Dead cat on the line: How the Cannon Street train ‘plan’ distracts from the real issue of who runs our rail

Blackheath station by Julie Kertesz

Fears about new train timetables have focused on services from Blackheath station (photo by Julie Kertesz)

In political campaigning there’s a tactic known as the “dead cat strategy“. It’s best associated with the Conservatives’ campaign manager, Lynton Crosby.

Boris Johnson, no less, once explained it: “Let us suppose you are losing an argument… Your best bet in these circumstances is to perform a manoeuvre that a great campaigner describes as ‘throwing a dead cat on the table, mate’.

“Everyone will shout ‘Jeez, mate, there’s a dead cat on the table!’; in other words they will be talking about the dead cat, the thing you want them to talk about, and they will not be talking about the issue that has been causing you so much grief.”

Well, a dead cat’s been thrown on the railway line that goes through Eltham and Blackheath. And it’s stinking out any chance of having a sensible discussion about how to make south-east London’s rail network work more efficiently.

It starts with Transport for London having an idea…

Last year, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling refused to allow Transport for London to take control of Southeastern’s metro train network. TfL had correctly identified the flaws that beset our trains, and wanted to set about fixing them.

Those flaws included:

  • A fares system which means we pay more for a worse service than those on the Tube
  • The network is too complicated, which makes it unreliable, and needs investment to make it simpler (through altering junctions and improving interchanges) into identifiable “lines” – reducing the number of terminal stations each line serves.
  • There isn’t enough capacity on the network, but making it simpler would improve capacity
  • Some services aren’t frequent enough, but could be more frequent if the network was made simpler

The plan was universally applauded, but Grayling ignored all this, stuck his fingers in his ears and decided to reject TfL’s proposal.

Instead, he’s putting a new Kent franchise up for grabs, which includes local London services, There’s a consultation on right now into what to do with it.

It includes the suggestion that the network is too complicated and could be made simpler – one line, one terminal station. It’s not a million miles from what TfL proposed. But there’s been outrage.

SE London’s train service is complex

Thameslink map

Thameslink (seen here at Catford) tries to colour-code its different services

The Southeastern metro lines through Lewisham and Greenwich are fiendishly complicated. Just heading to Dartford alone there are four different routes, with three different central London terminals.

  • Cannon Street to Dartford via Greenwich and Woolwich – 6 trains per hour, evenly spaced out – this one is the simplest, as it can now only run to Cannon Street.
  • Charing Cross, Cannon Street or Victoria to Dartford via Lewisham and Bexleyheath – 6 trains per hour, but unevenly spaced out and heading to/from different London terminals.
  • Charing Cross or Cannon Street to Dartford via Sidcup – 4 trains per hour, half go to Charing Cross without calling at Lewisham, half to Cannon Street via Lewisham and New Cross.
  • Charing Cross to Gillingham via Lewisham, Woolwich and Dartford – 2 trains per hour. This is the one that goes through the tunnel under Blackheath, and a service TfL wouldn’t have taken over as it runs far beyond London.

And then there are the trains that run to Hayes and Orpington/Sevenoaks, some of which also skip Lewisham and New Cross. Confusing? Imagine if you could untie some of the knots and make this easier to understand.

Rail and tube map

Try colour-coding this…

Already, there’s been some simplification. As we’ve dealt with already, trains through Greenwich now only go to Cannon Street. This is currently inconvenient as their London Bridge platforms are being rebuilt, but should be much less of an issue once the job’s finished next year.

In the document for the new Southeastern franchise, there is a suggestion for a natural progression – that maybe all trains via Bexleyheath should also go to Cannon Street.

And it’s all kicked off, because people like their direct trains to Charing Cross and Victoria. But hang on…

Shoddy service on the Bexleyheath line

The current train service on the Bexleyheath line is pretty crap compared to what Greenwich line users enjoy, which (outside rush hours) is a train every 10 minutes in both directions. (Note: I’ve tweaked the examples here as I’d got the directions wrong earlier.)

At Lewisham, there are trains to Kidbrooke at 02, 08, and 14 past the hour – then nothing for 18 minutes before another flurry at 32, 38 and 44 past each hour. Then another 18 minutes with nothing, and so on. Not much fun if you’ve just got off the DLR and you’ve missed the 14 past. (It’s more even in the other direction, granted.)

