South London Line

– in Westminster Hall at 6:30 pm on 11th November 2009.

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Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change 6:30 pm, 11th November 2009

I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for having chosen this debate for this afternoon. I am conscious that, in comparison with the subject of the last debate, this issue might be regarded as parochial. I accept that it is not in the same league as ending the nuclear arms race, 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. I am grateful to the Minister for attending the debate, and I note the presence of Martin Linton, who also has an important constituency interest in this matter. I will be happy to accept a contribution from him later in the debate.

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.

Photo of Martin Linton Martin Linton Labour, Battersea

Before the hon. Gentleman moves on, let me say something on that last point. As Baroness Chalker has lived in my constituency, I am sure that she would agree that the whole of south London suffers because, although it is criss-crossed with railway lines, the railway companies often put the travel needs of south Londoners well behind those of longer-distance commuters. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change

I absolutely agree; that has certainly been the case. My constituency has many roads that have railway lines going over them, and in the old days, there were many more local stations. 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.

The next battle that I fought was about the Jubilee line extension that Mrs. Thatcher's Government wanted. They were in discussions with the people at Canary Wharf about paying for it, but 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.

We then had a battle to make the East London line connect with things, because it used to be the shortest of the tube lines running north to south under the Thames, ending at New Cross and New Cross Gate in the south. That was closed for a long time and we feared that it would not be reopened, but we were successful and won the argument to reopen it. It has now been closed to be turned into an Overground line, which is due to open next year and is on time. It will run from Highbury and Islington in the north to Crystal Palace and West Croydon in the south, and there will be new stations, which is very good, and which we are grateful for.

The debate is not about either/or. That line is on target, on time and will be a valuable addition to the transport system in London. It will be well used. In the run-up to the Olympics, and during and after the games, it will be extremely valuable for connecting all the people coming in from the south-east of England and saving them from having to go through the centre of London.

Photo of Martin Linton Martin Linton Labour, Battersea

I, too, welcome the development of the East London line. I understand that trains have already run on the tracks as far as Dalston and that the works are ahead of schedule. The East London line phase 2 was agreed thanks to my right hon. Friend Mr. Hoon when he was Secretary of State for Transport. It is vital that the official EU notice of the East London line phase 2 contract should be signed next month and is not delayed. I understand that that might be delayed, but that would be a great shame at this stage for a project that is so needed and that has been on time so far.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change

The hon. Gentleman and I share a common interest in ensuring that that really good idea is taken through to completion, and I endorse his intervention completely.

Our fourth battle was over the Thameslink line, but that was another example of the interests of the locals being bluntly overridden in the end. The options were whether the Thameslink service, which in itself is a good thing-a north-south, through-London, cross-capital service linking Luton airport in the north to Gatwick in the south-should go via the Elephant and Castle and Herne Hill or via London Bridge and the other way. After many public inquiries it was decided that it should go via London Bridge. Although that was well received by commuters on the line, it was not well received locally because it has meant the demolition of a listed building at Borough market, the alteration of other listed buildings and the moving of the market itself. Many of us feared that the character of that fantastic mediaeval wholesale market, which is still working and very popular, might be put at risk. We lost that because of the point to which the hon. Gentleman referred: in the end the interests of the wider community overrode those of the local community.

There are also other, smaller consequences of that decision. For example, if one wants a night service on the Thameslink line one now has to go to St. Pancras to join the service. Debates are still ongoing about the removal of the international terminal from Waterloo to St. Pancras, and the Minister helpfully saw a group of us a few days ago to discuss the future of Waterloo station, because clearly that also needs redevelopment.

My last specific point relates to the South London line, which is an orbital, loop line running from London Bridge in my constituency. It runs through South Bermondsey, which is also in my constituency, Queens Road Peckham, Peckham Rye, Denmark Hill, Clapham High Street, Wandsworth Road and Battersea Park and arrives in Victoria. Just as we have a North London line, so we have a South London line, and it has been a very useful service. I clearly have a specific interest in two stations and their users. Today's debate is timely because the Minister's colleague, Mr. Khan, met today with the Mayor of London, Members of the Greater London assembly, including my colleague, Caroline Pidgeon, who is a Liberal Democrat assembly member, the Southwark rail users group, the Lambeth rail users group, representatives of the King's Health Partners and others. It is also timely because we know that there is an important meeting on 24 November as part of the consultation on the options.

My arguments are simple. My key argument is that 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. That is important for three reasons. First, a growing number of people live and work in and visit boroughs such as mine, which has 250,000 people, and the other south London boroughs affected. For them, it is the most important route. If we are encouraging people to use public transport, we should encourage them to use the South London line.

