Rail services used by Huw Merriman, the Conservative rail minister, have been largely unaffected by the cuts made to Southeastern services – while £5 million cuts were made to Metro services in SE London, 853 can reveal.
Southeastern Metro services across Greenwich, Lewisham, Bexley and Bromley were cut by the Westminster government in December, with trains running less frequently than they were before the pandemic. Some lines now only run to one terminal, forcing many passengers to change at London Bridge.
Passengers have since complained of severe overcrowding on trains, and there have been two incidents of crushes at London Bridge where the cut-down service has been unable to cope with disruption.
But passengers at Battle, East Sussex, where Merriman is the MP, lost just one morning service in the shake-up, while evening and off-peak services remain largely as they were in December 2019.
Last month, 853 launched a petition to have SE London’s rail services switched to London Overground, which has not suffered similar cuts and charges cheaper fares. So far it has over 5,000 signatures – half the number needed to obtain a response from the government on the issue – and the support of Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat politicians in SE London.
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MPs were told earlier this month that Southeastern had to cut £10 million. But those savings were not made equally across its entire network, which stretches into Kent and East Sussex.
The brunt of the savings were made on the Metro network, which had to endure £5 million of cuts compared with the previous timetable.
High-speed services from Kent – which are costly to run because they use the privately-owned HS1 route from St Pancras – were also hit with £5 million of savings, according to an answer given by Southeastern under freedom of information laws.
The company said the savings came from “operating fewer vehicle miles in a more efficient structure, reduced maintenance requirements for rolling stock and staff savings”.
But no savings at all were made on the traditional Mainline routes from coastal towns – the trains most likely to be used by the mostly-Conservative MPs in Kent and East Sussex, including Merriman, on their way to Westminster.
Earlier this month MPs were told by Merriman that the cuts were made to enable Southeastern – which also serves Kent and East Sussex – to save £10 million. Merriman, who is the MP for Bexhill & Battle, often emphasises in the Commons that he is also a Southeastern passenger.
“I am a user of Southeastern and of London Bridge, and I am aware of the issue,” he told Erith & Thamesmead MP Abena Oppong-Asare two weeks ago. However, Merriman’s Southeastern experience on Mainline services are very different to that of Metro customers.
Merriman’s local trains have barely changed since the pandemic, with Battle having four trains per hour off-peak to London in both December 2019 and December 2022 timetables. Between 6am and 10am, Battle is served by 10 trains to either Cannon Street or Charing Cross, compared with 11 in December 2019. Coming home, there remain nine trains from London Bridge to Battle between 4pm and 7pm, just as there were before the first lockdown.
By comparison, a Metro customer from Westcombe Park who had six off-peak trains per hour to London Bridge now has just four, which includes two from Thameslink. Between 6am and 10am there are 14 trains to Cannon Street or Blackfriars, compared with 18 before the pandemic. And in the evening, there are just 12 trains from London Bridge between 4pm and 7pm, compared with 18 back in 2019.
Merriman only became rail minister at the end of October, long after the cuts had been decided and a month after they were announced. Southeastern would not comment on whether the government chose which parts of its network to cut.
When it was suggested last October that the new timetable favoured Conservative constituencies, Steve White, Southeastern’s managing director, told Greenwich councillors: “We would never designate a timetable like that.”
“We serve the many, not the few,” he added. “We are not prejudiced in our outcome. We want to get this right for everybody.”
White will face new questions on the timetable from Greenwich’s transport scrutiny panel next Tuesday, after he accepted an invitation to attend a follow-up to last autumn’s meeting, where he spent three hours bring grilled.
Southeastern has previously said the timetable has been designed to meet current demand. The government-owned company has been hit hard by a collapse in lucrative annual season ticket sales since the pandemic, with yearly tickets now making up less than 1 per cent of sales.
Earlier this week it slashed the price of flexible season tickets in Kent and East Sussex to try to lure longer-distance travellers back.
The company told 853 this week that it was currently being subsidised by £1 million per day, and that its revenues across SE London, Kent and East Sussex together were down by more than £250 million compared with three years ago.
While weekend travel across its entire network regularly beats pre-Covid levels, its busiest weekdays – Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays – are at 75 per cent of where they were before the pandemic.
Off-peak travel across its entire network is at 80 per cent of pre-Covid levels and evening travel is “recovering” between 5pm and 6.30pm, a spokesperson said.
Earlier this month Southeastern said it would reintroduce one off-peak train per hour to Charing Cross on the Bexleyheath line – a partial and limited reversal of its simplification of services.
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