If you’re coming from central London, then one train leaves from Victoria, one leaves from Charing Cross, one from Cannon Street. You’ll have to plan your going-home time pretty carefully, compared with Greenwich line users who can just rock up at Cannon Street (or London Bridge from next year) and be on a train within 10 minutes. (This is also useless if you want to start a business in this area – where will your staff/clients go if they want to come to you by train?)

So, making the service consistent and basing it around Cannon Street means our passenger at Lewisham waiting to go to Kidbrooke would benefit from a train every 10 minutes. That makes train travel attractive and takes pressure off local buses. And someone coming home from central London can just turn up at Cannon Street or London Bridge and be on their way home reasonably quickly, rather than pick one of three terminals and hope they get there on time.

The trade-off is that if you were heading into central London from Kidbrooke and you didn’t want to go to Cannon Street, you’d have to change at London Bridge for Charing Cross, and Lewisham for Victoria.

Let’s assume – and this is a big assumption here – that all Sidcup line trains end up being routed into Victoria via Lewisham. The Sidcup line is only just down the road. If you live in Eltham and have a hospital appointment at King’s College Hospital, you can get a train from Mottingham or New Eltham to Denmark Hill. Or you can change at Lewisham. It shouldn’t be too bad.

Unfortunately, the Department for Transport has offered no detail, so it’s tough to come to an informed decision. But the principle isn’t a bad one – it needs investment to do right, though. And this is what TfL wanted to provide.

How do you solve a problem like Lewisham?

Lewisham station by Stephen Colebourne

The terrible junction at Lewisham which restricts capacity. Head left for Victoria or Charing Cross, right for Cannon Street. Photo by Stephen Colebourne.

Why simplify? Go to the London ends of the platforms at Lewisham and the answer will stare at you in the face – a junction where two sets of lines (from Blackheath and Hither Green) cross and go different ways (to Victoria/Charing Cross, and to Cannon Street).

A couple of years ago, this “diamond crossing” failed and services were disrupted for four weeks because the parts had to be specially-made.

So, if you’re Network Rail, you don’t want to be depending on it too much. Simplify the service, and if things do go wrong with this junction, there are fewer repercussions.

Transport for London talked about rebuilding this junction in its bid to take on Southeastern’s metro lines – which would enable more trains to get through, although it’s likely the flexibility of the current arrangement would go.

But the Department for Transport have no plans to rebuild this junction – this is essentially doing a chunk of what TfL wanted to do, but on the cheap. (Bidders for the new franchise are being told “no significant infrastructure projects are planned”).

And Lewisham station is, let’s be honest, a crap interchange. Some of the internal walls were knocked down a couple of years back to make things easier, but it needs flattening and rebuilding (and hopefully with the dangerous gap in the Hither Green/Ladywell-bound platform sorted out), with the interchange tunnels widened. Not a peep from the DfT about this either.

The TfL proposal

TfL Southeastern

What we could have won: Transport for London’s proposed network – taken from its business case

TfL’s suggestion wasn’t quite one line, one terminal. But it did involve pulling Charing Cross trains from the Bexleyheath line (except during peak hours). With a rebuilt Lewisham, it planned to offer six trains to Cannon Street and three to Victoria each hour.

The Sidcup line would have six trains to Charing Cross and three to Victoria, with extra rush hour trains to Cannon Street.

A rebuilt Lewisham would mean changing trains wouldn’t be a hassle. But this row means nobody’s demanding that.

The problem isn’t simplifying the lines – it’s that TfL isn’t doing it

Blackheath Society

So there’s a genuine problem that TfL has tried to solve – it even gave it a name, “metroisation” – and the DfT is also pondering it, albeit in a more cack-handed, tight-fisted manner.

So cue the outrage. Early out of the traps were the Bexley Tories, launching a campaign to Keep Bexley On Track – even though Bexley Council leader Teresa O’Neill wrote a foreword to the document proposing what she is opposing. (The tweet below also pictures Labour’s Teresa Pearce, representing Erith & Thamesmead.)

All this achieves is to shield the Tories from being criticised over Grayling’s refusal to let TfL have the train service.

