In political campaigning there’s a tactic known as the “dead cat strategy“. It’s best associated with the Conservatives’ campaign manager, Lynton Crosby.
Boris Johnson, no less, once explained it: “Let us suppose you are losing an argument… Your best bet in these circumstances is to perform a manoeuvre that a great campaigner describes as ‘throwing a dead cat on the table, mate’.
“Everyone will shout ‘Jeez, mate, there’s a dead cat on the table!’; in other words they will be talking about the dead cat, the thing you want them to talk about, and they will not be talking about the issue that has been causing you so much grief.”
Well, a dead cat’s been thrown on the railway line that goes through Eltham and Blackheath. And it’s stinking out any chance of having a sensible discussion about how to make south-east London’s rail network work more efficiently.
It starts with Transport for London having an idea…
Last year, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling refused to allow Transport for London to take control of Southeastern’s metro train network. TfL had correctly identified the flaws that beset our trains, and wanted to set about fixing them.
Those flaws included:
- A fares system which means we pay more for a worse service than those on the Tube
- The network is too complicated, which makes it unreliable, and needs investment to make it simpler (through altering junctions and improving interchanges) into identifiable “lines” – reducing the number of terminal stations each line serves.
- There isn’t enough capacity on the network, but making it simpler would improve capacity
- Some services aren’t frequent enough, but could be more frequent if the network was made simpler
Instead, he’s putting a new Kent franchise up for grabs, which includes local London services, There’s a consultation on right now into what to do with it.
It includes the suggestion that the network is too complicated and could be made simpler – one line, one terminal station. It’s not a million miles from what TfL proposed. But there’s been outrage.
SE London’s train service is complex
The Southeastern metro lines through Lewisham and Greenwich are fiendishly complicated. Just heading to Dartford alone there are four different routes, with three different central London terminals.
- Cannon Street to Dartford via Greenwich and Woolwich – 6 trains per hour, evenly spaced out – this one is the simplest, as it can now only run to Cannon Street.
- Charing Cross, Cannon Street or Victoria to Dartford via Lewisham and Bexleyheath – 6 trains per hour, but unevenly spaced out and heading to/from different London terminals.
- Charing Cross or Cannon Street to Dartford via Sidcup – 4 trains per hour, half go to Charing Cross without calling at Lewisham, half to Cannon Street via Lewisham and New Cross.
- Charing Cross to Gillingham via Lewisham, Woolwich and Dartford – 2 trains per hour. This is the one that goes through the tunnel under Blackheath, and a service TfL wouldn’t have taken over as it runs far beyond London.
And then there are the trains that run to Hayes and Orpington/Sevenoaks, some of which also skip Lewisham and New Cross. Confusing? Imagine if you could untie some of the knots and make this easier to understand.
Already, there’s been some simplification. As we’ve dealt with already, trains through Greenwich now only go to Cannon Street. This is currently inconvenient as their London Bridge platforms are being rebuilt, but should be much less of an issue once the job’s finished next year.
In the document for the new Southeastern franchise, there is a suggestion for a natural progression – that maybe all trains via Bexleyheath should also go to Cannon Street.
And it’s all kicked off, because people like their direct trains to Charing Cross and Victoria. But hang on…
Shoddy service on the Bexleyheath line
The current train service on the Bexleyheath line is pretty crap compared to what Greenwich line users enjoy, which (outside rush hours) is a train every 10 minutes in both directions. (Note: I’ve tweaked the examples here as I’d got the directions wrong earlier.)
At Lewisham, there are trains to Kidbrooke at 02, 08, and 14 past the hour – then nothing for 18 minutes before another flurry at 32, 38 and 44 past each hour. Then another 18 minutes with nothing, and so on. Not much fun if you’ve just got off the DLR and you’ve missed the 14 past. (It’s more even in the other direction, granted.)
If you’re coming from central London, then one train leaves from Victoria, one leaves from Charing Cross, one from Cannon Street. You’ll have to plan your going-home time pretty carefully, compared with Greenwich line users who can just rock up at Cannon Street (or London Bridge from next year) and be on a train within 10 minutes. (This is also useless if you want to start a business in this area – where will your staff/clients go if they want to come to you by train?)
So, making the service consistent and basing it around Cannon Street means our passenger at Lewisham waiting to go to Kidbrooke would benefit from a train every 10 minutes. That makes train travel attractive and takes pressure off local buses. And someone coming home from central London can just turn up at Cannon Street or London Bridge and be on their way home reasonably quickly, rather than pick one of three terminals and hope they get there on time.
The trade-off is that if you were heading into central London from Kidbrooke and you didn’t want to go to Cannon Street, you’d have to change at London Bridge for Charing Cross, and Lewisham for Victoria.
