East London Line

– in the House of Commons at 2:15 pm on 9th March 2007.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Jonathan Shaw.]

Photo of Jim Dowd Jim Dowd Labour, Lewisham West 2:31 pm, 9th March 2007

I am particularly delighted that Mr. Speaker has allowed me to hold this brief debate on a matter of considerable concern to my constituents. This is in fact the second time that I have been fortunate enough to debate this issue on the Adjournment of the House, but as the first time was some 14 years ago and I was sitting on the other side of the Chamber, I am sure that people will not accuse me of being obsessive about it.

The tube system in south London, and certainly in south-east London, has been a joke for many years—largely because it does not exist. In the latter days of the 19th century, the system was run by a cartel. The Southern Electric Company and the Metropolitan Railway, as they then were, decided that they would not encroach on each other's territory, which is one reason why the tube system never came very far south of the Thames. Elaborate hoaxes were devised. Reference was made to saturated sand that made tunnelling impossible, and God knows what else, but it was the commercial interests of the railway companies that largely dictated the layout of the London underground as it exists today. Fortunately, in more enlightened times we have adopted a more progressive view of improving transport in and around the capital.

When I was growing up in the '50s and '60s, there was a scheme to extend the Bakerloo line from the Elephant and Castle through Walworth, Camberwell, Peckham and Forest Hill and on to Catford and Bromley, but it was never more than a pipe-dream. The costs were always prohibitive, even then, and although the scheme existed on paper, it never existed in fact.

The extension of the East London line therefore became a much more realistic proposition, particularly in my part of south-east London. Only relatively minor engineering work at New Cross Gate is required to allow it to share the infrastructure with Network Rail that is necessary to produce a service that—when I started campaigning for such an extension in the early '70s, on being elected to Lewisham council—was designed to go to East Croydon. As the proposed extension of the East London line both north and south was discussed—the House will understand if I do not go into detail about the northern extension, important though that is—the ideas were refined. The decision was taken that it would be better to extend the line to West Croydon, which serves the centre of Croydon more readily than does East Croydon. Extending to East Croydon would have had the advantage of a link with Gatwick airport, but such a service would have been of limited value to commuters.

The idea was hatched to introduce the scheme, which lacked a substantial backer for many years and was little more than a hope or aspiration, rather than an achievable objective. Fortunately, that has changed over time, and we very much welcome the fact that the East London line's southern and northern extensions will proceed apace over the next few years.

The London borough of Lewisham has the highest proportion of residents who work outside the borough, so its public transport links are crucial to the well-being of the area and its citizens. We have seen many improvements in recent years. The Docklands light railway extension was eventually continued across the river, from a rather strange terminus at Mudchute on the Isle of Dogs, largely because of the innovative and imaginative approach of the London borough of Lewisham. Modesty almost forbids me from saying that I was the chair of finance at the time. We identified a capital investment that we could make in concert with the Docklands light railway to bring it, via Greenwich and Deptford, to Lewisham. That was achieved a few years ago, improving the transport links considerably.

We have also seen a substantial improvement in bus services since the advent of the Greater London authority, under the Mayor, Ken Livingstone, and the active intervention of Transport for London. The improvements in transport in London alone more than justify the creation of the GLA and Transport for London. My thanks go to the Mayor and the GLA for their determination to develop the East London line from what is at the moment—little more than a cross-river shuttle east of Tower Bridge—to a much more comprehensive service for south and east London, as part of the more ambitious and beneficial project that will become known as the London overground, stretching from Watford in the north-west to Croydon in the south-east.

In the near future, my part of London will also benefit from the moving of the Eurostar channel tunnel rail link services from Waterloo to St. Pancras, because that will free up slots on another local rail line and will result in more services to Sydenham Hill and Penge East stations. Although those stations are not actually in my constituency, they are close enough to the boundary to be used by many of my constituents, so that will be a considerable benefit.

The proposed extension of the East London line to my constituency and the London borough of Lewisham more broadly—and to places further south—is welcomed almost unreservedly, but I have requested this debate because I have to use the word "almost". The extension has implications that are not as desirable as the extension itself. As we have some of the most congested commuter lines in the whole country, hon. Members will understand the concerns of my constituents.

