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…

29 comments

  1. Thanks Darryl – superb journalism as always. Nails it. I’m sharing this with my friends and neighbours in Greenwich, Blackheath and Lewisham.

  2. Darryl Much appreciated There is always more than one way to skin a cat! I have been trying to see beyond the lines and no one seemed to pickup the fact the there have not been any trains to London Bridge from 4 to 6 pm each day as they run into Cannon Street! Why o Why! Is it because > Lewisham is looking to be the New Croydon of the SE! > thus let’s see if Lewisham station could be the centre of the SE rail network! > all lines lead to Lewisham

    As a resident of Eltham Park area not having direct trains to Charring Cross could reduce those computer cars parking and blocking the Residential Streets of Eltham.

    [message snipped to stay on topic – Darryl]

  3. Well, thank God I can ride my bicycle to work in the City then. As you say, with all the residential development in Kidbrooke, Lewisham and Greenwich, this is a time bomb waiting to go off. Good post.

  4. Excellent reporting and will follow this up. Dead cat, red herrings, smorgasbord…….

  5. Thank you Navin – yes, a time bomb is a good analogy, because it seems some residents’ and rail users’ groups and certain politicians are actively obstructing attempts to defuse it.

  6. Hi Darryl, will cutting and pasting your response word for word cause any problems? My grasp on such a complex issue is rather feeble compared to yours! But I wouldn’t want to nullify my response or yours…

  7. The problems with letting TfL run these services include:-

    The amount of cuts to direct services and the need to change trains when you are not too mobile.

    A desire to run more trains, which while a noble idea, will lead to more congestion, particularly between Lewisham and London where mainline services from Kent will still need to run.

    The North Kent route is also a diversionary route for mainline services to Medway and beyond when there is engineering works or an incident on that line. Adding more trains will slow both the mainline and TfL trains down to a crawl should this happen.

    The Railway needs to be seen as a whole. In the case of SE, there are few other TOCs involved which means the timetable is planned as a whole, and if there are engineering works, it involves a single train planning unit to work out the timetable, not two, who will often have conflicting ideas.

  8. Katie – that’s very kind of you. I had hoped some time back to work on a template response with some others but it wasn’t to be. Cutting and pasting isn’t a brilliant idea, but I’ve taken some of my personal hobby-horses out and created a version that you can adapt to your own needs here: https://853blog.files.wordpress.com/2017/05/dft_response_853.pdf

    (I’ve also made a few edits and tweaks to the piece in light of changing the document.)

  9. I’ve seen a comment elsewhere that the times for Kidbrooke in the example given above were wrong, and they were – it should be Lewisham to Kidbrooke, not Kidbrooke to Lewisham. So I’ve changed that bit of the piece.

  10. Well said, Darryl. I’ve had fellow Blackheathites complain to me about the Grayling consultation and seen the spread of leaflets. My responses to them have been (a) changing at London Bridge will be easy after next year (though it might have been easier if initial plans for a mezzanine floor hadn’t been dropped), though Lewisham is still crap; and (b) no Tube user expects one in three trains on the Central line to divert somehow onto the Northern line at Bank, or every other Piccadilly line train to cross onto the Jubilee line for people wanting not to have to change to get to Canary Wharf. Changing trains isn’t that hard (and changing trains at London Bridge, with escalators and lifts to each platform, is easier than at most Tube stations).

  11. Nailed it. Spot on in my opinion. The impact of all the extra high-density housing (flats) will be far greater than the DfT have catered for. Sadly, this is a factor in me looking to leave Greenwich after 16 years in the same house, near the fantastic Pelton Arms. The massive Knight Dragon development at North Greenwich is going to make things a lot worse, public transport wise.

    Annoys me so much that politics got in the way of the TfL decision. Tory minister not wanting to support a Labour mayor. Sigh…

  12. Great to find someone else who actually “gets it”. Routing all Bexleyheath line trains to Cannon Street would in fact benefit a larger proportion of Lewisham borough than it disadvantages, yet all that has been lost in the bandwagon-jumping to ‘protect’ Blackheath.

    My only hope is that consultation responders realise that 3 lines (Sidcup / Hayes / Orpington) would benefit from the proposal vs. only 1 which would be disadvantaged.

    If you look at it that way the final decision for the DfT is obvious, regardless of any petitions or whatever.

