Southeastern shambles – Greenwich’s farewell to Charing Cross

Bye, then... no more Greenwich line trains from Charing Cross from this weekend.

Bye, then… no more Greenwich line trains from Charing Cross from this weekend.

It’s the biggest change to happen to south-east London’s railways for decades. Just before midnight tonight, the last train from Charing Cross to Deptford, Greenwich, Maze Hill and Westcombe Park will be just that. After 23.56, the direct connection from the West End to Greenwich will be no more.

This has been known about since March 2008, when Network Rail published its catchily-titled South London Route Utilisation Study. (See page 112 of this document.) 853 wasn’t running then, but it got a mention on this website six years ago. Here’s another reference from Greenwich.co.uk in December 2009. And look, here’s a “stay of execution” for Greenwich line trains from November 2010.

This isn’t to say “I told you so”. Back in 2008, I never really thought about diving headfirst into local news issues. I never really took much notice of what was in the local press because I never saw it. Then as this changed, and this website developed, it became old news – old news that was never talked about. And who wants to read about old news?

I thought there might be a decent-sized publicity campaign. Posters up and down the Greenwich line, months in advance, extolling the virtues of Cannon Street station, the new seven-day-a-week terminal. (It’s supposed to have a “fantastic new bar” soon, you know.)

But no. Instead, the news was bundled out as part of a mixed bag of information about the Thameslink Programme, the larger scheme which will see a rebuilt London Bridge station accommodate frequent trains to both north and south London. The prize of a decent station is a brilliant one – but the price is those trains to Charing Cross.

Instead of providing station-by-station information, or even details for each line, Southeastern has managed to baffle commuters, failing the challenge at the first hurdle. Many of them still think the change is only temporary. It’s not. Those trains aren’t coming back. And there are some very good reasons why.

Brilliant publicity at London Bridge station, November 2014

Brilliant publicity at London Bridge station, November 2014

What’s happening – the long-term plan

The connection between the Greenwich line and the Charing Cross lines is being severed to accommodate a new set of tracks that will head north from London Bridge to Blackfriars, Farringdon, and north London.

It won’t physically be possible for trains from Westcombe Park, Maze Hill, Greenwich or Deptford to reach them any more. And because of the way services are arranged, trains from Woolwich Dockyard, Plumstead, Erith, Belvedere and Slade Green will rarely reach Charing Cross. (Trains from New Cross and St John’s are also affected by these changes.)

Instead, there’ll be a direct service to Cannon Street, seven days a week. From 2018, you’ll have a brand new London Bridge station to change trains in. The crappy old footbridge is going, and you’ll have escalators, lifts, and a spacious new concourse beneath the platforms. Think the new King’s Cross, but bigger.

There’ll be no more sitting on the viaduct over Deptford waiting to get access to the Charing Cross lines – in theory, you’ll be able to rattle straight up to Cannon Street, and make a simpler change at a much more pleasant London Bridge if you need to get to Waterloo East or Charing Cross.

What you need to know - how Southeastern trains will run until August 2016

What you need to know – how Southeastern trains will run until August 2016

What’s happening – the short term pain

Charing Cross trains will sail through London Bridge from Monday until August 2016. You’ll have to make your change by Tube or bus. And then from 2016, the position will reverse, and Cannon Street trains will glide through without stopping. Interchange will be terrible, and for three years, London Bridge station won’t just be a dump – it’ll be a building site.

There’s also likely to be a series of major weekend closures. The first – happening this weekend and kept very quiet by Southeastern – sees ALL trains routed to Victoria, Blackfriars or New Cross, and all lines through London Bridge completely closed. (There is also no service at all through Deptford, Greenwich, Maze Hill or Westcombe Park – have a play with Real Time Trains to see how it affects you, or check out the situation at Charlton or Lewisham).

Even Charlton Athletic seemed in the dark about the plan, and they’re only playing host to 15,000 football fans on Saturday. Charing Cross will also be closed on Sundays through to at least May.

In English: "Some trains will be longer. Trains may also run to different terminals."

In English: “Some trains will be longer. Trains may also run to different terminals.”

The secret cut in capacity

There’ll also be fewer rush hour trains through Greenwich from Monday. From The Murky Depths has the full details – four evening peak trains are cut, with three going during the critical 1730-1830 hour. One morning peak train goes. Meanwhile, extra capacity has gone to trains serving destinations in distant Kent, if you believe the Southeastern publicity above.

Despite the fact that money has been blown over the years on extending platforms to take 12-car trains – once in the 1990s, and again in the 2010s – there won’t be longer trains to make up for the cut. Woolwich Dockyard station, built in a brick cutting, can’t be extended, and despite these works having been planned for years, neither the Department for Transport nor Southeastern has fitted trains to work with selective door opening which would enable longer trains to stop there.

