Southeastern smackdown: Worst of all worlds for SE London commuters

Lewisham station, 2015
Today’s announcement that the government won’t be devolving Southeastern’s metro rail services to Transport for London is the worst of all worlds for south-east London – and threatens to put parts of our local infrastructure under even greater strain.

Despite clear improvements to train services in north London which have already been transferred to mayoral control, transport secretary Chris Grayling has called such a move “deckchair shifting” – while refusing to let go of the Titanic’s wheel.

It’s also a massive blow to mayor Sadiq Khan – we’ve seen under Ken Livingstone, and to a smaller (and more ambiguous) extent under Boris Johnson, that fixing transport is the most visible way a mayor can change London for the better.

The devolution plan – first concocted under Johnson – would have separated Southeastern’s metro services from Kent/Sussex trains, and handed them to TfL to manage. This system – where TfL takes responsibility for fares, services and staffing – has worked wonders on London Overground, where services are up while delays and fare-dodging are down.

Now Khan looks like he’ll be denied this, as Grayling decides the service on the Grove Park to Bromley North shuttle is more appropriate for Westminster to deal with rather than City Hall.

But it also leaves south-east Londoners the most exposed to the ill-effects of Khan’s fare “freeze” – where fares on TfL services are frozen but travelcard, fare caps and National Rail fares will continue to increase.

Because of the actions of Grayling and Khan, south-east Londoners who rely on Southeastern face paying far more for our travel than those use can use the Tube or most services north of the river.

Here are the current fares – you can see where National Rail fares are increasingly out of synch with TfL tickets in the outer zones, despite the far inferior service. The TfL fare scale also applies to many National Rail services in west, north and east London, as part of recent policy decisions or for historic reasons.

Most National Rail fares will be 10p dearer from 2 January – but TfL tickets are frozen.

2016 Oyster/ contactless fare TfL – all National Rail only Using both in Zone 1
Zone 1-2 £2.90/£2.40 £2.70/£2.40 £4.30/£3.70
Zone 1-3 £3.30/£2.80 £3.40/£2.50 £5.00/£4.00
Zone 1-4 £3.90/£2.80 £3.90/£2.80 £5.50/£4.30
Zone 1-5 £4.70/£3.10 £5.00/£3.20 £6.60/£4.70
Zone 1-6 £5.10/£3.10 £6.10/£3.80 £7.70/£5.30
Zone 2-4 £2.40/£1.50 £2.80/£2.20 n/a
Zone 2-6 £3.80/£1.50 £4.10/£2.70 n/a

With Khan pledging to keep TfL fares frozen until 2020, and Tory policy to keep increasing National Rail fares, these disparities will get worse, and start to affect people further into London. Worse still, commuters who use Southeastern and then change to the Tube in Zone 1 will continue to face a profiteering surcharge of up to £1.60 that many rail users in north, west and east London do not face.

Note also that off-peak zone 2-6 TfL fares are held down to £1.50 – the price of a bus fare – to drum up trade during quieter hours. No such good sense on National Rail. So someone travelling from Deptford to Erith gets whacked with a £2.70 fare; Canary Wharf to Upminster is just £1.50.

It’s worth pointing out here that Sadiq Khan refused an offer by TfL to freeze Travelcard prices and fare caps, which would have lessened the blow of continued National Rail fare rises.

This isn’t just about south-east Londoners being financially penalised. This also sets back infrastructure improvements – because TfL knows that central government’s inept management of National Rail services is putting pressure on its own operations.

108 overcrowding

The daily grind to and from North Greenwich (thanks to Ruth Townson for the pictures)

TfL’s business case raised the possibility of improvements such as rebuilding the junction at Lewisham, which would enable more services to run through the station, and building new platforms at Brockley which would take pressure off the Jubilee Line at Canada Water.

These ideas don’t just come out of the goodness of TfL’s own heart. People are already voting with their feet because of the cost and unreliability of National Rail services. The business case highlighted how many passengers would rather take the bus to Brixton for the Tube than use unreliable National Rail services closer to their homes.

Brixton: TfL's customer data means it knows where commuters are coming from

Brixton: TfL’s customer data means it knows where commuters are coming from

We see the same effect locally at North Greenwich, where thousands pile onto buses to avoid using Southeastern, putting massive strain on the local transport network. Part of this is down to the fare structure – travelling from North Greenwich only means a zone 2 travelcard, even if you start your journey by bus in Eltham or Blackheath. But if you miss a Jubilee Line train, there’s usually another one in two minutes. You can’t say that for Southeastern trains.

The punishment fare for changing in Zone 1 is also a factor. The DLR’s Woolwich Arsenal services were overwhelmed within months of their introduction. If you had a job at, say, Angel, why would you pay £5.50 to start your journey on an unreliable Southeastern train if taking the DLR would only set you back £3.90?

So SE London commuters face more years of paying more for less, unless the government can be persuaded to change its mind.

