Rail Services (South London Line)

– in Westminster Hall at 10:57 am on 14th July 2010.

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Photo of Kate Hoey Kate Hoey Labour, Vauxhall 10:57 am, 14th July 2010

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this debate on the future of the south London line, which serves my constituency, and specifically the services that run through Clapham High Street and Wandsworth Road stations, which are absolutely essential in allowing many of my constituents to travel directly into central London. Although the Minister is, of course, aware of the situation and has had many briefings on it, I will set out the background, because it is by nature quite complex and his Department, ultimately, will make the final decision.

The south London line currently runs twice an hour in a loop between London Bridge and Victoria stations, stopping at South Bermondsey, Queens Road Peckham, Peckham Rye, Denmark Hill, Clapham High Street and Wandsworth Road. It serves the wide south London community by providing access to two key interchange stations, London Bridge and Victoria, which are the centres of much employment. In February 2009, Transport for London announced the funding and go-ahead for phase 2 of the East London line extension, which will supersede much of our service to the east, running to Canada Water, Shoreditch High Street and up to Dalston.

However, it is the proposals to the west that concern my constituents and me and that have worried so many of the local amenity groups, councillors and societies, such as the Clapham Society. The link to London Bridge was to be preserved by the proposed new line from Victoria to Bellingham, but Network Rail decided to axe that, on the understanding that the direct route to Victoria would be retained. We were also promised longer platforms at those stations and told that the money was available for that, so I hope that the Minister will be able to tell me about that or find out where the money that had been earmarked has gone.

Transport for London proposes that, rather than continuing to take residents into Victoria, where so many of them work, including many civil servants, those services will instead be diverted to Clapham Junction from May 2012. For those who hear the words "Clapham Junction" and immediately think, "Well, that's Clapham, so what's the difference?", I want to say that it may have the name "Clapham" but it is not Clapham. None of my constituents would consider Clapham Junction to be in Clapham. It is not convenient for them; it is not a route that they currently use to get into central London.

Clapham Junction lies further out, so passengers would have to travel further away from central London to change on to trains at Clapham Junction, which is already, as I am sure some Members know, an incredibly overcrowded station. The journey would be longer, and would mean inconvenient platform changes and even more crowded trains. It would, literally, be a backward step. As the Minister knows, Clapham Junction has been cited as the worst interchange station in London, with crowded corridors and congestion. Clapham Junction is therefore not in any way a solution, and I understand that the funding to improve the station will probably not now be available.

What is being offered, therefore, is an increased orbital service for an area that depends on its radial service to where people want to go, and for which there is increased demand. That is demonstrated by the alternative route that people who are near enough will use: the Northern line. If the proposals go through, they will force many more people who currently use the train at Clapham High Street on to the Northern line at Clapham North and Clapham Common stations, which are dangerously overcrowded in the morning and are commonly recognised as needing reconstruction. The severe Northern line congestion suggests that there is a desperate need for alternative radial routes. If anyone ever wants to see what real crowding on a tube is, I suggest that they go to one of those Northern line stations at morning rush hour, when people sometimes have to wait for the second or third train before boarding. Cutting the alternatives into Victoria will, far from relieving congestion, have the opposite effect. People who live near Wandsworth Road are not even near a Northern line station, so they do not even have access to such an option.

What adds to the irony of the situation that has been proposed is that two trains an hour will still go to Victoria, but only at off-peak times, when commuter demand will not exist and take-up will be lowest. The outcome is that far more useful services are to be removed, and scarce money spent putting on a four-trains-per-hour service to Clapham Junction in the morning when there is no demand. I appreciate that the Minister might not yet know his London intimately, although I am sure that if he stays in his position longer he will, but this proposal is like arguing that because Richmond has orbital services it should lose all trains to Waterloo or Victoria, or that because Croydon has the East London line extension it should not have trains to London Bridge. That is really what Transport for London is proposing for Clapham High Street and Wandsworth Road.

Beyond that issue, which affects my constituents so much-although the decision has not finally been made-I have deep concerns about the process that has been followed and about how we have reached this point. The Department for Transport instructed Transport for London to work with London TravelWatch to consider the options for the future of the service, including the development of modelling to consider the future use of each option to serve my area, and many concerns have been raised about the modelling that was done to predict demand. Rather than considering consumer views data, the decisions relied on abstract projections over a 60-year period. I am not an expert, but I and many experts other than those who ordered that kind of modelling, are not convinced that it accurately reflects the desire for orbital travel, the unwillingness to interchange at Clapham Junction or the costs of the relative options.