Then Eltham MP Clive Efford joined the angry brigade. This became about “Tory cuts” – not about Grayling’s refusal to work with Sadiq Khan to give us all a better train service.

None of this screaming and shouting is going to get anyone to work on time. It’ll just perpetuate a run-down, knackered network that needs a revamp. None of this is going to take a single car off the road or relieve pressure on buses and other forms of transport. It won’t cut our fares to the level that the rest of London pays.

And none of this is going to get any more trains through Lewisham, which is what’s badly needed here. And the only people who were going to get this done were TfL. And this row has neatly distracted attention from Chris Grayling’s failure to give Londoners control over our trains.

I would have expected our local politicians to have seen through this and taken the opportunity to campaign on this and tell us all to tell the DfT to just hand them over. But instead, with one exception (Greenwich & Woolwich’s Labour candidate Matt Pennycook, who has taken a more nuanced view) they just went on about trains from Blackheath, Eltham and Bexleyheath. It’s disappointing, to put it politely.

A more sensible answer would simply be to demand no simplification takes place until Transport for London is given control of the Southeastern Metro network.

Rowing over trains at Blackheath allows the government to dodge more serious issues

In any case, there are a heap of more serious issues that aren’t being addressed. In effect, the “no trains to Victoria” issue is a dead cat, stinking out issues that are more pressing.

But no, the conversation has been derailed because of a row over where trains go from Blackheath and Eltham.

Have your say, and do it now

So there’s a consultation about all this, and a long questionnaire. It’s worth taking some time to read and respond. Replies need to be in by Tuesday 23 May.

If you want to reply yourself, feel free to add to and play with this version of the response I’m sending. That’s if you want to try to shoehorn in as many references to TfL as possible, which is something you should be doing. The actual online form is restrictive, so it’s better if you send your response to the email address given.

In short, tell the government not to simplify Southeastern services unless they are handed to Transport for London, so the necessary improvement works can be carried out at Lewisham.

Oh look, a Tory candidate claims to be saving the day

On Wednesday, Bexleyheath & Crayford’s Tory candidate David Evenett posted that he had written to Chris Grayling. And guess what Grayling’s response was?

“To be clear, we are not proposing to reduce or change specific services.”

So, yes, dead cat. Of course, it’s only a consultation – any proposal to change services would come later. But this row has served its purpose in getting Chris Grayling off the hook for not devolving our trains so that Londoners can make decisions about their own trains. And MPs, councillors, passenger groups and amenity societies have fallen for it.

Towers now dominate the skyline near Lewisham station – how will their residents get around?

This isn’t about you – or me. It’s about the neighbours we don’t yet have

It’s easy to see how this came about. There have been various consultations and documents about rail in south-east London (and Kent) over the past year or so, and many have been poorly and ambiguously presented.

Add this to the fact that many of our local politicians are simply clueless on infrastructure matters and are happy to parrot whatever they’re told, then you can see why a poorly-explained proposal can suddenly become a smokescreen for others to avoid scrutiny for their own clueless and dangerous decisions.

And frankly, this is about fairness. These campaigns are often led by people who have never had to avoid zone 1 to save money, or traded down to the bus to avoid Southeastern’s fares altogether. The vitally-important issue of TfL taking over and making our fares fairer often doesn’t even occur to them.

We may get a new transport secretary in the reshuffle that will follow the general election. And that may put a TfL takeover back on the table. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.

The future of transport in our part of London isn’t about your right to get an uninterrupted journey from Blackheath to your well-paid job near Victoria, nor is it about my right to cruise to from Charlton to Charing Cross. Even if you live in Eltham or Blackheath, you’ll be getting new neighbours soon, who’ll want to travel just as you do. It’s about the coping with fast-rising populations – and shifting me, you, and our new neighbours around the capital as quickly and efficiently as possible.

The days of gentlemen turning up in pin-stripes to get one of the three daily trains to Holborn Viaduct have long gone. We need frequent and reliable services that don’t rely on junctions that are shot to pieces.

If the price of extra trains and extra capacity is you or I having to wait five minutes at Lewisham for another train, then so be it. Our train network will be simplified eventually because it’s the only way to cope with greater demand. The real battle is over who’s in charge of it – people who understand London transport, or people who don’t.

