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Railwatch 073 - October 1997
Back from the brink - to success
Ten years ago, the South London Line was falling apart. Its stations were decaying, its service infrequent and erratic, its few remaining passengers demoralised. But dedicated campaigning has turned the neglected backwater into a thriving part of the South London Metro.
Way back then, British Rail ignored it and seemed to be hoping it would wither and die. One of its stations, Clapham High Street, was named the "grottiest station in Britain" in a competition organised by the Daily Telegraph in 1989.
Two years earlier a public meeting convened by RDS had resulted in the formation of the South London Line Travellers Association. "Today there is an all-day half-hour service, seven days a week," said John Stewart, chair of SoLLTA. "Ridership and revenue are up. Money is being invested in the stations."
The association is keen that other rail campaigners take heart from their story and learn from their success. Its long-term aim in 1987 was to ensure that the line became part of an improved rail network across south London. But in the short term, it had to be saved from extinction.
BR did not seem aware of its potential, passing though a densely populated area where car ownership was low and bus travel slow. It showed no interest in doing anything for existing customers. Timetables were frequently missing or incorrect. Lights were not fixed, stations rarely cleaned and trains regularly turned short at Battersea Park - one stop from the terminus! It was the line that, in BR's mind, did not exist. It was the only line whose departures were not announced at Victoria station.
SoLLTA quickly built a membership of over 200 people but then the service was cut back still further - to hourly at peak hours only. Things were looking bleak, but members rose to the occasion in protest and made maximum use of the media to highlight their anger, much to BR's discomfiture.
The power of the press paid off when shortly after Clapham was voted worst station, the graffiti of countless years was miraculously covered up with gleaming new paintwork, and plans were announced for a £100,000 refurbishment in partnership with the Government and Lambeth borough council.
Gradually SoLLTA realsied that younger men and women moving into BR could see that the line merited an all-day service. Local area manager Michael Lee eventually convinced his bosses to introduce a Monday-Saturday service. In May 1991, the line had its finest hour since opening. A special train took a host of dignitaries, including rail managers, MPs, the Transport Minister, two mayors, the SoLLTA committee - and the press - along the line. This proved to be the turning point, the route was renamed the South London Link and the service extended into the evening.
Even while the upheaval and reorganisation of privatisation was under way, we maintained generally cordial relations with local rail managers. SoLLTA had grave reservations about privatisation but there have been encouraging signs from Connex South Central which from autumn 1996 restored a Sunday service for the first time in 20 years. But Connex could withdraw the services at any time because they are not protected by the Franchise Director's specification.
Usage is growing as more people discover it offers a quick and easy alternative to traffic-clogged roads and reliability is the best for many years. The line is now a success story but had SoLLta not been formed, it might have gone altogether by now.
The next big improvement we want is a 15-minute service, as on most other lines in inner south London. It's a proven way to attract passengers. "Every 15 minutes, people throw away the timetable. They just turn up for the train," said Chris Green, former managing director of BR Network South East.
SoLLTA would also like to see a station at Brixton, potentially the busiest interchange. But it is difficult to get everyone involved to pull together on this in the new fragmented railway scenario. And of course South Bermondsey, Clapham High Street and Wandsworth Road need attention.
The last train of the night is still too early. Train operators should realise there is a third rush hour in London between 2300 and 0100.
Some of the lessons: Have clear objectives, adopt a strategic approach, make sound arguments but don't get bogged down in details, build up and keep local support, leaflets, newsletters, updates, meetings and questionnaires, be careful and flexible with the operators, a wider campaign, involve MPs, councillors, officers, amenity societies and other organisations, use the media sparingly and with care, make the message understandable, don't be too technical. Be persistent.
The SoLLTA Story was compiled and written by John Stewart, Graham Larkbey, Hilary Hunt and John Keane. To join, contact SoLLTA, c/o LPTG, 13 Stockwell Road, London SW9 9AU. Only £2 pa subscription.
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