London TravelWatch rubber-stamped the TfL proposal to end the London Bridge service, and since then there has been an ongoing discussion about the Victoria end of the service. What has emerged from the discussions is the so-called option 7, which did not exist in the previous shortlist but was brought in right at the end, although there were a number of other options. It seems to have been agreed as the way forward. This option ends peak-time access into central London and diverts people instead to Clapham Junction, forcing them on to the very overcrowded Northern line. It diverts long-distance Kent coastal services that come through to Victoria, allowing them to stop at various places-but not in my constituency-and increasing the journey time for those commuters, without doing anything to help anyone living in the Clapham area.

London TravelWatch seems to have considered that an achievement, even though its chair, Sharon Grant, originally referred to the impact on my constituents as a "major disbenefit" with "a substantial disadvantage," and went on to talk about how terrible and overcrowded the Northern line was. Suddenly, Sharon Grant and TravelWatch seem to have decided, for whatever reason, that the Northern line is no longer overcrowded, or a problem, and that this proposal is the best option.

Option 7 brings the worst of both worlds, inconveniencing longer-distance passengers and leaving the worst-affected stations without their vital links to Victoria, forcing passengers on to the most congested part of the London underground. It is an option that, from a common-sense point of view, does not bring value for money. Even if it is cheaper at the moment, the longer-term cost makes it a clear example of false economy. London TravelWatch's remit seems strange to me. Is it not to be an advocate for the people of London? Does it actually also work for people in the wider south-east, such as Kent? It has abandoned the interests of my constituents in London. When Network Rail approved the axing of the south London line to London Bridge, TravelWatch agreed, on the condition that the Victoria link was kept.

Now TravelWatch has endorsed the axing of the Victoria link for Clapham High Street and Wandsworth Road, in a double betrayal of south London. Particularly contemptible is that TravelWatch, and everybody until early June, was reassuring all the campaigners in our area of what it called a "positive outcome." London TravelWatch is meant to be the voice of users, but it has, I believe, used its position to compromise the compromises and undermine stakeholder concerns, acting well outside its job as an advocate for users in London. It is almost like a defence barrister going into court and beginning to collaborate with the prosecution.

London TravelWatch's excuses about unaffordability and balancing the interests of Londoners do not wash. Successfully endorsing the removal of central London links is not acceptable for a watchdog whose remit is to represent commuters. There is no balance, particularly as it has reneged on categorical assurances and views about keeping Victoria links for Clapham High Street and Wandsworth Road. TravelWatch does not, in my view, interact with stakeholders, and is far too close to the rail industry to be an effective advocate, still less one that gets £1.6 million in funding from the London assembly.

I know that the London assembly is rightly considering TravelWatch's funding position. Perhaps I should not say this so bluntly, but I am fairly blunt: I slightly worry that perhaps TravelWatch's involvement with and support for TfL was something to do with its wanting to get TfL to be very much supportive of the continuation of the large amount of funding. In effect, my commuters pay to subsidise a watchdog to remove their services and make their journeys longer, more costly and more crowded. It is an irony that what we pay per year to keep TravelWatch going could give Clapham High Street and Wandsworth Road the four trains per hour service to Victoria.

This all seems to be very much a botched compromise; none of the proposed changes will benefit any of my constituents in the slightest. I believe that they would agree with me and that they would rather keep things as they are than lose an important commuter service for the sake of four trains an hour going to Clapham Junction, which is not a station that they want to, or will, go to. We would rather hold out for future funding to lengthen the platforms, thereby allowing the introduction of the Victoria to Bellingham service, which would properly serve my constituents with four trains an hour to central London.

I am sure that the Minister will be interested to know that TfL spent £18 million on bonuses last year, up from £10 million in 2008. That suggests that it has sufficient money to keep the orbital links. As I said earlier, we should challenge why, as part of a compromise or of making it feel that it is doing something, it will put on four East London line trains to Clapham Junction when two would be enough and would release the capital and capacity for the Victoria services to carry on during the rush hour.

I do not expect the Minister to give me a detailed response on the nitty-gritty of what I have just said. He will probably give me some of the lines that have been put out by TfL, but the final decision on the matter rests with him. I am pleased that I have been granted a meeting to which I will be able to bring some of the local people who are experts on the subject. They may not work for TfL or TravelWatch and they may not earn millions a year, but they actually know what they are talking about. Frankly, they are the kind of people who I hope the Minister and the new coalition Government will start to listen to, rather than the so-called experts who are paid huge amounts of money, but, as I am sure the Minister knows, sometimes forget who they work for and who pays their salaries.

