[Carolyn Harris in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Southeastern railway timetable changes.
It is genuinely a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Harris, for the first time, I think. We are here because on 4 August Southeastern sought and got the Government’s permission to cut rail services without consultation. It is cutting two trains from the morning peak in my constituency on the New Eltham and Mottingham line, and three from the Eltham and Kidbrooke line. On the Bexleyheath line, which services Eltham and Kidbrooke, it is cutting three trains out of 15—a 20% cut in the morning peak capacity of trains that go via London Bridge. It is a similar cut in New Eltham and Mottingham, where the number of trains will go from 18 down to 16, but there is the welcome addition of one single train that goes to New Eltham via Blackfriars. Given an average of 10-car trains, the cuts on the Bexleyheath line amount to 3,000 passengers at peak time who have to find spaces on the remaining trains. It is a similar situation on the New Eltham line.
Before the pandemic, we had PiXC—passengers in excess of capacity—on our lines. We campaigned previously for additional trains, particularly off peak, and were successful in getting them. Transport planners do not recognise that our part of south-east London is not served by the London underground and we rely very heavily on train services. The cuts take no account of that fact, nor of the fact that my constituency has a huge new development at Kidbrooke, which has had a considerable effect on the numbers of passengers getting on and off trains at Kidbrooke station.
According to the Office of Rail and Road, there were 890,000 passenger exits and entrances at Kidbrooke station in 2010. That had risen by more than 42% to 1.5 million by 2018. During the pandemic, as we would expect, the number of exits and entrances went down to 429,000 in 2020, but it is already back over 1 million at Kidbrooke station and it is continuing to rise. There were also increases at Eltham station, but on nowhere near the scale of the increases at Kidbrooke station because of that development.
The Kidbrooke development is approaching 7,000 homes, about half of which have been completed. Passenger entrances and exits had already increased by 640,000, as I said, but that was prior to the pandemic. Taking that as a guide, that means we will see a further 1.5 million entrances and exits at that station by the time all the properties are built. The proximity to the train station was used as justification by the developer Berkeley Homes, as well as by the Mayor of London and Transport for London, in respect of the development of 619 homes at Kidbrooke. Was that taken into consideration when the Government approved the cuts to train services?
Back in September 2017 we all thought we had cracked the problem of overcrowding. We all campaigned to get extra trains and longer trains on the line and the Government allowed Southeastern to do that—we were told that we got 68 extra carriages. The then managing director, David Statham, said:
“Longer trains will mean more seats, more space and more comfortable journeys…Southeastern has worked very closely with the Department for Transport and Govia Thameslink Railway to deliver this extra capacity for passengers.”
The press release went on to say that trains to Hayes, Bexleyheath, Woolwich, Sidcup, Bromley South and Grove Park would be lengthened. We were told we were going to get extra capacity, not less. Now we are told there is a need to rationalise services post covid.
A report on Southeastern published in July by the Office of Rail and Road shows that 2018-19 was its busiest year—but then, of course, the pandemic hit us. There were 183.2 million passenger journeys in 2018-19, but the number dropped to 40.2 million in 2019-20. In 2021-22, passenger journeys went up to 97.8 million, which is more than a 50% increase, and they are continuing to rise, so this is hardly the climate in which we should undertake cuts.
The hon. Gentleman is doing a really good job of explaining the figures. In the London Borough of Bexley, a lot of new apartments and houses are being built and there will be increased demand.
Absolutely. 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.
We see a similar pattern in passenger kilometres. Again, the highest number was in 2018-19. That dropped massively in 2020-21, but more than doubled in 2021-22. For planned trains—the trains agreed with Southeastern and Network Rail the night before they run—2018-19 was the busiest year, with 654,389 trains. The number dropped to 527,855 in 2020-21, then still further in 2021-22 to 523,965—that is a 20% drop in planned trains. If we look at the performance figures—bear in mind that the Government’s rationale is that running fewer trains makes the trains more efficient—we do not see the huge improvement in performance that we would expect from running considerably fewer trains, so the Government’s argument that fewer is better is not borne out by the facts.
The rationale is the old chestnut that the all the trains crossing over west of Lewisham create too much congestion, which leads to knock-on effects and delays. That argument was rolled out several years ago when Southeastern wanted to take away the Victoria service from the Bexleyheath line. It was the same story: “It’s all those trains crossing over west of Lewisham.” Back then, I spoke to some rail experts about the problem and they told me that what Network Rail and Southeastern were saying was complete nonsense. There is not a problem with trains crossing over at that point unless there is bad maintenance and a lack of investment in the infrastructure.
We need to be clear about what is happening. In Transport questions recently, the Minister said to me:
“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.”—[Official Report, 24 November 2022; Vol. 723, c. 436.]
First, this is about cost cutting—the Minister has made that clear. There is then this issue of too many trains crossing. It might be fine to say that to people who still have trains, but we are having trains cut. Obviously, our trains cannot cross if they do not exist, so actually what the Minister says is true: the service will improve because the trains are not there. If we follow that logic, we should perhaps just get rid of all the trains; that would solve the problems on our railway.
When I first asked questions about these cuts, I was told that cutting peak-time trains would reduce cancellations and delays. When I pressed further, I was told:
“The number of train services in the new timetable is broadly very similar to the current timetable on both of these routes.”
I pushed a bit further, because that answer denied that there are cuts on the Bexleyheath and Sidcup lines. The idea that the trains will run better becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because nobody can be criticised for a delayed train that does not exist. Given the logic of the solution that running a future railway should be based on cuts to services, I suspect we will be back here again listening to the Minister explain why we need to cut trains further because we still have a problem of poor maintenance and lack of investment in the infrastructure west of Lewisham.
First, the Government tried to avoid admitting they had approved the cuts without consultation; I was told that they would reduce cancellations, which is not what I had asked. Then, the Government said there would be a similar number of trains, when I had asked how many cuts there would be. It has been a shameful attempt by the Government to avoid their responsibility for approving cuts to our services. Admitting now that there are cuts is a welcome step, but that will make everyone else’s trains run on time while we have to endure cuts.
The new timetable has been imposed without listening to our constituents. It is too late to change that and the Government are determined to press ahead. What is the Minister going to do to monitor the situation so we do not go back to overcrowded trains and a poor service after the new timetable is introduced? That is what we endured before and I see nothing in the decision to cut our train services that is going to change it.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Harris; it is the first time for me as well. I am particularly pleased to see my personal and political friend, the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) in his place to respond to the debate.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford), from my neighbouring borough, on securing this important debate and thank him for doing so. He made a powerful case with the facts and figures on passenger numbers. That is very important and he has done a good job and a good service for us in south-east London by raising those figures.
