An ever-welcome (if only for the guaranteed laughs) email circulates from lynnefeatherstone.org:
It’s really important that local people respond to the consultation on our local rail as there is a threat that Harringay and Hornsey stations could lose some of their services – but this is something I’m determined to make sure does not happen.
The Coalition Government is investing £6billion on the future of rail services affecting Bowes Park, Alexandra Palace, Harringay, Hornsey, and Finsbury Park rail stations. The Government are asking you for your views on how that money should be spent, so do make your voice heard.
Rail? Only one? Not more ConDem cuts?
At first sight an ingenue might think this billet-doux amounts to something explicitly local. Turn to the recommended consultation document and a different view appears, even on the front cover:
— Oooo, look, Mildred! She’s not really on about our own three or four miles of track and five local stations! She’s really rabbiting about an area from North Norfolk to East Sussex, something like 170 miles.
— I know, Daphne, ducks, but it’s the thought that counts. And six billion!
Let’s look at the actual document:
1.2 There is significant change associated with the Government’s £6 billion investment in the Thameslink Programme, such as rebuilding London Bridge station and introducing new trains. As a result, the Government needs to ensure that programme and passenger benefits are fully realised. The Government believes that the most cost- effective way of managing the transition and its associated costs is to merge the existing FCC and Southern franchises. This approach was recommended by Sir Roy McNulty in his report Realising the Potential of GB Rail – Report of the Rail Value for Money Study, published in May 2011, as a way of making the industry more efficient.
Suddenly a very, very different impression emerges:
- it’s not £6 billion of new money;
- it’s not about spending, but saving;
- it’s part of the McNulty cost-saving exercise; and, perhaps most significantly —
- it’s mainly to do with London Bridge and Blackfriars redevelopments.
— You ask him, Mildred. I’m too shy.
— Right-o, Daphne. Look, mister, what’s this about London Bridge? Is it falling down again?
No, ladies. It’s going up, to unreached new heights. And that’s only the start:
— Look, Daphne, it’s that horrible spiky thing again.
— I know, Mildred. I’ll never get used to that. It’s dreadful.
Yes, ladies, an obvious and strong entry for the Carbuncle Cup.
But let’s read on:
The South Bank of the Thames has always played a significant role in the rise of London as a world city – an economic, social and cultural magnet that draws people to live and work in the area.
London Bridge Quarter stands at the heart of this vital community. The architectural masterworks of the Shard and The Place, the transformed transport hub, the new retail space and the landscaped public realm reveal the city’s confidence and capacity for reinvention.
— Yes, so?
It’s that transformed transport hub. That’s the clue. Or, as the document — to which Ms Featherstone points us — makes clear:
The most significant timetable changes in this franchise will come about as a result of the rebuilding of London Bridge station as part of the Thameslink Programme.
In short, not directly related to the rail services in North London. Except, thanks to ConDem delays, any knock-on complications now extend as far as 2018 (see below).
— Yes, so?
[Suppressed sigh] The story so far
Way back in 1866 the London, Chatham and Dover Railway opened the Snow Hill Tunnel under the old Smithfield Meat Market. This allowed a direct connection between the south-eastern suburbs and the Metropolitan Railway. For passengers this link was closed in 1916. Only in 1986 did British Rail relay the tracks and restore the link. That was the first stage of what became Thameslink.
The legacy of the old regional railways and the closure of the Snow Hill link involved changing trains (and quite usually stations) when passing through the metropolis. When, in 1990, unprivatised British Rail instituted Thameslink, something amazing happened. . Suddenly Bedford, Luton Airport, Stansted Airport, and Brighton were not only on the same island, on the same platform, but trains connected them directly. Passenger traffic increased four-fold.
BR finally saw the light. Governments of both complexions, the disaster that was privatisation, and two extended public enquiries, took longer. Eventually, after seventeen years, the Government announced it was fully committed to funding the Thameslink programme. Unfortunately for Ms Featherstone it was Ruth Kelly, a Labour Secretary of State, who gave the approval.
All systems go?
— Yes, so?
No, not really.
Despite the prior completion of “Key Output 0” (which amounted to preparations for the main works, and getting on with the business of making sense of Blackfriars station and bridge), and the imminence of the Olympics (which meant some critical infrastructure had to be in place), the incoming ConDem government went back to the drawing-board, dithering about how and where to make cuts. The new Secretary of State, Tory Philip Hammond, finally agreed (late November 2010) to go along with the project. Even so, completion would be delayed until 2018:
Today, I can confirm we will fund and deliver the Thameslink programme in its entirety, virtually doubling the number of north-south trains running through central London at peak times. But the original programme for the rebuilding of London Bridge was always ambitious, with substantial risks around delivery, and operation of existing services, during construction. To reduce these risks, we have re-profiled the delivery of the programme to achieve completion in 2018. This will enable Network Rail to make further efficiencies to their design and delivery programme.
— Sounds like more cuts to me.
— Huh! Save pennies now to spend pounds later.
You may be correct, ladies. The project has already trebled in cost since its original proposal.
More to the point, what Ms Featherstone is asking us to respond to was prompted by Sir Roy McNulty’s Rail Value for Money study:
I believe that the recommendations in this report, if fully implemented, could achieve the target of a 30% unit cost reduction by 2018/19 based on current estimates of future demand. I recognise fully that delivering such a massive cost reduction will be an enormous challenge to everyone in an industry whose unit costs have shown little or no reduction over the last 15 years.
— Oooh, I must agree with that, Mildred. Trains are zoo expensive these days.
— You don’t have to tell me, Daphne. My daughter’s got to be in Manchester tomorrow; and her cheapest ticket is £126
— First class always cost more
— No, Daphne: she would be going second class.
— Well, it’s over three hundred miles return.
— Yes: but she’d be buying a single.
— Oh, Mildred! That’s outrageous!
— No, Daphne: that Virgin Rail. And that’s why she’s driving.
… little or no reduction over the last 15 years
In other words, since rail privatisation.
- Ms Featherstone: are you , your party, and your ConDem government — indeed, any government present or future — going to sort out the all-purpose mess of privatised railways?
- “Smart ticketing” means grading fares according to demand during the day — in effect, racking up peak fares. It also is supposed to improve “interoperability” between train operators. It is, of course, another benefit of new technology. Wasn’t that done in the old days by old-fashioned ticket offices, on an integrated system, and with off-peak and other fares? So what, exactly, has been “improved”?
- What’s inadequate about six trains an hour — one every ten minutes — at Alexandra Park, Hornsey and Harringey statios, and ten an hour — one every six minutes — at Finsbury Park?
- Well, one of the “improvements” is the unattended station, and everything done by machine. Since Ms Featherstone is parliamentary under secretary of state for equalities and criminal information, perhaps she could explain how personal security and well-being acre improved by unattended stations. Particularly so for unaccompanied women who want or need to use stations later at night?
- How does McNulty chime with the many laudable aims of LibDem transport policy?