I thank Mr Speaker for giving me an opportunity to raise this matter. I am concerned that we will lose a service and that that will not be in the interests of London as a whole. It will not give value for money, and it certainly will not do anything to solve the congestion problems in south London.

Photo of Heidi Alexander Heidi Alexander Labour, Lewisham East 11:12 am, 14th July 2010

I congratulate my hon. Friend Kate Hoey on securing this debate. I was interested in her comments about the Victoria to Bellingham service, which would have four trains per hour into Victoria, and her preference for waiting for it to come in. A number of my constituents in Lewisham East rely on train services from Bellingham, which is, in effect, a public transport desert. I would very much welcome a service that ran more frequently from Bellingham into Victoria. I wonder whether the Minister, when he responds to my hon. Friend, could give me some guarantee that that option will be fully explored and investigated.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport 11:13 am, 14th July 2010

I congratulate Kate Hoey on securing this debate and on providing an opportunity for hon. Members to discuss rail services in her constituency and further afield. I have always admired the hon. Lady, who is an independent person. Independence of mind is an attribute that we could do with more of in the House of Commons.

The planned changes to south London line services are a matter of concern to several Members, and officials have informed me that the Department for Transport has received significant correspondence on the matter over the past few months. I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for Transport, will meet the hon. Lady in the coming days to discuss the issue in greater detail. Obviously, I will ensure that my right hon. Friend has access to the exchanges in this Adjournment debate.

It is probably worth starting my response by setting out the background to the proposed changes to the south London line, with some details about the existing service. The current service, provided by rail operator Southern, operates every 30 minutes in each direction between London Bridge and Victoria via Denmark Hill and Peckham Rye, including stops at Wandsworth Road and Clapham High Street. Two-car trains run for most of the day, with four-car trains provided for the morning peak. That is the only service for Wandsworth Road and Clapham High Street stations, all other stations on the route being served by other train services. I take the hon. Lady's point about the withdrawal of services to London Bridge and Victoria, and note her dramatic phrase, "a double betrayal".

It should be noted that Clapham North underground station is located some 300 yards from Clapham High Street station, and provides services to the west end, the City and Morden as well as connections to the rest of the underground network. However, I am not ignoring the points the hon. Lady rightly made about overcrowding. As an occasional commuter on the Northern line, I am well aware of the problems. It is also worth noting-I shall come back to this later-that the Northern line will benefit from enhanced capacity over the next couple of years as a result of the planned upgrade that forms part of Transport for London's investment programme.

The latest information on demand levels at these stages, which is provided by Southern, indicates that Clapham High Street is the start or end point of some 850 journeys per weekday, around a quarter of which have Victoria as their origin or destination. By comparison, Wandsworth Road is used for some 630 journeys per day, with two thirds starting or ending at Victoria.

As the hon. Lady knows, several of the planned service changes in her area of south London are required because of the start of the main works at London Bridge associated with the Thameslink upgrade programme. She will be aware that work on the Thameslink programme has already commenced across London: Blackfriars and Farringdon stations are already being rebuilt, platforms outside London are being lengthened and preparatory works at Borough market have begun. When completed, the Thameslink programme will enhance the frequency and capacity of train services throughout the centre of London, improving connectivity north to south and creating new journey opportunities while helping to relieve the Northern line north of London Bridge.

However, while works are carried out at London Bridge, the capacity of the station-the number of trains it can accommodate-will be reduced. We all recognise that any reduction in the number of services that can go into London Bridge is not ideal, but rebuilding and enhancing a busy operational railway is not possible without some disruption.

The original plan, as consulted on by Network Rail as part of the south London route utilisation strategy document, was to divert the south London line service away from London Bridge and to create a new stopping service from Victoria to Bellingham, as the hon. Lady and Heidi Alexander recognise. Bellingham is south of Catford and is a convenient location where trains can terminate. The new service would have reduced the number of train movements into London Bridge while maintaining key connections to and from London Victoria from Wandsworth Road and Clapham High Street as well as from Peckham Rye and Denmark Hill. I note Members' support for that option. It was the Department's intention to implement a Victoria to Bellingham service in place of the existing Victoria to London Bridge service while works at London Bridge were carried out, but the service changes made by TfL-I shall come to those in a second-mean that the alternative service strategy will not now be implemented.

I turn to the East London line extension phase 2 to Clapham Junction and why the proposed Victoria to Bellingham service will not now go ahead. The south London route utilisation strategy developed by Network Rail highlighted the potential benefits that the extension of the East London line would bring to the area of south London represented by the hon. Member for Vauxhall. However, in 2008, TfL and the Mayor concluded that the £75 million scheme was not affordable within the constraints of the TfL budget. Recognising the value of the extension project, the Department offered to provide an additional £15 million as grant to TfL and to support a £19 million funding application to the Office of Rail Regulation for Network Rail works to implement the project, so I think that the Department has been helpful.

