Category: transport

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 Friday 30 June (the deadline has been extended).

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, please make time to 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

Update 22 May: Lewisham East Lib Dem candidate Emily Frith has been in touch to say she has responded to the consultation and said TfL should take over Southeastern’s London services. See also her comment below.

It’s just a shame, though, that candidates seem to be prioritising the demands of narrowly-focused amenity societies in their campaigning rather than taking a broader view. What’s this? Oh, no, not the Greens as well…

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.

Greenwich Peninsula: The driverless shuttle meets the passenger-less bus

Much excitement today on the Greenwich Peninsula with the press invited to take a ride on the little driverless shuttles that have once again taken over the riverside path. Here’s BBC London’s Tom Edwards, going all Tomorrow’s World on us, except the future is here today, right before our eyes, with bicycle outriders.

“The council thinks sharing vehicles could reduce pollution and congestion…” – that would be a bus, right?

Yet in the boring real life Greenwich Peninsula, bus passengers are getting a decidedly shonky deal. The dedicated busway that takes double-deckers up to North Greenwich station has been out of action for nearly three weeks for utility works that nobody seems in a hurry to finish. This means buses end up being sent around the frequently-congested roundabout at the top of Blackwall Lane, holding up passengers and making them late for work.

Greenwich busway, 5 April 2017

Greenwich busway, 5 April 2017

This morning, this resulted in a whole heap of buses having to disgorge their passengers at Greenwich Millennium Village, leaving them to walk half a mile to the station. (Thank you to the frustrated commuter who sent me the photos.) It’s not clear what had caused the hold-up – the Blackwall Tunnel was flowing freely.

TfL and Greenwich Council recently confirmed plans to rip out the busway and replace it with a dual carriageway. But before claiming the Greenwich Peninsula is some hotbed of innovation, perhaps they might like to do something to assist the transport that already exists there.

TfL bus cuts threaten route 180 through Lewisham, Greenwich and Charlton

Route 180 in Charlton

9 July update: Here is the latest on this story.

Transport for London could axe bus route 180 between Lewisham and Charlton, according to a document released by Greenwich Council earlier this month.

The service – which currently runs between Lewisham and Belvedere via Greenwich, Charlton, Woolwich, Plumstead and Abbey Wood, could be diverted to run to and from North Greenwich station instead.

The proposal – first reported by From The Murky Depths – is contained in a transport report (see page 26) produced as part of the council’s plans to redevelop the Charlton riverside.

TfL is also looking at reducing the frequency of route 472, which runs between North Greenwich and Thamesmead.

The report, produced by consultants Urban Movement, says the proposals were mooted in a meeting with TfL last month.

It says: “At a meeting with Aidan Daly of TfL Buses on 19.01.17 he suggested that the frequency of Route 472 is proposed to reduce to 7.5 buses per hour in the peaks from its current frequencies of 12 and 10.

“This route would also be extended to Abbey Wood (due to the arrival of Crossrail). Route 180 is proposed to be diverted at Peartree Way to North Greenwich at its existing frequency of 6 buses per hour, no longer serving the section between Woolwich Road and Lewisham. Route 380 would retain the link between Charlton and Lewisham.

“Overall, it is proposed that bus frequency along the Woolwich Road is set to reduce by approximately 4 buses per hour, while the main flow of buses into North Greenwich reduces by 1 bus per hour overall as a result of the 180 being diverted.”

Most users of bus services in the area will find the idea of cutting the 180 to be palpably barmy – particularly with big population increases right along its route. It would reduce services between Greenwich and Woolwich and break a connection between Lewisham and east Greenwich which has existed since the days of trams. Passengers would presumably be expected to take a 177 and change in central Greenwich for a 199, a service which is often heavily delayed by traffic in Rotherhithe and Deptford.

