The South London Line In Parliament

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 London Connections blog 20 November 2009:  read blog

Last week saw Simon Hughes and Martin Linton bring up the question of the South London Line in Parliament. Although it doesn't really add hugely to the debate, the dialogue between themselves and Chris Mole, representing the Department for Transport, does neatly set out some of the perspectives on both sides of the SLL debate. With this in mind, I believe it's worth summarising it here...

The South London Line In Parliament

Last week saw Simon Hughes and Martin Linton bring up the question of the South London Line in Parliament. Although it doesn't really add hugely to the debate, the dialogue between themselves and Chris Mole, representing the Department for Transport, does neatly set out some of the perspectives on both sides of the SLL debate. With this in mind, I believe it's worth summarising it here.

As the parliamentary representative for North Southwark and Bermondsey, Simon Hughes' interest in the fate of the South London Line is easy to understand. His stated aim here was to secure confirmation from the DfT that they would not oppose a solution to the South London Line problem, assuming funding could be found. As he confessed, it may seem an issue of negligable importance in the grand scheme of things, but at a local level he believed it had serious ramifications.

I accept that it is not in the same league as ending the nuclear arms race [the discussion before this one], but for people who live and work in or visit this great capital city of ours, the future of the South London line is very important.

Hughes began his arguments with a point that will be familiar to many South Londoners:

Those of us who have represented south London for a while have had many battles about transport. I was reflecting earlier on a debate that occurred when I was first elected, in which Lynda Chalker — now Baroness Chalker—was a Transport Minister. I remember that she conceded that south-east London was a white hole on the London transport map and that we needed to do something about it. In those days, the first battle was to persuade London Underground, as it then was, to extend the Bakerloo line down to New Cross to connect with the East London line, and to extend the Northern line down to Camberwell. Both of those extensions seemed entirely logical to everyone — the space was available and there were old railway lines at the Bricklayers Arms yards — but we lost those opportunities, which was a mistake, as the congestion on our roads and buses ever since has shown. I am keen to ensure that we do not lose another opportunity to sustain the level of train and rail services, especially given the changed pattern of services.

Both Hughes and Linton (MP for Battersea) then stressed that they felt that while South London possesed much in the way of infrastructure, too often long-distance commuters received priority upon it, rather than services that would benefit South Londoners. Hughes highlighted the number of local stations that have disappeared in the South as evidence of this:

This morning at the Armistice day service in Bermondsey, someone who had heard that I would be having this debate asked me, "Are you also campaigning to make sure that the Spa Road station is reopened?" There used to be more stations like that one, and one of the great battles of recent years has been trying to get the train services to service the people of our communities and not just to pass through, over or under us. I have some suggestions on ways we can ensure that it does not happen again.

Hughes continued by highlighting other projects that, over the years, he felt had short-changed (or attempted to short change) South London. The Jubilee Line received a mention:

the proposal that was the main runner was for the line to run from Waterloo to
London Bridge and then directly to Canary Wharf without stopping anywhere in between. That case required private legislation, and I am happy to say that I blocked it for long enough to achieve what was needed. I later saw a memo that said something like, "If we don’t give in to the local MP, we're never going to get this line at all." So I think that the most prized success of my political life has been winning two extra tube stations — one in Southwark and one in Bermondsey — at a cost of £25 million each. They are very valued stations, and it would have been a nonsense to have a tube line extension that did not stop to serve the local business and resident communities, and visitors. Fortunately, we were successful.

He also highlighted the battles that have taken place over the East London Line over the years, and both the need for it to be rebuilt and expanded into the Overground line it soon will be, and the extension to be built as part of Phase 2.

Finally, Hughes highlighted the current Thameslink project, and its effects on both the style and substance of Borough Market and the need to catch night services from St Pancras.

Ultimately, Hughes' claimed, his argument was simple:

I do not accept that as a result of Thameslink, all services on the South London line should finish because it is impossible to accommodate them at London Bridge. I know the lay-out of London Bridge and I understand the arguments — it needs more through track and through platforms and fewer terminus platforms—but I do not think it impossible in engineering or structural terms to continue the service. That would mean that people starting at Victoria or any other stop on the line could carry on around the same line to London Bridge, or vice versa. That is important because clearly, people who live and work in my constituency or visit it find it more convenient to use one train than to change trains, with all the uncertainty that that always produces.