As part of the funding proposal, TfL requested the withdrawal of the planned replacement south London line service to Bellingham. The money raised from that was to be diverted to the capital costs of the East London line extension-the saving is the equivalent of £24 million over 10 years. Under the devolved arrangements for London, the Mayor and TfL were, and are, fully at liberty to request such changes, given the powers granted to them over DFT-specified train services. Under the arrangements, TfL can propose, and pay for, services additional to the Department's base franchise specification. Alternatively, it is entitled to propose reductions in service levels and keep any savings made. The latter approach is what TfL proposed in respect of the Victoria to Bellingham service.

It would have been apparent that the proposed service changes would have meant that Wandsworth Road and Clapham High Street would lose all direct services to London Victoria, with passengers instead being required to travel via a change of train at Clapham Junction. However, train frequency at both locations would double from two to four trains per hour in each direction, with a far wider range of services available from Clapham Junction, including to Waterloo, stations on the west London line and the wider Southern and South West Trains networks, although I appreciate they may not be destinations that all the hon. Lady's constituents want to reach.

Photo of Jane Ellison Jane Ellison Conservative, Battersea

I apologise in case I have to leave before the end of the Minister's remarks, because I have to ask a question in the main Chamber at 11.30 am.

Slightly fewer of my constituents are affected than those of Kate Hoey, but I want to pick up on the point about Clapham Junction, because one problem is that it is not an effective interchange, despite being pretty much the busiest one in the country. I should like the Minister to recognise that the strategic long-term upgrade of Clapham Junction-I do not just mean the £20 million announced in March 2010 before the election-to reflect its status as the busiest interchange in the country is essential to making a lot more services attractive to a great many more people, irrespective of the direction from which they are coming into that station.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her comments.

I stress that we, as a Government, are committed to devolution. We are talking about an earlier example of devolution to TfL and the Mayor, so whatever the Department for Transport thinks we live within the existing legal framework. Therefore, the Department may have fewer powers in this regard than in respect of other rail matters elsewhere in the country.

TfL made a judgment that the East London line service to Clapham Junction provided better overall benefits than the south London line to Bellingham. Clearly, Members present do not share that judgment. It is entirely appropriate that TFL, which is London's transport planning body, should make this judgment and assess the trade-offs between the different service proposals. Ministers in the previous Administration accepted the guidance provided by the Mayor on that being the best use of the limited available resources. If the Mayor and TfL make such decisions-the coalition agreement states that the Government believe that decisions should be taken at a more local level-it is important that they stand behind the consequences of such decisions when they are made, including the impacts on passengers at stations such as Wandsworth Road and Clapham High Street.

The decision not to implement the proposed London Victoria to Bellingham service was requested by TfL and the Mayor to help fund the East London line service. Implementing both the Bellingham service and the East London line would have been ideal, but both services were not affordable and TfL and the Mayor judged that the East London line extension provided more benefits than the diverted south London line. A judgment call was made by TfL in light of the financial constraints it faced. As is the case with such funding agreements, a number of conditions were attached to the funding given by the Department. TfL was fully aware of those conditions before it signed the funding offer.

Importantly, the Department was conscious of the need to keep stakeholders informed of any changes and included a requirement for TfL to inform key stakeholders about the route of the proposed changes. The Department also included a clause stopping East London line services operating into London Victoria. If TfL decided to operate into Victoria we would need to renegotiate, and perhaps reduce, the £24 million funding offer. This may seem an odd condition, but it was put in place because other train operators would have had a claim on the Department for loss of revenue if TfL operated services into London Victoria.

The hon. Member for Vauxhall mentioned her concerns about London TravelWatch. She is aware that following the proposed changes, and significant negative public reaction, TfL and London TravelWatch undertook a further exercise to investigate what mitigation measures could be implemented to resolve some of the problems that stakeholders identified. That study recently reported and the Mayor of London wrote to the Secretary of State regarding its conclusions.

The study suggested stopping some peak-time mainline services at Peckham Rye and Denmark Hill and implementing a new off-peak Victoria to Bromley South stopping service, which would call at Wandsworth Road and Clapham High Street. However, in all its study work, TfL has not addressed the hon. Lady's key concern regarding peak period train services from Wandsworth Road and Clapham High Street to London Victoria. The study was, of course, led by TfL with London TravelWatch and they will need to answer the question about why such services cannot be accommodated, but I understand that a key constraint is the length of platforms at stations, and the costs of extending them, which limits the services that they believe can call at those stations at peak times.

