Rail Services (South London Line)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:13 am on 14th July 2010.

Alert me about debates like this

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.