Southeastern train at Charlton station
A long-delayed announcement on a new Southeastern franchise is due soon

London mayor Sadiq Khan has branded the rail company Southeastern a “disgrace” – and blamed the Westminster government for SE London’s high rail fares.

Khan, who took questions on transport, crime, housing, air quality and the economy at a sometimes rowdy People’s Question Time event at Crook Log Leisure Centre, Bexleyheath, repeated his demand for TfL to take over rail services in SE London, claiming his transport agency had managed to improve services even during his fare freeze.

“Who would you trust to run public transport?,” he asked the audience at Thursday’s event. “Southeastern – cancellations, delays, fares going up, or Transport for London? I know who I’d turn to.”

Southeastern’s franchise to run metro services in SE London as well as regional routes in Kent and East Sussex runs out on 22 June, and the holder of the new contract is due to be announced any day, athough Saturday’s Times reported the contest could be delayed further or even scrapped.

Khan also deflected criticism of his planned extension to the Ultra Low Emission Zone to the South Circular Road from April 2021 – the first part of ULEZ comes into force in central London on 8 April – and called on central government to help drivers trade in polluting cars.

The mayor was asked by an audience member why rail users north of the river are benefitting from Khan’s partial fare freeze, which covers single fares on routes where fares are set by TfL, when most rail users south of the river are not.

“When will there be a transport policy that is fair to all Londoners?,” he asked.

“You’re right,” Khan said, claiming that private train companies were making “obscene profits”.

“Since I’ve become mayor, their fares have gone up by more than 8.8%,” he said.

“At the same time, we’ve managed to improve TfL services and frozen TfL fares in the past few years. My message to the government is simple: if we are able to freeze our fares, why can’t you make a privatised train company do the same?

“Give us those commuter lines, then there’d be fewer cancellations, fewer delays, plus you’d benefit from the TfL fare freeze. The only person stopping us from doing that is man called Christopher Grayling.”

“I think the service Southeastern provides is a disgrace,” he said to applause.

People's Question Time
Khan took questions from the audience at Crook Log Leisure Centre

Khan said he was working with Bexley Council to secure extensions of the DLR and London Overground into the borough, calling it “this forgotten part of London” – to which he received more muted applause.

He also backed the extension of Crossrail to Ebbsfleet, which is also backed by the council. Talking about Crossrail’s failure to open as planned, he said the construction company’s board “think they can tell me next month when the central section can open”.

On a night where many questions appeared to be planted by Labour and Conservative activists – the next mayoral election is little over a year away – as well as by taxi and minicab lobbyists, he was angrily questioned by a man who angrily claimed Bromley and Bexley (which form a London Assembly constituency) had suffered 20% bus bus, that he had have waited 21 minutes for a bus, and raised issues with the introduction of new trains on the Gospel Oak to Barking rail line, which is run by TfL.

“I think Transport for London is the best public transport organisation in the world in relation to the service provided,” Khan responded.

“You raise a good point in relation to buses … we currently have 30 bus routes running in Bexley, we will improve the frequency of our services in outer London. We will make sure we put the buses where we need them: look at London Bridge, look at Kingsway, look at Park Lane, where there are queues of buses, back to back to back, empty, because they are not needed there. Where they are needed is in parts of Bexley.”

The Ultra Low Emissions Zone starts in central London next month and moves to the South Circular Road in 2021

Khan was also challenged by a woman who complained about the introduction of the Ultra Low Emission zone, which begins in central London next month and expands to the South and North Circular Road in April 2021, charging drivers of the most polluting vehicles £12.50 to drive into the zone at any time.

“The people of Bexley cannot go to the likes of Greenwich, and Woolwich, where my doctor is, without paying this extra charge,” she said. “TfL say you can buy a new car, but you do realise people in this area cannot afford that. What is going to be done for us to get to our doctors, to get to our friends – it’s not really accepable for us to have to pay that. Most of us are struggling to make ends meet – you’re being more restrictive on us getting to see people and having a social life, we can’t see our friends and then we get depressed, and that’s a whole other situation.”

“It’s the poorest Londoners that suffer the worst air,” Khan replied, “This issue of fixing the air is a matter of social justice. But you’re right in relation to poorer Londoners who can’t upgrade their vehicles. That’s why we are lobbying government to introduce a national vehicle scrappage scheme – many people were encouraged to buy diesel rather than petrol.”

Taking a question from a minicab driver, he said “everyone has a role to play in this public health emergency”.

On a night that descended into a shouting match towards the end – particularly when Britain’s planned exit from the EU came up – the loudest applause came when Ealing and Hillingdon assembly member Okhar Sahokta got up again after his chair collapsed.

Khan was also accused of “declaring war on the suburbs” by Conservative assembly member Andrew Boff for relaxing planning rules in outer London, including development in back gardens, while one woman received cheers for asking what Khan was doing to stop young people in Bexley having to move to Gravesend or Maidstone.

“Nobody’s going to take your garden from you,” Khan said. “But if you build on green space, here’s got to be a proper process. The new draft London plan contains more protection for the green belt, more protection for metropolitan open land and for green spaces.”

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