As the MP for Twickenham, my constituents rely on train services on the SWR network for work, leisure and essential travel. No tube lines serve the Twickenham constituency. A frequent and reliable service is absolutely essential to local residents, and for both the local and London economy. It is also critical to Richmond borough, London and the UK meeting its net-zero commitments as we aim to reduce car usage and boost public transport use.
The proposals set out in the December 2022 timetable consultation, in particular for the Hounslow loop line and peak services through Teddington, are unacceptable. Commuters are starting to return to work in large numbers and, making decisions now when we have no idea of what long-term commuter travel patterns will look like, is far too premature. These proposals should be withdrawn and any consultation on permanent changes delayed for six to twelve months.
Before addressing the detail of the proposals, I object to how the consultation has been conducted. The timing of this consultation on significant timetable changes, over the summer when many people are away, is deplorable. There has been very little publicity, and with people working from home, the majority of commuters are unaware of the proposals. To make matters worse, the documentation produced by SWR is difficult to interpret.
Given the radical changes proposed for some stations, this should not have been a “strategic stakeholder” consultation but a broad, well publicised passenger and stakeholder consultation. As a minimum, if the proposals will not be withdrawn, I urge SWR to extend the consultation period and communicate the proposed changes much more clearly. They should publish a clear station by station guide to highlight the actual impact these proposals would have on services, compared to their pre-pandemic level. An impact assessment should also be undertaken for any station which is scheduled to lose services.
I have canvassed opinion from local residents on the proposed changes to the timetable. In the limited time available, I have received over one hundred written responses on the matter. The responses have been almost exclusively negative about the proposed changes. Additionally, 600 petition signatures have been received to save local train services.
Below is a summary of the feedback I have received:
Timing of the changes
My constituents understand that the pandemic has changed travel patterns and it is unclear what future passenger volumes will be, once workplaces are fully reopened. They accept there may be a need to change and even reduce services from some stations. However, now is the wrong time to make permanent changes when there is such uncertainty. SWR have themselves described the future passenger volume projections as “a guess” and conceded that more analysis is needed. SWR should continue to run the current temporary timetable, adjusting the number of services as demand increases, conduct more analysis on changing passenger numbers, and conduct a consultation on permanent changes once new travel patterns are better understood.
According to the consultation document, the proposed timetable changes are based on several assumptions. The most important of these is the projection that business and commuter travel will only return to approximately 60% of pre-pandemic levels. Leisure travel is projected to return to 105% of pre-pandemic levels. As stated earlier, it is far too early to rely on these projections. However, if they prove to be correct, the conclusion would be to protect off-peak services which service the leisure market. The removal of the off-peak Hounslow loop service runs counter to this methodology.
Hounslow loop service
The proposals to not reinstate the Hounslow loop service is completely unacceptable, particularly to residents in St Margarets and Whitton who will have their direct to London service slashed in half. Prior to the pandemic, there were two trains per hour in both directions. St Margarets will only have a half hourly service to and from Waterloo for most of the day, in comparison to the service every fifteen minutes that they had prior to the pandemic. A reduction of services by 50% at this zone 4 station is inconceivable. Under the proposals in the consultation document, the Hounslow loop would terminate at Twickenham, with the expectation that passengers from Whitton will change at Twickenham for the stopping service or for alternative fast trains to London. This is no substitute for a direct train to Waterloo from Whitton station. I would request that SWR look at adding Whitton as a stop to the Reading service in order to maintain the 4 trains per hour service to London Waterloo. St Margarets should be considered as an additional stop for the Windsor to Waterloo service in order to maintain service levels there.
Gaps between services
Much of the feedback I have received from residents has been focused on the time between services rather than the total number of services. SWR rightly point out that the four services per hour from Whitton to Waterloo are not evenly spaced and have decided simply cutting the Hounslow loop is the way to evenly space trains. The planned termination of the Hounslow loop services at Twickenham will force Whitton passengers to change trains at Twickenham. This negative impact could be mitigated in two ways: adding an additional calling point to the Reading service as described above, and ensuring that the new Twickenham Reverser trains are spaced equally between the remaining direct trains to Waterloo. The inconvenience of needing to change trains could thus be balanced by better train spacings and a new fast train direct to Waterloo.
A great concern of people responding to me on this issue has been the fear or overcrowding, both on trains and at stations during extended gaps between services. There is a particular danger of this at Teddington, Hampton Wick, which are scheduled to lose services during the morning peak. The consultation document suggests that the introduction of new longer trains with greater capacity will mitigate the reduction in train numbers from 15 to 12 during the peak period. Despite the new trains, analysis suggests that overall capacity will be reduced by 15% at both stations. Passengers have highlighted that pre-pandemic, all services through these stations at peak times were very busy. A permanent 15% reduction in peak time capacity will lead to unacceptable overcrowding if passenger numbers recover more strongly than SWR currently predicts. This is a particular concern with the health risks associated with Covid-19 in crowded, enclosed spaces. Again, the conclusion points to a delay in these proposals until future travel patterns are understood.
Whilst residents are relieved that there are no proposals to cut services to the Shepperton line, there have long been calls for a better service both during peak times and at weekends. One train an hour from Hampton on a Sunday is not an acceptable 21st century service for a London train station. Additionally, there has been significant business growth in the Hampton area, for instance, Touchlight Genetics – a life sciences company which is currently a world-leader in its field – has doubled its workforce in a year and will be doubling again. A more frequent peak service to and from Hampton is critical to support their and other business growth in the area.
I and my constituents are concerned about the knock-on impact these changes will have on air pollution and road congestion. It seems clear that these proposed changes would undermine efforts to encourage people to make fewer car journeys. The extension of the Ultra Low Emission Zone in October 2021 will incentivise more people to use the train services into and out of London. The impact of ULEZ on travel patterns is not mentioned in the consultation document and could increase passenger numbers in unexpected ways.
SWR has attempted to justify these service cuts by promising improvement in punctuality. However, at the time of contract award, SWR promised improvements in punctuality without the need for service reductions. SWR must fulfil these previous commitments and provide a punctual and reliable service without the proposed drastic cuts.
I urge SWR management to reconsider the timing of this consultation and withdraw it. Now is not the time to make decisions on service levels for December 2022 onwards. Much more data should be gathered on evolving commuter travel patterns over the next six to twelve months before considering any permanent reductions in service. As passenger numbers rise with the return to work as we have seen in recent weeks, services should be reinstated.
As a bare minimum, should SWR insist on considering timetable changes now for implementation at the end of next year, the consultation period should be extended with a proper public information campaign. The worst impacts of any unavoidable changes must be mitigated with alternative practical proposals much more suitable for suburban stations in our great capital city.
Munira Wilson, MP for Twickenham