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Why the Labour Movement Should Back the ‘London Overground’

Ken Livingstone

UNDER A deal agreed with the government, from November 2007 the North London Railway will come under the control of the London Mayor. It will be the first part of the national rail network to be democratically controlled. This will be followed in 2010 by the East London Line.

These developments will enable me to invest over £1.4 billion in improving rail services in London, including a £1 billion extension of the East London Line that will be integrated with a greatly improved North London Line, on which we will invest £450 million.

The new service will be branded "London Overground" and will be integrated into the current Underground network, with Tube-style frequencies, staffing levels and standards of service.

The deal is not exactly as I would have liked it – I would prefer the new Overground to be fully in public ownership. But the government is not going to hand over sections of the national rail network to me so I can nationalise them. That was never an option, unfortunately.

And that is why the RMT’s campaign demanding that the extended East London Line is effectively nationalised by London Underground is completely unrealistic, because the government will not transfer national rail franchises to me on that basis.

The real choice, therefore, is either a £1.4 billion investment with more jobs and better services in a new combined franchise covering the North London Railway and extended East London Line (with the existing London Underground East London shuttle part of this), or no £1.4 billion investment and no new jobs or improved services. There is no "third option" along the lines proposed by the RMT, because the government won’t allow it.

The agreement I have reached with the government is not perfect but it is a real step forward that will bring major benefits to Hackney in particular, one of the most deprived boroughs in London. I would have been mad to reject this deal.

The truth is, in government, you often have to choose between less than perfect alternatives and decide which one brings the most benefit overall to the public and staff. In this case we get a new integrated service linking Hackney, south and east London to the Underground, with more jobs and no transfer of staff or assets to the private sector.

The extension of the East London Line has always been a national rail project. This was originally to be taken forward by the Strategic Rail Authority. However, as there was little sign of progress over some years, I successfully argued for the government to transfer the project to Transport for London. Under TfL’s control the scheme is progressing very well and is on course to be delivered in 2010.

When the existing East London Line closes for the extensions to take place, all staff will be offered jobs within London Underground and this will be undertaken in consultation with union representatives.

The private operators that run services will be strictly regulated by the Mayor – much like the control I currently exercise over bus services in London – and the Mayor will set the fares, preventing private operators from making super-profits by raising the cost of travel, as occurred on the national rail system after privatisation. All revenue from the franchise will be retained by Transport for London, the Greater London Authority’s transport body.

The North London Railway comprises 50 stations and 60 miles of track covering the North London Line from Richmond to North Woolwich, the Gospel Oak to Barking line, the London Euston to Watford Junction local line and the West London Line from Willesden Junction to Clapham Junction via Kensington Olympia.

The services along these lines are very overcrowded and many of the trains old and out of date. Furthermore, many of the stations are in a poor state of repair and lack the necessary security measures and staffing. Women, in particular, often feel stations are unsafe to use at night.

When I gain control of these lines at the end of next year I will immediately begin implementing improvements, including providing additional station staff and better facilities, tighter security and Oyster card ticketing – integrating Overground fares with those on the Underground.

To link in with this Overground system, making it an orbital service around London, we will extend the existing East London Line Extension north to Highbury & Islington and south to Crystal Palace and West Croydon.

This £1bn project will enable metro-style service frequency of up to 12 trains an hour and later 16 trains an hour through the core section between Dalston Junction and Surrey Quays. New stations will be constructed at Dalston Junction, Haggerston and Hoxton, and stations and refurbishment will take place at all other stations on the line. This will bring metro services to Hackney for the first time.

The services running on these lines will provide important links to inner London and will provide better access to jobs, education and services for residents of these boroughs. It will act as a catalyst for up to £10bn of regeneration in these areas and will assist in bringing in much-needed investment.

We have already placed the order for 44 new trains (costing £233 million) with Bombardier’s factory in Derby – safeguarding 350 jobs there. There will be extra train services to help cater for demand, creating 100 new jobs for train drivers.

In short, this development will benefit the people of London and railworkers alike. It deserves the full backing of the labour movement.

Published in the Morning Star, 21 October 2006