To make matters worse, Southeastern is pretty much using every train it can get its hands on – and is having to borrow more to satisfy demand.

It’s a mess, frankly.

There now appears to be work happening to fit out the "fantastic new bar"

There now appears to be work happening to fit out the “fantastic new bar”

Send your regards to Cannon Street

“But Cannon Street’s in the middle of nowhere!”, you cry. Cobblers. One of the main gripes is that a lack of trains from Charing Cross makes it harder for tourists to get to Greenwich. Yet Cannon Street is 10 minutes’ walk from St Paul’s Cathedral and the Museum of London, and five minutes from the Monument.

And it’s a fine station for onward travel connections – on the District and Circle lines, with Bank station just a couple of minutes’ walk up Walbrook. (In a few years, a new Bank station entrance will appear opposite Cannon Street, just to really baffle everyone.)

Sure, it’s a bit quiet at the weekends, but there’s that fantastic new bar coming soon…

Matt Hartley's website

The political battle

With an election coming up, both Labour and Conservative candidates for Greenwich & Woolwich have thrown themselves into the debate. Incumbent Labour MP Nick Raynsford has a decent record on fighting for rail passengers – one of his first wins as an MP in the 1990s was to persuade British Rail to stop Gillingham trains at Charlton. His hopeful successor, Matt Pennycook, has been busying himself writing to and meeting Southeastern bosses and tweeting about it.

In the blue corner, Conservative candidate Matt Hartley has launched the Sort it, Southeastern campaign, pledging to hold the rail company’s “feet to the fire” over its performance.

Of course, it goes without saying that both their parties’ administrations also share blame for this – Labour re-privatised Southeastern in 2006, and must share some responsibility for poor Department for Transport planning before 2010. The Tories renewed Southeastern’s franchise in 2014, with the Department for Transport still failing to provide enough rolling stock for the area. Both Labour and Conservative governments have also blocked moves by Transport for London to take over the Southeastern franchise – decisions that will stick in the craw when TfL takes on services from Liverpool Street this May.

Matt Hartley’s campaign aim to secure longer trains throughout the “borough of Greenwich” seems peculiarly parochial – didn’t Conservative candidates elsewhere in SE London want to join in? And as for wanting Greenwich-Charing Cross services restored after 2018, he might as well demand the return of steam – it’d be cheaper and more efficient to run at least six trains an hour to Cannon Street, first train to last, seven days a week. It’s better than hankering for a crappy two trains per hour service to Charing Cross that wasn’t much cop anyway.

But it’s a good thing that both main candidates are getting their teeth into the issue. Frankly, it’s about time Southeastern became a political football – and it certainly deserves the kicking.

Hopeless: How Southeastern announced the most disruptive weekend works in decades

Hopeless: How Southeastern announced the most disruptive weekend works in decades

Will it be enough?

After 2018, we’re promised good things. An all-new London Bridge station that’ll be a pleasure to use. You’ll be able to change for trains that head across North London, to Finsbury Park and beyond, as well as frequent services to Blackfriars, Farringdon and St Pancras. And Charing Cross and Cannon Street services should be more reliable, as a 40-year-old pattern of tracks is ripped up and rebuilt.

And don’t forget that Crossrail will come from 2019, giving passengers at Abbey Wood and Woolwich an alternative that’ll whisk them to Canary Wharf, the City, West End and West London. It’ll relieve some crowding from the Greenwich line – for a short time, at least.

You’d also hope that knackered communications systems would be fixed – systems that stop staff and drivers giving proper information, and systems that have mysteriously started showing Kent-bound trains on London-bound platforms (and vice versa). There’s a lot of work to do.

But an increased population in an overheating city brings increasing pressures. Huge developments are rising by Deptford, Greenwich, Lewisham, Woolwich Arsenal and Abbey Wood stations. Long-term development plans will see the Charlton riverside given over to residential uses. And 10,000 new homes on the Greenwich Peninsula, with no further plans to improve public transport connections there, will squeeze North Greenwich tube station – sending some passengers back to the mainline. On other lines, developments are also taking place at Kidbrooke Village and the old Catford dog track.

Even at the end of the line, developers have their eyes on Dartford. With a population that’s getting priced out of zones 2 and 3, pressures on outer stations will grow.

Yet the political will in this area is for more roadbuilding – a policy that’d be laughed out of town in other parts of London. Vague promises of a Bakerloo Line extension to Hayes, or London Overground to Thamesmead, will need to be brought into reality before we’re clutching our Freedom Passes.

Change here for the future

Cities aren’t fixed in stone – they’re always evolving. The last train from Charing Cross to Greenwich tonight will be a little symbol of how our capital city is changing before our eyes.