I am grateful for the opportunity to raise such an important issue on behalf of my constituents in Bexleyheath and Crayford. The decisions affect so much and so many people adversely. I am pleased to see present a number of colleagues from both the Conservative and Labour parties, singing from the same hymn sheet. It is important that these issues are considered to be cross-party. We are grateful to participate in the hon. Member for Eltham’s debate.
Bexley is not on either the London underground or Docklands light railway network. Although the Elizabeth line was originally proposed to run through Bexley and hopefully to Ebbsfleet, it now terminates at Abbey Wood in Greenwich, so there are limited viable alternatives to Southeastern rail services for the people of our area to use to get into central London. For example, although it is fewer than 15 miles from my home in Bexleyheath to Westminster, to travel exclusively by bus would probably take two hours, which is just not practical in any day-to-day commute. My constituents are therefore more reliant than most on rail services to travel to central London, whether to commute, to go to health meetings or for social reasons. For hospitals, work and pleasure, they use the railway and they use those services.
I know the hon. Member for Eltham is, like me, a regular commuter, as we often travel on the same train. As such, we know and appreciate constituents’ anger about the services that they pay for and share the view that Southeastern, having a monopoly, is failing its customers. However, rather than talk about the shocking service that we have suffered over many years, and which the hon. Gentleman and I have batted away regularly over the past five or six years at least, I shall focus today on the inconsiderate, unfair and damaging new timetable that Southeastern plans to implement later this month.
The new timetable affects all three of the lines that go through my constituency, as the Bexleyheath, Sidcup and Woolwich lines all go through Bexleyheath and Crayford. My constituency of Bexleyheath and Crayford is currently served badly by those services, and the changes will be a disaster because the service will suffer, as the hon. Member for Eltham said in his excellent speech.
The Bexleyheath line is served by Barnehurst and Bexleyheath stations in my constituency and by Welling station, which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr French) but is used by a number of my constituents. The changes will mean that the line will no longer enjoy off-peak or weekend services to Charing Cross. The services running will be only two trains per hour to Cannon Street and two trains per hour to Victoria.
The Sidcup line, which serves Crayford station in my constituency, will lose the off-peak and weekend services to Cannon Street, with the majority of those services being transferred to Charing Cross, with the result that four trains per hour will go there. The timetable changes mean the loss of our loop line, with the end of the direct service to get on the Elizabeth line at Abbey Wood. That is a disadvantage for commuters who need to go to the Docklands or other places via the excellent Elizabeth line.
The Woolwich line is served by Slade Green station in my constituency and by Erith station, which is used by a lot of my constituents in the Barnehurst and North End wards. The relevant services will go only to Cannon Street at both peak and off-peak times.
The new timetable has met with huge dismay across our borough of Bexley, and indeed throughout other parts of south-east London. My constituents and I are bitterly disappointed by, and rather angry about, the lack of consultation on the dramatic changes that are taking place that will affect rail users and businesses across our south-east region.
Southeastern has explained the reasons why it did not consult, which I do not accept—I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup has been even more robust in that division. I advise Southeastern, and the Minister, that if it consulted on the timetable now, it would be amazed at the overwhelming opposition from people from all sections of the community, of all ages, and from all the travelling public. I remain totally unconvinced about why some of the Cannon Street services at off-peak times and at weekends cannot be substituted on the Bexleyheath line for some Charing Cross services instead.
Southeastern has explained to me—very badly and disappointingly—that the reason for the new timetable is, as the hon. Member for Eltham said, to untangle the crossovers in the line at Lewisham and improve punctuality. I was at meetings with the hon. Gentleman about a previous consultation when that was disproved. I do not accept the views of Southeastern. It has failed to acknowledge the disruption and the added time that journeys will require in order for people to change at London Bridge, which will cause more inconvenience for our constituents when they travel.
The Bexleyheath line has enjoyed direct services to Charing Cross since the Victoria era. A year or two ago, we celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Crayford line, which goes through Sidcup. The new timetable will see the Charing Cross to Bexleyheath line come to an end for off-peak services, with only two trains an hour at peak times, which is totally inadequate for the needs of constituents. Those commuting at that time often face delays that tend to originate from Dartford, at the kick-off, not from the crossover at Lewisham.
The status given to Cannon Street as a major terminus area is absolute nonsense. Cannon Street is a commuter line. It is a ghost area outside the rush hour. Families would not take the train to Cannon Street to go to a Saturday afternoon matinee at the theatre or to an appointment with a doctor or consultant at a London hospital. It is unbelievably crass to suggest that that is fine. Barely anyone wants to travel to Cannon Street for non-work purposes, while Charing Cross is the most popular service for rail users travelling to London from Bexley for both work and leisure. The staff and the ambience at Charing Cross is very good, commensurate with safety and security, and there is a buzz there. I do not think there is that buzz at Cannon Street, even in the rush hour.
Frankly, the changes are inconsiderate, totally unfair and lacking in logic. As I have mentioned, although it is a London borough, Bexley does not have a tube station. The residents therefore want a reliable, good service to get them to their place of work, hospital appointments and social events. We have fought on a bipartisan basis across my borough of Bexley and Greenwich, and also with Lewisham, to say that this is what people want and expect. In other parts of the country, such as on the Essex side of the Thames, the train service is so much better. I can never understand how it is that my personal assistant Perry Taylor can get in much quicker and easier from Billericay than we can from south-east London. We are closer to London than he is, and he is never late—I hope he will not be late tomorrow, at any rate.
The train service available for rail users at London Bridge to get to their destinations is unacceptable. It will also add unnecessary stress and time for passengers. A number of people based at the House of Commons do not work peak times. They are going home, as we are, after 10 o’clock at night, which means that they have to change at London Bridge station. That makes things far worse and they will get home even later. I know we have more user-friendly hours in Parliament than we were used to in the past, but we were still here last night voting at 10 o’clock. The staff have to be here after that. A lot of them work in this property and are on our line down to Dartford.
