1. Transport
  2. Rail
October 19, 2015

Everything's turning orange: Here's why south London deserves the Overground

By Brell Wilson

Last Friday, the London Assembly Transport Committee published a report calling for devolution of the southern rail franchises to Transport for London.

According to a BBC news story, the Rail Delivery Group, which represents train operators and Network Rail, has responded to the report saying that the current system produces some of “the best passenger satisfaction levels”. Looking at the annual National Rail Passenger Survey, however, this claim doesn’t stand up in south London.

For a mixture of political, economic and geological reasons, south London has very little coverage on the tube network. Only five lines run south of the river, and they do not penetrate far. The Victoria and Bakerloo lines each stop three times (north of the river, they stop 13 and 21 times respectively); the Jubilee and District lines five (17 and 5). The Northern line goes furthest south, stopping 13 times – but even that is a fraction of the 28 stations it has north of the river.

Instead of comprehensive tube coverage, south London has an extensive, largely Victorian, railway network operated by franchises let by the Department for Transport (DfT). The three largest of these are South West Trains, Southeastern, and Southern. Between them, these TOCs (Train Operating Companies) cover 131 stations which aren’t covered by a TfL service.

A comparison between the TOCs and the Underground would be grossly unfair – the TOCs are operating in a far more complex and challenging environment. But there is a strong case for comparison between the TOCs, which franchised by the national government, and London Overground, which is let as a concession by TfL and operated by London Overground Rail Operations: both, after all, are embedded in the same, often difficult, network.

So, how do those three TOCs and London Overground actually compare on passenger satisfaction?


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Centre for London, using National Rail Passenger Survey 2014.

On overall trip satisfaction, Overground performs 12 per cent better than its closest competitor, and 19 per cent better than the lowest performing TOC.

Centre for London, using National Rail Passenger Survey, 2014.

On satisfaction with punctuality and reliability, too, London Overground performs much better than the other south London TOCs. Its “net satisfaction” is higher than all the others by 12; its  dissatisfaction trails the next lowest (South West Trains) by 5 per cent.*

These services are vital to London’s commuters, and unreliable services damage London’s businesses, particularly small ones. In a London Chamber of Commerce and Industry/ComRes poll, 40 per cent of businesses said that poor reliability and punctuality on commuter trains into London was one of the top three issues affecting their business.

Centre for London, using National Rail Passenger Survey, 2014.

On value for money, London Overground also scores much higher than other TOCs: it’s the only service where a majority is users actually perceive themselves as getting value for money. Travelling on the TOCs’ services, passengers are far less satisfied.

There are some better performing TOCs, such as London Midland (which covers services from Euston to Birmingham and beyond). But the franchises in the south, which the assembly’s report sets as its target for devolution, are the worst performers.

The London Assembly is right that south London deserves a better service – after all, users definitely pay for one.

Brell Wilson is a researcher at the Centre for London.

This December the centre will publish research which will address the potential impact of “Overgrounding” in the south. It will examine what “Turning South London Orange” would do for London’s connectivity and housing potential.

Note on National Rail Passenger Survey: the NRPS is an annual survey of over 50,000 people measuring satisfaction with different aspects of their rail journeys. For London franchises, sample sizes are usually between 1,000 and 2,000 passengers.

*NRPS offers a “neither satisfied nor dissatisfied” option for questions, so often NET satisfaction + NET dissatisfaction will not equal 100

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