Let’s assume – and this is a big assumption here – that all Sidcup line trains end up being routed into Victoria via Lewisham. The Sidcup line is only just down the road. If you live in Eltham and have a hospital appointment at King’s College Hospital, you can get a train from Mottingham or New Eltham to Denmark Hill. Or you can change at Lewisham. It shouldn’t be too bad.
Unfortunately, the Department for Transport has offered no detail, so it’s tough to come to an informed decision. But the principle isn’t a bad one – it needs investment to do right, though. And this is what TfL wanted to provide.
How do you solve a problem like Lewisham?
Why simplify? Go to the London ends of the platforms at Lewisham and the answer will stare at you in the face – a junction where two sets of lines (from Blackheath and Hither Green) cross and go different ways (to Victoria/Charing Cross, and to Cannon Street).
A couple of years ago, this “diamond crossing” failed and services were disrupted for four weeks because the parts had to be specially-made.
So, if you’re Network Rail, you don’t want to be depending on it too much. Simplify the service, and if things do go wrong with this junction, there are fewer repercussions.
Transport for London talked about rebuilding this junction in its bid to take on Southeastern’s metro lines – which would enable more trains to get through, although it’s likely the flexibility of the current arrangement would go.
But the Department for Transport have no plans to rebuild this junction – this is essentially doing a chunk of what TfL wanted to do, but on the cheap. (Bidders for the new franchise are being told “no significant infrastructure projects are planned”).
And Lewisham station is, let’s be honest, a crap interchange. Some of the internal walls were knocked down a couple of years back to make things easier, but it needs flattening and rebuilding (and hopefully with the dangerous gap in the Hither Green/Ladywell-bound platform sorted out), with the interchange tunnels widened. Not a peep from the DfT about this either.
The TfL proposal
TfL’s suggestion wasn’t quite one line, one terminal. But it did involve pulling Charing Cross trains from the Bexleyheath line (except during peak hours). With a rebuilt Lewisham, it planned to offer six trains to Cannon Street and three to Victoria each hour.
The Sidcup line would have six trains to Charing Cross and three to Victoria, with extra rush hour trains to Cannon Street.
A rebuilt Lewisham would mean changing trains wouldn’t be a hassle. But this row means nobody’s demanding that.
The problem isn’t simplifying the lines – it’s that TfL isn’t doing it
So there’s a genuine problem that TfL has tried to solve – it even gave it a name, “metroisation” – and the DfT is also pondering it, albeit in a more cack-handed, tight-fisted manner.
So cue the outrage. Early out of the traps were the Bexley Tories, launching a campaign to Keep Bexley On Track – even though Bexley Council leader Teresa O’Neill wrote a foreword to the document proposing what she is opposing. (The tweet below also pictures Labour’s Teresa Pearce, representing Erith & Thamesmead.)
All this achieves is to shield the Tories from being criticised over Grayling’s refusal to let TfL have the train service.
Then Eltham MP Clive Efford joined the angry brigade. This became about “Tory cuts” – not about Grayling’s refusal to work with Sadiq Khan to give us all a better train service.
None of this screaming and shouting is going to get anyone to work on time. It’ll just perpetuate a run-down, knackered network that needs a revamp. None of this is going to take a single car off the road or relieve pressure on buses and other forms of transport. It won’t cut our fares to the level that the rest of London pays.
And none of this is going to get any more trains through Lewisham, which is what’s badly needed here. And the only people who were going to get this done were TfL. And this row has neatly distracted attention from Chris Grayling’s failure to give Londoners control over our trains.
I would have expected our local politicians to have seen through this and taken the opportunity to campaign on this and tell us all to tell the DfT to just hand them over. But instead, with one exception (Greenwich & Woolwich’s Labour candidate Matt Pennycook, who has taken a more nuanced view) they just went on about trains from Blackheath, Eltham and Bexleyheath. It’s disappointing, to put it politely.
A more sensible answer would simply be to demand no simplification takes place until Transport for London is given control of the Southeastern Metro network.
Rowing over trains at Blackheath allows the government to dodge more serious issues
In any case, there are a heap of more serious issues that aren’t being addressed. In effect, the “no trains to Victoria” issue is a dead cat, stinking out issues that are more pressing.
- Why can’t we have TfL control our trains?
- Why are south-east Londoners paying more to use trains than those who use TfL services? Deptford to Slade Green is £2.80 off-peak – the equivalent journey on a TfL service would cost £1.50.
- Why is the Greenwich line’s rush hour service so unforgivably crap – it’s less frequent than the off-peak service, and is set to remain this way in 2018’s timetable – and what are the plans to fix this?
