Clive calls for urgent action to improve transport in south-east London

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): I applied for this debate to highlight the need to increase capacity on our road transport network in south-east London, and our passenger transport network. I acknowledge that there have been some improvements-too many for me to go through in this short debate-but recent events have highlighted that the system teeters on the edge of collapse daily due to demand. The slightest defect in the system has enormous consequences for commuters in delays and congestion.

During the period leading up to Christmas, several events on the roads leading to and in the Blackwall tunnel highlighted the problem. Each event resulted in gridlock for south-east and east London. The impact on the economy and the lives of thousands of people in that area is impossible to calculate. We are all affected, even on the shortest of journeys, because such incidents may cause severe delays.

The recent cold weather exposed the lack of resilience in our rail services, particularly on 6, 7 and 8 January, when services at peak times were reduced to two trains an hour, and the rail service closed down at 8 o’clock in the evening. Southeastern’s response did not reflect customers’ experience, and certainly not my experience as one of its customers. I was one of the passengers at Eltham station who were left waiting in the freezing cold with no information about what was happening, only to see one train come in so overcrowded that only a few people could force their way on to it from a packed platform. The next train was so packed that it did not even stop. There was no warning for the people waiting on the platform that there would be no opportunity for them to get on the trains. The whole episode smacked of panic, and Southeastern’s explanation for what happened between 6 and 8 January was not satisfactory.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): Around 6,000 of my constituents travel to east London to work every day. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the way to tackle the problem on both roads and rail is to increase capacity on the railways, and to enable more carriages to be added to trains by extending platforms and improving the infrastructure? It is time the Government made more investment in that.

Clive Efford: I accept that, and the Government have attempted to do just that. The purpose of this debate is to urge the Minister in a friendly way along that route. I do not accept Southeastern’s argument, and the penalties to prevent train operators behaving in that way are not sufficiently severe. Its response to the cold spell suggested that it had not planned for it, and it was not prepared to make any effort to deal with it. The Government’s response should be a severe penalty.

The Oyster pay-as-you-go system was introduced in January, and was welcome. It streamlines ticketing between London transport and mainline rail services, but there is a surcharge for using it on Southeastern’s trains, which is not paid on other parts of the network that had pay-as-you-go before January. That is unacceptable, and the Government should address the matter.

I should add in response to the intervention from the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) that for a considerable time we have been promised 12-car trains on Southeastern. I have a simple question: when will they arrive? They have been promised, they are essential to increase capacity, and we need a date for when they will be delivered.

The main commute for my constituents has always been from south-east London to central London, and that will continue to be so, but as docklands, the Olympic park, Stratford and other developments in the east Thames corridor develop, more and more of my constituents will want to go directly north across the river.

Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Ind): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. He is renowned for fighting strongly for improved public transport for his constituents. The route to docklands is also important for many of my constituents who will travel into his constituency and east London for employment. Is it not important to ensure that Transport for London takes over more transport facilities so that there is a better service? TfL is taking over Norwood Junction station on the East London line into docklands, and we hope that there will be some investment and improvement at that station where the subways, for example, are in a bad condition.

Clive Efford: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing south-west London into the debate. I echo his sentiments on wanting expanded public transport options.

The Mayor of London recently held a consultation on a transport plan for London, to which I responded, and I want to highlight a couple of points that he made in his consultation document. In chapter 5, paragraph 403, he said:

“As the economy of east London has changed, developments such as Canary Wharf, ExCel and The 02 have increased the demand for travel across the river significantly. Many of the large new economic drivers for London are located in east London, with the majority of these lying north of the river, such as the Olympic Park and adjacent Stratford City development, Canary Wharf, ExCel and City Airport. Access to these growing destinations from southeast London can be difficult due to the barrier effect of the Thames.”

He continued in paragraph 405:

“However, there are still few road crossings of the Thames in east London, causing difficulties for those who cannot use public transport for their journey, and in particular business journeys.

