Skip to main content

Rail Services (Sydenham Corridor)

Volume 505: debated on Friday 5 February 2010

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Kerry McCarthy.)

I am most grateful to Mr. Speaker for allowing me this opportunity to raise an issue that is of considerable concern to my constituents in the Forest Hill-Sydenham area. I have raised the matter on two other occasions during the 18 years in which I have been a Member. This is the third time, although the specific issue is not the same. The Table Office has rules about putting down questions; it says that they can be refused if they are part of a campaign. I would not like to think that anybody believed that I did not have a campaign on behalf of my constituents and their rail transport requirements in our corner of south-east London.

No London borough has as high a proportion of its residents working outside it as Lewisham does. Transport links of all kinds—not just rail, but bus; we do not have an underground service yet, although we will in a few short months—are crucial to the social and economic well-being of the area. They have a double benefit: they make the place easier for people to live in and travel to work from, and they attract people into the area for work, social and recreational purposes.

In recent years, there have been many improvements in services, not only in my constituency but in Lewisham more broadly. Perhaps the most notable was the docklands light railway extension to Lewisham via Greenwich, from the rather obscure terminus of Mudchute gardens on the Isle of Dogs. That has undoubtedly improved connections to Lewisham. Furthermore, bus services have been considerably improved since the advent of Transport for London and the directly elected Mayor of London.

More recently, Eurostar services have been transferred from Waterloo to St. Pancras International. That has released further slots on the surrounding railway infrastructure, which has allowed more services—not into my constituency, but into nearby stations such as Penge West and Sydenham Hill, which are used by many people from my constituency. Great improvements have been made in the recent past. Without doubt, however, the greatest improvement will come with the advent of the East London line, which is due to commence services in May, just a few months’ time.

I speak with feeling about the extension of the East London line because I have been campaigning for it since I was first elected to Lewisham council in 1974. That is some 36 years. There is a Chinese proverb—an old Chinese proverb, as they say, but when was the last time we heard of a new one?—that states that success has a thousand parents but failure is an orphan. I claim to be one of the 1,000 parents who are the progenitors of the East London line extension through my constituency into Crystal Palace and on to West Croydon. It forms just part of the London Overground project, which will go north of the river, utilising the current East London line, to Dalston and then eventually on to various other points on the northern part of the London Overground system, to provide real alternatives to people in my constituency and surrounding areas as regards their transport options.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. I would claim to be one of the other parents, and we are all very pleased about the regenerative effect that public transport investment has. The Government have done very well in their investment in London’s transport, which was particularly good under the previous Mayor. Is it not the case that given the Government’s strong emphasis on investing in east-west routes, as Members representing constituencies with strong north-south trends we must remember the importance of continued investment in those routes, such as Thameslink?

Yes, I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point. If he is claiming partial parentage of the East London line extension, I have to say that our relationship was very distant, if not non-existent, but in our part of south London we are all delighted to see it come to pass. The tendency that he mentions has traditionally been a problem for large parts of the capital that are not served by the underground system. Radial transport links are very strong, but lateral ones have not been, and the impetus of recent years has been to address that issue. Rather than ship everybody into the centre of town and then out again for work, social or recreational purposes, it is better to have lateral links. That is a great advantage to us, as he appreciates, because there will be an opportunity for us to travel to large parts of the capital without the need to go through London Bridge or to Cannon Street or Charing Cross.

I shall make some comments about Thameslink in a moment. The Thameslink programme will cause a lot of disruption and inconvenience in the short term, particularly to those of us closer to the centre of London, but over time it will prove to be a worthwhile investment and a considerable benefit to south London and London more broadly. As a key international centre and our national capital, London relies on its transport links more than anything. It needs to sustain the ability to move people around in large numbers very rapidly, and we can all recognise that without that, it would not be the centre that it is.

The hon. Gentleman encroached upon the next part of my comments.

