Featured in the Future Transport London Newsletter January 2023
Government-owned Southeastern Railway unilaterally imposed new, reduced timetables on and from 11th December, having consulted neither elected representatives nor rail user groups, let alone its passengers. Outrage at the plans led local MPs of both main parties to hold a Parliamentary debate on 6th December https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/2022-12-06/debates/11B2B2CD-2C65-46D7-8EF1-4A2EAEB3F6B7/SoutheasternRailwayTimetableChanges
Southeastern have given several reasons for now running 302 fewer weekday trains and 426 fewer at the weekend, compared with September 2019 services. Those reasons don’t bear scrutiny: they state that the opening of the Elizabeth line has reduced demand for their services. No doubt some former Southeastern (and Thameslink) passengers going to/from Woolwich Arsenal and Abbey Wood have switched to the Elizabeth Line. However, Southeastern serves 178 other stations. Its services were being used to/from some of them to connect with the Elizabeth Line but those connecting services have now been cut! The new timetables are, apparently, based on six-month-old demand figures, predating significant post-pandemic resumption of demand. The first phase of the Elizabeth Line only opened on 24th May: long term demand changes could not have been established six months ago.
One of the purposes of a timetable is to make the best use of scarce resources and avoid running empty trains on some routes/at some times of the day/week while other trains are overcrowded. So, where demand patterns have changed long term, it is reasonable to adjust the timetable.
However, a great number of Southeastern stations served via Lewisham have now lost most of their direct services: either to/from Charing Cross and Waterloo East or to/from Cannon Street. This has nothing at all to do with changes in demand and many passengers are now being forced to change additionally at Lewisham or London Bridge, with journey times extended accordingly. This goes against the stated objective to ‘grow rail usage’.
There are also concerns about the capacity of Lewisham station to accommodate a sizeable increase in interchange numbers. Moreover, for months, local PA announcements have been stating that ‘some of the lifts at Lewisham are out of service’ which made it problematic for mobility-impaired passengers using Lewisham.
Southeastern tried desperately to make a virtue of changing at London Bridge:
‘We will be making the interchange at London Bridge as seamless and accessible as we can. London Bridge Station is safe, gated, well-lit and weatherproof, with CCTV, customer help points, 17 defibrillators (one on every platform), free Wi-Fi and extra staff on hand to help with assisted travel. The British Transport Police and London Ambulance Service also have a presence at the station. The £1bn redevelopment of London Bridge has provided step free access to all platforms and easier connections to other rail services and the Tube.’
Although many aspects of the rebuilding of London Bridge station were welcome, the new platforms are a significantly longer walk to/from the Underground station than at other termini and to/from the old London Bridge platforms. Moreover, some of the new lifts and escalators, from the giant concourse to the platforms, have recently been out of service, suggesting that all those defibrillators and ambulance crews might come in handy!
Southeastern says it hopes to improve reliability through Lewisham Crossover Junctions (see photo) by reducing the number of conflicting train moves. That might be justified if more intensive metro style services were being planned through Lewisham, but none are. With the current series of rail strikes, whether reliability improves remains to be seen.
It is true that, under the old timetable, trains were often delayed for a few minutes on the approaches to Lewisham Crossover Junctions. These delays could have been reduced less painfully for passengers by better scheduling and/or by better engineering of the complex crossovers which seem to require very slow speeds but nonetheless give a very poor ride quality. There does not appear to be sufficient space to rebuild this junction with grade separation (as was achieved with the Bermondsey dive-under a few years ago, when the Greenwich line lost its direct services to/from Waterloo East and Charing Cross) without demolition of many tall new buildings in the area.
Other changes which have been introduced include more clockface services, the abolition of First Class and withdrawal of direct services between the Woolwich line, the Sidcup line (sparking a petition) https://www.change.org/p/save-the-loop-train-service-from-sidcup-line-stations-to-abbey-wood-woolwich-and-charlton and (on Sundays) Lewisham. Accessing the Elizabeth Line or the DLR at Woolwich is, for many now, a slower journey on buses.