Southeastern train at Charlton station
A new franchise for the Southeastern area will begin in September

Five of south east London’s MPs criticised rail operator Southeastern in Parliament last night after Greenwich and Woolwich representative Matt Pennycook secured a debate on the future of the franchise.

Southeastern has been criticised by passengers following service problems after lines through London Bridge were closed over Christmas as part of the final phase of the Thameslink Programme.

The firm’s franchise is up for renewal, and government plans to change services for the new contract – such as switching Victoria trains from the Bexleyheath line to the Sidcup line, and withdrawing Charing Cross trains from the Woolwich line – have also been attacked.

Plans to switch metro services in SE London to Transport for London control were abandoned by Transport Secretary Chris Grayling in 2016.

Pennycook, Lewisham East’s Heidi Alexander, Eltham’s Clive Efford and Erith & Thamesmead’s Teresa Pearce all spoke in the debate, with the Labour members joined by Bromley & Chislehurst’s Conservative MP Bob Neill.

‘Inadequate’ train lengths

“My argument is simple: the residents that I represent in Blackheath, Greenwich, Charlton, Woolwich and Plumstead, and those across south-east London represented by other Members of the House, deserve better from the next franchise, but I am concerned that the way the Government have approached it will not deliver the improvements my constituents need,” Pennycook said.

“My own journey to work today was sadly typical of what many of my constituents experience every week. The 6.59 am service from Charlton to Charing Cross that I caught this morning was six minutes late, had two fewer carriages than advertised and was badly overcrowded as a result.”

Pennycook used his own experiences travelling from Charlton station in the debate

Pennycook said that the number of carriages on metro services had failed to “keep pace with entirely predictable local population growth”.

“Despite much earlier requests from Southeastern, only in September last year did the Department for Transport finally authorise the purchase of 68 extra carriages for the network,” he said.

“Even with the addition of that extra stock, 12-car trains are still a rarity on the lines that run through my constituency, and overcrowding at peak times is frequently unacceptable, if not dangerous.”

Heidi Alexander branded the extra carriages “simply inadequate”, while Bob Neill said it was “utterly bizarre that, even with the extra trains and the fact that the stations on the line from Sevenoaks through Orpington and my constituency can take 10 and 12-car trains, rush-hour trains are still being run to Charing Cross with eight-car trains”.

“That is just poor use of the assets that the Government have given to Southeastern.”

Future service plans panned

There were also criticisms of the government’s planned service patterns for the forthcoming franchise, due to begin on 9 December – also the likely start date for Crossrail services in SE London.

Eltham MP Clive Efford said the reasoning behind moving Victoria services away from the Bexleyheath line was “an excuse”, asserting that “modern signalling” would help overcome problems at the junction outside Lewisham station. “The people who run the service are benefiting at the expense of the passengers who use it,” he added. (The junction – a “diamond crossing” – is a known weak spot on the network. When a part failed in 2014, trains were disrupted right across the Southeastern system.)

Pennycook also said he feared the planned Thameslink services for the Greenwich line “might be slower and less reliable and that will not stop at Woolwich Dockyard station in my constituency or at Erith and Belvedere stations”.

Erith and Thamesmead MP Teresa Pearce added: “There are substantial new housing developments, and the people who move in will stand on the platforms at Belvedere and Erith and watch trains whizz past them, with no way for them to get to work.”

Lewisham station by Stephen Colebourne
Eltham MP Clive Efford branded capacity problems at Lewisham junction “an excuse” Credit: Stephen Colebourne/ Creative Commons

Pennycook said the government should “ guarantee that the service standards delivered by the new south-eastern franchise match those that would have been delivered by London Overground”.

Government ‘has listened’

Transport minister – and Orpington MP – Jo Johnson pointed to the scrapping of plans to terminate all Bexleyheath line trains at Cannon Street as evidence that the government was listening to passengers.

“We listened; we evaluated; and in the end we decided not to move to implement the single terminus solution,” he said.

Johnson also said that Victoria trains would stop at a single platform at Denmark Hill to aid passengers travelling from King’s College Hospital.

He was also pressed by Heidi Alexander on the need for Lewisham station to be refurbished to cope with large numbers of people interchanging.

“Southeastern passengers have had a torrid time in recent years and that there is considerable room for improvement in the quality of service.

“A combination of major infrastructure problems such as the collapse of the Dover sea wall, the impact of major enhancement works such as Thameslink and crowding have seen the operator regrettably languish at the bottom of satisfaction league tables for too long. However, I believe we are turning the corner,” Johnson said.

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