So if you have time this weekend, read the document and respond to the consultation (here are some points worth making – please customise and add your own concerns – will work better if you email your response rather than use the online form). Demand TfL runs our railways, and gets the chance to sort out the tracks at Lewisham. It’s not the sexiest of rallying cries, but it might make all our lives easier in years to come.

Update 21 May: I’ve made a few tweaks to the response as the online form is very restrictive in how you can answer (and seems to think we all live near the high speed line…) Incidentally, below is an example of a well-meaning politician campaigning on this issue but getting it hopelessly wrong; Lewisham East Liberal Democrat Emily Frith prioritising the demands of well-heeled Blackheath over the needs of Hither Green and Lee.

Emily Frith election address

Election 2017: Three to challenge Pennycook in Greenwich & Woolwich

Matthew Pennycook

Our mate Matt: Labour’s Matt Pennycook meets some chums in Woolwich

Just three candidates are taking on Greenwich & Woolwich’s sitting MP Matt Pennycook at the coming general election – with the Liberal Democrats hoping his stance on Brexit will revive their local fortunes.

Realistically, the only real question is how big Pennycook’s majority will be – in 2015, the former councillor romped home with 52.2% of the vote. He came a thumping 11,946 ahead of Tory challenger Matt Hartley, who has now crossed the Shooters Hill Road to stand in the more promising territory of Eltham.

Caroline Attfield

Caroline Attfield stood in the European Parliament elections in 2014

Rather than field one of their better-known local names, the Tories have picked Lewisham-based banker and management consultant Caroline Attfield to run in an area that hasn’t seen a Conservative victory since the 1930s. Fun fact: A Greenwich-based company registered in the name of a Caroline Attfield, Clackers Ltd, used to trade under the name of Shut Up Blackheath Ltd – she’ll be hoping for the opposite on the doorstep over the coming weeks.

Dan Garrun

The Greens’ Dan Garrun during the junior doctors’ dispute

The Greens are fielding local party co-ordinator Dan Garrun, who lives in Woolwich. He’ll be hoping their campaigning on the Enderby Wharf cruise liner terminal and Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park will have kept them in the public’s mind.

But maybe the most intriguing question is whether the Liberal Democrats can improve on their  2015 result, where they got just 5.7% of the vote, leaving them in fifth. Candiate Chris Adams is making Brexit his main campaign theme – after Pennycook, Labour’s shadow minister for exiting the EU, supported triggering Article 50 back in February, in contrast to neighbouring Labour MPs Heidi Alexander and Vicky Foxcroft, who opposed it.

Chris Adams and Tim Farron

Smile if you’re a Lib Dem: Chris Adams with party leader Tim Farron

“Matthew Pennycook has given a green light to a hard Brexit, by voting for it despite the express will of his constituents in Greenwich and Woolwich who voted decisively to Remain in June last year,” Adams says.

“I will commit here and now to do everything in my power to keep Britain in Europe and in the Single Market.”

Pennycook set out his reasoning ahead of the vote: “To seek to nullify the referendum result by parliamentary means risks, in my view, creating further social division, fuelling the rise of the far-right, adding to the alienation already felt by a significant section of the electorate and perhaps even sparking civil unrest in some parts of the country.

“As such, I respectfully disagree with those who maintain that, whatever the potential negative social and political implications, MPs should seek to overturn the result.”

Pennycook is adamant he will fight for Britain’s interests – it’s a discussion that will surely continue at hustings planned for Mycenae House, Blackheath on 31 May and Charlton Assembly Rooms on 4 June.

Despite a healthy rise in local party membership, the Lib Dems have picked a candidate from outside the area – Adams’ address is given as being in the Dulwich and West Norwood constituency.

The Lib Dems’ vote will no doubt reflect how big an issue Brexit is for local people: but there are other issues, not least Labour’s own leader, with party volunteers reporting plenty of grumbling about Jeremy Corbyn on the doorstep.

It’s the first time just four candidates have stood in Greenwich & Woolwich since the seat was created in 1997 – and it may be the last, as the constituency is due for the chop under a boundary review. Rumours that the Monster Raving Loony Party were to stand ex-Green activist Trevor Allman proved to be baseless – despite a posting from a Twitter account purporting to be from a local branch of the party.