Not at all, I accept the inevitability of these things on occasion. Over the years there has been support for the plan for the East London line extension, particularly from the former Mayor and the Greater London authority. I thank them, as I have before in the Chamber, for their determination to turn the current East London line, which is little more than a cross-river shuttle to the east of Tower bridge, into a genuinely beneficial, sustainable and crucial link in London’s transport network by increasing services from Croydon and Crystal Palace right through to Dalston, and beyond that to Highbury and Islington and elsewhere. The next stage, which will not run through my constituency, is the continuation of the service through Peckham and on to Clapham Junction, which will be a major adjunct to the services in that part of the world.

Let me make it as clear as I can to my hon. Friend the Minister that my constituents welcome unreservedly the extension of the East London line into our part of the world, and our appearance on the London tube map, particularly as we have some of the most congested commuter lines in the whole country. However, various aspects of that introduction might not be as beneficial to my constituents as they might otherwise appear. Transport for London has taken over the running of all the stations between East Croydon and London Bridge, including Crystal Palace, which means that all local stations are now staffed throughout the day, from the first train to the last, meaning a far safer and more secure environment for passengers. TfL plans a complete refurbishment of those stations over time, which will include new indicator boards, increased CCTV and new public address systems. My experience in recent years is that railway public address systems are far more comprehensible than they were in my youth. That is to everybody’s benefit, but it also increases the security that people feel when using public transport systems, and therefore increases the likelihood that they will use them. That is to be welcomed unconditionally.

On 2 January—this was slightly delayed, because of decisions by the Mayor, but it was none the less welcome—the Oyster card system and pay-as-you-go were introduced on all suburban services right across the capital. That is a huge advance. One needs to use an Oyster card only once to realise the benefits of the system, and that is without mentioning its interoperability between different modes of transport. Before the end of this year, all platforms on the line will be lengthened to accommodate 10-carriage trains to and from London Bridge, rather than the current eight-carriage trains. The East London line will start in May, giving us eight trains an hour in each direction between Dalston in the north, and West Croydon and Crystal Palace in the south. Finally, a few years on, in 2015, the line will become part of the Thameslink network, so that the four trains an hour that currently terminate at London Bridge will instead continue north, thus allowing direct services to Blackfriars, Farringdon and, in particular, St. Pancras International for the Eurostar.

I am also delighted to see the reappearance of something that I believed to be little more than a pipedream when I was growing up in my constituency in south-east London, namely the extension of the Bakerloo line. In those days it was just a piece of imagineering, as they call it these days: someone drew a line on a map and said, “Wouldn’t it be a good idea if, instead of terminating at the Elephant and Castle, the Bakerloo line went on, down through south-east London to Bromley and places south?” There was never any real backing for such a project, but now it is back on the agenda. However, I suspect that its prospects might be somewhat less encouraging under the current Mayor than they would have been under his predecessor or, let us hope, they will be under a successor with a more enlightened attitude towards public transport.

The Southern services into London Bridge are the mainstay of the commuter services from my constituency. It is the threat to those services posed by the introduction of the East London line that I wish to draw to the House’s attention today. On all surveys, the route to and from London Bridge will still be the principal route used by more than 70 per cent. of my constituents. They have just lost the Charing Cross service, even though it was only an off-peak service, because during the development of the Southeastern timetable, which started on 13 December, it was identified that in order to make the incorporation of the high-speed service to and from Kent workable, significant limitations would need to be imposed on the through-London Bridge pathways for other operators. The long and short of that was that Southern lost its pathways into Charing Cross and now terminates all services at London Bridge.

