The boss of SE London’s biggest rail company insisted that cuts to his services were not designed to favour Conservative-voting travellers in Kent.
In a stormy meeting of Greenwich Council’s transport scrutiny committee, Steve White, the managing director of Southeastern, apologised for the lack of consultation on the new timetable, which is due to begin in December.
There will be cuts to local trains across the area compared with pre-pandemic timetables, while passengers on the Woolwich line will lose their direct services to Charing Cross. Bexleyheath line users will also lose most of their trains to the West End. Critics have said the changes will drive people away from the railway.
White said that while December’s changes – which also include the scrapping of Sunday trains linking Lewisham and Woolwich – were set in stone, alterations could be made next spring to fix issues that had come up.
He said that the new timetable meant there would be space for all passengers with room to spare. But he insisted that changing the timetable so individual lines were focused on serving one terminal meant that when custom picked up, it would be easier to add trains to the timetable and for services to grow again.
But he was barracked by residents when he said that surveys had shown that passengers wanted to have more reliable and punctual services, with one man yelling that he was happy to have delayed, but direct trains: “I would rather wait three minutes than spend 10 minutes changing at London Bridge!”
Lauren Dingsdale, the chair of the committee, said that while SE London’s Labour constituencies were seeing cuts, Conservative areas in Kent were getting new Charing Cross services from the government-owned company.
“Maidstone East, in a Conservative constituency, is getting extra trains,” she said. “Just so we’re clear, is it the case that all the winners from the new timetable are Conservative areas and all the losers are Labour seats?
“We would never designate a timetable like that,” White said, adding that its extra trains had been planned since the expansion of Thameslink services four years ago and that the trains themselves were not coming from the fleets that serve metro routes.
Southeastern’s changes are designed to reduce pressure on the junction at Lewisham, which sees trains cross over in front of each other as routes to Cannon Street, Charing Cross and Victoria separate.
White said that a similar change at Tonbridge had also enraged Kent commuters.
“We serve the many, not the few,” he said. “We are not prejudiced in our outcome. We want to get this right for everybody.”
He added: “The only new trains that have come onto the network are the Class 707s [the blue City Beam trains on metro lines]. The only new trains that we want to buy are for the metro.”
White said that the timetable had to be introduced without consultation because “we are living in a very agile world. We have changed our timetable 15 times since March 2020. We are working at a pace that I’ve never seen in 39 years.
“We developed this timetable in the early part of this year. And to be candid, doing nothing didn’t feel like an option because we expect customers to come back and we want to solve some of the problems we see every day.”
He said the decision to go without consultation had been sanctioned “at very senior levels” and that it would have been “disingenuous” to consult with passengers when it was already too late to change the timetable.
White said that Southeastern had planned to warn passengers of the changes at the start of September, but Liz Truss’s installation as prime minister followed by the 10 days of national mourning for the Queen had forced a delay.
During that time, early leaks of the timetable had been based on inaccurate data uploaded to the national database, he said.
But he insisted “we are listening now”, and said that all feedback – particularly on specific problems and services – would be taken into account for revisions and future changes.
Scott Brightwell, Southeastern’s operations director, said that passenger numbers on the Woolwich and Bexleyheath lines had fallen by 40.6 per cent, and by 43.1 per cent on the Sidcup line, in the year to September compared with three years before.
He showed residents a video showing how trains have to stop at Lewisham and wait for other to cross the junction, and said that the changes to terminals should mean 12 per cent fewer cancellations across the network.
A similar thinning-out of services on Southern had worked well and had actually led to happier passengers, he added.
“There was a recast of the Southern metro timetable a few years ago,” he said. “That reduced the frequency of services on a lot of lines and punctuality increased by about 20 per cent and passenger satisfaction increased by over 10 per cent. That’s using the Transport Focus research, not our own.”
White, who gave a presentation and took questions for three hours, said that more staff would be on duty at London Bridge to help passengers change trains.
He added that the recent lying-in-state of the Queen, where the queue passed close to the station, had shown that the station couple with large numbers of people who needed assistance to change platforms.
But both he and Brightwell were shouted at by residents over the change in terminals, with one saying that the change would affect those travelling for cancer treatments at St Thomas’s Hospital. “Don’t try cancer. It ain’t funny. It ain’t nice. And what you are doing to people like that, and there are plenty of them from this neck of the woods, is sick.”
Another called London Bridge station “nasty, windy and difficult to navigate”.
Other passengers raised long gaps on the Greenwich line, which used to have trains every ten minutes. One, Emily Norton of the Westcombe Society, said the 21-minute gaps almost brought the service back down to the two trains per hour last seen there in the 1990s.
Conservative councillor Matt Hartley – who branded his own government’s actions in forcing the changes through as “completely unacceptable” – brought up the scrapping of the “rounder” trains linking the Sidcup and Greenwich lines, used by students and Charlton Athletic fans.
While White and Brightwell said there had been a significant switch to the Elizabeth Line, there was also anger that Southeastern had concentrated so much on the new services when justifying the service cuts, as they are not available in most of the borough. Dingsdale also raised the issue of journey planners suggesting people take the Tube to and from Embankment rather than changing to another Southeastern train at London Bridge, as this is more expensive under the current fare system.
White insisted that revisions would be made, and that Southeastern had a record of altering services to help schools and hospitals. “We will make changes,” he said.
“This is not the end state, this is the next timetable. And you have our commitment to take all of that feedback on.
“Whether it’s one case study or a 12,000-name petition or feedback from a particular market, the bigger you can make it and the more granular you can make it, the better. Just give us that feedback and we will, We’re starting to look at it already.”
More details about the changes, and a contact form, can be found at southeasternrailway.co.uk.