Greenwich & Woolwich candidates: Chris Adams (Liberal Democrats), Caroline Attfield (Conservatives), Daniel Garrun (Green), Matthew Pennycook (Labour)

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Election 2017: Greens drop out of Eltham fight to stop Conservatives

Green Party activists

Vote Green, but not in Eltham this time: Ann Garratt (second from the left, front row) is standing down

Greenwich borough’s Green Party has withdrawn plans to stand candidate against Labour’s Clive Efford in Eltham at the general election “to protect a marginal seat from falling into Conservative hands”.

Efford is defending a slim 2,693 majority in the highly marginal constituency, which is 29th on the Tories’ national target list. Council opposition leader Matt Hartley is hoping to take the seat back for the Conservatives, 20 years after Efford first won Eltham.

The Labour win in 2015 was aided by Ukip scoring 6,481, denying Conservative candidate Spencer Drury victory.

Ukip is not standing here, so now the battle is on to secure those votes – and those of any other party. Labour volunteers have been flooding over the border from Lewisham and elsewhere to help Efford, while Hartley has been tapping up top Tories such as Liz Truss and Priti Patel along with neighbouring MPs David Evenett and Jo Johnson.

Now the Greens have made a last-minute move to drop their candidate, Bromley-based campaigner Ann Garratt, to try to stop Eltham being part of any Tory advance. This follows the example of Green parties in other London marginal seats such as Ealing Central & Acton, Brentford & Isleworth and Ilford North, where Green candidates have also been stood down. Party co-leader Caroline Lucas has been actively encouraging local parties to come to deals.

Clive Efford

Good reception on the doorstep: Clive Efford joins councillors and activists in Eltham

The move comes after talks with local Labour representatives, although no deal was made and the Greens say the decision was theirs alone. Last week, local party co-ordinator Dan Garrun cited Labour’s poor local elections showing in saying: “It’s essential we give people the opportunity to vote for a genuinely progressive party.”

But a party statement released half an hour after nominations closed said: “Members of the Greenwich Green Party have voted to stand aside their candidate in Eltham and will not contest the constituency in the General Election to be held on June 8th.

“The decision was not made as part of a so-called electoral alliance but to protect a marginal seat from falling into Conservative hands.

“In our discussion with the local Labour Party, we were pleased to elicit a promise that they will push for a better electoral system based on proportional representation. Clive Efford MP has also assured us of his intentions to stand up for the environment, protect the NHS and oppose a harmful Brexit. We will hold Labour to it.

“The decision was not an easy one and we urge our supporters in Eltham to rally around our candidates in Greenwich & Woolwich and Erith & Thamesmead. We look forward to campaigning as usual after the election and in the run up to the 2018 council elections.”

The Greens scored 1,275 votes in 2015, so a close Tory win this time around would have left the party in line for criticism. Since the party also lost its Eltham deposit in 2015, it also rather handily saves them £500 – an important consideration for a smaller party.

It remains to be seen whether the Greens’ move sweetens relations in a borough with a remarkably sour political atmosphere. The departure of ex-council leader Chris Roberts has left Efford in a hugely influential position over the way the area’s Labour politicians conduct themselves. Indeed, he’s credited with getting current council leader Denise Hyland involved in politics.

Efford’s slim majority – and a recent council by-election defeat in Eltham North – goes some way to explaining why those around him can often seem to be in fight mode, which can look out of place from over the fence in Greenwich & Woolwich, where the Tories ceased to be a threat three decades ago. So this could be a bitter battle.

No pressure, Matt: The Tories’ candidate for Eltham, Matt Hartley, meets the boss

On paper, this should be Matt Hartley’s to lose. Some simple analysis – taken together, the wards that make up the Eltham seat recorded more votes to leave the EU than remain in last year’s referendum, with Hartley an enthusiastic leave campaigner. (Efford abstained in February’s vote to trigger Article 50.) So you might expect him to be the rightful inheritor of the 6,481 votes Ukip got in 2015, which would take him to victory.

But there’s more to it than that. The Eltham constituency narrowly awarded more first choice votes to Sadiq Khan than Zac Goldsmith in the mayoral election.

