Skip to main content

London Bridge Station (Redevelopment)

Volume 591: debated on Tuesday 27 January 2015

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank you and the rail Minister for allowing my hon. Friends the Members for Lewisham West and Penge (Jim Dowd) and for Eltham (Clive Efford) to participate in the debate. I also thank the Minister for organising the session that we had with Network Rail and Southeastern last week—perhaps I should call it a grilling—which was much appreciated. I expect that she will have some idea of my concerns, but I am pleased to have the opportunity to put them on record.

The rebuild of London Bridge station is long overdue. It is a poor relation of King’s Cross, Paddington and Waterloo, but no less busy. I fully support the redevelopment of the station, but I am concerned about the impact of the latest phase of works on rail services and passenger experiences. I know there has been mayhem on Southern routes—my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge might speak about that—but I will focus my remarks on the Southeastern network, given its importance to my constituency.

The new timetable, which has been introduced as a result of the 18-month closure of four platforms at London Bridge, has caused havoc. With no Charing Cross trains stopping at the station, many Cannon Street services have been dangerously overcrowded. There have been reports of fights at stations on lines into London Bridge because people simply cannot get on to a train. The remaining operational platforms at the station have seen scenes of utter chaos due to the volume of people and last-minute platform alterations. What has always been a poor and overcrowded service is now abysmal and yet, as with every year, fares have gone up. How that can be justified when some people cannot even get on a train is beyond me. In my constituency, many trains are full when they arrive at stations and people are paying for a service that they can barely access.

What can be done and what do I want the Government to do? Commuters in south-east London are crying out for longer trains and better communication from the train operating companies. If we cannot find a way to ease the current problems, the Minister will need to look carefully at next year’s annual fare hike and ask herself whether it is acceptable. At the most basic level, we need extra carriages on the Cannon Street services. Those should not be pinched from other overcrowded services, but if any reasonable adjustment can be made, that should happen. Given that, on the Southeastern network, only Cannon Street services will stop at London Bridge for the next 18 months, every rush hour train into Cannon Street should be a 12-car train.

If we cannot get extra carriages immediately, we will desperately need the old Thameslink rolling stock when it becomes available towards the end of the year. Will the Minister guarantee that those old Thameslink carriages will end up on Southeastern services? Is it true that the current plan is to use the Thameslink carriages for services between Manchester and Liverpool? Will she review that, as well as looking at what can be done to source extra carriages in the interim?

Southeastern also needs another communications drive. Rather than waiting for frustrated passengers to work out alternative routes for themselves, a big communications effort is needed that prompts people into changing their journey patterns. It should set out all alternative travel options and ticketing arrangements.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on again securing a debate on rail transport in the south-east. She will agree that the redevelopment is a welcome investment in the infrastructure of our railways that will ultimately benefit her constituents and mine. I am pleased that she mentions communication. Does she agree that communication during this work is crucial? Southeastern has to get that right, but communication is something at which Southeastern has often failed in the past.

I share the hon. Gentleman’s view. This is difficult, to be fair to Southeastern, but we need to find a way of raising awareness of the other tube and bus routes that people can use to travel to and from the London Bridge area. If extra buses are needed on some of those routes, they should be delivered. Transport for London has laid on extra buses for the No. 21 route from Lewisham, but is there a case for some express services from south-east London into London Bridge further to ease some of the overcrowding?

The past few weeks have reinforced my constituents’ long-held view that annual fare hikes are not justified. Will the Minister expect Southeastern customers to pay more for their travel next year, too? If the services continue to be abysmal, is it not reasonable to consider freezing Southeastern fares next January to reflect the huge inconvenience that so many are experiencing? The current compensation scheme for delays on Southeastern is almost meaningless to my constituents, as whether or not a train is on time is irrelevant if people cannot get on it.

