, Southampton and Waterloo.

“It’s no simple matter to make the necessary changes for devolution of rail services,” says TfL’s head of transport planning Geoff Hobbs. “We need a secondary statutory instrument through Parliament for each franchise and we also have to procure new operating contracts through competitive tender and carry out TUPE for TfL and DfT operators.

“There was no way all this could be done for 2017, so for South Western we’re looking at dates after 2020 (for taking over services) and the outcome of proposals for Crossrail 2 will dictate what we do with the Overground in the south west of London. But for the South East franchise the second half of 2018 timescale is realistic for getting the necessary powers and contracts in place.”

From late 2018, or early 2019, TfL may be running its own orange liveried trains on routes from Kent into London Bridge, Charing Cross and Cannon Street. Rail commuters in southern London Boroughs including Croydon, Kingston, Lambeth, Merton, Richmond, Sutton and Wandsworth, will have to wait longer for better train services. The Govia Thameslink and Southern franchise is not due for renewal until 2022.

Delving into the detail of Network Rail’s long term planning shows some stations will get fewer trains into central London. TfL has provided input to NR’s Sussex Area route study, published in September 2015, which says the aim is for greater frequency and quality of services on a simplified suburban network with fewer options for routes into London stations.

Answering questions from the London Assembly Transport Committee last week, NR chair Peter Hendy said a joint NR/TfL plan for south-London’s railways is due to be published next month. It will be largely aspirational though, Hendy said.

It is the NR route studies where infrastructure changes are planned. “These studies are works in progress,” Geoff Hobbs says. “Planners from NR, TfL and others will get together to decide the best ideas that are affordable for the Wessex area (radial routes out of Waterloo) in late 2016.”

The Sussex Area study includes mention of major infrastructure upgrades for TfL’s aspirations, including creation of hub interchanges where lines converge at Streatham and Peckham Rye with changes to stations and track layouts. This would deliver substantial benefits and good value for money, the study says, but is considered to be an option for funding beyond the end of NR’s 2019-2024 Control Period 6.

Quick wins

This largely underwhelming assessment of intentions is a far cry from hopes of a report by the social and economic think-tank Centre for London. The report – called ‘Turning South London Orange’ in reference to the Overground livery – came a week before the DfT/TfL announcement and called for wholesale upgrade of services across south London. Upgrades and alterations to track layouts and junctions for a south London Overground could create Britain’s fourth largest rail project after HS2, Crossrail and Crossrail 2, valued at between £7bn and £14bn, the Centre for London report says.

“The Centre for London plans are very ambitious and probably unrealistic given what’s affordable,” Hobbs says. So what can be done?

“There are lots of things that can be done in the meantime,” says Hobbs. “First of all we can improve reliability with operator contracts that incentivise performance over everything else. DfT asks its operators to take responsibility on revenue, understandably so for routes over long distances. We want the focus to be purely on quality, which is a model that works well in an urban environment with dense population.”

Frequency of services can be raised in off-peak periods, Hobbs says. “Thirdly, we can add more staffing of stations, which is valued highly by customers,” he adds. “We can also improve real-time information for passengers, introduce better security, more straightforward, easier to understand ticketing and better stations. On top of all that we can use longer trains. There’s a lot we can do.”

South London aspirations

Centre for London and TfL cite several reasons for doing all this, not least the need for better transport to cope with population growth. “We’ve been quite conservative with our predictions, based on a modest 2% per annum economic growth and 0.6% population increase, it can be seen that transport demand in south London will double by 2050,” says one of the principal authors of the Centre for London report, Jonathan Roberts.

London’s is predicted to need another 500,000 homes over the next decade as its population grows towards 10 million. TfL estimates demand for rail travel will grow 80% between now and 2050. Five Underground lines extend into south London boroughs but only as far as Brixton and at far less density than the north London network. These five lines are suffering from overcrowding and despite planned upgrades, they are expected to reach maximum capacity by 2031.

The suburban main line rail network is largely underused, however, according to TfL and Centre for London. “Our analysis shows that extension of the Overground further into south London boroughs can potentially deliver all of the capacity expansion needed,” says Roberts.

“The present system of lines is exceptionally complex, unrewarding for passengers and features inadequate junctions and service arrangements that simply don’t permit improvements. Radical change is needed; the system must be made more simple and technically effective with better train management technology and we need planning in place for the big ticket items for construction in the 2020s, not later and we should recognise that the planning horizon of 2030 is wrong. We should plan for longer, for sequential growth.”





A rail tunnel connector from the network south of the Thames, via Canary Wharf and Stratford to the Lea Valley, Stansted and Cambridge lines is part of the Brighton Main Line 2 scheme for relieving the Canary Wharf congestion into and at the London Bridge/Jubilee Line interchange: The same congestion by-pass is part of HS2 Plan B, allowing more of its high speed services from the Northern Powerhouse cities to continue south via St Pancras to Croydon, Gatwick and Brighton. HS2 will not do this.