Transport in Carshalton and Wallington

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:10 pm on 16th June 2020.

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Photo of Elliot Colburn Elliot Colburn Conservative, Carshalton and Wallington 8:10 pm, 16th June 2020

I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and the Speaker’s Office for granting this Adjournment debate to discuss transport issues in Carshalton and Wallington. Along with St Helier Hospital, education and, more recently, issues relating to coronavirus, transport remains one of the most common issues that appear in my postbag. It is also something that affects me as someone who commutes to this place every day.

Because my constituency sits within a London borough, the borough of Sutton, there is an assumption that we must be well covered by public transport, but the statistics tell a very different story. Sutton has an average public transport accessibility level—PTAL—of just 2, with the majority of Carshalton and Wallington ranking at 2, 1 or even zero in some places. The borough is ranked 29th out the 32 London boroughs and the City of London for connectivity and is the only borough in London that does not have access to an underground, Overground or Crossrail station. We are also not on the map for Crossrail 2. The only reason we are not dead last for connectivity is that technically we have access to a tram within our borders, but I will talk more about that later.

Notwithstanding the ability to walk, cycle or drive, this situation means that Carshalton and Wallington residents have a choice between limited bus and National Rail services when travelling by public transport. One might argue that this reflects the borough’s contribution towards the Mayor’s council tax precepts, which stands at 28th out of the 32 London boroughs, but this argument immediately falls down because the remaining four boroughs have received higher funding and have greater connectivity than Sutton.

This poor level of access to transport cannot continue. As the population of Sutton continues to grow, our ability to have economic growth, access services and play our part in tackling the climate crisis is severely stunted without better transport connections. Carshalton and Wallington is in a London borough, and that borough is the eighth most economically active in London. It is time we had investment in our transport networks that reflected those realities and allowed us to reach our full potential.

I will turn first to rail connectivity. My constituency is home to Carshalton, Wallington, Hackbridge and Carshalton Beeches stations, providing northbound services to central London and southbound services to Sutton, Epsom and beyond. Of course, reliability is always an issue raised by Members, and it is no different for me. I will be working constructively with Southern and Thameslink, the rail operating companies that serve my constituency, to ensure that improvements continue to be made. I would also be grateful if the Minister could comment on the work the Government are doing to ensure greater reliability on our rail network.

One of the primary issues for my constituents, however, is rail frequency. Prior to lockdown, peak services would be full by the time they reached our local stations, meaning an uncomfortable or even delayed journey for many and pushing some to reconsider using the rail network or even their employment in order to avoid it. Having met with Govia Thameslink Railway and Network Rail since being elected, I am clear that there are two primary issues preventing additional services from being run on our lines. The first is something I know many colleagues have raised in the House: infrastructure on the railway. Often it is so outdated that it prevents trains from being turned around as quickly as they are on the London Underground, for example, which would allow additional time and space for more trains to be put on the line. I would be grateful if the Minister could comment on updating our rail infrastructure, including things such as digital signalling, electrification and joint command centres between rail operating companies and Network Rail.

Nevertheless, it appears that congestion is the real barrier to running additional services. Many, if not most, of my services run through Selhurst junction, which is currently massively congested, and Network Rail has just launched a consultation on its plans for what it calls the Croydon bottleneck scheme. It is designed primarily to unlock congestion on the Brighton main line but would have the knock-on effect of allowing more frequent services to run through my constituency. I am encouraging constituents to take part to demonstrate the huge support there is for putting on additional services once that is unlocked. Could the Minister comment on whether the Government support the Croydon bottleneck project?

There are things that can be done in the here and now, however, to help commuters once the lockdown measures are eased. First, there is safety. The gap between the train and the platform at Hackbridge and Carshalton Beeches in particular is so high that even the use of ramps is not particularly safe. I have raised this with GTR and Network Rail, and I hope to see the platforms heightened, at least in places, to make it safer to board and depart from trains. Secondly, there is accessibility. The southbound platform at Carshalton Beeches does not have step-free access, so I have submitted a bid in order to help to secure funding to deliver that. I hope that that will be favourably looked on by the Department.

Finally, there is the issue of the platforms themselves, with the platform at Hackbridge, for example, able to accommodate only seven cars. If there could be an extension to allow it to accommodate 10 cars, which it currently runs at peak services, that would reduce congestion on the concourse. These changes, plus a commitment to investment in infrastructure and the Croydon bottleneck project, will help to unlock many of the transport issues of my constituents.