I argue, therefore, that rather than promising a service that will always connect - because, with the best will in the world, it does not always connect—it is better to keep the existing good service, even if it does not run as frequently as it does currently. If people know that there is a regular service twice, three times or four times an hour, they can organise their lives accordingly. If people know that it is more frequent during rush hour than the rest of the day and on weekdays than at weekends, they can organise their lives.

Hughes claimed that there were three good reasons for keeping the South London Line in some form.

Firstly, that boroughs such as Southwark and Bermondsey are likely to see major population growth over the coming years.

Secondly, he argues that a direct service between London Bridge, South Bermondsey and Denmark Hill (which he points out has recently been refurbished) is important due to the number of Hospitals this route covers:

[Denmark Hill] is the station for King’s College hospital and the Maudsley hospital. London Bridge is the station for Guy’s hospital. Both serve the university partnership, with the students and those who teach them, at Guy’s and St. Thomas’s and King’s. There are huge numbers of patients, plus all those pursuing their academic life. The numbers of patients are almost unexpectedly high. There are 2 million patients locally, and a potential 5 million patients using the hospitals, as they are specialist teaching hospitals. The Maudsley, with its Institute of Psychiatry, is the premier psychiatric hospital in the country, and Guy’s is hugely busy internationally as well as nationally. We are talking about very large numbers indeed. For those people, the South London line is important, particularly for the mentally ill, physically ill or disabled. Changing trains or finding access to stations difficult adds to the burden, risk and difficulty or puts people off altogether, and they resort to other, more expensive forms of transport such as their own private car or a cab.

Thirdly, Hughes claims that the presence of Millwall FC should be taken into consideration:

the New Den is at South Bermondsey, and is used regularly. Millwall, happily, are doing fantastically well again, having just won in the cup on Monday, and they are shooting back up to the top of their league. It is also used for other events, not just football. It would be nonsense if we cut off people’s direct access to such an important venue.

Linton then built on Hughes' arguments by pointing out that the removal of the SLL would leave Wandsworth Road without a direct link to Victoria, and leave Battersea Park without a direct connection to the SLL stations.

Linton's main argument was that this could be avoided through selective door operation (of course, it is probably fair to say that this is an oversimplification):

Service into Victoria from all of them could be accommodated easily provided that Network Rail got over its embarrassment at having selective door opening so close to Victoria. That seems to be the only reason holding it back grom continuing a direct link to Victoria from those stations.

Hughes then returned to the debate, and highlighted that although the publicised Options study - exploring possible alternatives to the SLL - was underway and would be finalised shortly, it was important to keep any discussion of possible options focussed on finding a solution that maintained a connection to all stations on the loop, if it was in any way possible.

It was Chris Mole, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport who was tasked with provided the DfT's response to the comments made by Hughes and Linton. He was blunt and to the point - he highlighted that the South London Line comprised two services at 30 minute intervals that ran as two carriage formations off peak and four carriage at peak. Only Wandsworth Road and Clapham High Street, he pointed out, are not served by alternate services already. He then commented on the usage figures for SLL Services

These services on the South London Line, although busy in peak periods, do not have a material crowding problem. Indeed, the latest "passenger in excess of capacity" figures for autumn 2008 show fewer passengers than overall capacity on all trains.

Chris Mole then moved on to highlighting the inate problems upgrading London Bridge presented to maintaining all existing services to the station:

It is simply not possible to rebuild a Victorian station that is situated on a viaduct in a congested part of central London without some disruption to services. We all recognise that that reduction in the number of services that can operate into London Bridge is not ideal but, as they say, it is simply not possible to make an omelette without breaking some eggs.

Mole then laid out in simple terms the original post-SLL plans:

The original plan, as consulted on by Network Rail as part of the South London route utilisation strategy—or RUS—document, was to divert the South London line service away from London Bridge. That would have created a new Victoria to Bellingham service south of Catford, where sidings exist to allow trains on that service to terminate.

The reason for the diversion of the South London line between Peckham Rye and London Bridge is that that line carries the smallest number of passengers into London Bridge of all the services into London Bridge. Typically in the morning peak period, some 350 people are on each of the South London line trains arriving at London Bridge between 8 am and 9 am. The evening peak loadings are significantly lower than that.

I recognise that changes to these services will consequently impact on these current users. However, similar train services into London Bridge carry more than double the number of passengers compared with the South London line, and South London Line passengers from Peckham Rye, Queen’s Road Peckham, and South Bermondsey will have other services that they can use, which operate from the East Dulwich corridor. For example, South Bermondsey would still have six trains an hour to London Bridge at peak times and four trains an hour in off-peak times.