Drivers are heavily dependent on the congested Blackwall and Rotherhithe tunnels, each of which have restrictions on the size of vehicle which can use them, and the Woolwich Ferry. Beyond London, the Dartford crossing, forming part of the M25 orbital motorway, also regularly operates at, or close to, capacity. There is little resilience in the event of an incident at one of these crossings, and local businesses, particularly in southeast London, suffer from this unreliability. The projected increases in jobs and population in the Thames Gateway will increase the problem of highway congestion and road network resilience at river crossings further. The Mayor is therefore supportive of investigating options for road based river crossings in east London as part of a package of transport improvements.”

Recommendation 39 in the consultation is to develop the Silvertown link between the north Greenwich peninsula and Silvertown in docklands.

I have responded to the Mayor’s consultation in support of that proposal, but urged that any crossing should not be just a road crossing. It is not sufficient just to build road capacity without expanding public transport capacity. It would be folly to build just a road, without including capacity to bring the docklands light railway to north Greenwich. North Greenwich is developing as a transport hub and interchange for south-east London, and the natural progression for that development would be to bring the docklands light railway to north Greenwich.

I have responded to the Mayor with three specific proposals, on which I consulted many constituents. More than 700 have indicated their support for my proposals, and the number is growing. First and foremost, we need to deal with the congestion at the Blackwall tunnel by building the Silvertown link. Secondly, that Silvertown link should include a facility for the docklands light railway to come to North Greenwich station. The third point-which is probably the most important for my constituents-is that once the docklands light railway reaches North Greenwich, it would be more feasible and cost effective to bring it along the A102 and A2 to places such as Eltham, than it would be to cut a tunnel through Shooters hill from the spur at Woolwich town centre. I believe that that has been looked into, but it may have been dismissed.

Those are three specific proposals: the Silvertown link, the DLR to North Greenwich, and the DLR to Eltham. I have had some success with the proposals as they have generated discussion locally, which was part of the objective. Unfortunately, the local Tories have decided that they are opposed to the plans, which is rather short-sighted, and it has prompted the Green party to say that we should not have the DLR, but we should have the Jubilee line. I would not dismiss either, but I am happy that the debate has started.

Most significantly-joking aside-I am delighted that Greenwich council has decided to put a substantial amount of money into a feasibility study to look at the possibility of bringing the DLR to Eltham. That welcome step has a lot of support from local people. Whatever the outcome, whether it is my proposal or something else that comes out of the discussion, we cannot ignore this issue. Doing nothing is not an option.

The Department for Transport forecasts that road traffic will grow by about 32 per cent. between 2006 and 2025. London’s congestion is forecast to increase by 30 per cent. However, over the same period, congestion on highways authority trunk roads is forecast to increase by 37 per cent. My constituency of Eltham is bisected by the A2 and the A20, and we will need to address the problems of congestion and pollution associated with that. For my constituency, “business as usual” is not acceptable because the developments that are taking place along the east Thames corridor and in the Kent area will exacerbate the problems that are already experienced.

Daily congestion is an environmental nightmare. However, I suggest that new technology will change the argument about the environmental and global warming potential of vehicles over the next generation, and increasingly, congestion will become the issue that we want to address because of its impact on people and businesses. Because of the environmental consequences, it is not fashionable to suggest that we build and expand our road network. However, as we see new technologies such as hydrogen cell, hybrid and electric vehicles on our roads, our attention will increasingly be drawn to dealing with the issue of congestion as the environmental impacts reduce. We must begin to plan for that situation.

We have made mistakes in the past. It is fair to say that the previous Mayor was too anti-car and tried to design the car out of all commuter journeys to and from work. However, people desire to use their car for journeys to and from the point of embarkation on public transport, and that is what we have failed to facilitate in the past. The folly of the current Mayor is that he sees the car as an issue of human rights and freedom of choice, and he is blinkered to the inevitable impact that increasing congestion will have. If we, and the Mayor, do not start to plan to deal with these problems now, we will look with envy on the days of the relative high speed of the horse and cart.

We must accept that our road space is finite, and whether we believe that global warming is fact or fiction-and I believe that it is a fact-we will suffer the consequences of congestion. That is why I urge us to deal with the issue where the problems occur. I caution against the grand project of building huge new infrastructures such as new river crossings in new locations. Inevitably, that will create new problems and suck in more resources to deal with those problems. We need to look at the existing road network and make maximum use of the space that we have. Where we identify pinch points, such as the Blackwall tunnel, we should deal with them and try to make efficient use of our resources.