Apart from trains, buses are the only other public transport option for my constituents. It is fair to say that, as we heard in the previous statutory instrument debate, compared with other parts of the country, Carshalton and Wallington does have okay bus services, but they are certainly not perfect. Again, access is an issue for some, particularly those living in Clockhouse and the more rural parts of Carshalton Beeches. It is possible to get around the borough fairly easily by the bus services that operate there. The introduction of the Go Sutton bus, which Transport for London operated on a trial basis as an Uber-style on-demand bus service travelling to more or less every part of the borough, was very welcome. I hope the Minister would agree that TfL should seek to reinstate this service as soon as possible. It is currently suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic.

There are also a number of bus services that go to and from Croydon, but a limited number that go outside the borough to any other destinations such as Merton, Wandsworth or Kingston. There are also very few services that travel southwards outside the Greater London Authority area and into Surrey, with which I share a border. I will say more about this problem later. As Carshalton and Wallington grows, connecting us up to new destinations by bus, as well as increasing the frequency of some routes and making busier services double-decker, would help to connect Sutton with its surrounding areas and make it easier to travel within the borough as well.

However, improvements in the rail and bus networks are only part of the solution, and in order to reach our full potential we need new transport options. Of all the potential options, perhaps none has been discussed for so long as a Sutton extension of the London Tramlink. The long and convoluted history of the Tramlink could be an Adjournment debate in itself, so I will not bore the Minister with too much back story, particularly as discussions about this started as early as 2002, only two years after the Croydon Tramlink was launched. However, I do want to draw to his attention the fact that sadly, if anything demonstrates that the current Mayor of London seems to forget that Sutton exists as a London borough, it is the Croydon Tramlink. When he was a Transport Minister in this place, he said:

“I am not sure what the Mayor’s priorities are, but they are not the Croydon Tramlink”.—[Official Report, 28 January 2010;
Vol. 504, c. 939.]

How fitting that 10 years on, the same could be said of him.

In a London Assembly report released last year, it was shown that Sutton came dead last for investment from City Hall out of all the London boroughs. Just £16 million has been spent in the borough since the Mayor was elected in 2016, compared with, for example, £2.1 billion of investment for Newham. The previous Labour Mayor of London showed that he was not particularly interested in outer London, and unfortunately the current Mayor seems to be following in his footsteps. Funding was set aside by the previous Conservative Mayor to help to deliver this project, which equated to £100 million. Unfortunately, the current Mayor redistributed that funding. After lobbying from our excellent London Assembly Member, Steve O’Connell, the Mayor has agreed to set aside a smaller figure of £70 million to put towards the project. Sutton Council and Merton Council have also set aside some moneys for it. However, the overall projected cost of delivering the Sutton extension to the Tramlink has been rising considerably since it was first mooted. Perhaps if the Mayor had not driven down TfL’s finances to such a state, particularly in allowing Crossrail to get out of control, we would not be in this position.

As I said at the beginning of my remarks, technically my constituency has two tram stops on the route. However, these are in the far north-east corner of my constituency on the border with Croydon and Merton. They are behind an industrial estate and serve a very, very small number of residents who live just outside that area. The next residential streets are more than a 30-minute walk away, and they are much closer to other transport options. Extending the tram to Sutton would therefore do wonders for the local economy but also connect Carshalton and Wallington residents up with new destinations.

TfL has now completed a consultation, agreed the route, and agreed, indeed, to go with the tram rather than the alternative bus rapid transit option, but we are now at a standstill. The project is ready to move on to the next stage of official designs and to go into the planning system. Even the Mayor himself has said that he estimates that the first services could be in place in the next few years if there was no delay, but without any additional funding this project will not go anywhere. Local, regional and national Government need to come together on this issue to ensure that the consultation is not allowed to collect dust, become too expensive and ultimately be consigned to the dustbin of history, so can the Minister give me any view on how the Government see the Sutton extension of the Croydon Tramlink?