Drilling down to ward level, you can see the divide. Coldharbour & New Eltham, Eltham North and Eltham South plumped for Goldsmith, the remaining wards – Eltham West, Middle Park & Sutcliffe, Kidbrooke with Hornfair and Shooters Hill – preferred the Labour man. Expect a huge Labour “get the vote out” operation in those four Khan-backing seats as polling day approaches.

Clapham-based academic David Hall-Matthews, a former senior lecturer in international development at the University of Leeds, is representing the Liberal Democrats this time around after previously standing for seats in Leeds and Bradford.

John Clarke is standing for the British National Party with the slogan “Local People First”, despite having a Croydon address.

7.45pm update: While the Greens have given Clive Efford a hand, Jeremy Corbyn-backing group Momentum doesn’t seem to be doing the same. A new website, My Nearest Marginal, directs keen activists to their nearest marginal seat. But if you enter an Eltham address, it sends you to… Croydon.

Eltham consituency candidates: John Clarke (BNP), Clive Efford (Labour), Ann Garratt (Green), David Hall-Matthews (Liberal Democrats), Matt Hartley (Conservative).

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Citymapper’s pop-up bus: Could it help fix SE London commuters’ woes?

Citymapper CMX1, 9 May 2017

If you’re in central London this afternoon, keep an eye out for a little green bus running in a loop over Blackfriars and Waterloo bridges. It’s Citymapper’s CMX1 “pop-up bus” – three of them are running for a couple of days over a short circular route so the company, which makes one of the best-known transport apps for smartphones, can see how the data it uses and collects interacts with the dirty business of running a bus service. There’s not much money in free apps, so Citymapper is musing on the idea of running buses itself to generate some revenue.

In any case, it’s bloody good publicity. I had a little ride yesterday, and found most of my fellow passengers were Transport for London staff, curious to see what was going on. Citymapper uses TfL data, and TfL is interested to see how it works. Waiting for the bus was a little frustrating – the countdown timings for CMX1 weren’t as accurate as TfL’s for its normal buses – but otherwise, it was just a normal bus ride, beset by dreadful traffic as the afternoon rush hour kicked in. (If you want to ride route CMX1 on its second and final day, hurry – the service is free to use, and runs about every 10 minutes until 7pm.)

Some of the things Citymapper wants to explore with this experiment include “demand responsive” buses (think a bigger version of Dial-A-Ride) and services that can take different routes depending on traffic conditions, which will mean routes without many stops. So don’t expect Citymapper’s buses to be replacing the 53 yet.

Citymapper CMX1, 9 May 2017

But in this part of London, services like this could be useful – we’re seeing lots of new housing, with new residents increasingly expecting to use transport hubs such as North Greenwich, Lewisham (which will explode if the Bakerloo Line comes), Woolwich and Abbey Wood (Crossrail’s just 19 months away). With TfL under serious financial pressure, it’s going to struggle to satisfy this demand. Imagine a Citymapper-style bus that can run when needed from, say, the back streets of East Greenwich (think the new homes around Enderby Wharf) up to North Greenwich station. Or from Shooters Hill and Woolwich Common. It could take different routes to avoid traffic jams, and possibly do the job quicker and maybe more efficiently than the existing services.

But how would this fit in with the existing bus network without chipping away at its simplicity and accessibility? To do all this would mean a change in the regulation surrounding buses to allow them to have more flexible routes. (Even commuter coaches have to specify the routes and alternative routes they wish to use.) Could it pay its way, and would it fit in with the London fares system? We already have riverboats that operate outside the TfL fares system for those who can afford to use them – but having a second range of buses on different fares is unlikely to go down well with regulators.

Lots of questions – and that’s why Citymapper is running the trial. And that’s why TfL staff piled on board yesterday. Citymapper’s next step looks like being a night bus – the Impact Group, the bus company which is working with the app firm, has put an application in to run a service from 9pm to 5am between Highbury & Islington, Dalston, Shoreditch and Aldgate East on Friday and Saturday nights, with options to take different routes if the traffic’s bad or passengers express a preference. (Insert joke about wipe-clean seats here.) You could see something like this working to supplement the Night Tube at locations such as Canada Water or North Greenwich.