The reference to the 380 being a replacement for the 180 is an odd one, since the 380 runs through Blackheath rather than Greenwich, and follows a different and more circuitous route through Charlton. But then there is also an odd reference in the report to the bus terminal at Charlton station being redundant when it is used daily by short runs on the 472, early-terminating 486s and rail replacement buses.

The bus network around Woolwich and Abbey Wood will face big changes to coincide with the planned start of Crossrail services in December 2018. But this comes as TfL finds its income squeezed on two fronts: the Conservative government in Westminster withdrawing its grant funding from 2018, and Labour mayor Sadiq Khan’s decision to freeze all single TfL fares until 2020. So service expansions may end up being balanced by cuts elsewhere.

Observers have long feared that big cuts to bus services will be on the way; it may be that Charlton, Greenwich and Lewisham will find this out the hard way. TfL is already planning on big changes to 23 routes through the West End, partly as a response to increased congestion.

One Lewisham route has already been subjected to a stealth cut; in November the area’s only direct link to the West End, the 436 to Paddington, was diverted at Vauxhall to terminate at Battersea Park instead.

If this proposal worries you, then you may want to write to your local representatives – particularly those on the London Assembly – to ask them what they are doing about this.

Sadiq Khan backed Silvertown Tunnel five weeks after election – despite promising ‘joined-up review’

A102

The A102 on a polluted day: Campaigners fear the Silvertown Tunnel will increase pollution and congestion across east and south-east London

London mayor Sadiq Khan agreed to continue with Boris Johnson’s plans to build the controversial Silvertown Tunnel within weeks of taking office, despite promising a “proper joined-up review” into the project while standing for election.

Documents released under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that Khan backed the tunnel after receiving a briefing from Transport for London representatives on 14 June, just five weeks after he took office.

Officials were then charged with making the proposals more palatable to the public, from offering free bus services and residents’ discounts to adding cycle racks to existing buses.

The £1 billion project – which would provide a new toll road from the Royal Docks to feed into the A102 at Greenwich Peninsula, and would toll the Blackwall Tunnel – is currently going through the planning process, with a series of public hearings taking place until April. Later this year, planning inspectors will recommend to the government whether to approve or refuse the scheme.

Full disclosure: I’m part of the No to Silvertown Tunnel campaign that is challenging the scheme, however, the opinions expressed in this story do not represent the views of the campaign. I’m also a registered objector to the tunnel as an individual.

The joined-up review that didn’t happen

Khan had pledged “a proper joined up review, looking at river crossings and improved public transport connections east of Tower Bridge, but in a strategic fashion, not piecemeal like the current mayor”, when interviewed about the project by Transport Network in April 2016, ahead of May’s election.

By 27 May, this had become a commitment to “review the merits” of the scheme.

But a TfL briefing note says Khan agreed to its proposals less than three weeks later, and the review would merely be about “improvements”.

This is despite opposition to the tunnel from Labour councils in Lewisham, Southwark, Hackney and now Newham, which has reversed its earlier backing for the scheme.

Khan also appears to have quietly dropped plans for further road crossings at Gallions Reach and Belvedere. The Gallions crossing has been a long-cherished aim for London’s Labour councils, and was a supposed condition for Greenwich’s backing of the Silvertown scheme. Neither project appears in TfL’s latest business plan, released last month.

While politicians in Greenwich and Tower Hamlets are going through the motions in still supporting the scheme, the project has come under sustained attack from their council officers at planning hearings, which resume today.

The documents released by City Hall

Aspen Way

The proposed tunnel would feed straight into this existing morning traffic jam at Aspen Way, Poplar

The Greater London Authority was asked for the terms of reference of Khan’s review, as well as the advice sent to Khan and deputy mayor Val Shawcross, their responses, as well as details of who was consulted.

There is no record of anybody outside the GLA or TfL being consulted by the mayor’s office, despite the widespread concern about the proposals from neighbouring councils.

