It’s the biggest change to happen to south-east London’s railways for decades. Just before midnight tonight, the last train from Charing Cross to Deptford, Greenwich, Maze Hill and Westcombe Park will be just that. After 23.56, the direct connection from the West End to Greenwich will be no more.
This has been known about since March 2008, when Network Rail published its catchily-titled South London Route Utilisation Study. (See page 112 of this document.) 853 wasn’t running then, but it got a mention on this website six years ago. Here’s another reference from Greenwich.co.uk in December 2009. And look, here’s a “stay of execution” for Greenwich line trains from November 2010.
This isn’t to say “I told you so”. Back in 2008, I never really thought about diving headfirst into local news issues. I never really took much notice of what was in the local press because I never saw it. Then as this changed, and this website developed, it became old news – old news that was never talked about. And who wants to read about old news?
I thought there might be a decent-sized publicity campaign. Posters up and down the Greenwich line, months in advance, extolling the virtues of Cannon Street station, the new seven-day-a-week terminal. (It’s supposed to have a “fantastic new bar” soon, you know.)
But no. Instead, the news was bundled out as part of a mixed bag of information about the Thameslink Programme, the larger scheme which will see a rebuilt London Bridge station accommodate frequent trains to both north and south London. The prize of a decent station is a brilliant one – but the price is those trains to Charing Cross.
Instead of providing station-by-station information, or even details for each line, Southeastern has managed to baffle commuters, failing the challenge at the first hurdle. Many of them still think the change is only temporary. It’s not. Those trains aren’t coming back. And there are some very good reasons why.
What’s happening – the long-term plan
The connection between the Greenwich line and the Charing Cross lines is being severed to accommodate a new set of tracks that will head north from London Bridge to Blackfriars, Farringdon, and north London.
It won’t physically be possible for trains from Westcombe Park, Maze Hill, Greenwich or Deptford to reach them any more. And because of the way services are arranged, trains from Woolwich Dockyard, Plumstead, Erith, Belvedere and Slade Green will rarely reach Charing Cross. (Trains from New Cross and St John’s are also affected by these changes.)
Instead, there’ll be a direct service to Cannon Street, seven days a week. From 2018, you’ll have a brand new London Bridge station to change trains in. The crappy old footbridge is going, and you’ll have escalators, lifts, and a spacious new concourse beneath the platforms. Think the new King’s Cross, but bigger.
There’ll be no more sitting on the viaduct over Deptford waiting to get access to the Charing Cross lines – in theory, you’ll be able to rattle straight up to Cannon Street, and make a simpler change at a much more pleasant London Bridge if you need to get to Waterloo East or Charing Cross.
What’s happening – the short term pain
Charing Cross trains will sail through London Bridge from Monday until August 2016. You’ll have to make your change by Tube or bus. And then from 2016, the position will reverse, and Cannon Street trains will glide through without stopping. Interchange will be terrible, and for three years, London Bridge station won’t just be a dump – it’ll be a building site.
There’s also likely to be a series of major weekend closures. The first – happening this weekend and kept very quiet by Southeastern – sees ALL trains routed to Victoria, Blackfriars or New Cross, and all lines through London Bridge completely closed. (There is also no service at all through Deptford, Greenwich, Maze Hill or Westcombe Park – have a play with Real Time Trains to see how it affects you, or check out the situation at Charlton or Lewisham).
Even Charlton Athletic seemed in the dark about the plan, and they’re only playing host to 15,000 football fans on Saturday. Charing Cross will also be closed on Sundays through to at least May.
The secret cut in capacity
There’ll also be fewer rush hour trains through Greenwich from Monday. From The Murky Depths has the full details – four evening peak trains are cut, with three going during the critical 1730-1830 hour. One morning peak train goes. Meanwhile, extra capacity has gone to trains serving destinations in distant Kent, if you believe the Southeastern publicity above.
Despite the fact that money has been blown over the years on extending platforms to take 12-car trains – once in the 1990s, and again in the 2010s – there won’t be longer trains to make up for the cut. Woolwich Dockyard station, built in a brick cutting, can’t be extended, and despite these works having been planned for years, neither the Department for Transport nor Southeastern has fitted trains to work with selective door opening which would enable longer trains to stop there.
To make matters worse, Southeastern is pretty much using every train it can get its hands on – and is having to borrow more to satisfy demand.
It’s a mess, frankly.