Citymapper CMX1, 9 May 2017

It may well be that Citymapper’s playing with buses comes to nothing (at least in London) except a big publicity boost. But it strikes me as something a little more relevant to our immediate needs than the driverless vehicle trials on the Greenwich Peninsula, which are being conducted while traditional networks are struggling. If it ever fancies toying with the commuter market or night passengers, it could find a willing market in south east London.

The Big Half: New half-marathon from Tower Bridge to Greenwich

The Big Half route

The London Marathon is the best day of the year in this part of south-east London, right? So wouldn’t it be great if there was another one?

And no, not the return of Run to the Beat.

Just announced today, and coming on 4 March 2018, is The Big Half – a half-marathon using the central chunk of the London Marathon course. It’ll start at Tower Bridge, wind its way back around Canary Wharf, then back over Tower Bridge to end at the Cutty Sark. It’s organised by the same team behind the London Marathon.

The event in full…

The Big Half, a mass participation race over the classic half marathon distance, starting at the iconic setting of Tower Bridge and finishing in Greenwich

The Little Half for younger runners will be held on a 2.1 mile route from Southwark Park to the stunning Finish Line by the Cutty Sark in Greenwich

The Big Relay, exclusively for community groups from the four host boroughs of Tower Hamlets, Southwark, Lewisham and Greenwich, with distances ranging from one mile to five miles

The Big Festival in Greenwich with a huge range of food music and entertainment, including performances from community groups and fun activities and fitness classes for the whole family to enjoy

Entry is open now if you fancy doing it yourself. There are 5,800 places in the main race (making it much smaller than either the main marathon or the unlamented Run to the Beat) with a limited number of discounted places for people from the host boroughs (Greenwich, Lewisham, Southwark and Tower Hamlets).

Quotes from the press release:

The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, said: “The Big Half has the potential to become one of the most remarkable days in our sporting calendar. And putting local people at the heart of a world-class running event is a masterstroke. Sport has the power to change people’s lives, and we hope The Big Half will become an annual event that can help inspire tens of thousands of Londoners to get involved in sport and in their local communities.”

Hugh Brasher, Event Director, The Big Half, said: “If you were inspired by Sunday’s London Marathon, this is your chance to get involved in an event like no other. Sport can be an incredible way of joining people together and getting communities to interact together. We are creating an event that is unique, that is fun, that people will want to come back to year after year. The Big Half is a celebration of community and life.”

There’ll still be a bit of disruption (I imagine people in Wapping will feel sore) but nothing like the mass closures of full marathon day. And it looks like it’ll be a huge day for Greenwich town centre. So stick the date in your diary…

Shut down: The Greenwich pub being run by its regulars

Welcome to the Duchess Bar

An east Greenwich pub has had its licence withdrawn by councillors after council officers found its management had left the premises to be run by its customers.

The Duchess on Woolwich Road – formerly the Ship & Billet and Frog & Radiator – has been closed since January after a series of violent incidents.

In September, most of the pub’s windows were smashed by a customer, and when council officers visited to investigate, they were told its designated supervisor had left and discovered the pub was apparently being run by a drunken customer. “It appeared almost that the locals were running the pub,” the officers said in a report.

The following month, they were told by the pub’s licence holder that he planned to close and redevelop the pub, but in January council offers found the pub still being run by customers and serving well after its 2am licence.

Welcome to the Duchess Bar

The report continues: “[Name redacted] claimed to be running the premises in the absence of her mother. Her speech was slurred and she smelt of drink. She beckoned the licensing officer behind the bar area where he came face to face with a large, shaven-headed male. Believing that he was in charge of the premises, he introduced himself as a licensing officer. His reply was: ‘Does that make you fucking important?’

“Realising that he was a customer, the licensing officer changed his attitude. His response: ‘I couldn’t give two fucks who you are!’ With that, he picked up a pint glass full of beer… and stormed off into the public area.

“The licensing officer returned to speak to [name redacted] who obviously had no knowledge of running licensed premises. She was unaware who the licence holders were as she had never met them. She had no idea what a Designated Premises Supervisor was, nor the opening and closing time of the premises. Asked when she planned to close for the evening, she replied: ‘When I feel like it!'”

Welcome to the Duchess Bar

The Duchess was one of the last of the old-style pubs along the main road through east Greenwich, after the demolition of the Victoria and the Old Friends, the conversion of the William IV and revamp of The Crown. It is unlikely to be missed – but will anyone take on the prominent corner site and try to revive the old pub?