Some would say, “Well, how much more difficult is it to get a train from Charing Cross and change at London Bridge? Those services still exist.” That is true, but for my constituencies attending social, entertainment and recreational events in the west end in the evening—those going to the theatre, to the cinema, to restaurants, and so on—the direct service from Charing Cross to Honor Oak Park, Forest Hill and Sydenham was immensely important. That service has now been lost and, sadly, there is little or no hope for its reintroduction, because those pathways have gone. Some of my more suspicious constituents—it may come as a shock that, along with most other Members of Parliament, I have such constituents—think that, because Southeastern and Southern are owned by the same holding company, Govia, this was just a carve-up of the services between the two companies. I do not believe that to be the case. I think that genuine consideration for improving the service across the south-east as a whole was at the heart of this decision. As in most equations, however, some win and some lose.

The crux of the problem involves the off-peak services. During the route utilisation strategy investigation, fears were expressed that morning and evening services into London Bridge would be cut from their present level by at least two trains an hour. Fortunately, the morning peak service has now been secured. That is probably the most crucial element of the transport patterns in my area. However, the off-peak and evening service has now been cut by two trains an hour. My constituents—particularly the members of the Sydenham Society and the Forest Hill Society who have done a lot of campaigning on these issues—would like to know why the East London line should not suffer a reduction, instead of cutting the service on the London Bridge line by two trains an hour. If it proves more beneficial over time for the East London line to provide extra services, the number of trains could be increased, but why should my constituents have to suffer the possible inconvenience of having an established and well-used service reduced?

I understand that complicated calculations have had to be made in relation to the introduction of what is undeniably the great advantage of extending the East London line, but why should the existing services be put at risk when introducing the new ones? And, if those calculations prove inaccurate or non-viable in the longer term, what is the earliest opportunity at which such a shortfall could be redressed?

We do not for a moment dispute the benefit of the extended East London line. If it is introduced and incorporated properly, it will provide considerable benefit to people across south London and more broadly. However, the need to ensure that the present services are sustained until it has been demonstrated that they are no longer necessary is a higher priority.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Jim Dowd) on securing the debate and providing the House with this opportunity to discuss rail services in his area of south London. At the risk of making him feel a little old, may I tell him that, when he started campaigning as a Lewisham councillor in 1974, I was a schoolboy using Sydenham Hill station on a daily basis? I know that that station is not on the route that we are discussing, but he did mention it earlier. I am aware that this issue is of interest to a number of other hon. Members, given the correspondence that I have received from him and other Members in recent months, and also to other stakeholders and to the public.

I am also aware that any timetable change, however small, is likely to inconvenience some people and will therefore often be unpopular. In the case of train services on the Sydenham corridor, two sets of changes occurring at the same time are altering the nature of services on the route. I believe that, when these changes are looked at together—and once demand patterns have settled, later this year—the overall accessibility and attractiveness of train services in that area of south London will be vastly improved. However, I sympathise with users of the route if they are unhappy with the planned changes at this time.

I am conscious that, while many people are aware of those services that have been or will be changed or diverted as a result of the new timetable, little has been said about the additional services and journey opportunities that will emerge this spring. Transport for London will soon be starting a publicity campaign with regard to the East London line services and, as trial services begin to operate, I expect the benefits of those services to become more obvious to passengers. I have already asked officials to ensure that TfL is issuing appropriate publicity about the changes.

It hardly behoves us to criticise investment in public transport, which is most welcome and quite transformative—in my constituency, the tram transformed the place in respect of employment prospects—but if a new service is being launched, there is a great danger of inflicting reputational damage if other services are being reduced. Are the Government sensitive to that concern, as it would be such a shame if such an excellent investment were compromised?

The hon. Gentleman raises a legitimate question; there is a balance to be drawn as providing information too soon risks people having to ask where the new services are. I hope to address the issues further as I progress.

I can never make myself clear from the back of the Chamber. The concern is that people might speak adversely about the new services if they are compromising other fast routes. I represent constituents who use Norwood Junction, which is just down the line from Sydenham, and they have already expressed their concerns to me in e-mails.

If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to make a little progress, I might be able to answer him more fully. As I have said, I have already asked officials to carry out appropriate publicity for the changes. Given the concerns expressed, it would probably be best to deal with each of those changes in turn. I shall start by providing some background to them.

