Where next for Transport for London?

James Ford

The Commissioner is off, but who will succeed him and what could that mean for London?

One of the biggest jobs in London is up for grabs. Sir Peter Hendy CBE, the Commissioner of Transport for London (TfL), is off to take charge of Network Rail – the nation’s biggest train set.

Although the role is technically apolitical, the timing of the vacancy will have profound political repercussions. Appointing a new Transport Commissioner just a few months before his own term of office comes to an end in May 2016 hands Boris Johnson a unique opportunity to shape the transport policy of the next Mayor.

TfL is the biggest item in the Mayor’s annual budget, accounting for roughly £6 out of every £10 City Hall spends. With TfL catering for 1.3bn passenger journeys in 2014/15, the reliability and performance of the transport system has a huge impact on the daily lives of Londoners. Transport has also been the policy area that has yielded some of the biggest successes of Boris Johnson’s tenure at City Hall, including, amongst others, Boris Bikes, Boris Buses, the multi-billion pound Tube upgrade and, from September, the Night Tube which will provide 24-hour operation of key Underground lines at weekends. Moreover, the 2012 London Olympics would not have been the great success that they were if it wasn’t for the Olympic Travel Plan (something for which Sir Peter Hendy deserves much of the credit for – and was rightly knighted).

The next Commissioner’s ‘to do’ list includes some challenging items. A route for Crossrail 2 has been safeguarded but funding for the £25bn project has yet to be secured. Another Government Spending Review is looming and is unlikely to see London’s funding settlement rise. London’s air quality is repeatedly breaching EU limits, risking multi-million pound fines and detrimentally impacting the health of Londoners. Tensions between London’s black cabs and app-enabled minicab services like Uber look set to go from simmering to boiling point. And the election of a new Mayor will inevitably mean the drafting of a new Transport Strategy for the capital, regardless of which candidate wins.

There is unlikely to be a shortage of candidates for the vacant position. Mike Brown, currently the Managing Director of London Underground, is taking over in the interim and, according to the Evening Standard, is “widely expected to get the post permanently”. Former Underground boss Tim O’Toole and ex-TfL finance chief Jay Walder both applied for the job in 2006 (losing out to Sir Peter) but both have since moved on to well-remunerated posts in the private sector (O’Toole is now CEO of FirstGroup while Walder ran the public transport authorities in New York and Hong Kong before taking up his current post as CEO of Motivate, a US firm that operates bike share schemes in a number of cities).

A perfect candidate for the post could be lurking right under the Mayor’s nose: Isabel Dedring. Currently the Deputy Mayor for Transport (and Deputy Chair of the TfL Board), Dedring was previously the Mayor’s Environment Adviser (2008-11) and, before that, held a number of senior posts within TfL, including spells as Chief of Staff to the former Commissioner, Bob Kiley, and as Director of its Policy Unit. A Harvard-educated lawyer, Dedring also spent periods in the private sector with McKinsey and EY and is one of the most competent members of the Mayor’s top team.

One group that will be watching developments closely will be the operators of the major commuter rail franchises serving the capital. The Mayor has long sought control of many of these routes and Sir Peter recently used a four-letter expletive to describe the performance of Southeastern, one of three franchises operated by Go-Ahead. Whoever the next Transport Commissioner is, they are likely to find that their efforts to take control of more of the capital’s commuter rail routes now have a powerful ally at the very top of Network Rail. Perhaps Go-Ahead CEO David Brown (who is yet another former TfL managing director) should think about updating his CV for the TfL job.

James Ford is a Senior Consultant and Head of Transport and Technology at PLMR. He was formerly Digital Adviser to the London Chamber of Commerce (2013-14) and an aide to Mayor of London Boris Johnson (2010-12), specialising in transport, environment and digital policy.

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