Of course, we in the Department will study the conclusions of the study carefully, but I should make it clear that the Department is unlikely to be willing to fund the mitigation measures that the Mayor is proposing, given that the issues arose because the Mayor sought the withdrawal of the proposed Bellingham service.

Photo of Kate Hoey Kate Hoey Labour, Vauxhall

I really appreciate what the Minister has said so far. Will he clarify something? I appreciate that how we got here is to do with TfL and the Mayor, and TravelWatch, and that it is probably more for Londoners to take up, rather than for the Minister to do so. Could he or the Department say, "No, we want you to look at this matter again", particularly the peak services between the two stations that I have mentioned and Victoria? Or is the Minister told about these things by TfL and the Mayor, with the idea being, in theory, that he is meant to say yes or no-although actually the answer is always yes?

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport

The hon. Lady makes an important point. I want my response to be exactly right because I do not want to mislead hon. Members, so I will reflect and give the hon. Lady an answer in a moment.

I understand that implementation of the proposed service is likely to cost about £1 million a year, which the Mayor is seeking from the Department. Given our current funding constraints and the likely reductions in available resources in future, an exceptional case would need to be made for any such funding to be implemented.

I note the hon. Lady's concerns about London TravelWatch, which is not the responsibility of the Department for Transport, as she is aware. London TravelWatch is an independent watchdog sponsored and funded by the London assembly, which is part of the Greater London authority. Any comments regarding London TravelWatch, concerns about its involvement in the study, or how it functions should therefore be directed to the GLA and the Mayor as well as to its chair, Sharon Grant, whom the hon. Lady mentioned. The hon. Lady might also want to contact Passenger Focus, because although London TravelWatch is the predominant body in London-Passenger Focus tends to let it have its say and take the lead there-Passenger Focus has responsibility for rail issues nationally so it may be interested in some of her comments.

In response to the hon. Lady's earlier point, TfL made its proposals to the DFT, as I mentioned. We can ask it to look at the matter again, but doing so risks the DFT being forced to fund such a proposal. As I understand it, we have to be careful not to enter into a discussion with TfL that in any way makes us liable for the decisions of the Mayor, but I will ask my right hon. Friend the Minister of State to give the hon. Lady further clarification about that important point when they meet.

Photo of Kate Hoey Kate Hoey Labour, Vauxhall

I thank the Minister for that helpful comment. It seems silly to put the matter through departmental bureaucracy if the Department can never say, "No, we don't like this." Could the Department say, "Look, actually, in the end it's probably better for this not to be changed at all," and not put in the money? Who is benefiting from the extra money that is going in?

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport

A number of factors must be taken into account, including, first, the devolved powers for the Mayor and TfL, which most Londoners would probably support-we are trying to devolve powers away from central Government; secondly, the legal restraints and legislation made in respect of the Mayor and TfL; and thirdly, the consequences for other rail operators. There is a complicated matrix to consider and I do not want to give a misleading answer today, so I will draw the hon. Lady's concerns and comments directly to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Minister of State to ensure that she gets a proper, full answer when they meet.

The East London line will bring significant benefits to the part of south London that we are talking about, providing four trains an hour regularly between Clapham Junction and Dalston seven days a week and providing connections to key interchanges to other parts of the London transport network, such as at Canada Water, for example.

On the Northern line, and crowding issues at Clapham North station, the hon. Lady will know that London Underground is planning an upgrade of the Northern line to be implemented in 2012, which will increase frequency on the southern end of the route from the current 28 trains per hour to 32. The additional capacity will help to relieve crowding issues on that section of the network. There are concerns about the spending review and funding arrangements, but we hope that the Mayor will be able to deliver the upgrade on the Northern line, as previously announced.

Members have mentioned Clapham Junction station and its use as an interchange station for London Overground services. It must be remembered that in Network Rail's plans to 2014, suburban trains through Clapham Junction to both Waterloo and Victoria will be lengthened to 10-car services. Works are also already under way to improve the interchange facilities at Clapham Junction by providing new lifts, and plans are in place to improve access to the station, for example, by providing a new entrance.

Although the changes to train services in south London are largely driven by the need to accommodate train service changes at London Bridge, the proposed Victoria to Bellingham service would have mitigated a number of the impacts of those changes. The changes to train services at Wandsworth Road and Clapham High Street and the severing of the link to London Victoria were made at the request of the Mayor of London, under the arrangements that cover rail services in London.

We will, of course, reflect on the comments made by hon. Members during this debate and consider the issues that have been raised.

Sitting suspended.