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Back in 2016, then-newly elected London mayor Sadiq Khan sent out the image above. It portrayed a very orange version of London.
Sadiq wanted London's commuter rail services to be run by TfL after their franchise agreements came to an end. Services currently run by Southern, South West Trains, Southeastern and Great Northern were what he had in his sights, and the public were mostly behind him. However, he hit a roadblock (or train buffer). Chris Grayling.
Transport Secretary Grayling is anti-rail devolution, and has been for a long time. Sadiq's predecessor, Boris Johnson, had initially floated the idea of TfL taking over the aforementioned franchises. However Grayling didn't want that as he knew Johnson's successor would likely be from Labour, as he played party politics with trains. His prediction came true, but Grayling found himself as the Transport Secretary, facing off directly against Sadiq Khan.
Grayling quickly backed away from devolution, arguing that TfL shouldn't run services that left Greater London, as TfL was unaccountable to those living outside the city's boundaries. This received a pretty negative reaction from the public, especially as it occurred at a time when the mere mention of Southern drove passengers into uncontrollable rage.
Grayling made clear that he and the Conservative government were still firmly behind privatisation of the railways. Then, Virgin East Coast trains collapsed, and the government stepped in to save the franchise.
The May 2018 renationalisation — even though Grayling won't call it renationalisation, that's 100% what it is — makes a steadfast government policy look a lot less solid. Could what happened to Virgin change that policy?
Firstly it's worth pointing out that if TfL was to take over the suburban railways, they wouldn't be renationalised, but instead devolved. The London Overground franchise is run by Arriva Rail, and though there are similarities in devolution and renationalisation — they both directly put an elected body, be that the mayor or the government, accountable for specific rail franchises — they're not the same.
The government renationalised the Virgin East Coast franchise, because the operator failed to keep up with monthly payments. This is the most sure-fire route to renationalisation, rather than the mass passenger discontent that some of the London suburban routes suffer.
It's also worth clarifying that the government doesn't intend for the franchise to stay nationalised — it wants to get a new operator in place. However, with this particular franchise viewed somewhat as a poisoned chalice among rail operators, that might be challenging and it could stay nationalised by default.
So then we move onto TfL, which saw its hopes of devolution rejected in late 2016. TfL didn't lose complete hope as it noted in its 2017 business plan:
We have set aside £20m of funding to enable us to start work immediately should the position change in light of our arguments.
This brings us to another issue. Money. TfL's budget is in a much worse state than it was 18 months ago. That £20m it has set aside isn't nearly enough to handle taking over any suburban rail franchises. TfL could scrape together more money, and it'd hope to get the government subsidies that the prior rail operator received. Still, questions hang over TfL as to whether it currently has the budget to take on more projects.
So will Virgin East Coast's renationalisation have an effect on London's hopes for rail devolution? Well, we might have to see how this renationalised route running up to Edinburgh, Newcastle and Leeds does first. If that's a success, pressure could mount on the government for people to get what they want with the railways.