I could say much more, but I am conscious that my hon. Friends wish to speak, so I will draw my remarks to a close. More capacity and better communication could help to ease the pressures on the Southeastern network. If that is not possible, fair and reasonable compensation should be considered. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) on securing this important debate and thank the Minister for organising Thursday’s meeting with Southeastern and Network Rail, which gave us an opportunity to get some answers to questions following the timetable changes. I met Network Rail on 10 December to talk about the arrangements. I was also in contact with Southeastern, and its representatives were due to attend that meeting, but unfortunately did not turn up. Some of the things I feared have come to the fore, but I would like to draw the Minister’s attention to the customer satisfaction survey that was published today. It shows that Southeastern has the worst customer satisfaction of the train operating companies, and that survey was carried out before the changes.

My constituents who want to go to London Bridge, especially from Mottingham and New Eltham, are finding the Cannon Street trains to be dangerously overcrowded. It is clear that there was no plan for the extra demand for those trains. They are the only trains stopping at London Bridge, but there was no plan to make them longer to increase capacity. Will the Minister tell us what will be done in the short term to address the serious overcrowding on those trains? Overcrowding is also being experienced by those who are forced to go to Waterloo East and then try to travel back to London Bridge on the London underground. Southeastern seems to have taken the view that if it sits this out, passengers will be forced to find other forms of transport. My constituents have told me that they are getting off at Lewisham, which is becoming very overcrowded. British Transport police have to be at the station because the situation is becoming dangerous. Passengers are starting to use the docklands light railway as an alternative route. It is shocking that the approach seems to be to force passengers to go elsewhere. That is just not good enough. Southeastern has not planned for the capacity that is necessary to enable passengers to get to London Bridge and continue their journeys.

What will be done in the short term? Like my hon. Friend, I want to find out what will happen about the Thameslink trains, because we know that we need them. There should have been 12-car trains on our network from January last year, but Southeastern has failed to address the problem.

I shall make what will be my final point, because I know my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Jim Dowd) wants to speak. In response to this morning’s survey results, Mr Statham, the managing director of Southeastern, said:

“Over the next three years we’re investing more than £70m in the things that our passengers tell us are important to them. This investment will enable us to provide better information to our passengers”—

that is fine—

“improve the interior and cleanliness of our trains”—

that is excellent—

“refresh the look of our stations and provide extra staff to deliver more face-to-face customer service.”

That is all wonderful, but if passengers cannot get on the damn trains, what is the point? There is nothing in that statement about increased capacity, extra carriages or 12-car trains, which we have been promised by two successive Governments. The issue is capacity. Southeastern is not addressing the problem, so we want to hear from the Minister what she will do about it.

I will be as brief as possible, although given the volume of material that I have received from constituents about this subject, I could take up the rest of the morning, let alone five minutes. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) for sharing her time with us. The issue is critical for all of us in south-east London. As she suggested, I will concentrate on Southern services.

Rail transport throughout south-east London is particularly important. Of all 32 London boroughs, including the City of London, Lewisham has the highest proportion of residents who work outside their borough, so all public transport, and rail in particular, is evidently important to them. Transport is critical to the well-being of residents and the community at large.

Our recent experience includes the shambles that is London Bridge station and Southern rail generally, even predating this disruption. Network Rail states on its website that there are two types of disruption at London Bridge: “planned disruption” and “unplanned disruption”. I am not sure where the overlap lies, but the fact of the matter is that the travelling public pay the price and suffer the consequences.

Like my colleagues, I thank the Minister for her involvement and interest, right back to our immediate return after Christmas, and for organising last week’s meeting. I very much look forward to speaking to Southern Railway on Monday afternoon. Southern’s performance—certainly subsequent to 5 January, but previously as well—has been lamentable and shameful. It predates the problem with the Thameslink work at London Bridge by a number of months.

When deciding what to say in the few moments that I have, I thought that I could do no better than to repeat what some of my constituents have told me. A resident of Penge said of London Bridge station:

“The works taking place there caused constant delays and cancellations last year, and so far this year the station has pretty much ground to a halt.”

A resident of Forest Hill said that on the evening of 5 January they

“left London Bridge in tears having been crushed by the crowds being kettled into a small part of the concourse. Half empty trains left with us not being allowed access to them by Network Rail staff.”

The impact on services into London Bridge is reflected in the impact on services out for people travelling south. One constituent said on 7 January:

“Today the 8am, 8.30 and 9.30 trains were cancelled”

between Brockley and Streatham Hill, with

“no excuses at all so I and my fellow passengers have no idea what the problem was. I really feel it’s just not good enough and I was told today that it’s going to be like this until 2018.”