There are also vulnerable passengers, such as the elderly, those with mobility issues and parents with pushchairs, who have to navigate lifts, escalators and stairs to get on to the main concourse and on to the next line. Whereas, when they come to Charing Cross, they can go straight through to Eltham, Welling, Bexleyheath or wherever, without changing. Once they are on the train, they know they are there until they get to their destination station. Coming home late means more time, more hassle and more stress. 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. That is why I am passionate and cross about the new timetable.
One concern raised by people in Crayford is that they lose the loop around to Abbey Wood. Although that is not devastating, it is certainly disappointing, because people moved to our area in the belief that it meant that they could commute reasonably quickly into London, but that will not happen under these new proposals. A lack of connectivity with the Elizabeth line is a great disappointment, and I ask for that to be looked at again.
Bexley borough generally has poor transport links from north to south. Buses and trains run more from east to west, though buses are impacted by traffic. There is considerably more traffic in Bexley now than there was a decade ago. We have been given no reasonable explanation why the connectivity service should be removed.
I have had many meetings and discussions, as well as written communications, with Ministers present and past from the Department for Transport over the years, as has the hon. Member for Eltham. That includes the current Minister over the past month or two. I have also asked questions in Parliament, raised debates and collaborated with parliamentary neighbours and the leader of Bexley Council on transport issues affecting our borough. Yet we have seen no progress, despite the increasing cost of fares and the frustration for railway users.
We need—we deserve—to see improvements finally, and we thought we were getting there with longer trains, more trains and newer trains. Does the hon. Member for Eltham remember that? We were going to get all those things. Well, they have not materialised. Now we are getting detrimental cuts to our services, just when we are trying to encourage people to go back to the office and other workplaces, and to go to the city and enjoy the recreational facilities in London, which is the greatest city in the world.
I appreciate the time and sympathy that our new Rail Minister has given me and my parliamentary neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup, and colleagues on the Labour Benches. He has listened and we appreciate that very much. However, the new timetable needs to be amended and changed, so that residents in south-east London—not just Bexley but all south-east London boroughs affected—have the benefit of a better service. They need to be consulted. This needs to be thought about again. We are being told that we cannot do anything because this has already been agreed with everybody, even though we did not agree with it and did not even know much about it until quite recently. We need to be consulted on changes for when the next timetables come in, because these new timetables are not fit for purpose.
I will not impose a time limit at the moment, but I will call the Front Benchers to speak from 3.37 pm. I hope colleagues will bear that in mind.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Harris, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) on securing this important debate and on the powerful case he made in opening it.
The deeper that I have dug into Southeastern’s stated rationale for its planned December timetable changes, the more convinced I have become that it simply does not add up. No one denies that we have seen a reduction in passenger numbers on Southeastern services post pandemic. However, given the difficulties inherent in determining levels of permanent demand reduction, not least given the fact that passenger numbers across the country continue to recover steadily, 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.
It is worth bearing in mind that 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 and that despite there being 302 fewer weekday services and 426 fewer weekend services across the network, as well as extremely large gaps between services during peak periods, there will be more than enough space to meet demand.
In the face of significant public anger, Southeastern has offered all manner of additional reasons why these planned timetable changes must be made. We are told by Southeastern representatives that the current timetable has:
“several disbenefits which will only get worse as customers return to the railway.”
That statement not only contains an implicit admission that demand is expected to continue to rise, but the company has also failed to make clear what those disbenefits are.
We are also told that the timetable is needed to deal with:
“the notorious bottleneck at Lewisham”.
However, as several colleagues have already mentioned, once again no specific information about delays caused by conflicting movements at or outside Lewisham station has been presented.
We are also told that Southeastern is an aberration for having metro trains that serve multiple London termini, yet Southern runs services into both Victoria and London Bridge, and Great Northern runs services into King’s Cross and Moorgate, both doing so without issue. We are told that the new timetable was based on feedback from customers and stakeholders, yet there was no engagement campaign with rail user groups and community groups prior to the cackhanded announcement of these changes in late September. Indeed, there has been none since.
It is hard to escape the conclusion, particularly given that the new timetable closely reflects proposals made prior to the pandemic as part of the 2017 Southeastern franchise tendering exercise, that what we are witnessing is the implementation of plans drawn up long before anyone had heard of coronavirus, under the pretext of post-pandemic changes in travel patterns and ultimately being driven by a desire to cut costs.
That would certainly explain why Southeastern sought to evade proper scrutiny about these planned changes by seeking and securing from the Department for Transport a formal derogation against the requirement to undertake a consultation exercise in respect of them.
Responding to that charge, Southeastern has argued that it takes many months to design and consult on a timetable change, and the pace of events meant that it was unable to do so. Yet other train operating companies that are minded to make timetable changes, including South Western Railway and London North Eastern Railway, managed to undertake detailed consultations with their customers despite facing the same pressures.
Despite the concerns raised by colleagues from across south-east London over several months, it is clear that the Government and the operator will plough ahead and introduce the new timetable on Sunday 11 December. That is deeply regrettable, because of the inconvenience that will be caused to all those passengers who will henceforth be forced to take multiple services to reach their intended destinations, but also because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham mentioned, of the risk of severe overcrowding.
The Minister owes it to concerned Southeastern passengers to make clear precisely what will happen if demand does exceed service capacity, as I fear it will, so I would be grateful to him if he could address the following questions. Given that departmental responses to written questions suggest that data on overcrowding on the rail network has been discontinued, how will pressure on Southeastern services be monitored in the weeks and months ahead? Assuming that it is monitored in some open and accessible form, what extent of overcrowding will trigger an internal review of the new timetable’s efficacy?
How serious will matters have to become for services that are to be cut this weekend to be restored, and how quickly can any revisions be made? Indeed, can the Minister confirm that specific revisions to the planned timetable can be made, given that it is premised on significant alterations to termini on various lines? Finally, will the Minister today rule out issuing Southeastern with a further formal derogation and provide a commitment that there will be extensive public consultation ahead of any further timetable changes carried out next year?
It is not enough for the Minister to argue, as he did in response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham at Transport oral questions, that we should all
“just wait and see how matters progress”.—[Official Report, 24 November 2022; Vol. 723, c. 437.]
Concerned passengers in my constituency and many others rightly expect answers from the Government as the operator of last resort, and, most importantly, an indication that Ministers will move quickly to amend this new timetable if it proves as damaging as we all fear.
Thank you for chairing, Ms Harris, and I thank the hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) for securing this important debate. Although we often differ in our views, when it comes to Southeastern trains we share frustrations over the timetable changes that will come into force next week. On my first anniversary of being sworn into Parliament, local residents will not be surprised to see me standing up and fighting against Southeastern for them again today.
