‘Wait and see’: Tory ‘fat controller’ defends Southeastern rail cuts

London Bridge station
Fewer trains will run compared with early 2020 and many passengers will now need to change at London Bridge

The Conservative minister in charge of the railways has defended Southeastern’s service cuts in SE London – and asked one local MP to “wait and see” how they turn out.

Services through Greenwich and Lewisham will be cut compared with pre-pandemic levels from December 11, with most stations now receiving just four trains an hour during the day rather than the six they had before the Covid crisis.

In addition, passengers on the Woolwich line will no longer have direct trains to Charing Cross, while those using the Bexleyheath line will only have those services during peak times. Southeastern says this is needed to relieve pressure on the busy junction at Lewisham and will reduce delays.

The cuts by the government-owned company – which include the scrapping of “rounder” trains linking Sidcup and Woolwich and the loss of Woolwich-Lewisham trains on Sundays – have been made without consultation with passengers, a decision that has been criticised by both Labour and Conservative politicians across SE London.

Speaking in the House of Commons last Thursday, Eltham’s Labour MP Clive Efford asked Huw Merriman, the rail minister: “Before the pandemic, the rail services through my constituency suffered from chronic overcrowding, yet the government used the pandemic as an excuse to cut peak-time services from my constituency without consultation of those rail users.

“What is he going to do to monitor the damage that he has done and to ensure that those services are restored when those trains get chronically overcrowded again?”

Merriman, who represents Bexhill & Battle in East Sussex, defended the decision not to consult.

He said: “Southeastern did indeed ask for a derogation to consult, and changes had to be made quite rapidly during the pandemic, although may I just say that, as a fellow user of Southeastern, the honourable member will find that there are some benefits from that?

“It is not just about taking down some costs; it is also about simplifying the line structure, so that at Lewisham, for example, there will not be as many trains crossing. If he would just wait and see how matters progress, he and I might find that it has been a good timetable change after all.”

Efford later likened Merriman to the “Fat Controller” in the Thomas the Tank Engine stories when he asked Penny Mordaunt, the leader of the House, for a debate on the issue.

He said: “The minister confirmed that he had adopted the role of fat controller when it comes to Southeastern trains and had cut peak-time trains through my constituency and others, without consultation with our constituents. That is the key point: our constituents were refused the opportunity to be consulted.”

Mordaunt said: “I will certainly write to the Department for Transport to let the secretary of state know about the concerns that have been raised today. It is important that local communities are consulted about such changes.”

Abena Oppong-Asare, the neighbouring MP for Erith & Thamesmead, said that she had struggled to get answers to questions from the Department for Transport, which controls Southeastern.

The answer “not only did not answer my question but arrived late”, she told the Commons.

Oppong-Asare is meeting Merriman this week to discuss the cuts and said she hopes to speak to Southeastern’s managing director, Steve White, as well.

She said today: “I am supporting residents who are calling for Southeastern to reverse the proposed cuts in services. Timetables need to work for constituents. There has been a lack of consultation, cooperation, and engagement from Southeastern. Working with stakeholders and constituents, we will continue to fight for a reliable and well organised timetable that provides opportunities for all in Erith & Thamesmead and the south east.”

White sat through a three-hour grilling from Greenwich councillors last month, in which he said there would be space for all passengers in the new timetable with room to spare.

He insisted that changing the timetable so individual lines were focused on serving one terminal meant that when custom picked up, it would be easier to add trains to the timetable and for services to grow again.

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