- Why on earth is the DfT working with out of date housebuilding figures?
- What planet is the DfT on when it expects passenger growth to be so slow?
- Why can’t we have TfL control our trains?
- Why can’t stations be staffed from first train to last, as happens on London Overground?
- What on earth is happening with the Gillingham to Charing Cross service? Is it going to be switched into a Thameslink service to Luton – as TfL’s business case for Southeastern suggests it may be – possibly cutting a rail link from Woolwich to Lewisham (and – incredibly, which is why I’m sceptical about this – leaving a huge piece of infrastructure, the Blackheath tunnel, little-used)?
- Are there any plans to cut service frequencies on any of our lines?
- Can we have the Bakerloo Line to Lewisham, then through Catford to Hayes as soon as possible, please?
- Why can’t we have TfL control our trains?
But no, the conversation has been derailed because of a row over where trains go from Blackheath and Eltham.
Have your say, and do it now
So there’s a consultation about all this, and a long questionnaire. It’s worth taking some time to read and respond. Replies need to be in by Friday 30 June (the deadline has been extended).
If you want to reply yourself, feel free to add to and play with this version of the response I’m sending. That’s if you want to try to shoehorn in as many references to TfL as possible, which is something you should be doing. The actual online form is restrictive, so it’s better if you send your response to the email address given.
In short, tell the government not to simplify Southeastern services unless they are handed to Transport for London, so the necessary improvement works can be carried out at Lewisham.
Oh look, a Tory candidate claims to be saving the day
On Wednesday, Bexleyheath & Crayford’s Tory candidate David Evenett posted that he had written to Chris Grayling. And guess what Grayling’s response was?
“To be clear, we are not proposing to reduce or change specific services.”
So, yes, dead cat. Of course, it’s only a consultation – any proposal to change services would come later. But this row has served its purpose in getting Chris Grayling off the hook for not devolving our trains so that Londoners can make decisions about their own trains. And MPs, councillors, passenger groups and amenity societies have fallen for it.
This isn’t about you – or me. It’s about the neighbours we don’t yet have
It’s easy to see how this came about. There have been various consultations and documents about rail in south-east London (and Kent) over the past year or so, and many have been poorly and ambiguously presented.
Add this to the fact that many of our local politicians are simply clueless on infrastructure matters and are happy to parrot whatever they’re told, then you can see why a poorly-explained proposal can suddenly become a smokescreen for others to avoid scrutiny for their own clueless and dangerous decisions.
And frankly, this is about fairness. These campaigns are often led by people who have never had to avoid zone 1 to save money, or traded down to the bus to avoid Southeastern’s fares altogether. The vitally-important issue of TfL taking over and making our fares fairer often doesn’t even occur to them.
We may get a new transport secretary in the reshuffle that will follow the general election. And that may put a TfL takeover back on the table. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.
The future of transport in our part of London isn’t about your right to get an uninterrupted journey from Blackheath to your well-paid job near Victoria, nor is it about my right to cruise to from Charlton to Charing Cross. Even if you live in Eltham or Blackheath, you’ll be getting new neighbours soon, who’ll want to travel just as you do. It’s about the coping with fast-rising populations – and shifting me, you, and our new neighbours around the capital as quickly and efficiently as possible.
The days of gentlemen turning up in pin-stripes to get one of the three daily trains to Holborn Viaduct have long gone. We need frequent and reliable services that don’t rely on junctions that are shot to pieces.
If the price of extra trains and extra capacity is you or I having to wait five minutes at Lewisham for another train, then so be it. Our train network will be simplified eventually because it’s the only way to cope with greater demand. The real battle is over who’s in charge of it – people who understand London transport, or people who don’t.
So, please make time to read the document and respond to the consultation (here are some points worth making – please customise and add your own concerns – will work better if you email your response rather than use the online form). Demand TfL runs our railways, and gets the chance to sort out the tracks at Lewisham. It’s not the sexiest of rallying cries, but it might make all our lives easier in years to come.
Update 21 May: I’ve made a few tweaks to the response as the online form is very restrictive in how you can answer (and seems to think we all live near the high speed line…) Incidentally, below is an example of a well-meaning politician campaigning on this issue but getting it hopelessly wrong; Lewisham East Liberal Democrat Emily Frith prioritising the demands of well-heeled Blackheath over the needs of Hither Green and Lee.
Update 22 May: Lewisham East Lib Dem candidate Emily Frith has been in touch to say she has responded to the consultation and said TfL should take over Southeastern’s London services. See also her comment below.
It’s just a shame, though, that candidates seem to be prioritising the demands of narrowly-focused amenity societies in their campaigning rather than taking a broader view. What’s this? Oh, no, not the Greens as well…