We also look forward to the as yet unannounced transfer of responsibility—I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will confirm it at some point, if not today—for the stations along the route of the extension from the train operating company, Southern, to Transport for London, with a subsequent programme of investment and improvement. In my constituency, that will involve Honor Oak, Forest Hill and Sydenham stations and, just outside it, Penge West, Anerley and Crystal Palace. We look forward to the improved standards of service and security for commuters that TFL provides for its stations, compared to the current operator.

The increased choice and services for commuters are completely desirable, and my constituents look forward to enjoying them. The expansion of the Oyster card system, which is more convenient and cheaper for people travelling around London, will also be welcome, and it will be extended to the over-ground Network Rail services into London Bridge. The extension of the East London line will also mean that many people will be able to avoid using zone 1, as they will be able to travel around the centre of London, instead of having to go through it. That will produce savings not only of time but also of cost for many people. My journey to the Palace of Westminster takes me from Forest Hill station to London Bridge, where I change to the Jubilee line and travel to Westminster underground station. At a meeting with London Rail last Monday, I pointed out that when the new line is operating I will be able to take the East London line to the Canada Water interchange on the Jubilee line and travel through London Bridge to Westminster. London Rail confirmed that the cost would be the same for either journey, so that will be of benefit to people travelling from my constituency and around London more generally.

The reason I asked for the debate relates to a question I tabled to the Secretary of State for Transport to ask

"what assessment has he made of the effect on the Network Rail services into London Bridge of the extension of the East London Line in 2010."

The answer from the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend Mr. Harris, stated:

"The Department has worked closely with the East London Line (ELL) project team and with Network Rail to ensure that it will be possible to deliver satisfactory levels of service from south London to both London Bridge and to ELL destinations when ELL commences operations.

The direct journey opportunities offered by the extended ELL services are expected to enable significant numbers of passengers to avoid the need to travel from south to east London via London Bridge, thus easing congestion at that busy station."—[ Hansard, 13 December 2006; Vol. 454, c. 1065-66W.]

I accept the last part of my hon. Friend's answer, but unfortunately there was a degree of ambiguity about the rest of it, which is why I asked for the debate—I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for allowing it. There is substantial concern that services to London Bridge on the Southern franchise and north-bound services from London Bridge to Victoria on the loop line will be cut after, or even before, the East London line commences re-operation in 2010, because the Southern franchise expires in 2009 and specifications will have to be made before it is renewed either by Southern or another operator.

My constituents are also concerned about some of the notions emanating from London Rail—the TFL body responsible for the London overground project and hence the East London line—in statements such as the following:

"TFL is working in collaboration with Network Rail to develop the best possible solution for passengers using the rail network in South London. The plans...currently being assessed as part of Network Rail's South London Route Utilisation Strategy (RUS), which is due to go for public consultation in summer 2007. Therefore, the service patterns and details of the train services may be modified as a result of the RUS study."

However, the document continues:

"To enable the ELR services to operate, the current service frequency on the south London suburban network needs to be adapted. TfL, with Network Rail, have undertaken some timetabling work, which suggests that the best way to accommodate the ELR services is to reduce the current morning peak 8 trains per hour on the Sydenham route to London Bridge (via Forest Hill and Brockley) to 6 trains per hour in 2009...Passengers wishing to go to London Bridge, from West Croydon or Crystal Palace, will be able to change from the ELR on to the Jubilee Line at Canada Water station (with trains departing every 2-5 minutes towards Stratford in the east, and Stanmore in the west)."

That last suggestion particularly concerns my constituents, because at present they have a direct service to London Bridge, which is, as I said, one of the busiest commuter routes in the country, so they do not regard the option of having to change to reach the same destination as a benefit.

The current East London line will close at the end of this year for about two and a half years for the necessary works to be undertaken to facilitate the southern extension to Crystal Palace and West Croydon, utilising the existing Network Rail infrastructure. That will result in our part of south-east London appearing on the tube map for the first time. Hallelujah, say we all. However, there is widespread concern that when the new service commences in 2010, with eight trains an hour—four each to Crystal Palace and West Croydon—it will result in a reduction to the peak-hour services to London Bridge from Forest Hill and Sydenham stations, both of which are in my constituency. They are already extremely busy. Even boarding some of trains—let alone any hope of getting a seat—is difficult, if not impossible. I can attest to that, because I started commuting on the line way back in 1963. Although it is accepted that the East London line services will provide greater choice for passengers, the principal demand is for the Southern train services to London Bridge, and that will remain the case for the foreseeable future.