  13. Hi Darryl

    I wrote to Chris Grayling arguing for TfL to run SouthEastern before the consultation was launched. I have also responded to the consultation on a range of issues including better services for Hither Green, Lee and Catford. I had a letter published in the Evening Standard on this issue. I have also raised awareness on the proposals at both Blackheath and Lee Green station. I have set up a petition about the delays to access improvements at Hither Green.

  14. Re: Alan Burkett-Gray’s comment that “changing [trains] will be easy after next year”, it never ceases to astonish me how unaware some people are about the difficulties faced by others. Changing trains is never easy for the elderly, the sight- or mobility-impaired, or anyone carrying luggage or travelling with small children. I promise you: for all these groups, travelling directly to their chosen destination is by a mile the preferred option and far more travellers wish to get to Charing Cross than to Cannon Street, particularly at weekends. Neither Lewisham or even the rebuilt London Bridge will be able to cope with the numbers forced to decant partway through their journey. As for staff and patients trying to get to King’s College Hospital in the brave new world or no Lewisham trains to Victoria, I have given up trying to work out a route, but it seems to involve lots and lots of lovely changes in order to get to Blackfriars and thence to Denmark Hill. Please: let’s not lose our direct Charing Cross and Victoria services.

  15. I haven’t had time to read all the texts and comments on this item but have the impression that the “amenity societies” are regarded as exclusivist elitists. They may well be – there’s lots to be exclusive about when you’re tackling subjects nobody else seems to bother about – but, whatever your reservations may be, the fact is that the Blackheath Society (I’m writing here for the Charlton Society) organised (and paid for?) the printing of at least 30,000 leaflets, while members of the Blackheath, Charlton and Westcombe Societies, as well as Transport for Charlton (the 4 organisations I know for certain have been involved) have distributed them early morning and evening up and down the North Kent Line,on at least one occasion (many putting in 3 or 4 sessions for each station) involving many hours of their time. So much for the “elites”…. Chop off their heads!..

  16. I wish to echo Frequent Traveller’s comments. There are only 2 trains per hour that stop at Denmark Hill. It’s the only way from this area to Kings’ Hospital. Many patients are seriously ill and wouldn’t be able to take public transport to Kings if it involved multiple changes, or even one difficult change at Lewisham.
    I take your points Darryl about TfL but not all travellers who need a direct route are healthy, younger commuters.

  17. @Frequent traveller – for avoidance of doubt one would still be able to catch a direct train from Lewisham to Victoria via Denmark Hill. It is simply that the service in question would not have originated from Bexleyheath.

  18. Interested party – I seem to have missed something. Where will I find information regarding direct trains from Lewisham to Victoria via Denmark Hill if the current 2-per-hour from Bexleyheath are axed? Which line will the new service be running on?

  19. @Frequent traveller – thanks for the query. Similarly where will I find information stating direct trains will NOT run from Lewisham to Victoria via Denmark Hill?

  20. Interested Party: If I’ve understood the consultation document correctly, which is by no means certain and is why I’m asking the question, ALL trains on the Bexleyheath line would be re-routed to Cannon Street, including the 2 per hour that currently serve Victoria. I note that, in their letters to Grayling, both Heidi Alexander and Emily Frith appear to have come to the same conclusion. If their, and my, interpretation of the proposals is correct, Lewisham would by default lose its Denmark Hill/Victoria service and I can find no information to support your statement that “one would still be able to catch a direct train from Lewisham to Victoria … etc”. Do you have any idea where these new trains would be coming from?

  21. Darryl – Any particular one??
    Interested Party has stated as a matter of fact that the current Bexleyheath line trains to Victoria via Denmark Hill will be replaced by others running on a different line. Be a dear and point me in the direction of the information regarding this new service because I can’t find it anywhere. All I can find is the suggestion that the Bexleyheath/Victoria service be axed.

  22. @Frequent Traveller – let’s try another way. Does one genuinely believe there will be a section of unused track between Lewisham Junction and Nunhead Junction? Now, take that thought, and think about where the trains using that stretch of track are going to originate from. Got it? Good.

  23. I find it hard to believe that they would axe the
    Charing Cross to Gillingham semi fasts, perhaps curtailing at Gravesend maybe in light of the Thameslink service is possible, but that would mean that the Medway would lose a long standing semi fast main line train in favour of a all stations metro style Thameslink service, which makes absolutely no sense.

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