Another constituent from Penge said:

“We’re only a week or so into the ‘works’ so I guess we need to see how it settles down but it’s apparent at this stage that the train companies, Southern, Southeastern, Thameslink and Overground have not planned adequately for these changes and made additional capacity available.”

That is the point that my hon. Friends the Members for Lewisham East and for Eltham (Clive Efford) were making about the rebuilding of London Bridge.

I speak as someone who started to commute into London Bridge station more than 50 years ago to get to my school at Stamford street, between Waterloo and Blackfriars road, so I know it well from the days of steam, amazingly enough—I am probably alone in the Chamber in remembering that. Even though there were southern electric services at London Bridge, steam trains still ran. It has always been a Cinderella station without the kind of impact of the other stations mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East, but it is a critical one. Those pictures of people walking across London bridge to get to the City are almost invariably of people coming from London Bridge station. It is a vital interchange and artery, but at the moment it is completely and utterly clogged up.

As I said, the problems with Southern trains predate the work that is going on. A constituent who lives a few doors from my constituency office carried out a survey of 19 journeys between 7 June and 1 August last year on services from Forest Hill to London Bridge. Seven of those 19 trains were on time, while the other 12 were between three minutes and 44 minutes late, and that is for a journey that should take only 16 minutes. That has been the standard for quite a long time now.

I am grateful for the passion that Opposition Members are expressing on behalf of their constituents, which I share. Although there have been problems at London Bridge, I am pleased to say that, through the Thameslink programme, regular updates and communications have been received by the train operating companies. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that those companies need to improve their communications during this difficult time?

Indeed I do, but while communications are one thing, people want to rely on performance. If trains are running properly and with enough capacity, they do not need explanations. Communication is needed when things go wrong, and they are going wrong far too often via London Bridge. There is much else that I am tempted to say, but I have gone beyond the time that we agreed, so I will leave it there.

It is a pleasure to have your train-related interventions from the Chair, Mr Hollobone.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) on securing this important debate. I also thank the hon. Members for Eltham (Clive Efford) and for Lewisham West and Penge (Jim Dowd) and my hon. Friends the Members for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) and for Hendon (Dr Offord) for participating. I also thank the participants in the important performance summit we held last week, at which MPs from across the House were able to quiz the Southeastern management team and Network Rail, and air concerns on behalf of their constituents. The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), in whose constituency London Bridge station lies, has written to me with his concerns; he is attending an engagement to mark Holocaust memorial day and apologises for not being here.

As my final bit of preamble, I will say that I really welcome this debate and all interactions I have with hon. Members on the issue. The tone of these discussions is not ideological and we are not debating ownership of the railways; we are trying to work out how to get the best possible service from the current structure and investment. All of us are clear that it is passengers who matter on the railways. We are not moving boxes or units of capacity, but people, who are trying to get to work or get home to see their families. For me, it is vital that their interests are at the heart of this essential improvement work and, indeed, all investments in the railways.

As we all know—the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge alluded to this—we face two problems. One is decades of under-investment in many parts of our network, and in particular, in vital transport infrastructure such as London Bridge station. The other problem, if we can call it that, is the extraordinary growth in passenger numbers right across the country that has happened since privatisation. As the hon. Gentleman will know from his long history of using London Bridge, passengers have faced an almost 200-year-old station, with tangled access tracks and problems getting in and out. It is the poor relation to the other great London terminals, yet has some of the busiest platforms and intersections in Europe.

I think all Members welcome the decision to proceed with such vital investment even when economic times were tough. The £800 million invested at London Bridge, and the wider investment of almost £5 billion across the Thameslink network, will unblock the vital north-south bottleneck for our constituents. That investment will also deliver longer trains to provide more frequent and reliable services across London and the south-east.

The prize for London Bridge, in 2018, will be a world-class station that handles more trains, with 60% more capacity and all platforms accessible from the wonderful concourse we have heard about. I am told that the development is the most complex set of works ever undertaken on an operating station in the UK. In my view, it was the right decision to keep the station open during the works, given that 56 million people use it each year.