40 years ago, London Bridge station went through similar convulsions as the old station was torn down and the tracks relaid. Would the fag-puffing, hi-viz avoiding engineers in the Operation London Bridge video above have known their work would be ripped up just four decades later?

It’s going to be a tricky few years ahead. But once the Thameslink Programme is finished, where will the next big change come from? At present, nobody seems to know. And that’s a bigger worry than whether or not you’ll have to change trains next week.

27 comments

  1. B

    I agree – capacity and frequency of services on the Greenwich and Blackheath lines is a much bigger issue than a direct link to Charing Cross.

  2. fromthemurkydepths

    Great post. Some good snippets often overlooked like Cannon Street no longer being a deadzone it was in previous decades and in popular imagination. Sending more trains there in the evening will benefit a lot of workers enjoying a drink after work. A new shopping centre opened a couple of years ago nearby showing the changing nature of the City from a Mon-Fri only place. In time we should see more pubs opening on weekends. Wetherspoons are opening at Cannon Street (in that space shown?) in a month, and the 7 days opening till close is a factor in that.

  3. fromthemurkydepths

    One point to note regarding this – “To make matters worse, Southeastern is pretty much using every train it can get its hands on – and is having to borrow more from other operators to satisfy demand.”

    As far as I’m aware there’s no net increase in units by borrowing some, as others have gone to Thameslink. It was a result of some routes changing operators over the new year but I don’t think SE gained from it.

  4. lucyneville2013

    Pity us who use direct Victoria trains every morning. They are too short. The Southeastern trains are so packed now that they’re overflowing with no spare seats, and inevitable delays cause by difficulty for passengers getting off and on. Often trains have to wait outside of Victoria until a new platform becomes available having lost the original slot. Just before Christmas the wait was so long that a lot of us had to sit down on the carriage floors and beside the doors because it became so unbearable.

  5. John

    I wasn’t aware that it was planned until 2018 – I only knew about the plans until mid-16 so ta for that. Makes me thankful that I commute by bike! I don’t have any faith in 1 local MP being able to do anything – pressure on South Eastern to improve their service needs to come at a higher level.

    A cynic might argue that people should pay less for a poorer service….

  6. marymills

    Thanks for this Darryl – I meet people all the time who know nothing about these changes (including some rail staff) and there is still an issue about patients with appointments at Guys, some of them people who moved here to be able to get there fast. I have also seen very little, if any, mention of loss of connections to the south west through Waterloo.
    Thanks for saying something nice about Cannon Street – which I used regularly from when I was student at what was then City of London College in 1960, up to commuting to Whitechapel in the 1990s. Its a pleasant station to use and has a lot of nearbyish connections at Bank and Moorgate – it would be better if there was some sort of a forecourt for buses and taxis and if there was an easy link to Liverpool Street – but, otherwise, its ok.
    I do worry about the future of our line, particularly once Crossrail is built. Will we end up a bit like the line between Grove Park and Bromley North??

  7. Amanda

    Apart from the misery that will be visited upon us this weekend and next week by Southeastern Railways, I am glad to see you back and active again with your political wit, analysis and ascerbic humour. Always a joy to read.

  8. 21five

    On board the final service now, which is surprisingly quiet. A couple of trainspotters but mainly oblivious late night commuters. A camera shy driver, clearly aware it’s the final run.

  9. Darryl Chamberlain

    Second Friday in January, West End pubs tolerably quiet… damn, why did I stay in?

    Amanda – thank you, that’s very kind of you.

    Mary – I’ve always liked Cannon Street, it’s always felt like a more civilised place to take a train from. I think once the works are finished, there’s potential to run a frequent service all day, every day – but it needs people to get off their backsides and demand it. If people have lost Charing Cross trains, they deserve something back.

  10. fromthemurkydepths

    Just realised I missed the last ever train. Had no intention of getting it and completely forgot it was last day anyway after a few beers. Anyway, I was in pub and checked and saw the time so legged it to station. Just about made it for last train which went via Lewisham. Shame I missed it by minutes in a silly way but anyway, good luck everyone next week.

  11. fromthemurkydepths

    I should add I didn’t ditch my mate and leg it as the last train like a sad case, but as I saw how late it was & just wanted to make any train as the last one was leaving really early today. Anyway, that’s it. 100+ years over on the line finished. Onto better things!

  12. Pingback: Video: London Bridge was falling down (again) 40 years ago | Inside Croydon
  13. Chris

    It’s not just us. I was interested to read here http://brockleycentral.blogspot.co.uk/ that Notwork Rail/Southern’s solution to the potentially dangerous overcrowding at London Bridge is to alter the timetable (cancel trains) so that people who live in distant Brockley now have only 2 trains an hour and are told to go to already dangerously overcrowded Canada Water to get the Overground.
    Extrapolating this, why don’t they just run one train an hour? Even they should get the trains to run on time this way.