As we work towards that extension, I hope the House will indulge me if I throw another possibility into the mix. Hackbridge is an important part of my constituency that is currently experiencing considerable growth. The New Mill Quarter development will bring 805 new homes and well over 1,000 new residents to the area, and Hackbridge definitely needs additional transport capacity to be able to cope. Currently, many residents go to Mitcham Junction, which is just one stop up the train line from Hackbridge, to intercept the tram. I wonder whether there is an argument for TfL doing exploratory work and extending the tram down the Network Rail line, perhaps running a single track alongside the Network Rail route, to provide tram services to Hackbridge. I hope that the Minister would agree that is at least worth TfL’s taking a look at such a project.

Next, I wish to draw attention to another potential extension that I believe would benefit Carshalton and Wallington residents: extending the London Overground service to Sutton, via Waddon, Wallington and West Croydon—an idea backed by Neil Garratt, our excellent candidate for the London Assembly. The London Overground could directly connect local residents to destinations that they cannot currently reach without making more than one change. It is my understanding that Sutton was originally mooted as the end point for the London Overground service, but it was decided that it would end at West Croydon instead because the service would be too popular with Sutton residents and therefore too busy by the time it got to Croydon. I hope the Minister agrees that that is a nonsensical argument, because surely that only demonstrates the need for such a service and how much capacity could increase on the line.

Luckily, there is an existing rail line between Sutton and West Croydon, so to make the change, all that would have to happen is that the trains would quite simply have to keep on going and not stop. Of course, I realise that things are never quite as simple as that, and there would be difficulties with congestion and the potential timetable changes needed to deliver it, but I hope that the Minister agrees that the absence of the need for a large infrastructure project to see the idea through to completion would mean that it would be relatively easy to deliver, so would be worth the work to deliver it.

Finally, I wish to touch on the issue of roads and pavements, because all too often in conversations about transport, roads and pavements are left out. As a borough with one of the highest car ownership rates in London, more than a quarter of journeys are done on foot but more than half are done by car, according to the 2011 census, so conversations about roads and pavements are incredibly important for residents of Carshalton and Wallington. They are also important because just as many—if not more—residents commute south into Surrey by car as commute north into the city by train.

When I talked about buses, I mentioned the difficulties of travelling south, and I wish to outline a problem which I believe many outer-London boroughs suffer: working across the Greater London Authority boundary. The border between the GLA and Surrey County Council is much firmer and more cumbersome than those between the London boroughs, and understandably so for many reasons. However, that presents difficulties when talking about transport, because in essence TfL can look only north and Surrey has no jurisdiction in the area at all. The road network between Sutton and Surrey therefore needs to be strong to allow traffic to flow more easily without causing congestion. Action must also be taken to tackle potholes, and I am grateful for the Government’s pothole funding, which has drastically increased the amount of money that Sutton Council has to repair our roads.

It is also important to make sure that our roads and pavements are safe for other road users, particularly pedestrians and cyclists. Again, I thank the Government for the funding to introduce new walking and cycling spaces. I am just sorry that the incompetent Lib Dem council in Sutton did not see fit to work collaboratively to discuss the proposals, despite other councils managing to do so.

The new spaces must be safe and effective; I worry that sometimes cycling routes can be seen as a box-ticking exercise, with a few yards put here and there across boroughs that do not connect up and ultimately lead to nowhere. Any such measures must, though, strike a balance with other road users, such as cars, to ensure that there is no congestion on our roads. As we work towards a greener future, in which safer roads will play an incredibly important part. it is vital to offer incentives to walk or cycle and, indeed, to use electric vehicles. I would be grateful if the Minister could say a little about how the Government are investing in safer streets.

In bringing my remarks to a close, I would just observe that transport is incredibly important for many reasons. It not only connects us but enables us to drive economic growth and it will play a massive part in tackling the climate emergency. Carshalton and Wallington has been left growing without the investment to match it and without reaping much reward from being a London borough. As one of the worst, if not the worst, connected borough in London, it is no longer acceptable to not get our fair share of transport investment. Some changes may take years, but there are those that could be achieved very quickly indeed. I hope the Minister will agree that work should advance on those as soon as possible. We need to unlock the Croydon bottleneck to allow more trains to run through the area and we need to make better use of bus services to connect with surrounding boroughs. The question mark over the tram needs erasing and replacing with a completion date. The London Overground needs to be extended to connect commuters to new destinations, and our roads and pavements must be safe and well maintained for all users.