The issue of no consultation has been mentioned by several colleagues. The new Minister is already aware of how frustrated MPs and members of the public are over not being informed of the timetable changes by Southeastern until it was too late. In recent weeks, people in Bexley have experienced two transport shocks. First, Southeastern pushed through these changes under the guise that they are demand based, when they clearly go much further. Secondly, the Mayor of London ignored the wishes of the clear majority of Londoners who rejected his outrageous ULEZ—ultra low emission zone—tax raid on drivers in outer London. We have had no consultation on the trains, and a sham consultation by the Mayor. That helps explain my anger and that of local residents across Bexley.
The Minister and many Members here will be aware that, since Southeastern’s announcement in late September, I have been running a constituent survey on the timetable changes. The thousands of responses to the survey highlight that the most impactful changes are the reduction in Albany Park station services in my constituency, the loss of off-peak Charing Cross services on the Bexleyheath line—we have heard about that from colleagues already—and the loss of the loop service on the Sidcup line, which I will talk about in turn.
I echo the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Sir David Evennett) on the loss of off-peak Charing Cross services and the impact on passengers travelling to the west end for leisure and work. As someone who commuted to the City for more than a decade from the likes of Welling and Sidcup train stations, I can confirm that Cannon Street services at those times are of minimal benefit to local residents and will force thousands of passengers to change trains at London Bridge. That is of particular concern, given the impact on the more vulnerable residents in our communities and the general increase in travel times that they will experience. I hope that the Minister will at least explain what support Southeastern is putting in place in the short term to help passengers forced to change at London Bridge station.
The extent of the changes in the new timetable are arguably best reflected by the drastic, near 50% reduction in Albany Park services. Peak services have been reduced from seven trains per hour to four, and off-peak services from four trains per hour to two. That reduction has not only led to concerns about overcrowding and long waits in the event of cancellation, but resulted in the loss of direct services to Lewisham station, which is used by commuters from Albany Park to the DLR and Canary Wharf. I visited that station during my campaign against the timetable changes and I saw at first hand how busy it is, particularly during peak times on Tuesday to Thursday. I remain concerned that that is not fully accounted for in the passenger numbers.
I raised those concerns with the Minister and at our latest meeting with Southeastern, with my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford. I am grateful for Southeastern’s commitment to look at the live train-loading data for that station daily, and for the fact that it has since visited Albany Park station to reassess passenger numbers. I again request, through the Minister, that it provides the latest peak-time passenger numbers and capacity for the station, especially for Tuesday to Thursday. Furthermore, I would be grateful if the Minister can use his position to ask Southeastern again why there has been such a significant reduction in trains stopping at Albany Park station. Will he seek assurance about the future of the station, which is frequently used by commuters in a residential area with few alternative transport connections? There have been some silly rumours floating around locally that the station is closing. I hope the Minister will put them to bed by confirming that there are no plans to close it.
At all meetings, I have expressed my considerable disappointment at the loss of the loop service on the Sidcup line, which is used by many constituents, including to connect to the Elizabeth line and for Charlton Athletic fixtures. It is also used by children and parents travelling to school. Again, I am concerned about the data that Southeastern used to inform that decision. The time period used to capture passenger numbers does not incorporate the increase in passengers on the service since the Elizabeth line was opened. It would be a shame for residents to lose that connecting service, especially given the four-year delay and the billions it has cost taxpayers and businesses in our area. I again urge Southeastern to provide more services to Abbey Wood on the Sidcup line, especially off peak and at weekends.
As Members have said, Southeastern has consistently stated that the timetable changes have been demand-led, and that their purpose is to reduce crossovers in Lewisham, thereby improving reliability and reducing delays. I fundamentally disagree with that reasoning, especially given the consistent increase in passenger numbers since the pandemic and the £250 million investment in junction works at Lewisham over the past couple of years. Those engineering works, which have often required full and partial line closures, have been to improve track, signalling and capacity at Lewisham to meet demand “for decades ahead”. I am frustrated that my constituents have been negatively affected by regular disruption caused by union strikes and the works, which includes a planned nine-day full closure of the Bexleyheath line later this month, only a couple of weeks after the timetable changes.
My constituents have tolerated that major disruption to their journeys over the past couple of years on the basis that the works are
“to meet the demands of the railway today.”
That is a real kick in the teeth, because they are now losing a substantial number of services and the choice of termini to reduce crossovers at Lewisham—the very issue the works were said to address. I hope the Minister will address that issue, because that could be a massive waste of taxpayers’ money. It should be a good thing for the area, not a bad thing.
I emphasise again my disappointment and outrage at the lack of consultation for such drastic changes, which will have a detrimental impact on my constituents and their ability to travel for work, school and leisure. Given that Bexley does not benefit from direct access to the underground, rail services are the principal means of transport into and out of London, as well as for travelling to other areas in the south-east. It is therefore vital that the frequency and links to a range of central London stations are preserved. I continue to call for urgent concessions and reversals to many of the changes, particularly ahead of the new timetable in May.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship for the first time, Ms Harris. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) on securing this important debate and on his speech. He has made many key points with which I wholeheartedly agree.
Like many colleagues, I have worked closely with local transport users during my time as an MP, and I am here today to share the concerns of constituents who have contacted me following the publication of the amended timetable. As we have heard from many Members, it is fair to say that there has been widespread anger with the Department for Transport for allowing Southeastern to press ahead with the changes without consulting its passengers.
Although I can appreciate the removal of the requirement during the pandemic so that operators could bring in changes more quickly, most Members would agree that we are now at a point at which passenger numbers have restabilised. In response to a written question from my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh), the Department stated:
“There will be less than 1% fewer typical weekday passenger services across the…network compared to the current timetable.”
Well, I can tell the Chamber that users of St Johns station in my constituency are expecting to lose 19 services per day thanks to the rerouting of the Hayes line’s trains to Charing Cross.
I have received representations from two very active local organisations: St John’s Society and Brookmill Road Conservation Area Society, as well as from individual constituents. St Johns has had its services reduced in recent years, and the walk to nearby stations—New Cross and Lewisham—is long and uphill for many, causing difficulties for disabled people and those with young children.
