Not enough passengers are using Southeastern to justify a return to its old timetables, the rail minister has told SE London MPs days before service cuts hit lines across the area.
Labour and Conservative MPs from across Greenwich, Bexley and Lewisham boroughs united to criticise the government cuts at a special debate in Westminster on Tuesday. Peak-time services are being cut from next week while most stations will be reduced to four off-peak trains per hour, compared with six before the coronavirus crisis hit.
Services are also being changed so passengers on some lines will have their choice of terminals reduced. Southeastern services through Woolwich Arsenal will now only serve Cannon Street, forcing passengers to change at London Bridge. Trains via Bexleyheath will only run to Charing Cross in the rush hour.
Clive Efford, the Labour MP for Eltham, who called for the debate last month, said the cuts would lead to overcrowding because they took no account of new housing developments across the area and the lack of alternative services.
But Huw Merriman, the Conservative rail minister, said it was clear that passengers were “not going to return to the office five days a week”.
The minister admitted that the service reductions were driven by financial cuts. “The changes are driven by our current financial and travel habit situation,” he said. “Travel habits have changed and there is a need to make our railways more financially sustainable, as well as improving their reliability.”
Merriman said that Southeastern, which also runs trains to the Kent coast and East Sussex, had peak-hour demand of between 50 and 65 per cent of pre-Covid levels, and 70 per cent across weekdays.
“Demand simply does not warrant 2019 levels of service provision,” he said. “The government have earmarked £16 billion of funding for rail services since the start of the pandemic. That is taxpayers’ money and is clearly unsustainable in the long term.”
But Efford said that new developments in Kidbrooke had been given permission on the basis of the old, more frequent timetables.
“I do not think any account has been taken of the increased demand from the additional development in our part of London—certainly not the demand from the very big development at Kidbrooke. We are seeing considerable growth and no one can know where it will end,” he said.
Vicky Foxcroft, the MP for Lewisham Deptford, echoed Efford’s points: “Lewisham in particular suffers with overcrowding at peak times and a woefully inaccessible station. The situation will only get worse as further large residential developments are completed.”
Matt Pennycook, the MP for Greenwich & Woolwich, said the rationale for the service cuts “does not add up”. He added: “It beggars belief, quite honestly, that levels of demand as they were six months ago are being used to justify the kind of radical and disruptive change entailed by the timetable that is due to come into force next week.
“Southeastern introduced a reduced timetable on the Greenwich line in November 2020, but it was forced to restore the full peak hour service in January of this year because of overcrowding. Yet we are now told that similar service reductions are essential.”
Southeastern has said that changes to Charing Cross services would reduce pressure on the junction at Lewisham (see video above) where services to Victoria, Cannon Street and Charing Cross meet and cross over.
But Efford accused the rail industry of poor maintenance and a lack of investment. He said that after a previous attempt to simplify the service, “I spoke to some rail experts about the problem and they told me that what Network Rail and Southeastern were saying was complete nonsense”.
Southeastern said yesterday that it was unaware of experts that had challenged its reasoning on the issue.
Examples of how the changes would inconvenience constituents were given by the MPs. Abena Oppong-Asare, who represents Erith & Thamesmead, said the scrapping of “loop” trains from Sidcup to Abbey Wood and Plumstead could put one out of work.
“One constituent, who works in the local prison service, told me that she is incredibly distressed, because the changes mean that she will no longer be able to drop her children at school and get to work by 9 am, and that she may lose her job as a result. There are no bus services that cater for her route, and she does not own a car.” she said.
Janet Daby, the MP for Lewisham East, said one constituent had told her that the lifts and escalators at London Bridge would be “too much of an obstacle” for her elderly neighbours.
“Southeastern really needs to ask whether it is trying to deter people from using the train service, or is it trying to encourage people to use it,” she added. “My concerns about the timetables include the impact on the safety of young girls, women and vulnerable people, as they have to make an extra change at London Bridge late at night.”
David Evenett, the Tory MP for Bexleyheath & Crayford, branded the changes “inconsiderate, totally unfair and lacking in logic”.
“We are here as representatives of the people to support constituents and the best service for them—not one that is convenient to civil servants and Southeastern, but one that is convenient to the people who pay the bills,” he said, adding that losing Charing Cross services would make the railway less attractive.
His Conservative colleague Louie French, for Old Bexley & Sidcup, raised rumours that Albany Park station, on the Sidcup line, was being lined up for closure after being cut to just two trains per hour.
Merriman denied that Albany Park was closing but said the timetable changes would make the network more punctual and reliable.
He described London Bridge as “a modern station that has been designed for high volumes of interchanging passengers. I understand that some members have concerns about changing there, but I can assure them that, as someone who does the change often, the station is well designed for that purpose. We believe it is one of the best in the country.”
Merriman added that there would be assistance staff at London Bridge to help vulnerable passengers as well as on-site lift engineers.
But Efford was unconvinced. “All our constituents suffered from the disruption caused by the refurbishment of London Bridge,” he said. “Now they are being inconvenienced again, because the refurbishment is complete and we are told it is a perfectly good place to end a journey. It is not good enough. This is ‘government knows best’ and government by diktat without consultation. It is simply not good enough.”
Southeastern said yesterday: “We’ll be making the interchange at London Bridge as seamless and accessible as we can. London Bridge Station is safe, gated, well-lit and weatherproof, with CCTV, customer help points, 17 defibrillators, one on every platform, free Wi-Fi and has extra staff on hand to help with assisted travel.
“The British Transport Police and London Ambulance Service also have a presence at the station. The £1bn redevelopment of London Bridge has provided step free access to all platforms and easier connections to other rail services and the Tube.”
Additional reporting by Joe Coughlan, Local Democracy Reporter
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