It’s time for the devolution of commuter rail in South East London

SoutheasternPlease note this post is from my previous blog. To read my posts during the 2017 General Election campaign click here.

There are many wonderful things about living in South East London – to me it is the perfect compromise between the pace, excitement and opportunities of London and the many virtues of life in Kent. It does come, however, with a particular curse – a curse with a name: Southeastern.

I have been moved to write this blog now – after having been meaning to pen these words for months – by the latest in a long series of reminders of why Southeastern is a company wholly undeserving of its franchise. This morning’s example? A 6-carriage train with two doors closed and a driver chiding those of us lucky enough to cram into the remaining four cars – actually chiding us – that ‘at least the service is running’.

If this was an invitation to gratitude, I can report that it was not very well received. Daily commuters from SE London and beyond pay thousands of pounds each to this company every year – gratitude does not come into it. We pay for a service that week after week fails to be delivered to us. From a reliability, value for money, travelling comfort and customer service point of view, Southeastern is failing on all counts.

Unfortunately, at present we have little alternative. We are a captive market being poorly served by a company that does not listen and does not improve. If there was an alternative, I suspect most of us would wish to take it – but even the most cursory glance at a tube map tells a story of decades of neglect of our corner of London in the capital’s transport infrastructure.

Most frustrating of all is the accountability gap – besides making the usual complaints, being met with the usual excuses, there is little commuters can do to improve their lot.

That’s why it is time to press ahead with the devolution of commuter rail in South East London. This is something that Boris Johnson has rightly been pushing for since his re-election in 2012 – and his plan has real merit.

One of the biggest benefits of devolution in the capital and having a directly-elected Mayor has been the renewed politicisation of London transport – by which I mean, the central role that tube services and Transport for London’s performance more generally plays in Mayoral elections. It is this simple politics that keeps up the pressure for improved service from TfL – and by and large, that pressure works. We need the same kind of accountability – the ultimate kind of accountability, through the ballot box – for the commuter rail services that are letting so many Londoners down.

Boris has made progress on this score – it was recently announced that City Hall will take responsibility for commuter rail services into Liverpool Street station, following the success of London Overground since TfL took over those four lines in 2007. His efforts to do the same for our services into Cannon Street and London Bridge, however, are yet to meet with the success they deserve.

This is partly down to opposition from politicians in Kent, who still need to be convinced that there would be significant benefits to their residents, as well as being good for us here in South East London. This is fair enough – and that case can and should be made.  There also needs to be concessions made to resolve a new ‘accountability gap’ that would be created by Boris’ current plan – with commuters starting their journeys in Kent of course not playing a part in Greater London’s political process.

But with Southeastern’s franchise not up for renewal until 2018, the Mayor, the Department for Transport and Kent County Council really do need to work together to find a workable solution to a problem that will otherwise continue to see commuters left being taken for a ride.

And Southeastern needs to make the trains run on time. From a train company, that is not much to ask.

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