Lewisham in particular suffers, as has been mentioned by many colleagues, with overcrowding at peak times and a woefully inaccessible station. The situation will only get worse as further large residential developments are completed in Lewisham, as Members have referenced in relation to their own constituencies. When the remaining peak-time trains reach St Johns—the next stop on the line—they might be too full for passengers to be able to join them. There are environmental considerations, too, if people are forced to use their car when previously they would have opted to travel by train.
Similarly, users at Blackheath station in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby), just over the border from my constituency, have been hit with the news that there will be no direct services to London Charing Cross during off-peak hours, and many peak trains will also be cut.
I will conclude my comments. While the overall number of services might not be significantly reduced, that 1% figure in no way reflects the impact that the changes will have on individual stations and communities.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Harris. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) for securing such an essential and necessary debate. I share many of the concerns that have been expressed by other Members and hon. Friends.
The changes will be implemented in just five days’ time. They have been very controversial, to say the least. South London has always been seen as the poor relation to north London in terms of transport connectivity. In Lewisham East, we do not have the Elizabeth line, the docklands light railway, the Jubilee line and so on. We rely on rail services to travel. They are essential. The changes reduce connectivity in areas south of the River Thames. That means that for users of Blackheath station the number of direct trains to Charing Cross is dramatically reduced. In fact, there will be no direct trains to Charing Cross during off-peak times.
The new timetable clearly creates problems, not solutions, for many of my constituents. I will share with the Chamber two significant quotes from constituents. One said:
“Changing at London Bridge will be difficult for me as a registered blind person with severe arthritis. I avoid changing trains as a rule. The changes will make any trips to Charing Cross or Waterloo significantly harder and more time-consuming for me. I will probably stop going into London unless I have to”.
Another constituent said:
“My elderly neighbours rely on the service to Charing Cross for entertainment and for connecting trains to Kings Cross. They have told me that the change at London Bridge is so stressful that they will probably stop taking the train altogether. They are aged 91 and 85 years old and the escalators and lifts at the New London Bridge present too much of an obstacle for them.”
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. It seems that the former is being achieved. 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. I am concerned about commuters’ ability to get to work on time and about the timetable making it harder for Londoners to use public transport during the climate crisis, as already mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft).
Blackheath councillors and I started a petition as soon as we heard about the proposed changes and cuts to the trains, to call for the reversal of the timetable. It was signed by hundreds of local people. Last week, the petition was handed in at Southeastern headquarters. What has angered many residents is the fact that local people have not had the chance to be consulted on the changes. It is outrageous that the Government have allowed Southeastern to implement the changes without a consultation, which is entirely unacceptable.
My Blackheath constituents have written to me endlessly on this matter. They need to be heard. That is why I did a survey asking for their views on the timetable. Of the 1,151 households who responded, 98% said that Southeastern should not go ahead with the timetable. Some 96% said that the timetable changes will make their journeys more difficult. When asked what concerned them most about the timetable changes, the top three answers were: the safety of vulnerable people, including young women and those with disabilities, travelling back from central London; the fact that the timetable would make them change their commuting journey; and increased crowding on trains for those using Blackheath station. Lastly, when we asked whether Southeastern should have consulted on the changes, 96% of respondents agreed. I also agree, and I encourage the Government to ask Southeastern to press the pause button on the plans. Will the Minister tell us that all future significant train cuts to services will be met with transparency and consultation?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Harris, I believe for the first time. I want to begin by congratulating my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford), for securing this important debate. He outlined in a very detailed way how commuters will be impacted negatively. I want to raise a number of reasons why the Southeastern time changes are problematic for my constituents. The main problem, obviously, is the cuts to the timetable. The timetable changes are problematic. There has been no consultation and little engagement with service users, and we need a commitment from the Government on future plans.
As colleagues have mentioned, there will be reduced frequency of services and destinations. We all know that the changes were announced on 28 September, following a formal derogation issued to Southeastern by the Department for Transport on 5 August. That means that there will be no direct line to Charing Cross or Waterloo from my stations of Abbey Wood Belvedere and Erith. There will also be a reduced frequency of trains to London Bridge. Some constituents of mine use the neighbouring stations of Barnehurst, Bexley, Plumstead and Slade Green.
The data used by Southeastern was collected during the pandemic and the immediate post-pandemic period, which were periods of big changes in commuting and leisure patterns that are not reflective of long-term trends. As colleagues have mentioned, Southeastern trains are very busy and are often delayed, so reducing the number of trains would definitely reduce the service quality. The Elizabeth line only connects to the constituency at Abbey Wood and goes to different destinations from those of some Southeastern trains. I also want to point out that the equality impact assessment of the disproportionate impact that the cuts will have on people, which was published two weeks ago, was not released in a timely manner.
There has been a lack of consultation, as colleagues have mentioned. Rail operators are normally required to consult on timetable changes, but the Department for Transport gave Southeastern a derogation from this requirement and was not transparent about its involvement —that had to be teased out through a written question. The contract between Southeastern and the Department for Transport explicitly says that material alterations of the timetable require a consultation exercise. The Department for Transport says that the lack of consultation is due to the pandemic, uncertainty and the fact that Southeastern is a new operator, but that is simply not good enough. Other rail operators, such as the London North Eastern Railway and South Western Railway, managed to hold consultations for their 2022 timetable changes.
The right hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), a previous Secretary of State, said he would rebuild trust in Southeastern Railway, but he did the opposite. The changes were not shared with MPs prior to their announcement, and we MPs are elected representatives who can help provide input on our constituents’ views and share information with them. A number of us have received really angry emails from constituents demanding to know what is going on, and we have been on the back foot when trying to update them on the changes. That has been really difficult.
I am grateful to the current Secretary of State for accepting my request to have a meeting and share more information, but it would have been great if we had had the information much earlier, because the changes have not been widely advertised. Southeastern has started a leafleting campaign, but only in some parts of my constituency—for example, leafleting has been done on one occasion in Erith, on one occasion at Belvedere station, and on two occasions at Abbey Wood station, which is where the Elizabeth line starts. Many people do not know about the changes, and if they go ahead on Sunday, I am really worried that a number of our constituents are not prepared. We will face a flood of emails from angry constituents, who will want to know what has happened.
Southeastern has said:
“The timetable is the next iteration of our service following the pandemic, and we will be taking feedback on board for future timetable changes as we build on this base and can add more trains as customer travel habits change”.
It is not clear how the company will do that unless it commits to a formal consultation. It would be helpful if the Minister would commit to something like that today.