The GLA sent a Powerpoint presentation from TfL to the mayor from June, when he agreed to back the scheme; as well as a later presentation outlining options to make the scheme more palatable. There is also a note from GLA head of transport Tim Steer to Shawcross outlining the problems with residents’ discounts.

You can see the documents for yourself here (12MB PDF).

Cover letter with more details (added 26 January 2017)

Asked for the terms of reference, the GLA said:

“In requesting that TfL review the merits of the Silvertown Tunnel scheme, the Mayor asked that particular consideration be paid to the following:

  • a clear commitment to delivering much-needed cross river public transport links;
  • environmental assurances, both in terms of how it is constructed and once operational;
  • and benefits for pedestrians and cyclists, linking to the wider opportunities for new river crossings, such as the proposed Rotherhithe to Canary Wharf crossing.”

However, there is no sign that any of TfL’s assertions about the scheme – apart from on tolling – were scrutinised in any way by the mayor or his deputy.

This includes its claim that “no additional traffic will be generated”, which has been disputed by councils at the planning process.

A question of ‘further benefits’

Ford Trader Dartford Tunnel Cycle Bus

In October, Khan confirmed he was backing the scheme but making it “greener and more public transport-focused, and exploring further benefits for residents who use the tunnel”.

“Further benefits for residents who use the tunnel” – which campaigners fear mean concessions for local residents who drive through the tunnel – have the potential to wreck TfL’s traffic modelling by generating even more new trips and causing more congestion.

Despite this, both Labour and Conservative politicians on both sides of the Thames are still pressing for concessions.

Khan’s main idea to “green” the tunnel was to create a special bus service for cyclists – reminiscent of a short-lived service offered when the Dartford Tunnel first opened in 1963 (pictured above, below is one of the vehicles in a yard in Stratford in 1999).

Hackney Waterden Road Ford Thames bus

He also re-announced a series of bus services already planned for the tunnel, as well as reiterating his support for a pedestrian and cycle bridge between Rotherhithe and Canary Wharf.

The mayor also re-announced past proposals for a ferry between North Greenwich and Canary Wharf and an Overground extension from Barking Riverside to Thamesmead. There was one surprising addition – a pledge to investigate a DLR extension from Gallions Reach to Thamesmead, the first time this idea has surfaced without being attached to a new road.

Other plans suggested by TfL but not taken forward by Khan included free travel on the Emirates Air Line between 7am and 9am on weekdays, to be paid for by increasing “leisure fares” on the cable car.

Rocky reception at planning hearings

The Silvertown Tunnel planning hearing resumes at Excel today

The Silvertown Tunnel planning hearing resumes at Excel today

Planning hearings into the scheme began in October and resume today at the Excel centre in the Royal Docks. A three-strong panel is hearing arguments from TfL and interested parties, mainly boroughs and local landowners.

What has been striking so far has been the tough reception TfL’s plans got from all boroughs. None of them are happy with TfL’s traffic modelling. This is a problem for TfL, because all its other forecasts, from the economy to pollution, derive from how much traffic it thinks will use the tunnel.

Most strikingly, Greenwich Council’s senior transport planner, Kim Smith, told hearings last month that the council was worried the “local network would suffer” as a result of the tunnel’s construction – something campaigners have been warning about for four years, and that appears in a report the council buried nearly five years ago.

Her opposite number at Newham, Murray Woodburn, pointed out that TfL’s record in assessing demand for river crossings was “not exactly fantastic”, pointing out that the Woolwich Arsenal DLR extension proved to be twice as busy as predicted.

“We as host boroughs have no option other than to treat the highway impacts… with very little confidence,” he told the hearing.

Much of this depends on the calculations that go into the modelling itself – the boroughs challenged the “value of time” used in the forecasts, saying that economic conditions in this part of London are vastly different from the rest of the country.

But the tolling also plays a part – so we learned that TfL has only modelled what would happen if tolls increased by 20%, which would only take the maximum charge for a car up to £3.60.