  14. Darryl Chamberlain

    The Brockley stuff is a different issue on a different set of tracks. But the problems on the other side of London Bridge don’t bode well for Monday.

    Brockley lost its trains to Charing Cross a few years back – the start of the process of separating the tracks out so the service (in theory) runs more reliably with fewer trains crossing over each others’ tracks.

  15. fromthemurkydepths

    Some people using the line through New Cross Gate, Brockley, Sydenham etc who have seen cancellations from half 4 to half 6 (looks to continue into next week) will likely head to southeastern trains running to stations nearby on the Hayes line eg New Cross, Lower Sydenham etc which will add more pressure to that SE route. People switching onto Hayes line trains via Lewisham will be competing for space with Greenwich line passengers who are being advised to go to Lewisham and take the DLR to Greenwich.

    This all adds to congestion. Also, the Southern cancellations will see that additional flow of people from one side of London Bridge to the other side serving southeastern in the evening peak, just at the same time as congestion picks up there as longer waits between Greenwich line trains and less capacity, plus people from Waterloo & the west end arriving by Jubilee line.

    As I’ve said many times, if SE metro had received more stock the past few years it would’ve given more flexibility and a greater ability to cope.

  16. Mary

    Just spoke to someone planning to go from Maze Hill to catch a (booked) train at Kings Cross tomorrow – said they plan to change at London Bridge onto Thameslink………………………….

  17. Chris

    I know Brockley is different, but was trying to point out that the London Bridge fiasco isn’t just affecting us. It is having knock on effects the planners hadn’t anticipated which, in turn, do affect us. From the Murky Depths has articulated it better than I did!

  18. Julian Wells

    Away from the Greenwich line issue, isn’t it the case that Charing X/Cannon St changes that used to be made at London Bridge will effectively be displaced to Lewisham? If I’ve understood things rightly the subways there will be hellish ….

  19. clogsilk

    The recommendation is to change as far out of London as possible – Hither Green is also recommended as an interchange.

    Personally, I would head into London and then by tube or bus/walk unless I actually wanted to go to London Bridge itself for some reason.

  20. Chris

    Today three 12-car Networkers ran as follows:

    0456 Gravesend to Cannon Street (SID)
    0609 Cannon Street to Sevenoaks
    0717 Sevenoaks to Cannon Street
    0819 Cannon Street to Orpington

    0728 Gravesend to Cannon Street (SID)
    0844 Cannon Street to Cannon Street (GNW, SID)
    1721 Cannon Street to Gravesend (SID)
    1832 Gravesend to Cannon Street (SID)

    0543 Hither Green to Charing Cross
    0636 Charing Cross to Sevenoaks
    0737 Sevenoaks to Cannon Street
    0836 Cannon Street to Barnehurst (GNW)
    0938 Barnehurst to Cannon Street (BXH)

  21. Andrewj

    Just to point out that Lewisham station was closed last night (Mon 12th Jan) due to overcrowding. I had such a lovely journey home in rammed, overcrowded trains. When I changed at Lewisham I got wet because there were hundreds of people waiting for trains but there was only a small bus shelter thing on Platform 4 and it was pouring down.

    i got on at Cannon Street. At London Bridge the platform was packed with people, most of whom couldn’t board and got left behind whereas at St Johns one person in the carriage got carried on to Lewisham because it was so crowded that he just couldn’t get through to the doors.

    As yesterday’s journeys were so horrible today I got the DLR to Tower Gateway from Lewisham instead but everybody else had the same idea so it left rammed from Lewisham. As it progressed to Canary Wharf lots of people got left on the platform as it was too crowded to board so the knock on effect is working.

  22. Omar

    I understand the latest proposal is to up the amount of homes to be built on the Peninsula from 10000 to 15000 (which is pretty incredible in itself and will presumably make the Peninsula one of the most densely populated parts of London in 15-20 years time).

    What with all the development at Canning Town and Stratford the westbound trains in the morning aren’t getting any emptier, and not sure how much more scope there is for starting more services from North Greenwich on the already packed Jubilee line. I suspect a lot of those who currently bus in to North G will indeed be pushed onto the overground as the situation gets worse. The decision to save some money on a second thames crossing and not have North G on crossrail will probably end up being regretted. I wonder if there’s any spur tunnels being built as a contingency like they did with the jubilee line tracks?

  23. Darryl Chamberlain

    If I recall rightly, running Crossrail via Charlton (as Greenwich Council pushed for in the early 2000s) would have been cheaper than the Royal Docks option that was eventually approved.

    That said, I think regardless of whatever intensification takes place on the peninsula, not running Crossrail there will go down as one of London’s dumber planning decisions.

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