I thought it would be helpful to share some of my constituents’ stories, to show the strong feelings about what is going on in our constituencies. Constituents have expressed their surprise and frustration at the new timetable, which has yet to be fully communicated across Erith and Thamesmead. Many have expressed frustration that they will now have to change at London Bridge to get to central London. Older constituents, people with young children and disabled people are particularly worried, as we all know that changing at London Bridge is not easy and involves walking all the way through the station. Direct services to Waterloo are essential for older and disabled people, who will be travelling to appointments at St Thomas’s Hospital. I fear that cancelling direct services will only further reduce Southeastern’s revenue, as customers choose not to opt for a journey involving multiple changes, and I think that we will see more constituents using cars. We already have a lot of people using cars in our area, particularly on the Bexley side, because it is difficult to travel around.
I have also been contacted by constituents who are concerned about the cancellation of the loop line. 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. The changes will affect a lot of shift workers and key workers who need to get to work really early or who work late, as one of my colleagues mentioned.
My constituency covers more than Abbey Wood, which is served by the Elizabeth line—for example, passengers using Erith and Belvedere stations will struggle. There is no Thameslink service either; it passes through, but does not stop in my constituency. The loss of the direct Southeastern services will be severe, as there is no train station in Thamesmead.
I want to highlight strongly the fact that there has been a huge lack of transport investment in south-east London over the years, and I am concerned that these changes will just make things even more difficult for our constituents. In my constituency, there are calls for Crossrail to be extended to Ebbsfleet and for the Thames Clippers and the DLR to extend to Thamesmead. It would be helpful if the Minister gave assurances today that he will commit to mitigation funding for DFT in my constituency and neighbouring constituencies to ensure that no one is left behind.
The new timetable is due to be put in place this Sunday, 11 December. Can the Minister set out how it will be reviewed and what measures the Government have in place to revise the timetable if it is to go ahead?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Harris. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) on bringing forward this important debate so that we can address Southeastern railway’s timetable changes, which will be implemented on 11 December.
Whether it is the north, with the likes of Avanti and TransPennine Express, or the south, as has been eloquently expressed by right hon. and hon. Members across the House, this Government are presiding over rail chaos and catastrophe. Cuts to services, increasing rail fares and empty promises—this summarises the Government’s record on rail for the past 12 years. The proposed timetable changes announced by Southeastern show that this record is not set to change any time soon.
Southeastern’s proposed timetable changes will see 302 fewer trains running on a typical weekday and even more trains cut from the weekend timetable, meaning that people travelling from Greenwich will be left with just four trains per hour and made to wait up to 23 minutes. Given that passenger numbers are consistently reaching 90% of pre-pandemic levels, and given that the Government have decided to discontinue collecting data on the overcrowding of rail networks, as eloquently highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook), can the Minister advise how he will ensure that these packed services do not become even more overcrowded?
Who, indeed, is going to address the anger? What was palpable from the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft) was the feeling of widespread anger. How will that be addressed? My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) also highlighted the problems that will now be faced by elderly and disabled passengers, along with the safety of vulnerable people, and I hope that the Minister will address those concerns.
My hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare) highlighted the loss of trust among the public, the emails from angry constituents and the car-led recovery that none of us wants. I hope that all those factors will be addressed by the Minister. While Southeastern has tried to justify the timetable changes as an attempt to reduce the pressure on junctions, there has clearly been little consideration of the pressure that the reduced services will place on our roads.
I have a great deal of respect for the Minister. He will know that our public transport network is integral to Britain’s efforts to tackle the climate crisis and meeting net zero, yet the Government’s priorities sadly appear to be cutting services, not emissions. This, alongside ever-soaring fares and the Government’s inability to guarantee a reliable train service, will inevitably force passengers to consider less sustainable travel alternatives. Can the Minister advise whether he has considered the wider environmental impact that Southeastern’s proposed timetable changes will have?
The Government’s failures are a reflection of their inability to manage our rail network on a much larger scale. The Minister himself has spoken of the need to instil
“confidence in our railways”.
The reality is that the Government’s management of our rail networks has done the exact opposite, throwing rail services across our country into complete and utter chaos. In one day, almost 40 services were cancelled by TransPennine Express alone, while Avanti has had the fewest trains on time and has had more complaints than any other operator. However, it was still awarded a contract extension. Let us not forget that the Government have continually failed to engage in productive discussions to resolve the ongoing Tory rail strikes, preferring instead to pay the same amount of taxpayer money to the train operators, regardless of whether services are running.
The Government are showing time and again that they are unable to deliver the rail service that the British public want, need and deserve. What is worse is that the passengers who are suffering due to those failings have had no say whatsoever in this Conservative-created chaos. As has been the case with many of the Government’s decisions over the past few months, the proposed cuts to Southeastern services have been decided without any public consultation as has been expressed by Members from throughout the House. As my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham noted, the Government seem to have adopted the role of Fat Controller with little regard for how the changes will have real implications for the 400,000 passengers who rely on the operator’s services to get to work, make appointments and visit family members. I am not saying that the Minister is the Fat Controller; I am merely saying that this is emblematic of the wider approach.
Passengers who use the popular Woolwich line to Charing Cross, for example, now find that regular service completely scrapped. That puts further pressure on other already overcrowded stations and services with no thought, it seems, for the consequences that will have for passengers with accessibility needs or those who want to maintain a safe and quick way to travel back from London’s west end late at night, as the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr French) eloquently highlighted. The excuse for that cut has been the opening of the Elizabeth line. However, it is not clear to me why that line, which was intended to enhance our transport network and runs largely north of the Thames, has resulted in the stoppage of services that run almost exclusively to the south.
The lack of public consultation for such significant timetable changes has not gone unnoticed across the House, including by those in the Minister’s party, with many of his Back Benchers citing the value of consulting with local communities. Indeed, the right hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Sir David Evennett) forcefully highlighted that everybody is singing from the same hymn sheet about how the changes fail customers and will be a complete disaster. Given that everyone agrees that the lack of public input is entirely unacceptable, will the Minister advise why Southeastern was granted the derogation back in August and confirm whether Ministers intend to grant any further operators derogation from consultation? This debate will be listened to not just by Members representing constituencies in the south-east; the wider point will be very closely listened to by others across our country.