TfL has also admitted it could reduce charges if the tunnel was less busy than forecast – jeopardising traffic levels on other roads and possibly increasing pollution.

You can see a Storify summary of one of December’s hearings here.

Greenwich councillors say one thing, officers say another

Silvertown Tunnel hearing at The Crystal

Bedtime reading: The planning documents for the Silvertown Tunnel scheme

But while Murray Woodburn’s boss, Newham elected mayor Sir Robin Wales, has “politically repositioned the council’s stance” on the tunnel, Kim Smith’s employers at Greenwich are still singing the same old songs written by former leader Chris Roberts.

Smith told the planning hearing the council only ever supported “a package of crossings” (ie, including the now-dropped Gallions crossing), which is consistent with the council’s submissions to earlier consultations on the scheme.

But a few days later she was contradicted by current transport cabinet member Sizwe James, who has been lumbered with the job of defending the council’s stance, at a scrutiny panel meeting. These are where backbench councillors interrogate (or at least gently probe) senior councillors and officers on how things are going.

Much of the Regeneration, Transport and Culture scrutiny meeting was about Greenwich’s policies on air pollution – which falls under the remit of deputy leader Danny Thorpe’s regeneration portfolio. Thorpe enlisted TfL’s David Rowe – a genial chap who’s in charge of much of the politics and practicalities around the proposal – to answer questions from councillors on the Silvertown Tunnel and air pollution.

This was largely a waste of time, as everything depends on the traffic modelling, which council officials are unhappy about. But nobody told the councillors that the modelling was hotly disputed, and Rowe’s presence presumably just gave Thorpe someone to hide behind. (Shaky video of almost the whole meeting can be found here.)

Too bright to come out with that crap

January 2013: Nick Raynsford, Denise Hyland and Chris Roberts promote their pro-tunnel Bridge The Gap campaign

January 2013: Nick Raynsford, Denise Hyland and Chris Roberts promote their pro-tunnel Bridge The Gap campaign

Even worse, by the time the meeting had got around to transport questions – where the meat of the Silvertown scheme could be dissected – almost everybody had cleared off, including Thorpe and Rowe, leaving James – who has only recently taken over transport from Thorpe – isolated.

James told the panel that the council supported the tunnel’s construction in isolation.

“We have been consistently supportive of a package of crossings… but that is not the only reason we’re supporting Silvertown, it’s also about resilience and supporting growth,” he told the meeting on 13 December.

But James then managed to contradict himself on that point, as well as Smith’s comments to the planning hearing.

Asked by former deputy leader John Fahy if it concerned him that the tunnel would attract more traffic than anticipated now the Gallions and Belvedere schemes have been canned, James replied: “Of course it does, there’ll be more pressure at one point, that’s why we support a package of crossings.”

Either the council supports the Silvertown Tunnel on its own, or it supports more than one crossing, surely?

After an awkward silence, Greenwich’s assistant director of transport, Tim Jackson, intervened to point out that “if TfL were here they would say” that tolling would control traffic levels.

But TfL had gone home – and Jackson’s colleagues have been taking TfL to task on the question of tolling at the planning hearings, something he didn’t tell the panel.

So Greenwich councillors were denied the chance to properly scrutinise the council’s line on the scheme, and learned nothing about how the council is approaching what is a complex set of public hearings on the scheme.

Then James was taken to task by Greenwich West councillor Mehboob Khan, who, in short, told him he was too bright to come out with that crap.

“Southwark have formally objected on the basis of increased traffic going through the west of our borough through Lewisham and Southwark towards Rotherhithe [Tunnel]. That’s the council’s official position,” he said.

“Lewisham have objected. Hackney have objected. Tower Hamlets objected [it did in an earlier consultation]. Greenwich didn’t. Someone’s right here, and somebody’s wrong here. Their objections aren’t, in principle, to Silvertown – it’s about the mitigation of the problems caused by it not being dealt with by TfL.