I have spoken to Network Rail's utilisation strategy team, Southern trains, Transport for London and London Rail, but doubt still remains over the level of service post-2010. There is in existence something called a proving timetable, which was used to demonstrate the case for the East London line extension, but which would seem to indicate reductions in frequency during peak times. I understand fully that the final decisions are some way off and that there are a number of variables still to be resolved, but it is the strong feeling locally—I share it—that if the introduction of eight trains an hour on the East London line service causes any reduction in the current services to and from London Bridge via New Cross Gate, or the southbound service from London Bridge to Victoria, it would be far preferable for the East London line frequency to be reduced, at least initially. I fully understand that people's travel patterns may change when they have different choices, but, at the outset, the travel patterns that we have in our part of the world are set and people will not welcome a reduction in those services to facilitate a new service that, as yet, is of no direct benefit to them.

I have been advised by some of those involved that it should be possible to accommodate all the existing services and the extension of the East London line, although London Rail appears to be resisting that. I hope that my hon. Friend can clarify the matter and make it plain that we welcome the arrival of the extended East London line, provided that it is in addition to the existing services and not at the expense of some of them.

In conclusion, I congratulate the Sydenham Society, the Forest Hill Society, the Tewkesbury Lodge Estate residents' association and other community groups that have put a lot of work into trying to analyse precisely what we can expect in our part of the world after 2010. I hope that my hon. Friend can provide reassurance that the immense benefit of the new East London line will not be diluted by reductions to other services.

Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport 2:47 pm, 9th March 2007

I congratulate my hon. Friend Jim Dowd on securing the debate and providing an opportunity for the House to discuss the East London line and, in particular, the impacts of the proposed extension and enhancement to services south of New Cross Gate. I thank him for bringing these issues to my attention on behalf of his constituents in his characteristically good-natured and well-informed style. I echo the comments that he rightly made in congratulating the many community groups in his constituency that have contributed so well and in such a thorough and welcome manner.

I know that my hon. Friend takes a keen interest in this matter, given that the services pass through Sydenham and Forest Hill, which are important areas in his constituency, and I know that the matter will be of great concern to his constituents. I hope that it will be helpful to my hon. Friend and his constituents if I set out a bit of the background and some details of the situation. The East London line project effectively links the rail networks north and south of the river to the east of the city and will for the first time in a number of years provide regular and fast journeys between north, east and south London, with services between Dalston in the north and West Croydon and Crystal Palace in the south. The East London line will also play a significant role in the regeneration of east London, particularly in the Dalston and Shoreditch areas. I am sure that the House will join me in welcoming that.

It is important to note that significant progress has been made: powers were granted several years ago; new trains have been ordered; work on the upgrading of some existing structures and so on has already been completed; and the main works contract has been let, with works due to start in earnest later this year. Some £900 million is being spent on infrastructure for the East London line and a further £223 million on new trains for the east and north London line.

When the new service opens in 2010, four trains per hour will operate between Crystal Palace and Dalston, between New Cross and Dalston and between West Croydon and Dalston. Eventually, with the planned upgrade of the North London line, eight trains per hour will do the extended run up to Highbury and Islington. That will mean 12 trains per hour on the core route between Surrey Quays and Dalston. South of New Cross Gate, eight East London line trains per hour will operate seven days a week.

The improvements will give passengers a better journey and will enhance the economic competitiveness of London. They will facilitate easier orbital journeys in London, because the central area will be avoided, and will provide better transport links for my hon. Friend's constituents and others.

The Government, like my hon. Friend, fully support the work of the Mayor of London and Transport for London in taking forward this project. We believe that it will bring significant benefits to transport in south and east London. Indeed, without the record level of resource given to TFL by this Government to invest in London's transport network, this project would not have been possible. As with all projects of this scale, changes are required in order to implement it. I recognise that some of the changes impact on my hon. Friend's constituents, and I understand and appreciate why they cause concern.