This debacle is the most recent in a catalogue of failures from Southeastern. If the Minister is serious about restoring confidence in our railways, the Government need to begin by listening to those most affected by the proposed timetable changes and committing to providing the investment necessary to see real improvements to our services, rather than overseeing the managed decline of our railways that we have sadly come to expect from them. Those who rely on Southeastern rail services deserve a network that works for them. My final question is simple: when can those passengers expect to get one?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Harris. I thank the hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) for securing this important debate on Southeastern’s rail timetable changes, and I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken. I have always been a south-eastern MP. Over the past seven years, I have shared debates with many Members or their predecessors in Westminster Hall, the main Chamber and, indeed, meetings on Southeastern. I declare that as an interest, but I have always enjoyed working with south-eastern MPs.
I will do my best to cover the rationale for these changes and to explain the positives and negatives. I will explain the positive changes, although sadly there are no Members present from the constituencies where those changes will take place. I will certainly talk more about the consultation—or lack of one, as Members have pointed out. I will write to all Members who have contributed, so if I have not answered their points directly, I will ensure that we do so via correspondence.
I have met many Members, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Sir David Evennett), and they have made their points with force. I appreciate what they said because I empathise with colleagues and their constituents who believe that the changes will negatively impact them. With any timetable change, some will feel that they are losing out. There is ultimately no way of making changes that will please everyone who uses the railway, but the changes are necessary, and I hope to highlight some of the reasons behind it.
The changes are driven by our current financial and travel habit situation. Travel habits have changed and there is a need to make our railways more financially sustainable, as well as improving their reliability. That has been the starting point. Within that framework, the team has worked hard to ensure that we will build a more resilient and reliable timetable through the process; again, I will talk more about that. The benefits of resilience and reliability will be there for all who use Southeastern, and we must look at the network as a whole. We must acknowledge that the pandemic has caused changes in travel habits, with many people who can adopting a hybrid approach, working from home some days of the week and/or travelling at different times of the day to avoid peak times. The new timetable needs to reflect that.
The changes in travel habits, alongside the successful introduction of Elizabeth line services, mean that all-day weekday demand on Southeastern services is around 70% of pre-covid levels. That figure drops to between 50% and 65% during peak periods. Demand simply does not warrant 2019 levels of service provision. 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, so the Department has asked all operators, not just Southeastern, to develop timetables that are appropriate to customer demand and that deliver good value for the taxpayer while prioritising the punctual services that customers rightly demand.
Will the Minister give way?
Can I go on a little further? I will touch on the three key reasons why Southeastern has changed its timetable and then I will give way. The first reason is efficiency and the post-covid rail situation. The timetable reduces train mileage to better match capacity to demand and changes the underlying structure to improve efficiency. At a time of unprecedented pressure on Government finances, this will save significant taxpayer subsidy and is essential to enable Southeastern to meet its spending review budgets. Southeastern is taking the opportunity to remove first-class seats from its mainline services, freeing up almost 4 million extra seats for all each year. That creates capacity without adding cost.
The second reason is punctuality and reliability, which are the No. 1 drivers of customer satisfaction as measured by Transport Focus. Today’s timetable includes many crossing moves at key junctions that have a damaging impact on performance. Furthermore, at times of service disruption, the current timetable leads to the spread of delays to other routes and makes it much harder to recover the service. By deconflicting key junctions and changing the base structure, the new timetable is estimated to deliver a 12% reduction in cancellations and a 3% improvement in on-time station stops across the whole Southeastern network services. That is 300,000 more on-time station stops ever year. I want to make clear that reducing the number of London terminals directly served on some routes, which have been touched on today, will dramatically reduce the number of trains having to make complicated crossing moves at Lewisham, a notorious bottleneck. That will significantly improve performance for everyone using Southeastern.
I will turn to the third part of the rationale, which is flexibility. The change provides a simpler, cleaner, basic structure from which services can be altered far more easily and efficiently. Should demand patterns change in the way that we all want them to, services can more easily be scaled up—or down, if that is not the case—subject to available funding, of course.
The Minister gave figures for the reduction in demand. According to the ORR report I have in front of me, the peak of 183.2 million passenger journeys was in 2018-19. That is back up to 97.8 million, which is well over 50%. That is not the 65% reduction that I think he quoted. It is similar with the passenger kilometres, which are at 2,543 million, which is way over 50% of where we were at the highest point. What is happening is that rail services are recovering after covid, as we would expect. It is too early to make these decisions.
I am happy to send our statistic base to the hon. Gentleman and others who have contributed to the debate, so that we can agree on our starting point. The ORR report also demonstrates that passenger contributions through the fare box were more than £12 billion during pre-covid time, and we have got back to only £6 billion. That in itself demonstrates that we do not have the same patronage across our services. He will know that commuting has been the worst hit, because commuters can work differently. I am confident that my evidence base will stack up for this, but I will exchange it with him and other to ensure that is the case. I am about to come to consultation, but I will take an intervention.
I want to probe the Minister a little further on levels of demand. Southeastern approached the Department for the derogation on 22 June, so were using demand data from that time. Will the Minister give us a sense of what the Department thinks is the permanent level of demand reduction? Or does he accept that passenger numbers are steadily recovering, which may require the timetable to shift again very quickly?
Again, we will come back to that. The point I would bring back is that during the peak times we have largely been talking about, the 70% of pre-covid level figure drops to 50% to 65% during those peak periods. We are arguing about different parts of the service at different times. That is why I want to write, to explain exactly where my base is. Members can write back and say that they have a different base.
There have been a lot of points about transparency. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members who have met me know that I have an absolute desire to ensure that all the facts that I have are all the facts that right hon. and hon. Members will have—[Interruption.] I will take one more intervention; why not?
I totally agree that the Minister has been helpful and transparent. We are very grateful for the meetings that we have had. My concern is that if there is no train service on the Bexleyheath line to Charing Cross at weekends, the passenger numbers will fall. Therefore, it is a flawed argument. I hear what has been said about the peak period, but I am also concerned about the weekends. We have already heard about the disadvantage for certain members of our communities who will not go up to London. It could be that Southeastern loses a lot more passengers and revenue at the weekends.
My right hon. Friend makes a good point. This is the challenging balance for Government and train operators. The cloth has to be cut accordingly. If I look at my Southeastern service, I am now down to an hourly service, without the benefit of going up to Cannon Street but having to change at London Bridge, in the same way that Members are about to experience with their constituents.
