Link to Elizabeth Line would cost £5 million to bring back, Southeastern boss says

Abbey Wood platform 3 with Crossrail trains in place
The “loop” trains enabled public transport users from the south of Greenwich borough to reach the Elizabeth Line at Abbey Wood

Southeastern cannot restore direct trains between New Eltham and the Elizabeth Line at Abbey Wood because it would cost £5 million, the rail company’s managing director said last night.

Steve White appealed to Greenwich councillors to help him build a case to get government funding to bring back the services, which were scrapped in December as part of cuts to services.

Southeastern Metro trains in SE London bore the brunt of the cuts by Conservative ministers, which tore up the pre-Covid turn-up-and-go services and replaced them with a stripped-back timetable to a reduced number of destinations.

One of the services removed from the timetable was a half-hourly direct “rounder” train linking the Greenwich and Sidcup lines, which had enabled residents in the south of Greenwich borough to reach the £19bn showpiece line in the north.

The service was also used by football fans to reach Charlton Athletic’s ground and by students to reach the Greenwich University campus near New Eltham and Rose Bruford College at Sidcup.

One councillor criticised White for saying that the journey could be easily made by changing at Dartford.

Southeastern Class 376 train
White said the loop trains were not an efficient way to run a service

“We understand that it is important to stakeholders but the cost of operating the service would be £5 million,” he said. “It would cost more than it would make.”

White said the Sidcup loop trains, which started and finished their trips at Cannon Street, were a “very inefficient service”.

“It takes an hour and a half to do that loop as it ties up a significant amount of resources.”

Committee chair Lauren Dingsdale said that White was “discounting the importance” of the trains to locals in Mottingham and New Eltham – who had no alternative direct link – and said that a properly-advertised service would bring custom.

“I resent the insinuation that you can hop on and go to Dartford – that’s quite far to go back,” she said.

White said that few passengers were using the service at its eastern end but that he would keep the matter under review.

Charing Cross station
Southeastern said there was a stronger business case for restoring some Charing Cross trains from Bexleyheath

Scott Brightwell, Southeastern’s operations director, said: “The patronage levels were not very high. We need help on making the case for this. In this financial climate it doesn’t look like it stacks up.”

But Cathy Dowse, another Labour councillor, challenged the assertion that the link was not well-used: “You can tap in at New Eltham and tap out again at Woolwich – how do you know that people weren’t going down the line and back again?”

Brightwell said that Southeastern used weighing equipment on its trains and twice-yearly manual counts to come to its conclusions. “Lots of people were using those trains for bits of the route but not all the way around,” he said.

White said: “There are other things we can do to improve the railway that don’t cost as much as the Sidcup link.”

White said that introducing an hourly off-peak Charing Cross train to the Bexleyheath line was done because it was a shorter journey with a “very focused business case” that would make a profit for the railway and reduce pressure on the Sidcup line.

Greenwich station
Long gaps between trains on the Greenwich line look set to remain for now

There was also no sign of an end to the long gaps between trains on the Greenwich line, where Brightwell conceded “are not really what you want in the metro area”. He said Southeastern was talking to Thameslink and freight operators about finding solutions.

But he said passenger numbers had fallen on the line through Woolwich since May 2022 – from 1.05 million to 872,000 last month – as a result of the Elizabeth Line’s opening, while other metro lines had recorded increases.

White insisted he did not want the railway to go into “managed decline”, and said that usage was growing at a more healthy rate than expected after flatlining during 2022.

“We are growing again and people are returning to the office,” he said. “We think some employers are changing their [working from home] policies.

“We don’t want to suppress demand and we don’t want to turn people away from using our railway. We want to promote the railway with all its green potential, we want to play our part in a growing railway.

“We are financially constrained at this moment in time. We do want to add those services where they are most needed and we want a busier railway in 2023 than it was in 2022.”

Kidbrooke Station Square development behind Southeastern train
Rail services to Kidbrooke also came up in the meeting

White accepted an offer from Dingsdale to meet council officers to discuss train services at Kidbrooke, where hundreds of new homes are being built after being given approval because of the pre-Covid transport options.

“Prior to Covid you could predict that if you built 1,000 homes, a percentage of people would choose to travel by train,” he said. “It would be good to know what the post-Covid figure is.”

White also appeared to downplay incidents of crowding at London Bridge, pointing to photographs that appeared to show similar scenes in 2019. He said new measures were being taken at the station to ease pressure when there was disruption to service.

A number of residents’ group representatives and others were there, with some jeering the Southeastern representatives. One woman called White, who is working to a budget set by the Conservative government at Westminster, a “disgrace”.

No hands showed when White asked the mostly-retired audience whether they were among Southeastern’s now-diminished band of season ticket holders.

However, no councillors picked up on the likelihood that most residents would be travelling on Oyster or contactless, and would not be using Southeastern’s app to purchase their tickets to central London, as White suggested during the session.

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