Secondly, there is a particularly large benefit in having a direct line service from London Bridge and South Bermondsey to Denmark Hill, a recently refurbished and hugely improved station. That 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' 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.

Lastly, although the numbers are not as big, Millwall football stadium, 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.

Photo of Martin Linton Martin Linton Labour, Battersea

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that some other stations on the South London line would suffer even more? I am thinking particularly of Wandsworth Road. It would lose its direct link with Victoria, which also serves my constituency as well as that of my neighbour. Battersea Park would be cut off entirely from the South London line. Would it not be preferable to allow selective door opening at those stations? 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 from continuing a direct link to Victoria from those stations.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change

The hon. Gentleman makes an absolutely clear point. The options study is now on the table. People have accepted that we need to consider the options. There is equivocation about whether we should accept that we cannot get trains all the way around the loop to London Bridge. We need to be absolutely clear that we start with a service that keeps the line running all the way around the loop, for the reasons that he and I argue, and then work out how to add to infrastructure, train length and so on as the need arises.

I want to finish by giving some figures. There are 25,000 members of staff at the health and academic institutions on the sites that are affected at Guy's hospital, in London Bridge, and at King's College hospital and the Maudsley hospital, in Denmark Hill. There are 15,000 students and academics across the three campus sites at those hospitals.

I am conscious that this is an issue of both technicality and funding. I would be really grateful to hear from the Minister today that the Government will not say that they oppose the idea of continuing to look for a way of keeping the service between Victoria and London Bridge, although I obviously understand that we would have to look at how the funding would be raised to keep the service. However, if in theory it is acceptable to the Government, who are a key stakeholder, the Government can come in to bat with Members of Parliament, such as the hon. Gentleman and myself, with Transport for London and others with an interest, to ensure that we keep a service and do not lose it.

If we are arguing for public transport, to reduce a service or to make public transport on the trains of south London more difficult at this stage seems to be completely contrary to all logic. I hope, therefore, that the Government can give us a helpful reply.

Photo of Chris Mole Chris Mole Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport 6:46 pm, 11th November 2009

First, I want to congratulate Simon Hughes on securing this debate and on making the case so well for rail services in this area of south London. In the time that I have, I may struggle to cover the complexity of the issues involved and he may not find that the shape of my response entirely matches the way he has put his questions. However, I will hopefully cover much of the ground as we go along.

I am aware that this issue is also of interest to a number of other Members of Parliament, given the correspondence I have received over the summer, to other stakeholders and indeed to the wider public. As was mentioned earlier, the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my right hon. Friend Mr. Khan, met a delegation from the London assembly, including the Mayor of London, earlier this afternoon to discuss this very issue.

It is probably worth starting my response to the points that were raised by setting out the background to the proposed changes on the South London line and some details about the existing service. It is also worth making it clear that, when referring to the South London line, I am referring to the service from London Bridge to London Victoria via Peckham Rye and Denmark Hill-not forgetting, of course, South Bermondsey station, which is used by the hon. Gentleman's constituents.

The current service operates every 30 minutes in each direction between London Victoria and London Bridge, and it is operated by two-car trains through most of the day, with four-car trains provided in the morning peak period. It provides the only service for Wandsworth Road and Clapham High Street stations, with all other stations on the line being served by other train 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.

I also want to give some background to the Thameslink work at London Bridge and planned service changes. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, works on the Thameslink programme have already commenced across London. From late 2012, some time after the Olympics, London Bridge will become the focus for the project. While works are carried out, the capacity of London Bridge, in terms of the number of trains it can accommodate, will be reduced. 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.

Service changes will also be required on other routes into London Bridge. Indeed, those changes were highlighted in the Department's consultation on the South Central franchise last year. 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.

For all the reasons noted above, 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.

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.

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. 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.

Therefore, out of an estimated cost of £75 million, the Department will be funding some £58 million of the project, with TfL funding around a quarter of the costs. That was a change that TfL was fully at liberty to request, given the powers granted to it over Department for Transport-specified train services. Similar powers also exist for the passenger transport executives in other metropolitan areas.

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.

Photo of Martin Linton Martin Linton Labour, Battersea

I thank my hon. Friend for restating the Government's firm belief in the East London line extension phase 2, which is going ahead. However, does he not think that TfL could easily reinstate the direct link from Wandsworth Road or Clapham to Victoria simply by inserting additional stops and extending operating hours on one of the many other services that go through such stations on their way to Victoria?

Photo of Chris Mole Chris Mole Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

I advise my hon. Friend that we will be exploring more options as we go forward.

