Skip to content

Suburban rail deal shows power and importance of Transport for London

The Guardian, 22 January 2016
Warm approval has greeted news that Transport for London (TfL) is to assume full control of the capital’s suburban rail network. The only noticeable cool note among responses so far has been impatience over having to wait until 2021 for the final batch of services to be devolved after so many years of campaigning across the political spectrum.

Ken Livingstone argued for it when he was mayor and London’s sole Liberal Democrat MP has tweeted that it has been his party’s policy since at least 1999. Naturally, Boris Johnson is seeking to hog the credit for the overdue decision. The one surprise is that Zac Goldsmith’s mayoral campaign isn’t claiming it’s only happened because their boy personally earholed the transport secretary.

In fact, the fattest wedge of credit almost certainly belongs to TfL itself. Although a “partner organisation” of the Greater London Authority (GLA) responsible for delivering the mayor’s transport strategy, the transport body is also a major power in its own right. In terms of size and resources, it dwarfs the Mayor’s GLA. Well over 20,000 people are permanently employed by TfL compared with the GLA’s 800. TfL’s 2015/16 income, including from fares, was £11.5bn. The Mayor’s portion of the GLA budget was well under half a billion. TfL and London mayors act in concert in many dealings with central government but TfL has its own relationships with the Treasury and, in particular, the Department for Transport. It is through these that much of the grunt work is done towards getting deals for the capital.

The new suburban line arrangements are a TfL/DfT shared enterprise. TfL will take control of services in the capital on Southeastern’s routes from 2018 and those of Southern, Thameslink and Great Northern three years later. South West’s franchise might succumb at some point in between. The whole lot will be rebranded into London Overground with the aim of raising service standards and increasing frequency of trains and passenger capacity. This follows TfL’s absorption last year of Abellio Greater Anglia routes out of Liverpool Street station to north-east London. Nice new seats appeared on tatty platforms. Some fares actually came down.

The big backdrop to all this is formed by London’s economic growth and population boom, the chancellor’s incremental removal of TfL’s operational grant and the forthcoming change of London mayor. What does the future hold for TfL? Its critics, notably those in London’s political class, complain that it is overstaffed, overbearing and over-reluctant to think differently and move rapidly. Its friends point to its wealth of expertise and a public service ethos that extends from its most senior executives to its most junior station staff.

TfL is having to adapt to changing circumstances. At the same time as its embrace of London’s transport networks widens, its need for financial self-sufficiency is increasing. The transport body is moving eagerly into high-end property development but has seemed less keen on funding Johnsonian pet projects of marginal transport worth such as the Emirates Air Line cable car and the Garden Bridge. Yet some believe its remit could be profitably further extended.

Labour mayoral candidate Sadiq Khan, who looks to be leading the race to succeed Johnson at the helm of City Hall, has pledged a four-year fares freeze. TfL bosses have long seen see any such moves as a threat to their investment programme, though Khan bullishly claims that there’s potential for big savings and new revenue streams by selling TfL expertise elsewhere. He will be pressured for more detail, not least by Goldsmith as the mayoral contest intensifies. Yet TfL’s budgets are thought by some to be as mysterious as they are large. “Oh, TfL has always got plenty of money,” a senior London local authority once privately remarked when asked him if he was worried about how the organisation would get by. If Khan is the next mayor, his relationship with TfL could be worth watching.