With such a mammoth engineering undertaking, some disruption is inevitable, but that disruption must be minimised for passengers, who must be kept in the loop as to what is happening. No one could say that either aim has been achieved for London Bridge users in the past few weeks, so what is happening? As we heard last week, there are some long-term service changes that were well known and, to pick up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, reasonably well publicised. Thameslink services are being diverted and Southeastern services to Charing Cross will run through until August 2016. When the Charing Cross services resume calling at London Bridge, the Cannon Street services will stop calling until 2018.

During those planned changes, everything has to be done to ensure that passengers know about the changes for their destinations. One part of that is to ensure that passengers can use their tickets on alternative routes. I am pleased that we have negotiated a £25 million deal with Transport for London to enable that. The hon. Member for Lewisham East made the sensible suggestion of running more express buses to try to offer a joined-up solution to serve passengers. I will certainly discuss that idea with TfL.

Another element it is vital to address is crowding at stations and on trains. I am aware that, as the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge said, there has been dangerous overcrowding on platforms 1 and 2 at London Bridge. That is being addressed right now. Southeastern and Network Rail are freeing up space for passengers, trying to move them more dynamically along the platforms and providing additional “next train” indicators so that people do not lump together in one place before surging at once to get on a train.

At Lewisham station, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Lewisham East, Southeastern and Network Rail are also making changes to mitigate the crowding at peak times as people move between the Cannon Street and Charing Cross services. They are extending public announcement systems along the length of the platforms so that people can hear what is happening, putting up extra passenger information screens and generally trying to help passengers to get the information they need so that they can move smoothly through the station. That work is under way, and it will be complete by February. Additionally, the operators are moving existing retail units and British Transport police accommodation to make more space for passengers, and that work will be complete by July.

The key, however, is for the operator and Network Rail to put in place a timetable that delivers capacity and space when people need them. Since 12 January, a new timetable has been in place across the Southeastern network, and that includes the changes at Charing Cross. The timetable has been designed to maintain journey opportunities. To answer the point from the hon. Member for Eltham, there was planning regarding the likely changes in the timetable, and there were capacity increases for the services being put on to Cannon Street.

What is happening, however, is that passengers are still working out the best way to make their journeys, and the situation is very fluid. We know, anecdotally, that Charing Cross services are quieter than anticipated and that Cannon Street services are very busy. Southeastern says it is operating the maximum number of trains per hour into and out of Cannon Street at peak times, and there is no space for extra services, but it has put in longer trains, providing higher capacity into Cannon Street, with 8,000 additional spaces in the morning peak and 13,000 in the evening peak.

I will find out for the hon. Lady and let her know.

I am told by Southeastern that all its rolling stock is in passenger service—that goes back to the hon. Lady’s point about potential new capacity. Lengthening services into Cannon Street would therefore require a reduction in the number of carriages on other routes—for example, services to Charing Cross or Victoria. That is possible, but I should emphasise that today is the 12th working day since the new timetable started. Every day, passengers are changing their journeys. The operators have asked—I think this is sensible—for a month to review what the passenger flow looks like, so that timetabling and service lengths can, potentially, be amended.

The Minister will have heard at our meeting on Thursday that Southeastern said it had shifted around some of the carriages, taking them from some services and adding them to others. However, my constituents feel—I certainly feel the same as a user of the trains—that those carriages have gone to the longer-haul services, where people pay higher prices for their season tickets. Services from places such as Dartford through places such as Eltham and New Eltham are the ones that have suffered. Those services are not sufficient, and my constituents cannot get on them, particularly when they are going home in the evenings. We need extra carriages; we do not need Southeastern just to shuffle them around.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that I and my officials are in constant contact with the operator, and we are encouraging it to do whatever it needs to with the rolling stock to try to alleviate the crowding that is happening as service patterns change. I would hate to think, if there is excess crowding on shorter journeys, that the management was not fully aware of it and not working actively to alleviate it.