The Sydenham corridor is currently served by Southern Trains, but from May, East London line services operated by London Overground will be extended to operate on the route alongside Southern services. London Overground’s core service will operate four trains an hour between Crystal Palace and Dalston and West Croydon and Dalston. A separate service will operate from New Cross to Dalston. This compares with the former East London line, which operated only between New Cross Gate and Shoreditch. It is expected that eight of these trains will be extended to Highbury and Islington from 2011, once a new line is constructed at Dalston to connect the East London line with the North London line.

Further extensions to Clapham Junction are planned for 2012, which will mean that the route from Sydenham to New Cross Gate, which I know will be a prime concern to my hon. Friend, will see eight East London line trains an hour, plus Southern services. These East London line services will be operated by new class 378 trains in four-car formation similar to the new trains introduced on the North London line.

Importantly, the extended East London line will provide valuable interchanges with the rest of London’s transport network. The interchange with the Jubilee line at Canada Water will be especially valuable, given the links from there to Canary Wharf and the west end, but the interchange with the Hammersmith and City and District lines at Whitechapel will also be important, while we must also not forget the link with the docklands light railway at Shadwell. The later link to Highbury and Islington will provide a further direct interchange with the Victoria line.

We expect a considerable number of people to alter their journey patterns to interchange at Canada Water rather than at London Bridge. As my hon. Friend will be aware, the interchange from national rail to London underground at London Bridge is rather tortuous and probably takes a minimum of five minutes when measured platform to platform. Canada Water will compare favourably in that the interchange is a simple escalator journey to the underground. The latest information that I have from TfL is that the main works are complete and that non-passenger trial operations on the core route are about to commence. If these trial operations and associated staff training are successful, TfL hopes to commence a service on the core route north of New Cross Gate later this spring. We are as confident as we can be that the route will open on time later this spring. That is my answer to the question about when we should press on with the publicity.

My hon. Friend mentioned that 10 stations between New Cross Gate and West Croydon have already transferred to London Overground in readiness for the extension—additional investment has already commenced. He also mentioned that London Overground is going to upgrade many of those stations. He referred specifically to CCTV and public address, but there will also be a deep clean of the stations, along with new floors and platform surfaces, new entrance canopies, new signage, information systems and lighting improvements. It is also worth noting that “Access for All” works, funded by my Department, are already well advanced at Forest Hill station. I should add that the £900 million extension of the East London line has been made possible only by the considerable increase in grant given to Transport for London over recent years.

I am sure that my hon. Friend is supportive of all those investments in train services in his constituency. I firmly believe that these changes, along with other improvements, such as extension of Oyster pay-as-you-go, will transform the attractiveness of this area of south London—to reduce crowding, to support regeneration activities and to improve the overall service offered to the public.

However, the new services cannot be introduced without some changes to existing services and service patterns. Apart from some minor track works at South Croydon and Crystal Palace there is no building of new lines south of New Cross Gate, which means that the extended East London line timetable needs to mesh with Southern services. The issue is not as simple as might be imagined, especially given the complications of the crowded network in and about London Bridge and the interactions with other parts of the rail network including Southeastern services, Southern services to London Victoria, First Capital Connect services north and south of London, and the additional East London line services.

Does this not underline the need for further investment at the Windmill Bridge junction north of East Croydon station? It is great to get the service going, but not enough money was provided for the East London line. If capacity is not increased, there will unfortunately be some passenger resistance.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that, along with Network Rail, we are examining capacity issues throughout the United Kingdom network, because we consider those issues to be a priority.

I shall try to explain the background to each of the main changes, but I suggest that Members consider those changes as a whole and compare the final overall service from May this year with the service provided previously. As my hon. Friend has pointed out, since last December, later evening Southern services from the Sydenham corridor, amounting to a total of nine trains, have not progressed through London Bridge to Charing Cross. All services will now end at London Bridge, as they do throughout the rest of the day.

