Rail Services (South London Line)

Part of the debate – 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.