I recognise the danger that, in order to grow the railway, it is necessary to demonstrate a positive experience. We do not want to get to a situation where the railway service looks like the bus service. At the same time, there has been time taken post pandemic to assess how passenger numbers have been performing and they have not performed with the level of uptick that we need to give us an indication that people will not change their work habits—they are not going to return to the office five days a week. That is why difficult decisions have had to be made, but my right hon. Friend makes a very good point and it will be taken into account.
On consultation, there has been a need to recast the Southeastern timetable for many years. The last recast was over a decade ago, when Southeastern’s highspeed services were introduced. Even before the pandemic, the timetable no longer matched demands and had inherent efficiency and structural performance issues. As has been pointed out, Southeastern has changed its timetable 15 times since March 2020. Coming out of the pandemic, the industry has had to continue to work at pace to provide rail timetables that meet the new travel patterns and carefully balance cost, capacity and performance.
Operators have had to move at speed to address changes in demand and deliver cost-efficient timetables. That means that traditional public consultation has not always been possible. It takes many months to design and consult on a timetable, and it would have been challenging for Southeastern to conduct a meaningful consultation without time to change the timetable based on the feedback it received. That ultimately means money spent on running an inefficient timetable for longer, costing the taxpayer money. Ministers at the time thought that this was unacceptable, and, as a result, agreed to allow operators to implement demand-led timetables through 2020 without consulting formally.
Going forward, fiscal pressures may mean that other relatively short-notice timetable changes need to happen. However, there are lessons to be learnt from this timetable change on engagement and information sharing with stakeholders, even if timescales are compressed. I say to all right hon. and hon. Members present that I will ensure that if changes need to be made there will be transparency and engagement with Members of Parliament and other stakeholders at the earliest opportunity. It may not be possible to do a full 16-week consultation, but I will ensure that the starting point is with Members in this place. That is what I would expect, and I give them that assurance.
While I am giving assurances, I was also asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr French) for an assurance that there are no plans in place to close Albany Park station: there are no plans in place to close Albany Park station.
There has been quite a lot of talk about Lewisham station, which is in my constituency. I can assure the Minister that Lewisham station is absolutely rammed at times, and there have been humungous safety concerns around it and the rerouting of passengers. We have had many new developments going up in the area. In the spirit of the Minister wanting to do consultations, would he like to come and meet me and Lewisham station’s user group—who are very expert in the rail network and Lewisham station—to hear their views on what might happen as we proceed?
I have always enjoyed spending time with the hon. Member—if that does not damage her electoral chances—so I would be very happy to meet her and the user group. I will put out another offer at the end of my speech.
Since the publication of the timetable in September there has been a mixed reaction from stakeholders. Many are pleased by the delivery of long-held ambitions on their routes, but others, such as those on the Bexleyheath and Sidcup line, are concerned about the loss of direct services to either Cannon Street or Charing Cross stations at off-peak times. All passengers affected by losing direct services can change at London Bridge to access high-frequency services to either station at no extra cost, and without having to use the tube. I see the hon. Member for Eltham shaking his head—that is a change I do on a regular basis, and I know what it takes. I will explain why it is not the poor experience that some may think it to be.
London Bridge is 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. The station is well lit, is sheltered and has full CCTV coverage. Southeastern has completed an equalities impact assessment and has made further improvements, which include the increased provision of dedicated mobile assistance staff, on-site lift engineers to ensure that all platforms remain accessible and on-site paramedics for any emergencies.
I turn to some of the benefits that Members who are not here might receive from the timetable change.
In conversation, many of my residents raised concerns about their daughters working up town quite late. The parents and the young women like the reassurance that they can get on the train at one end and be taken straight to their destination at the other, rather than having to change at London Bridge—no matter how lovely that station may be.
That experience involves getting off the platform, taking the lift—while staying within the station, not going all the way through the station—and then going back up the lift to another platform that can be seen directly. It is a change that I see many do daily. I recognise that it is not ideal, and we would rather that it did not occur, but it is a safe, well-designed and modern station environment. I hope that that reassurance can be given to those who may be concerned.
Let me turn to the benefits. As with any timetable change, there are trade-offs. Inevitably, those who feel that they are losing out are making their voices heard. However, as well as the improved performance, which we believe will benefit everyone, the changes deliver a wide range of other benefits. In the metro area, passengers will benefit from the reintroduction of peak Beckenham Junction to Blackfriars services, and all metro services on the Herne Hill line will be extended to Orpington, which will benefit Bickley and Petts Wood. Bexleyheath line customers will enjoy an uplift to four trains per hour on a Sunday from the current two per hour. Passengers on that line will also have off-peak connections to London overground via New Cross for the first time.
The Sidcup line will receive a new peak service to Blackfriars via Denmark Hill, and Swanley will gain an all-day fast service via London Bridge. Woolwich line passengers will benefit from the new Elizabeth line offering 10 trains per hour from Abbey Wood at peak times, and eight for the rest of the day, as well as extra services on the DLR from both Woolwich and Greenwich. On the main line, the December 2022 timetable will deliver the long-awaited service from Maidstone East to the City of London in under an hour. Tunbridge Wells and Hastings services will see journey time improvements in the morning peak, and there will be new peak services between Cannon Street and Tonbridge. Finally, local services in Kent will see a service doubling of one to two trains per hour between Strood and Paddock Wood, which will improve connectivity on that corridor.
To conclude, I appreciate the concerns raised by some Members. We should bear in mind that the timetable changes will undoubtedly be affected by the planned industrial action. When we can evaluate, we will. There will be transparency. We will reflect and act accordingly. As part of that process, I can perhaps visit more services and stations. I have already given one offer, across the Chamber, to the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft). Perhaps I can also offer to visit my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup and my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford. I am keen to find out how the changes are bedding in. I ask all right hon. and hon. Members to allow the changes to bed in and see whether they work.
I am grateful to colleagues who have supported the debate, and they all made very strong cases against the changes. Many used their constituents as examples, and I am no exception: I was contacted today by the mother of an autistic son who is not looking forward to having to change with her son at London Bridge. It is a small matter, but it is an example of huge changes to people’s lives and journeys. People coming back from the west end via Charing Cross, late at night, will have to change at London Bridge. Thousands of people will be regularly inconvenienced.
Members mentioned elderly people using their freedom passes after 9.30 am. They will be inconvenienced because they cannot go to Charing Cross, which is the favoured destination. We need to know how the Minister will measure capacity. All our constituents suffered from the disruption caused by the refurbishment of London Bridge. 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.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Southeastern railway timetable changes.