Send your regards to Cannon Street
“But Cannon Street’s in the middle of nowhere!”, you cry. Cobblers. One of the main gripes is that a lack of trains from Charing Cross makes it harder for tourists to get to Greenwich. Yet Cannon Street is 10 minutes’ walk from St Paul’s Cathedral and the Museum of London, and five minutes from the Monument.
And it’s a fine station for onward travel connections – on the District and Circle lines, with Bank station just a couple of minutes’ walk up Walbrook. (In a few years, a new Bank station entrance will appear opposite Cannon Street, just to really baffle everyone.)
Sure, it’s a bit quiet at the weekends, but there’s that fantastic new bar coming soon…
The political battle
With an election coming up, both Labour and Conservative candidates for Greenwich & Woolwich have thrown themselves into the debate. Incumbent Labour MP Nick Raynsford has a decent record on fighting for rail passengers – one of his first wins as an MP in the 1990s was to persuade British Rail to stop Gillingham trains at Charlton. His hopeful successor, Matt Pennycook, has been busying himself writing to and meeting Southeastern bosses and tweeting about it.
Of course, it goes without saying that both their parties’ administrations also share blame for this – Labour re-privatised Southeastern in 2006, and must share some responsibility for poor Department for Transport planning before 2010. The Tories renewed Southeastern’s franchise in 2014, with the Department for Transport still failing to provide enough rolling stock for the area. Both Labour and Conservative governments have also blocked moves by Transport for London to take over the Southeastern franchise – decisions that will stick in the craw when TfL takes on services from Liverpool Street this May.
Matt Hartley’s campaign aim to secure longer trains throughout the “borough of Greenwich” seems peculiarly parochial – didn’t Conservative candidates elsewhere in SE London want to join in? And as for wanting Greenwich-Charing Cross services restored after 2018, he might as well demand the return of steam – it’d be cheaper and more efficient to run at least six trains an hour to Cannon Street, first train to last, seven days a week. It’s better than hankering for a crappy two trains per hour service to Charing Cross that wasn’t much cop anyway.
But it’s a good thing that both main candidates are getting their teeth into the issue. Frankly, it’s about time Southeastern became a political football – and it certainly deserves the kicking.
Will it be enough?
After 2018, we’re promised good things. An all-new London Bridge station that’ll be a pleasure to use. You’ll be able to change for trains that head across North London, to Finsbury Park and beyond, as well as frequent services to Blackfriars, Farringdon and St Pancras. And Charing Cross and Cannon Street services should be more reliable, as a 40-year-old pattern of tracks is ripped up and rebuilt.
And don’t forget that Crossrail will come from 2019, giving passengers at Abbey Wood and Woolwich an alternative that’ll whisk them to Canary Wharf, the City, West End and West London. It’ll relieve some crowding from the Greenwich line – for a short time, at least.
You’d also hope that knackered communications systems would be fixed – systems that stop staff and drivers giving proper information, and systems that have mysteriously started showing Kent-bound trains on London-bound platforms (and vice versa). There’s a lot of work to do.
But an increased population in an overheating city brings increasing pressures. Huge developments are rising by Deptford, Greenwich, Lewisham, Woolwich Arsenal and Abbey Wood stations. Long-term development plans will see the Charlton riverside given over to residential uses. And 10,000 new homes on the Greenwich Peninsula, with no further plans to improve public transport connections there, will squeeze North Greenwich tube station – sending some passengers back to the mainline. On other lines, developments are also taking place at Kidbrooke Village and the old Catford dog track.
Even at the end of the line, developers have their eyes on Dartford. With a population that’s getting priced out of zones 2 and 3, pressures on outer stations will grow.
Yet the political will in this area is for more roadbuilding – a policy that’d be laughed out of town in other parts of London. Vague promises of a Bakerloo Line extension to Hayes, or London Overground to Thamesmead, will need to be brought into reality before we’re clutching our Freedom Passes.
Change here for the future
Cities aren’t fixed in stone – they’re always evolving. The last train from Charing Cross to Greenwich tonight will be a little symbol of how our capital city is changing before our eyes.
40 years ago, London Bridge station went through similar convulsions as the old station was torn down and the tracks relaid. Would the fag-puffing, hi-viz avoiding engineers in the Operation London Bridge video above have known their work would be ripped up just four decades later?
It’s going to be a tricky few years ahead. But once the Thameslink Programme is finished, where will the next big change come from? At present, nobody seems to know. And that’s a bigger worry than whether or not you’ll have to change trains next week.