As with any such funding agreements, there are a number of conditions attached to the funding, of which TfL was fully aware before it signed up to the offer. Conscious of the need to keep stakeholders informed on any changes, the Department included within the agreement a clause that requires TfL to inform key stakeholders on the route of the changes proposed.

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 East London line will bring significant benefits to this part of south London. It will provide four trains per hour between Clapham Junction and Dalston seven days a week. The service will be provided by new four- car high-density units like those that TfL is introducing on the North London line and East London line phase 1 when it opens next year. It will provide connections with key interchanges on to other parts of the London transport network, such as at Canada Water for the Jubilee line, Shadwell for the Docklands Light Railway and Whitechapel, with interchanges for the District and Hammersmith and City lines. It will provide a connection with Crossrail, when that project is complete, and with Clapham Junction, for Southern and South West Trains and other London Overground services. Importantly, it will also aid the regeneration of the Peckham Rye, Camberwell and Denmark Hill areas by significantly improving access to jobs across London.

Transport for London estimates that the East London line phase 2 increases by 125,000 the number of jobs potentially available within a one-hour commute of this area. That compares with 36,000 from the proposed Bellingham service. I recognise that there are some downsides to these plans and I understand the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend about a possible delay, but I am not aware of any delay in relation to the East London line phase 2. He really should talk to TfL about that.

Between Victoria, Denmark Hill and Peckham Rye, passengers will not, under the current plan, be able to access Victoria directly in the late evenings after 8 pm and on Sundays, but they will be able to travel via Clapham Junction. Passengers from Wandsworth Road and Clapham High Street stations will also need to travel via Clapham Junction to access London Victoria, but the service frequency will double from every 30 to every 15 minutes and will also allow passengers to access services to both London Victoria and Waterloo from Clapham Junction. It must also be remembered that according to Network Rail's plans to 2014, suburban train services through Clapham Junction to both Waterloo and Victoria will be lengthened to 10-car services in 2013-14.

To mitigate the impact of these changes, TfL, with London TravelWatch, is looking at how some of these gaps in service can be addressed by providing additional services or amending those that are provided. I hope that that addresses my hon. Friend's question. I have also asked officials from the Department to ask Southeastern how it might propose to fill some of these gaps in service and what the associated costs might be.

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.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change

I hope that the Minister will mention the fundamental benefit of having direct access between the parts of London where King's and Maudsley hospitals are based and Guy's hospital campus.

Photo of Chris Mole Chris Mole Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

I am coming to that.

I recognise that train services from South Bermondsey will reduce from six trains per hour off-peak today to four trains per hour after 2012. Again, I recognise that that is not ideal, but a four-train-per-hour service is still a good service.

Hon. Members have raised concerns about severing the link between Denmark Hill and London Bridge and the links between the hospitals at Denmark Hill-King's College and Maudsley-and Guy's at London Bridge. I am aware of the vociferous campaign that the foundation trust at King's College has led against these changes, but it is important to look at the proposed changes together. The proposed package of services to Denmark Hill will improve access for patients and staff to the hospital, not detract from it. Most services through Denmark Hill will either operate to a similar pattern to today's or will be enhanced. We have already seen services through Denmark Hill extended northwards through Blackfriars as part of the first phase of the Thameslink programme, with services operating to Kentish Town providing direct services from St. Pancras and Farringdon to Denmark Hill, increasing accessibility from the north.

Southeastern is planning some further enhancements to the Dartford to Victoria service from December. The East London line will extend these improvements. By linking with Clapham Junction, it will be significantly easier to access the hospitals from across south and south-west London with just one interchange. Disability improvement schemes at Clapham Junction, which I have debated with my hon. Friend before, are already under way. Network Rail plans further works at that station before 2014.

The links to the north-east of London are equally important. Both links will allow more people from across London to access services at the hospitals without a need to change trains in central London: they are currently forced to change trains at either London Bridge or Victoria. TfL analysis has shown that around 30,000 more people will live within a 30-minute journey of King's College hospital as a result of these changes. It is also worth noting that there is already a staff bus linking the Guy's and King's College hospital sites, and staff and patients will still be able to access London Bridge via a change of trains at Peckham Rye. The frequency of trains between Denmark Hill and Peckham Rye will increase to eight per hour under these plans.

I understand that representatives from TfL have been in discussion with the governors at King's College hospital and are awaiting further information from them regarding trip-making by patients and staff to and from the hospital to assess who will gain and who will lose from these changes.

I ask hon. Members to look at the service changes on the South London line together. I understand the concerns of the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey about the changes at London Bridge, but I have to say to him that I have run out of time.