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London Bridge overcrowding: demands grow to give TfL control of Southeastern train services

Calls have been made for a commuter railway to be transferred to Transport for London after passengers at London Bridge faced dangerous overcrowding for the second time in just over a month.

There were chaotic scenes at rush hour on Tuesday night after a signalling failure resulted in the closure of three platforms at Cannon Street station, causing knock-on problems for passengers relying on Southeastern train services.

Hundreds of people trying to board trains at London Bridge station were held on the downstairs concourse.

Some posted their concerns on social media, saying they feared being “trampled to death, and that the situation was “total hell” and resulted in overcrowding on trains that was “worse than cattle”.

This was a repeat of the scenes at London Bridge on January 25, when a safety review was ordered after passengers said they feared being crushed.

Sources told the Standard that Tuesday night’s problems were not caused directly by the controversial new timetable Southeastern introduced before Christmas, which requires more passengers to change trains at London Bridge, but were due to the track failures that are the responsibility of Network Rail.

However others pointed out that the new timetable forces extra passengers through London Bridge on a daily basis - making overcrowding more likely if trains are delayed.

Tory MP Bob Stewart, who represents Beckenham, called on Southeastern to reinstate direct trains from his constituency into Cannon Street to ease the pressure on London Bridge.

A petition seeking a debate in Parliament on transferring Southeastern’s “Metro” services to TfL is approaching 3,000 signatures as anger grows at the scale of disruption being suffered by commuters in South-East London and Kent.

Petition organiser Darryl Chamberlain, who runs the 853.london community news website, said: “We wouldn’t be in this situation now if the government had devolved Southeastern Metro to TfL when they said they would, because we’d have a train service run with London’s needs in mind, rather than being an afterthought for a company primarily serving Kent. We have to pay higher fares than other London commuters but we get less of a service.

"Southeastern and the Department for Transport grossly underestimated the number of commuters using Metro services because they simply don’t understand London commuters. Cutting the number of trains through London Bridge compared with pre-Covid times and forcing more people to change there has made the service less resilient, not more, and this situation will happen again and again if this cut-back rail service continues. It also makes people more likely to work from home and deters people from making the leisure trips London needs.

"The government needs to stop interfering with our trains and hand them to TfL, who aren’t perfect but at least understand how to run London rail services."

The problems that led to Tuesday night’s overcrowding started with a points failure at Borough Market junction at 4.40pm. This meant that signallers could not set the correct route for trains, and blocked the route to three platforms at Cannon Street.

Engineers were unable to fix the points during rush hour due to not having the correct parts and had to return overnight to carry out a full repair.

London TravelWatch, the capital’s passenger watchdog, met SouthEastern bosses after last month’s overcrowding, which it said had “cemented the negative perception of the new timetable” in the minds of passengers.

According to TraveWatch, a “more nuanced picture” had been seen in more recent weeks on the SouthEastern network, with fewer cancellations and better punctuality off-peak and at weekends - but more delays during peak hours.

It reported “over-crowding on some trains due to an unanticipated rise in demand; and too many track and signalling failures continue to undermine performance”.

Michael Roberts, chief executive of London TravelWatch, told the Standard on Wednesday: “Southeastern and Network Rail have recently set up a joint Task Force to sort out infrastructure faults, such as those that occurred at Cannon Street last night.

“We have also been told that a joint review of crowd management at London Bridge had started after the chaotic scenes there at the end of January. We really need to see substantial progress on both fronts, as last night shows there is still a long way to go.”

London mayor Sadiq Khan called in 2019 for suburban rail services to be devolved to TfL. He said this would improve services for passengers by giving TfL control of the trains and the track.

TfL already runs the London Overground and Elizabeth line. Both are among the best-used and most reliable railways in the country, according to the Office for Rail and Road.

Simon Dishman, a policy adviser, said: “Given the less than ideal service out of London Bridge for passengers at the moment, there may be an opportunity to explore transferring control of Southeastern services to TfL - using the London Overground as an example from 2007, which resulted in improved passenger services.”

Since the January overcrowding, Southeastern has added a handful of extra trains in the morning and evening peak and also run longer trains.

Sam Chessex, Network Rail’s southern region stations director, said: “We’re really sorry for the disruption customers faced at London Bridge Station last night, which was due to the knock-on impact of a fault with the signalling system at Cannon Street.

“It meant three platforms at Cannon Street and one at London Bridge were not available during the evening peak, resulting in delays and cancellations.

“We needed to activate crowd management plans to stop platforms becoming too busy and keep everyone safe.

“We recognise how frustrating this will have been for customers, but it’s far safer to keep people on the concourse than on platforms.

“We’re working closely with Southeastern to ensure our plans for managing disruption are safe and minimise the impact of disruption.”