Although it was recognised that links between South London line stations west of Peckham Rye and London Bridge would be cut, journeys would still be possible via a change of train at Peckham Rye or Queens Road, Peckham, and that is without having to change platform.

As to why those plans would now not be carried out. Mole was again concise and to the point - and also clearly indicated who the DfT felt should carry any burden of blame (bolding mine).

It was the Department's intention to implement a Victoria to Bellingham service in late 2012 in place of the existing Victoria to London Bridge service. The service changes made by TfL now mean that such a replacement strategy will not be implemented as originally planned. The changes were made at the request of the Mayor and TfL.

Mole then went into some detail describing the background to the ELL Extension Phase 2, beginning with what could perhaps be interpretted as a subtle dig from the DfT on the issue of transport priorities:

I turn now to the East London line extension phase 2 to Clapham Junction. The south London route utilisation strategy highlighted the potential benefits that the extension of the East London line to Clapham Junction would bring to this area of south London in providing new orbital links to and from south, west, east, north and north-east London and reducing passenger congestion on London Bridge while rebuilding works were under way. However, despite a significant increase in the budget made available to them in recent years, TfL and the Mayor did not believe that the £75 million scheme was affordable within the TfL budget. That reflected the priority that the Mayor gave to this scheme against other transport improvements in London.

Mole continued:

The Department recognised that the East London line would deliver some additional benefits to passengers, and therefore accepted the responsibility to fund a £19 million addition to Network Rail’s borrowings to fund works on the national rail network. It also supplied a further £20 million increase to TfL’s overall grant to fund part of the East London line project and help fund other transport schemes in London. I understand that around £15 million of that was earmarked for the East London line.

It was at this point, Mole claimed, that TfL approached the DfT and requested the decision be made that would ultimately lead to the current sitution:

TfL therefore proposed to fill the funding gap by withdrawing the replacement South London line service to Bellingham in its entirety from late 2012, with the money saved being diverted towards the capital costs of the East London line extension. The cost savings over 10 years for not operating this service were £24 million, which the Department agreed to provide to TfL.

Put simply, as far as the DfT was (and indeed one assumes remains) concerned. The decision was TfL's and TfL's alone. Something Mole then elaborated on further:

TfL made the judgment that the East London line service to Clapham Junction provided better overall benefits than the South London line to Bellingham. As London’s transport planning body, it is entirely appropriate that it should make that judgment and assess the trade-offs between the different service proposals, especially as the service operates solely within the zone 2 boundary.

TfL analysis showed that some 12 million people would use the second phase of the East London line, compared with 5 million who would use the Bellingham service.

The DfT's points made, Linton asked what he regarded as a simple question - did the DfT believe that it would be a simple matter to restore service to several stations be adding stops to existing services.

Mole, in reply, indicated that there were a number of options under consideration, but once again returned to what appeared to be the DfT's simple, and brutal, point. Options may exist, but they are not the DfT's decision to make:

The decision not to implement the proposed London Victoria to Bellingham service was requested by TfL and the Mayor. Implementing both the Bellingham service and the East London line would have been ideal. TfL and the Mayor judged that the East London line extension provided more benefits than the South London line and decided to use funds allocated to a replacement Victoria to Bellingham service to finance a shortfall in funding allocated by the Mayor to the East London line. As a result, central Government will be funding over three quarters of the overall budget for the scheme, with the Mayor funding around £17 million.

The DfT would approach Southeastern on TfL's behalf, he indicated, to raise the question of the possibility of adding stops to services run under that Franchise but the DfT's attitude would remain the same:

Let me be clear. Funding in forthcoming years will be tight and we would expect TfL to fund any additional services, given that the Victoria to Bellingham service would have maintained these links and that TfL requested that that service should not be implemented.

This, effectively, marked the end of the debate. Mole finished by pointing out that whilst services to the Hospitals named by Simon Hughes would indeed be affected, other improvements already underway in the area - including the ELL line - would compensite for these.

Thus, with the attitudes of both Parliamentary Members and the DfT clearly laid out, the debate ended. Concurrent with this meeting, a delegation from the London Assembly and the Mayor were in discussion with Mole's colleague at the DfT, Sadiq Khan, over possible options. Val Shawcross indicated afterwards that this had been a relatively fruitful discussion and the DfT had seemed open to ideas.

If Mole's comments in Parliament are any guide, however, it seems there are two areas which the DfT are likely to be more closed on - funding and blame.

Posted by John Bull