We must ask how we are going to contain growth. The figures in the Transport for London travel report of 2007 show some remarkable facts. For instance, the number of cars entering central London in 1993 was 155,000 per day. That is now down to 78,000-almost half. However, if one looks at the figures before 2002, when the congestion charge was introduced, we see that the reduction in the number of cars entering central London was greater before the congestion charge than it was after its introduction. The number went from 155,000 to 105,000 cars per day during the peak period of 7 am to 10 am between 1993 and 2002, while from 2002 to 2006, it went down to 78,000, which indicates that where public transport is available, reliable and efficient, people will make that choice, even without the stick of the congestion charge. We can achieve a modal shift.

We need to invest more in public transport and not focus so much on the necessity of charges, although they may be necessary in certain places. When the infrastructure is built, and if it is possible to impose a toll for people who are travelling long distances, I would like to see local people favoured and either not charged or charged a minimum amount. Charges for road space might be necessary, but figures show that people will make the switch if we improve our public transport network.

We have had experience of that in Greenwich, and before I conclude, I want to point out to the Minister that we need to review the way in which we assess the cost benefits of major schemes. There are three examples from Greenwich in which we have had to take on the Government of the day-including this Government over Crossrail-to get ourselves included in major infrastructure projects. First, when the docklands light railway was going to Lewisham, there was no plan to have a station at the Cutty Sark location. Greenwich town centre is the biggest tourist destination in London outside central London. Today, the idea of not having a DLR station at the Cutty Sark is frankly ridiculous, but that is what was planned. Thanks to the council taking on the Government and putting in its own resources, we got the station.

There was a similar story with the Jubilee line. One could not imagine having no Jubilee line station the O2 today-I do not know how most people would have got there on the night of the millennium celebrations if we did not have the Jubilee line. Again, that is thanks to local politicians, who forced the Government of the day to accept that it was necessary to have a station at North Greenwich. As I have already said, that station is now a major transport interchange.

Similarly, there was the Crossrail row over Woolwich. The idea that the line would go under Woolwich but that there would not be a station was ridiculous. It is a major transport hub for south-east London, and we won the argument to force people to recognise the improvements. The first two of those schemes are now among the busiest stations on those networks, and it is unthinkable that we would not have had them. That highlights some flaws in how we assess the value of investing money in such schemes.

Let me make one or two suggestions. We need to think the unthinkable. We need to think about things that until now have not been considered viable or have been considered slightly off the beaten track, if hon. Members will excuse the pun. There are certain things that we need to consider. For instance, in relation to some of our urban motorway networks, we need to assess how we use the space and use motorways to provide more rapid transport networks.

One issue is guided buses or express bus routes. I have been successful in lobbying TfL to introduce the 132 bus from Eltham to North Greenwich, which is a direct bus route that goes down the motorway. The bus gets caught in traffic jams at certain times, but it has been an enormous success. It has opened up a new commuter route for people who want to travel into London via London transport systems or into the docklands. The bus route is now about 15 minutes from Eltham, whereas the previous route took 45 minutes because it was such a circuitous journey. By introducing faster transport links such as those along our urban motorways, we can encourage more people on to public transport.

Hard-shoulder running on our motorways to provide bus lanes is another issue. The M6 scheme has proved very successful at relieving congestion when the road is heavily congested. We could consider providing bus lanes on our urban motorways where appropriate. Park-and-ride schemes around our major cities are something that we have not developed, but if we really want to reduce congestion on our motorways, we, and the Mayor, should look at proposals for car parking around routes such as the M25 and for bringing people in on our motorway networks. Perhaps it would be a good use of the bendy bus to bring it along those motorways. For many years, I have advocated the use of our urban motorways as corridors to introduce light rail, hence my suggestion that we could bring the DLR to Eltham via the A102 and A2 and use the land adjacent to it or even above it for that purpose.

We need to deal with congestion on our roads and overcrowding on our trains. The expansion in capacity is essential, but building roads alone will not be the solution. We also need to expand our public transport network. The biggest cost in all this is to do nothing.

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