Woolwich Ferry
The 1960s Woolwich Ferry vessels are about to be replaced

The Woolwich Ferry will be closed for two months at the end of 2018 for works to allow it to accommodate new vessels, Greenwich councillors heard on Wednesday.

Transport for London representative Gary Nolan made the revelation at an annual scrutiny meeting where councillors quiz transport providers on their performance and future plans.

“They’ll need a new, hi-tech boarding system – the installation for that’s going to happen this October, and will mean he Woolwich Ferry will be out of action from October to December,” he told councillors.

“We don’t think it’s going to have a massive impact on, for example, the Blackwall Tunnel – when you look at the numbers, over 90,000 vehicles a day go through Blackwall compared with about 1,500 at the ferry,” but he added that TfL would work with councils and freight operators to mitigate the effects of the closure.

Nolan’s announcement appeared to take Greenwich Council’s own senior transport officer, Tim Jackson, by surprise. He later commented that he had understood the closure would be for “two or three weeks”.

The new vessels are promised to be quieter, less polluting, and with better passenger facilities, with cyclists getting their own area. One will be named after Ben Woollacott, a deckhand who died after falling from the ferry in 2011.

The other will be named Dame Vera Lynn. The wartime entertainer was born across the Thames in East Ham in 1917.

Representatives from Crossrail, Network Rail and Southeastern also gave presentations at the meeting, which – surprisingly for the interest many local residents take in transport issues – only had one member of the public in attendance.

Just four councillors were present on an all-male panel: chair Allan MacCarthy (Labour, Charlton), Aidan Smith (Labour, Greenwich West), Clive Mardner (Labour, Abbey Wood) and Charlie Davis (Conservative, Eltham North).

161 bus
Conservative councillors have been demanding an X161 bus from Woolwich to Eltham

Transport for London’s forthcoming rejig of buses for Crossrail is aimed at improving routes in areas with poor access to rail services, Nolan told the committee.

Conservatives in Eltham have been pushing for an X161 service to give fast access from the south of the borough to the new Crossrail station at Woolwich, and last week’s council meeting saw a motion passed calling on TfL to provide better north-south services to meet the new rail line.

But Gary Nolan told the committee that Eltham and Mottingham were already well served by rail routes to central London – while Thamesmead was not.

“If you are in Eltham or Mottingham, you have a rail service that takes you into central London and there aren’t that many bits of the Elizabeth Line where it’s quicker to get on a bus to Woolwich and get on the Elizabeth Line than it would be to travel in by rail,” he said.

“We have a certain amount of money to do this and we have to prioritise, and really the priority are those bits of Greenwich [borough] that don’t have the same levels of public transport, or at least the levels of rail access.”

Nolan added that TfL would welcome applications from private operators to fill gaps. Two weeks ago Ford started operating minivan services to Abbey Wood and North Greenwich stations that passengers can book via apps.

As for Crossrail itself, spokesman Richard Storer told the committee it was “90% complete” and showed photographs of ticket gates in place at the new Woolwich station, as well as work on installing the escalators. Tours will be available for the public in May. As for Abbey Wood, there is “a little bit of work” left, he said.

There was some discussion of the difficulties Crossrail is facing where it has to work on existing railways. “The easy bit is Abbey Wood to Paddington,” Storer added of the new, self-contained part of railway.

Abbey Wood branch users will get a bonus for the first few months of the line’s opening – 15 trains per hour, which will drop to 12 trains per hour when the service linking Paddington to Shenfield opens in May 2019.

Facilities at Lewisham, Deptford and Woolwich Dockyard stations also came under the spotlight, when Network Rail’s Alex Hellier spoke to the panel.

Lewisham station
Overcrowding at Lewisham station is a big concern

Overcrowding at Lewisham station was of “critical importance”, Hellier said, adding it was in Network Rail’s national top 10 priorities for investment, and it was applying for government funds.

“We’re looking at pinch points, the levels of platforms, and interchange is a particular concern,” he explained.

Asked by Charlie Davis about the possibility of rebuilding the junction at Lewisham to accommodate more trains, Hellier said: “It would be brilliant to do but very expensive – and you’d probably end up closing St Johns station.

“And you come back to the problem that Charing Cross and Cannon Street can only cope with a finite number of trains.”

Greenwich West councillor Aidan Smith raised increasing passenger numbers at Deptford station, adding: “With Convoys Wharf coming, it’s not exactly going to go down.”

Hellier said: “The new station only opened a few years ago, generally with these things we have a design life for a number of years. If we had to do more at Deptford already it would be a concern.

“There’s been a lot of growth, but hopefully the wider staircases and lifts, and historic ramp access should cater for that.”

Extending platforms at Woolwich Dockyard to cope with 12-car trains – in line with most other stations in SE London – had been ruled out because it would cost “tens of millions of pounds”, Hellier told the panel.

Using rolling stock with selective door opening would be “the best use of public money”, he added.

Hellier also addressed criticism of Network Rail plans not to increase services on the Greenwich line – saying that so many people would change at Abbey Wood for Crossrail, and would then fill up again at later stations, that “the same rolling stock woild be doing two jobs”.

“I don’t think we explained that part particularly well,” he said.

Networker trains have been running 700,000 extra miles to make up for a shortage of other stock

With Southeastern coming to the end of its current franchise, spokesman Chris Vinson was unable to say whether new trains would be ordered for its metro lines.

But he said there was “no denying that some of our trains are approaching the end of their timelines”. He explained that finding replacement electrical equipment for the doors on the Networker trains which run most metro services – which were first introduced in 1992 – had been a challenge.

Those trains had run 700,000 extra miles over the past year to make up for a shortage of other trains, he added.

Wi-fi would be coming to Southeastern trains “within a matter of weeks”, Vinson said, with the company having spent the past year installing the equipment.

After the session with transport providers, Greenwich Council’s Tim Jackson asked the councillors if they had any views on whether North Greenwich station should be renamed Greenwich Peninsula. None had any opinions.

You can watch parts of the TfL, Network Rail and Southeastern segments of the meeting on this YouTube playlist, although the sound is poor in parts.

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