The railway south of New Cross Gate is heavily used by existing Southern services into London Bridge, and we recognise that crowding is an issue on these trains at peak times. From 2010, south of New Cross Gate, a number of changes to national rail services are likely to be required to facilitate the delivery of the East London line. That is because track capacity on the route is limited, especially at key locations such as London Bridge, Croydon and Norwood Junction.

As my hon. Friend is aware, the timetable that has been developed is a concept timetable: a basic draft that can be developed and amended. I hope that that will be of interest and reassurance to his constituents. The Department for Transport, TFL and Network Rail have been working together to develop this concept timetable that facilitates these changes with minimum impact on existing services. I assure him that no final decisions have been taken about the timetable that will eventually operate, and I hope that that reassurance will be relayed to his constituents.

The proposed changes will see the peak services to London Bridge reduced from eight to six trains per hour, but that service will be supplemented by an additional eight East London line trains per hour on the core section between Sydenham and New Cross Gate, giving a total of 14 trains per hour northbound in the morning peak. I stress that six trains per hour is not the maximum number in respect of the route, because further enhancements can be delivered over and above what is proposed. However, given the key constraints at London Bridge and Croydon, and the significant planned enhancements on this route, I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that we also need to examine whether enhancements to other corridors can be facilitated.

It is also clear that a significant number of passengers using this corridor interchange with the Jubilee line at London Bridge to go to the west end or Canary Wharf. They will have a greater range of interchanges available to them, with a choice of using either London Bridge or Canada Water—that has been recognised by my hon. Friend in his own travel patterns. The average journey time for passengers going from Forest Hill to Canary Wharf will be reduced by eight minutes.

I am aware that capacity on the route has been a key concern. It is true to say that East London line trains are shorter than those on the existing services. However, when measurements are taken in terms of available carriages, some 18 per cent. more will be operating on the route from 2010. It is also worth noting that it is planned that the six London Bridge services will all start from the Croydon area, whereas current services start significantly further away. That will result in the services carrying significantly fewer of passengers by the time they reach Sydenham, so more capacity will be available.

I emphasise that I am sympathetic to the fact that the changes will have an impact on some individuals, but I stress again that no final decision has been taken. The timetable details are far from finalised, the access option has not been agreed by the regulator, and the franchise specification for the replacement Southern franchise is yet to be developed. Further changes are possible and, indeed, they are likely to reflect changes in demand.

Photo of Jim Dowd Jim Dowd Labour, Lewisham West

I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend, but I want to make sure that I understand exactly what she is saying. She says that no final decisions have been taken and that the concept timetable, as she calls it, has no more status thanthat. However, she seems to be talking about the six services into London Bridge as a given fact. It is that proposition, given that people have eight services an hour at peak times at the moment, that is causing the greatest concern.

Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

I understand the point that my hon. Friend presses. I can confirm that I will ensure that our debate is drawn to the attention of those who are responsible for developing the final plans, and I will make sure that that point is emphasised as developments continue. We want a better service, but I emphasise to my hon. Friend that change means just that. I want us to get to a point at which we have a better service.

It might assist my hon. Friend if I make the point that the Government will this summer publish the high level output specification for the railway, which will detail the outputs that Government want to buy from the railway between 2009 and 2014. I can tell him that as part of that process, we are actively looking at several schemes to enhance capacity, such as by train lengthening on routes in south London. We will make final decisions on the defined outputs later this summer.

My hon. Friend asked a question about the transfer of stations. I can confirm that we are discussing the possible transfer of stations south of New Cross Gate, although we have not reached an agreement. The transfer would be made to the Transport for London concessionaire.

We recognise that the implementation of the East London line extension is likely to necessitate some changes to existing train services to accommodate the proposed new services. In general, we believe that the revised services will offer better transport services for south and east London, with improved connectivity to other parts of the city and new and more frequent trains. Our view is that a satisfactory solution can be developed for East London line and national rail services. That might involve some compromises, but we believe that the benefits of the project far outweigh the downside of the changes required. I reassure my hon. Friend and his constituents that the final timetable has not yet been defined. As I said earlier, we will seriously consider the concerns of his constituents as we take forward the development of the South Central franchise in due course.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Three o'clock.