The government has little interest in the views of voters in Greenwich or Lewisham, as Tory election wins are thin on the ground here. But will voters in true-blue Bexley and Bromley punish their Tory MPs and councils over this? And will Khan have to modify his fare “freeze” so south Londoners lose out less? We’ll have to wait and see.

16 comments

  1. Jon

    I’m one of the North Greenwich troopers – it’s a 5min walk to Charlton station but I walk 30mins to North Greenwich to avoid SouthEastern. I’m lucky I can walk and have the options.

    Why? Last night I took the train from Cannon Street for once and I was 18min late after chaos at the station. Charing Cross is no better.

    Things were bad when the Thameslink changes came in, but since the latest change and no calling at London Bridge it’s only got worse. I have yet to catch an on-time train at Charlton. And there was me thinking that at least one benefit of not stopping at London Bridge was that it’d be more punctual.

    I’d gladly let the train take the strain, but till it’s reliable I think it’s North Greenwich for the foreseeable future.

    I’d vote for TfL to take over if the government deemed my vote worth listening to, but whether it would improve remains to be seen. Changes in ownership can change SouthEastern for the better – remember Connex and how the service improved when they left.

  2. Darryl

    The post-Connex operation was the state-run South Eastern Trains: markedly better than Connex. Then Alastair Darling re-privatised it as Southeastern (which confusingly used the same logo for a while) in 2006.

    The best thing I ever did as a commuter was to start cycling to North Greenwich. Not an option available to everyone, but a huge sanity-saver. But North Greenwich is getting busier…

  3. lucyneville2013

    This is appalling news. Mind you, what do we expect from someone with Grayling’s reputation? He’s not the least bit interested in the public good, the electorate, users of any privatised service.

  4. Nick Craddy

    Some days you just have to shake you head and ask WTF?
    I have always been a proud Conservative, Mr Grayling has let me and many others down.
    Bob Neill, MP for Bromley has rightly raised questions regarding this stupid and partisan decision, made purely on political grounds.
    see @daily_politics
    Hopefully not the end of the line yet ( sorry about the unintended pun )
    Bob tweets – @neill_bob

  5. Hayley

    I can’t express how mad this makes me. South East London is being punished because it has a Labour Mayor. Oddly Bromley and other badly affected places are true blue and are paying the price.

    The service is getting worse and it doesn’t get the headlines that Southern does. You simply can’t rely on any train, at any time of day, being on time.

  6. Plumstead Resident

    I assume if TfL were to take over Southeastern metro services TfL still wouldn’t control the track (which will remain with Network Rail)? Many of the problems I experience with Southeastern are actually down to signalling and infrastructure related problems that are outwith Southeastern’s control.

    I saw when TfL took over the Abelio services from Shenfield and aside from more staff on the platforms, I noticed no real improvement in the service.

    A good point was raised about the DLR at Woolwich being heavily used because passengers want to avoid the casino of using Southeastern services. Is it too much to hope that with Crossrail and the completion of the Thameslink Programme in 2018 things will improve without any need for control to pass to TfL???

  7. Darryl

    The Shenfield service is a different operator – MTR Crossrail – to the Overground as it’ll move to Crossrail eventually; it’s basically a holding service. Improvements are in hand, new trains are due next year too: https://tfl.gov.uk/travel-information/improvements-and-projects/shenfield-improvements

    That’s the catch, though – is funding those infrastructure improvements. I suspect there’s more chance of those under TfL than there is under the Department for Transport.

    Crossrail’s likely to be full from day one; I suspect everything will be packed again within a few years (which is what happened with the Jubilee Line).

  8. Plumstead Resident

    Hmm, the Southeastern rolling stock is actually fine IMO and is certainly a more modern fleet than the ones you’d find on comparable Southern routes. I don’t think improving the quality of rolling stock is something any Southeastern passengers really care about at the moment.

    From my perspective the two areas that need to be resolved are: increasing the number of coaches on certain peak services (I believe this is determined by the DfT funding) and sorting out the chronic congestion and signalling problems (managed by Network Rail). Neither would be fixed by TfL taking over Southeastern’s operator contract per se?

  9. Hayley

    The occasional signaling fault can be forgiven, but what cannot is the total lack of communication from Southeastern. In fairness it’s better when they don’t communicate because what you are told is often inaccurate.

    As someone living on the Bromley North branch line, I experience every day the decision of Southeastern to prioritize others and fail to provide connecting services. Under TfL I had at least some hope that services would improve or we’d get a rush hour through service simply because they’d be politically accountable. That’s probably the issue for me – TfL seem to care and even if they don’t they have to answer to people that worry about votes. Southeastern are a law unto themselves. They treat people with contempt and there’s no rival I can switch to so I can treat them in the same way.

  10. Darryl

    Neither would be fixed by TfL taking over Southeastern’s operator contract per se?

    This isn’t how it works. TfL wouldn’t be taking over the operating contract, it would be awarding it and supervising the contract, setting much higher standards than the DfT currently does.

