How Woolwich pays and Essex gains – madness in Zone 4

Where does a ticket to zone 4 get you? In this part of the world, it gets you to this unlovely corner. Want to see boarded up shops, some of London’s worst social housing, crumbling buildings and rat poison in its main square? Get to Woolwich, arguably the capital’s shabbiest town centre…

All these scenes are within a few minutes of Woolwich Arsenal station, although work has now begun on rebuilding General Gordon Square, so the rat poison’s been taken away now. If you live here and get a job in central London, you’re looking at paying £36.80 to get to and from work each week.

Meanwhile, the residents of this place also pay £36.80 each week to get to and from their central London workplaces. It helps them pay for those summer marquees…

Chigwell – home of big houses, Birds of a Feather, footballers, footballers’ wives, flash cars, farmland, and one of the sleepiest locations on the Tube network. Some builders singing along to Summer of ’69 on the radio was about as exciting as it got on my visit, drowning out the background drone of the M11.

One is a beaten-up part of inner London that desperately needs investment and regeneration, the other is an affluent small town in Essex. Yet both are in the same fare zone. How?

It’s an accident of history. When the Tube zones were created in the 1980s, the Central Line’s Woodford-Hainault service was placed in what became zone 5 (out of five zones). It stayed there through the addition of a sixth zone in the 1990s. In 2007, Transport for London did something radical to entice passengers onto one of its quietest lines – it moved Chigwell and its neighbouring stations into zone 4, where it stays now.

By contrast, Woolwich Arsenal got shoved into zone 4 and has stayed there. Neighbouring Woolwich Dockyard is in zone 3 – when the buses had zones, the boundary was one stop beyond the town centre. The Docklands Light Railway stations north of the Thames, like King George V and Beckton, are also in zone 3. So when the DLR was extended to Woolwich Arsenal, it seemed a prime moment to correct this anomaly.

But it never happened, and a run-down area of south-east London, crying out for help, is still paying the same fares as a plush corner of Essex.

One thing to bear in mind here is that Essex County Council has, for many years, subsidised the operation of the Central Line through its county. So you’d think that Greenwich Council would take action to make sure that Woolwich is connected to the rest of London with good-value fares, perhaps taking some pressure off buses to North Greenwich tube (zone 2) and making Woolwich an attractive place to set up business? Perhaps it could set up a campaign?

But the only campaign the council has launched in Woolwich was the bogus drive to allow Oyster cards to be accepted on riverboat services, whose pier serves the Royal Arsenal development being built by Berkeley Homes, the council’s partner in rebuilding the Ferrier Estate. Not much for the ordinary workers of Woolwich there, unless they’re rich enough to commute by boat.

Is there any chance of any movement on this? Maybe the time has passed, with the mantra of “cuts” being bandied around and Boris Johnson’s lack of any interest in anything in this area. The Woolwich Arsenal extension to the DLR has proved phenomenally successful, with grumbles that it isn’t frequent enough as it is. And Southeastern’s unlikely to countenance its shareholders losing any money from Woolwich Arsenal moving zones – despite sister company Southern moving Crystal Palace into zone 3 a few years ago.

It’s a terrible shame that when Greenwich Council decided to launch a campaign to improve transport in Woolwich, it picked an issue which it knew which was close to resolution anyway, and that would directly benefit a company with which it is closely related. Yet it’s chosen to ignore an issue which would save residents money and would help generate employment in Woolwich.

Maybe someday, someone will pick up this cause and fight for Woolwich. But that would take someone treating Woolwich as something different from a dumping ground, whose people are cannon fodder to be ignored or patronised. Looking at the calibre of local leaders, it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen soon.


  1. The real anomaly is that Chigwell managed to avoid inclusion in Greater London, except for a few acres that were part of an LCC estate and they didn’t care to lose.

    The end of the Beckton branch of the DLR was in Zone 4 when it first opened, but it got moved, would be interesting to know why. Perhaps to encourage use or fare simplification. The problem perhaps with Woolwich is that it is a popular station and they don’t want to reduce the revenue. Crystal Palace was 4 and got moved to 3/4, but that was Southern, and they seem much more open minded to that sort of thing than wretched Southeastern.

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