River Ale House

There is much better news for Greenwich drinkers a little further down Woolwich Road – a micropub, the River Ale House, has been given both planning and licensing permission by Greenwich Council. It will replace the Under Cover Experience lingerie retailer.

Micropubs – small one-room bars concentrating on real ale – first emerged in Kent, and there are already seven in south-east London, including The Long Pond in Eltham. Here’s a pub crawl linking six of them – although with the River Ale House and another newcomer, The Kentish Belle in Bexleyheath, it may need a bit of a rewrite….

Tall Ships 2017: Woolwich divided?

Tall ships in Woolwich, 15 April 2017

So the 2017 Tall Ships Regatta is over and the vessels are sailing off to the North Sea. How was it for you? It all seems to have gone well from the little I saw – you may be able to say more.

If you pay council tax in Greenwich borough, you’ve a direct interest in whether or not it was a success – it costs the council £2 million. They’ll have to have shifted a lot of £5 programmes to make that back. Local Tories have long grumbled that the event should be making money and it should be more heavily sponsored. Indeed, the list of sponsors did look like a roll-call of usual suspects – the developers and hotel firms that benefit from “brand Royal Greenwich”. You could have had your firm’s name all over the riverside walk for £19,000 plus VAT.

But for the council leadership this is an investment in local businesses – a good old-fashioned Labour intervention in the economy, like building a cinema in Eltham. (This argument never stretches to Blackheath fireworks, mind.)

Tall ship at the Thames Barrier, 16 April 2017

The trouble with this kind of one-off event is that it’s hard to quantify any benefit. There’ll no doubt be a report within a few weeks that indicates the local economy benefitted by squillions, so there’ll be lots of back-slapping. Whether or not this is really the case will be harder to tell. That said, it certainly reinforces Greenwich’s position as one of the very few real tourist draws outside central London.

But it’s also meant to draw people to Woolwich, too. And this is a more difficult sell. Indeed, local business there weren’t impressed with 2014’s event, something this website reported on last year.

Draft Business Engagement report, 2016

Essentially, because it takes place on the riverside, it benefits the businesses in Berkeley Homes’ Royal Arsenal development, and does nothing for those in the traditional town centre. A few plans were set out to fix this, including “a joined up event management plan that links the main town centre with the Arsenal Riverside Festival site”, “integrated way finding and high street dressing to link the town centre to the Arsenal Festival site”, and “animation of Beresford Square, Powis St and General Gordon Square”.

Greenwich Council draft business engagement report

A draft business engagement report suggested the council should “host (non-competing) stalls and attractions in General Gordon Square and Powis Street to encourage footfall and dwell time in the main town centre”.

Woolwich town centre, 15 April 2017

Except that there was – as far as I could tell – nothing outside the Royal Arsenal. I had a quick look in Woolwich on Saturday and – a few bits of bunting aside – it seemed to be a normal day. Nothing happening in General Gordon Square or Beresford Square, just the odd performer in fancy dress avoiding the costly food and drink in the Arsenal. General Gordon Square, with its big screen (pictured above on Saturday), was its usual mildly depressing self.

Instead, all the effort seemed to have gone into social media. Here, cabinet member Sizwe James pleads with us that if we visit the Earl of Chatham pub, his captors will set him free.

Woolwich being a hub for tall ships could be a brilliant thing – but the benefit seems to be flowing towards one particular developer rather than the town as a whole.

Now, I may have missed something – and if you saw a choir of Jack Russells performing sea shanties in front of the big screen, please use the comments box below – but by neglecting the traditional town centre again, I can’t help thinking the council has unwittingly made the divide between Woolwich town centre and the Royal Arsenal that little bit wider.

Tall ships at the Thames Barrier, 16 April 2017

Anyway, the best place to watch Easter Sunday’s Parade of Sail wasn’t Greenwich, it wasn’t Woolwich, it was the Thames Barrier. If the tall ships return – and I’m sure they will – make a note for next time.

11pm update: Greenwich Council deputy leader Danny Thorpe says “loads happened” in Woolwich town centre “and all over the borough”. I’ve added an image of the report which made recommendations for Woolwich.