  11. Nick Craddy

    Integrating TfL Overground stock onto Network Rail track co-running with standard Networker stock has been successfully done on the southern loop of the Overground. I believe I’m correct in saying that in these situations where TfL stock and Southern/Southeastern/Thameslink stock co-run, that Network Rail still operates the signalling and maintain the permanent way.
    In one or two sections to the West of London, Underground and National Rail stock also share the same track, but with dual signalling and power arrangements.

    It will be interesting to see if the decision by Grayling has also killed proposals to extended the Bakerloo out to Hayes via Lewisham, which would have fully taken over these tracks.

    The question of where to stop also raises it’s head. Dartford seems on the face of it a natural place – TfL running trains as far as Ramsgate/Dover/South Coast does not seem feasible or reasonable.

    The ethos of TfL’s Overground system (which was largely expected to take over the Southeastern franchise) seems to be one of a metro type of service, which essentially would give more TPH, but less seats per train. As one of the big bitches with the current service is the lack of seat availability, changing to Overground stock will not fix this. The stock in use on the Overground at present is essentially a standing service – fore/aft seating along the length of the carriage with large stand space in between. Who wants to stand all the way from Charing Cross to Dartford?

    Either way, TfL would not be in a position to take over the commuter section of Southeastern until the rebuilding of London Bridge and the realignment of the track into/out of London Bridge is completed. By which time the new signalling, and new track arrangements that do away with blocking paths and the Borough Market bottleneck, and the Thameslink flyunder at Bermondsey will be complete and in service, which alone should vastly improve the quality and quantity of the service available to us.

    Much as I would like to see a better organised and operated railway ( which TfL could on past performance certainly do ) and I think Grayling has been very stupid and partisan, maybe in the cold light of day it will be better to wait and see what the rebuilt London Bridge environs bring to the table before making such a big decision.

  12. Plumstead Resident

    I can see that having TfL accountable for the train operator could bring many benefits around fares, ticketing, better staffed stations etc. and I can see how TfL is more accountable through its link to the Mayoralty than Southeastern but the core reliability issues around Southeastern (usually from rapidly escalating chaos that emerges when there is a signalling problem at a key junction) need to be resolved through the infrastructure improvements (Network Rail) that should be mostly delivered through the Thameslink Programme.

    That said, one thing the DfT could do now is to extend the train lengths to 10 cars on all peak hours routes and that would at least make the journeys slightly less stressful and more comfortable!

  13. Nick Craddy

    @ Plumstead Resident.
    Agreed, on my line ( Bexleyheath ) Network Rail spent a lot of money lengthening platforms and resetting signals to accommodate 12 car trains a couple of years ago.
    Have I ever seen one? Nope.
    I’m told its that Southeastern don’t have enough Networker class 465 stock ( groups in multiples of 2’s and 4’s ) which can form up into 12 car units. One of the design requirements of 465 was toilets, but Southeastern have remodelled some units to remove the loo’s and make more seats.
    The newer class 376 groups in units of 5, so 10 cars is max and platforms/power can’t cope with 15’s in EMU, and they have no toilets, but do have handy extra seating where the luggage shelves are, this always made me laugh, but whoever designed the ergonomics of the seating in 376’s should be made to sit in one for a long, long, time.
    Class 387 will group in 12’s but these are “corridor” trains and only used on the longer distance routes.
    ( Corridor means that there is a passenger route within the train from each 4 car set to the next )
    387 have 1st class passenger compartments and toilets, but it is not possible to buy a 1st class ticket on suburban routes so no advantage to Southeastern to supply 387 trains.
    There is an odd sub version of 465, – could be the 467, not certain without checking, – that also has 1st class compartments and toilets, that occasionally appears on the Dartford loop lines, I think they borrow them from the Victoria destination stock from time-to-time.

  14. fromthemurkydepths

    Plumstead Resident – TfL have reduced delays even with Network Rail retaining control of infrastructure but forming much closer working partnerships. This is one thing Grayling claims to now want but with private operators instead of TfL. Except when it was tried with South West Trains around 2013 it failed as SWT didn’t wan’t the expense. Who is more likely to make a success of joint working – TfL or private operators. So far TfL seem much more likely.

    Nick – TfL’s proposals were initially to Dartford and Sevenoaks but could have gone to Gillingham and Orpington. Never was long distance on the cars.

    TfL are only looking at Metro routes hence a Metro operator ethos isn’t a problem. When they ordered trains after the Greater Anglia Metro takeover in 2015 they didn’t stipulate tube style seating so it’s not the case that trains would become like that with many having to stand all the way to Dartford. What TfL do is look to provide more trains.

    Southeastern lack stock to make many 12 car services – as the DfT won’t let them have.

    Southeastern lack stabling space for 12 car trains, as the DfT never pushed for it in franchise awards.

    Power supply and platforms like Woolwich Dockyards are other obstacles. The DfT do little there again.

    As the Department for Transport have done so little when specifying franchises and awarding them why should anyone have any hope in future they will do what’s needed? TfL clearly stated they know about these issues and would work on them.