Let me briefly mention the point about new rolling stock. The hon. Member for Lewisham East is right that there is potential in the next couple of years for some rolling stock. I have checked, and about 100 class 377 units provide capacity for approximately an additional 10,000 passengers. She is right that some are already committed to go to other parts of the country—that is the way, as she knows, the cascade system works—but the stock is potentially available to come on to the franchise. We have asked Southeastern to consider all available opportunities to look at this, demonstrate the business case and really push on trying to get the additional capacity. I agree with all hon. Members that that is something we would need to do over the medium term.

This is really the key issue because it is essential, given all the disruption, that there is, if people will pardon the pun, some light at the end of the tunnel in the form of longer trains. What proportion of that Thameslink rolling stock has not been allocated to other parts of the country and is still up for grabs?

I do not know and I am not sure—I will need to check whether the information is commercially confidential—but, like the hon. Lady and other hon. Members present, I share the aspiration to reward commuters. As the hon. Member for Eltham pointed out, today we have the results of the passenger satisfaction survey. Commuters are clearly very unhappy with the services they are getting. These people are going to and from work and paying for season tickets to do so. They expect a better service.

May I touch on the point about fares that the hon. Member for Lewisham East made?

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I want to make this point, because it is important. The hon. Member for Lewisham East will be aware that, until recently, fares on this franchise were rather inflation busting and measures of up to RPI plus 3 plus flex were permitted. That has been scrapped, so now passengers on this franchise, like passengers right across the country, are benefiting from this Government’s decision to freeze fares in real terms—RPI plus zero for last year and this year—and to scrap the flex, which meant that additional fares could also go up by 2%. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady says that that is not enough, but it was a bold decision to take, particularly at a time when family budgets are stretched.

I will make a quick comment, if the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge will allow me, about Southern, because I know it is important for his constituency. Southern’s performance currently is inexcusable, and I will make that point, as I expect other hon. Members to make it, at the performance summit we are holding next week. Network Rail’s infrastructure problems are causing many of the difficulties with the timetable along the line. I expect Network Rail and Southern to sort that out as soon as possible.

Let me make a couple of general points in conclusion. We have to learn lessons, because we are continuing to do this work at London Bridge until 2018. It is vital that whatever went wrong after Christmas—not enough communication and not enough modelling of the platform flows—is addressed, because we will be asking a lot from passengers. Let me put on the record my thanks to passengers for their tolerance at a time of great disruption. We are very aware that we are disrupting people’s lives, but the prize is a much better service and a station that is much more fit for purpose.

I am grateful to the hon. Members in the Chamber and others across the House for ensuring that all parties involved in the reinvention of London Bridge remain really aware of passenger concerns. My officials are in daily contact with Southeastern and Southern. We are all focused on the need to minimise inconvenience and maximise communication to passengers. There are constraints on what we can do, and there are years of work ahead, but I am determined that the unprecedented investment that we are making right across the country will be seen and felt as benefits for passengers as soon as possible.

On the services that will run on the Thameslink route once the work at London Bridge has been completed, can the Minister guarantee that the lines out to south-east London that run through Lewisham and onwards will have extra capacity—longer trains?

I will double-check the timing of that; it is part of the Thameslink programme. It is an addition, as the hon. Lady knows, to bring more rolling stock and longer trains right across the network, but I will check.

This is the point that I wanted to make. The Minister will be aware that Southern has cancelled all the peak-hour evening services from London Bridge to West Croydon and is encouraging people to use Overground instead. Actually, it is encouraging them to go on to Norwood Junction and then go back to the station that they originally wanted to get to. That is now causing severe overcrowding on the Overground service, so will she look into it?

The hon. Gentleman is aware that that is a temporary reduction in the service, designed to let the new timetable, which is more disruptive for Southern operations rather than Southeastern, bed in. The hope is that those services will be restored as soon as possible. I am very aware of the concerns.

Let me put it on the record that all of us realise that many people at London Bridge station are working very hard on a daily basis to deal with the disruption. These are people on the front line—operational staff. We would all like to pass on our thanks to everyone out there who is trying to maximise convenience for passengers.

The debate has come in a few seconds early, so it will be my job to suspend the sitting until half-past 2 this afternoon.

Sitting suspended.