The reason for the change is that as part of its new timetable Southeastern—which, of course, has seen the introduction of high-speed services from Kent, and about 5 per cent. more capacity on metro services in Greater London—is stopping more trains at London Bridge during the off-peak period and in the evenings, and has also improved frequencies on the Bexleyheath corridor. Because of the provision of the additional trains, no spare capacity exists to allow Southern services to operate into Charing Cross. Southeastern and Southern have worked hard to identify a solution to the problem that would allow those trains to be accommodated through London Bridge. It has been unable to find a timetable solution, but it remains an aspiration of Southern to operate services through to Charing Cross. The Government have said that if in future Southern and Southeastern can find a way to extend services, which we agree is desirable, we will not stand in the way of the operators. I have asked officials to ensure that that option continues to be considered.

A number of timetable changes are planned for May 2010 on the commencement of the extended East London line. My hon. Friend has raised with me the apparent misalignment between opening dates for the East London line and changes to Southern services, and I understand that the Sydenham Society has raised the issue with him. I should make it clear that the new Southern timetable is planned to commence on Sunday 23 May, the day on which TfL plans to start operations south of New Cross Gate. There is thus no misalignment; TfL may be being a little cautious in its public statements.

As part of the new timetable, stations on the route will see a significant increase in the service provided overall. During the peak period, there will be six trains an hour from stations such as Sydenham to London Bridge, and a further eight trains an hour to the East London line. Sydenham currently has seven trains to London Bridge between 8 am and 9 am. In future, it will have a total of 14 trains to London, which will double the service and increase capacity by around 45 per cent.

I realise that it could be argued that Sydenham is seeing a reduction of one London Bridge train during the peak period, but given the parallel increase in services to the East London line, the overall benefits are large. In the off-peak period the service will broadly double from six to 12 trains per hour, which means a train every five minutes. Four of those trains will operate to London Bridge and eight to the East London line. I appreciate that that could be seen as a reduction of two trains an hour to London Bridge, but it has been made necessary by the operation of the East London line trains and the use of “turn back” facilities at West Croydon by East London line services.

I am particularly aware of the significant concern expressed about the evening peak changes on the corridor. Let me explain that in more detail. Southern currently operates six trains in the peak hour from London Bridge via the Sydenham “slow lines”, with two of them operating to destinations outside London. Because of the introduction of the East London line services and the congested nature of the infrastructure from London Bridge to New Cross Gate, it has not been possible to timetable the longer-distance services to fit with the regular-interval East London line services. As a result, from May the Dorking and Guildford services will now operate via the fast lines running non-stop between London Bridge and Norwood Junction.

The only way these services could continue to operate on the slow lines via Forest Hill would be by reducing the peak service operated by the East London line. While I recognise that this is of little comfort to my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West, the change will reduce journey times to places such as Norwood Junction, Sutton and Dorking. The remaining London Bridge services will operate a regular-interval service from London Bridge at approximately 14 and 16 minutes apart, and should carry significantly fewer passengers as a result of the diversion of some passengers to destinations further afield. Most passengers to locations such as Sydenham and Forest Hill should need to alter their journey times by only two or three minutes. I will be happy to provide the House with details of the exact timetable, if required.

This change should be placed in the context of the eight East London line trains operating southbound from Canada Water, and, over time, we expect passengers who currently interchange from the Jubilee line at London Bridge to shift to interchange at Canada Water. It should also be remembered that passengers who previously changed on to Southern services at New Cross Gate will now be able to use both Southern and East London line services, further reducing demand pressures on evening peak services south of New Cross Gate. The same number of trains will be operating from London Bridge in peak times as today, and I can thus reassure Members that the changes are not being carried out for financial reasons; they are being introduced purely in order to timetable both Southern and East London line services on the same section of track.

Southern is committed to keep the situation under review after the introduction of the East London line next May.

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).