And so the political chicanery by the public school boys begins.
One Old Etonian Tory, Boris Johnson, this morning handed another Old Etonian Tory, Zac Goldsmith, a parting gift as London Mayor when he announced that Transport for London is to take charge of the capital’s ramshackle commuter train services.
This is just a couple of days after #BackZacAndCrack’s campaign launch was staged in Croydon, organised by another public schoolboy, Gavin Barwell (though he attended a very minor public school, it ought to be said).
During his speech on Tuesday, Goldsmith announced as one of his “action points” were he to be elected as Mayor, “We need to bring suburban rail services under Mayoral control so they’re more like the Overground.”
And this morning, as if by magic, guess what has been announced? It’s almost as if it has been planned this way by Conservative Central Office.
Boris Johnson held a Mayor’s Question Time at City Hall yesterday. The rail service announcement came via one of Boris Johnson’s favoured journalists, Pippa Crerar, in the Evening Boris this morning.
“Embattled commuters should finally get more frequent and reliable train services after Transport for London confirmed today it would take control of the capital’s suburban rail network,” Crerar wrote with a certainty about the improved services which few transport specialists would share.
“The long-running campaign to persuade ministers to devolve powers over services should increase capacity, eventually bringing an end to the cattle truck conditions for millions of Londoners, and improve accessibility,” she dutifully reported, without stating whether she was taking direct dictation from Mayor Johnson or not.
“TfL plans to streamline fares and travel information across the whole suburban rail network, rebranding the services London Overground and turning the capital’s transport map orange,” Crerar’s prose reads, as if it came straight from Boris’s political scriptwriter.
“Commuter services running from Cannon Street, Charing Cross, Moorgate, Victoria, Waterloo and London Bridge, which has suffered some of the worst delays, would all be transferred under the plans,” the Evening Boris front-page splash reports.
It is a massive political coup for Goldsmith, not least because it disarms his Labour rival for Mayor, Sadiq Khan, of a significant transport policy option.
“It was clearly a no-brainer,” is the view of Val Shawcross, the Labour London Assembly Member. “The Government will have scored a big hit with passengers by agreeing to devolve additional rail franchises as they come up for renewal and I’m glad they finally listened to some common sense.”
As most commuters who use orange-branded London Overground out of West Croydon or Norwood Junction will tell you, they enjoy a far better, more reliable service – regarded as one of the best in the country – than their colleagues who daily have to endure the overcrowded shambles from Coulsdon Town or East Croydon.
The integration of suburban services under TfL is a move which has been advocated by politicians of all shades. London Overground, Boris Johnson forgets to mention, was a service strategy introduced by the previous Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, which only began operation after Johnson took over the office.
Today’s announcement by the Tories fails to highlight the small print: it is, as yet, just a consultation, and it is unlikely to be implemented in full for those using Southern services until 2021 – or at least 12 months after whoever is elected as London Mayor this May has finished their (first) term of office.
What is being proposed is a partial re-nationalisation of sorts, a return to the old Network SouthEast model. TfL will become responsible for all services which operate “mostly or wholly” within Greater London. The Department for Transport will retain responsibility for other suburban services.
London Overground is run under contract from TfL, which sets fares and imposes service standards which the operator must meet to avoid fines, a far better operation model than the DfT franchises. Passenger needs are prioritised over operator profits.
Mike Brown, the head of TfL, was today promising investment in the commuter lines, including new rolling stock, despite government funding cuts. According to Mayorwatch, “passengers would see better integration of Oyster and contactless Pay as You Go as a result of TfL control”… and, Brown said, “a harmonious fare structure across the board because that will make it much less complicated for people using our services”.
Brown said: “We don’t get everything right, we’re not perfect but I do think that having that over-arching controlling mind that brings together London’s transport network in a much more integrated way has got to be good for commuters.”
But observers were sceptical about the timing of the announcement in the context of the Mayoral elections. Christian Wolmar, the transport expert who ran against Khan for Labour selection as Mayoral candidate, describes today’s announcement as, “Naked politicking”.
Wolmar told Inside Croydon: “It is very dependent on whether there will be sufficient money.” Croydon commuters won’t need any reminding that Boris Johnson and Steve O’Connell, the Tory Assembly Member for Croydon and Sutton, have three times promised to deliver a tram extension to Crystal Palace, which remains unbuilt because of lack of funds.
After Johnson has spent eight years in office, Caroline Pidgeon, the LibDems’ candidate for Mayor, was probably right to be suspicious about the true motives for today’s announcement. “You have to ask why it has taken until just four months before the London Mayor elections for Tory ministers at the Department for Transport to accept finally that for too long people using these services have suffered from delays, disputes and disruption?
“They should sack the franchise-holders now.”
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