A summary of the Transport Scrutiny Panel which took place on 20th October 2022
Once a year, the Regeneration, Transport and Scrutiny Panel (which I chair) holds its Annual Transport Meeting, where we invite the key transport providers in Greenwich to come to speak to us. This year happened to coincide with Southeastern’s disastrous plans to cut a number of key services on its Sidcup, Bexleyheath and Woolwich Lines from December without consultation, making for a very interesting meeting.
You can watch the 3 hour marathon questioning of Southeastern’s Managing Director Steve White, its Operations and Safety Director Scott Brightwell and Network Rail’s Alex Hellier here, if you feel so inclined.
Otherwise, in summary, we learnt the following:
It had been agreed with the Secretary of State that Southeastern did not have to consult on these changes (despite other train companies, such as LNER finding the time to consult).
That the rationale for the changes was to give each line a single London terminus, and to avoid too many trains crossing at Lewisham, which made it more difficult for Southeastern to increase capacity to meet demand (as and when demand rises). Note – this didn’t make a lot of sense, as on the Bexleyheath line (for example) trains are still going to both Cannon Street and Charing Cross at peak time (when crossings at Lewisham are likely to be more difficult), but the Charing Cross services have been cancelled at non-peak time.
It was too late (legally and operationally) to pause any changes until after a period of consultation, the changes will have to go ahead in December, regardless.
Overall, whilst I am pleased that Southeastern afforded us the respect to send senior people to the Panel to answer our questions, I was not overly impressed with some of the responses that they gave.
It was clear to me that Southeastern is capitalising on the relaxation of consultation expectations as a result of the pandemic, in order to force through some key alterations it had been pushing since it last consulted in March 2017 (where the response from passengers was overwhelmingly negative). Mr. White and Mr. Brightwell kept emphasising that all passenger surveys show that punctuality and reliability are the key things that customers value – but that paints a false picture, as customers are never asked if they would prefer a more punctual service at the expense of having to take two trains instead of one to get to their destination. The executives seemed to be more focussed on what works for them, rather than what works for the passengers.
It also felt that not enough thought had been given to those with access needs. Whilst we were told about how extra staff would be on hand at London Bridge to help with connections (and that equality impact assessment will be forthcoming), it didn’t seem that the representatives of Southeastern had really grappled with: how difficult connections can be at London Bridge; how access needs are a spectrum; and, crucially, how many ill people use the direct route on the Bexleyheath line to get to St Thomas Hospital near Charing Cross station.
Steve White and team also tried to use the introduction of the Elizabeth Line (which they termed a “gamechanger”) as a reason that the impact of their cuts will not be substantially felt. This completely ignores the fact that people South of the Borough (such as in Eltham) have no direct access to the Elizabeth Line via public transport (with the exception of the “Sidcup Loop” which is a half-hourly service from the Sidcup line trains to the Woolwich line (and therefore to Abbey Wood) – which Southeastern are also cutting). When this was pointed out, the Southeastern team did promise to take another look at the loop. I’m not holding my breath. If you want to help pile the pressure on Southeastern to restore the loop – please sign the petition here.
The meeting ended with Steve White promising to listen to feedback, and we must all continue to pile the pressure on Southeastern and do what we can to show them the strength of public feeling against this new timetable. There are other petitions you can sign here and here, and you can also submit feedback on Southeastern’s website.