“You meet TfL on a regular basis – you’re new to this portfolio this year. And perhaps you don’t want to be tainted by past portfolio-holders’ stances.” At this point, John Fahy pretended to cuff Khan around the ear.

“Can you look at this afresh and and see why other boroughs have taken a completely polarised position to Greenwich? And maybe come forward with something more in line with what an intelligent, articulate cabinet member like yourself would come forward with?”

James responded: “This is not my personal position, this is the position of the Labour Group.” [Greenwich Labour councillors backed the scheme in 2012.]

Khan came back: “We’re not interested in Labour Group here. This forms part of the council’s scrutiny function. That political view is taken elsewhere.”

James agreed he would look again at the council’s position. But frankly, the damage has already been done by his predecessors, who mistook criticism of the council’s stance for politically-motivated attacks. It’s now left Greenwich in an embarrassing position of backing a scheme it knows will damage the borough.

Khan can still stop it – but do local politicians care enough?

Before Christmas, the West Ham constituency Labour party passed a motion against the scheme, and there are rumours of new rumblings against the Silvertown Tunnel south of the river too. But it’s too late to take their complaints to council leaders – they’ve already made their minds up.

If they really wanted to stop the scheme, they would be taking their concerns straight to Sadiq Khan and Val Shawcross, which would mean overcoming their reluctance to embarrass the Labour mayor and his transport deputy.

Even at this late stage, the tunnel certainly isn’t a done deal – especially with the fierce criticism it’s getting from the boroughs.

Just as with another dodgy scheme inherited from Boris Johnson, the Garden Bridge, many millions of pounds have already been spent on getting the Silvertown Tunnel through planning – and this planning inquiry itself is taking up huge amounts of TfL’s time when the organisation is having its budgets cut.

But now we know how slapdash Khan’s “review” was, will any of his friends have the courage to have a quiet word in his ear?

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.

Bye bye busway: Dual carriageway for Greenwich Millennium Village

GMV bus way

This would become a dual carriage way under TfL and Greenwich Council’s scheme

The busway that links Greenwich Millennium Village and North Greenwich station is set to be ripped out and replaced with a dual carriageway, under plans unveiled by Transport for London and Greenwich Council today.

A consultation has been launched into the scheme, which will also see new bus stops installed by the Pilot pub.

It follows a number of collisions in the area, with drivers and pedestrians confused by the unconventional layout, which has two single-carriageway roads placed next to each other; one for buses and one for general traffic.

GMV busway

Looking towards the Dome from the top of a bus – the busway is on the right

A woman died in January after being hit by a bus in the Millennium Village during a morning rush hour.

The layout is a legacy of a failed plan to have the Millennium Dome served by guided buses. The buses kept crashing while on test, so the busway was covered in tarmac and handed over for normal bus use in June 2001.

Its proposed replacement would provides one lane for buses and one lane for general traffic in each direction. Despite Transport for London recently installing a “cycle hub” (in reality, a couple of double-deck cycle racks) at North Greenwich station, there is no dedicated space for cyclists. It also appears to improve the access route into North Greenwich station, and removes the traffic lights that hold up buses outside the Pilot, replacing them with a pelican crossing.

But while the new arrangement will be less confusing, it does allow rat-running through the Millennium Village to the car parks for the O2 and at North Greenwich station, with the route through GMV bring a popular cut-through in the mornings. The construction of a dual carriageway through this area may mean one problem has been swapped for another. It seems an opportunity has been missed to keep traffic that shouldn’t be in GMV out of it.

If the Silvertown Tunnel is built, the dual carriageway past the Pilot would also be the main access route to the O2 and surrounding amenities during the construction period.

It also means the under-construction St Mary Magdalene school would be surrounded by dual carriageways on both sides.

Local councillors are pleased with what’s planned…

…but to have your say, visit Transport for London’s consultation site.