Crossrail: Why Branch To Abbey Wood?

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As regular readers have no doubt spotted, we are currently missing one final part of our London and South East Route Utilisation Strategy (RUS) roundup – the proposals for West Anglia services into Liverpool Street and Stratford. This is, in part, because it’s an area where it is proving tricky to get it all to make sense.

One issue, indeed one that several other articles and comments here have recently highlighted, is the lack of capacity into Liverpool Street. It would seem that, according to the RUS, even after Crossrail is built, there will be a lack of capacity at Liverpool Street. Yet if the RUS is correct, it would appear that, by the time Crossrail opens, the lines into Liverpool Street could possibly provide the full 24 trains per hour that Crossrail will run.

So did it really make sense in this financial downturn to bother with the Abbey Wood branch?

This author had always presumed that the primary reason Crossrail had two branches to the east was so that there would be sufficient demand to run a 24tph peak service. After all, if the trains weren’t full there would be serious questions about whether the project was properly planned. However it seems from the RUS (and subsequently TfL’s HLOS) that by the time Crossrail is in full operation there is probably sufficient latent demand in the east to run Crossrail to capacity without bothering with the branch to Abbey Wood.

Although it is likely, with all the analysis done, that the correct decision was made with the Crossrail project, there were always a couple of issues that that meant that the route could not be considered a perfect fit. An example of this is the termination of westbound trains at Paddington so that passengers can change there for a similar electric train to reach their final destination such as Reading or Oxford. This just does not intuitively feel right, though obviously the reasons for it are relatively well known. Another issue is having the route split into branches at Stepney Green which is very close to London.

Modern philosophy on the underground is to avoid having any branches (think of the most recent construction – the Victoria and Jubilee don’t have them and now the Bakerloo has returned to a branch-less status). Those who remember when the Bakerloo had two branches that joined at Baker Street will be well aware of the problems that it could bring – and this was during a period in London’s history where use of public transport was much lower than it is now. It would seem that the same logic in avoiding branches, especially ones converging so close to the centre of London, would apply equally to Crossrail.

To make sense of this, therefore, one has to look beyond the viewpoint of a railway operator, although that perspective still has a lot of valuable input. Doing so helps show that there are likely good operating reasons why the Abbey Wood branch is a “nice to have”.

Arguably, these reasons can be broken down as follows:

– We have already seen in the RUS that capacity at Liverpool Street isn’t the only constraint to running more trains. The lines out of Liverpool Street are basically running to capacity for much of their length. If the Abbey Wood branch were not built, then there would have to be serious capacity enhancement projects at many locations in East London and beyond. These would no doubt encounter much local opposition and at the end of the day it might just be simpler and possibly even cheaper to build the branch to Abbey Wood.
– Crossrail needs to be a robust railway. Obviously if you get a major incident in the central area there is not much you can do, but you really do not want the service totally collapsing because of a major incident out in the suburbs. The Shenfield branch will be particularly vulnerable to this, as it will continue to share the track with other services. If you have the dedicated Abbey Wood branch you can hopefully run 24tph down it if the Shenfield branch was totally out of service. Sadly, if there was an incident on the Abbey Wood branch the converse would not be true and it is tempting to wonder what the plan will be then. It seems possible that a crossover may be installed at Custom House station on the Abbey Wood branch so that a service could still be run on part of the branch, but this would not help with disruption at Canary Wharf.
– Without the Abbey Wood branch there would still be a major problem of capacity on the South East lines. Whereas creating yet more available slots into Liverpool Street would be a “nice to have”, a scheme to create some available slots into Charing Cross or Cannon Street is desperately needed and if Crossrail did not fulfil this requirement then there would in all probability have to be some other scheme to provide this – and as seen from the RUS there is no other obvious scheme.
– 24tph is used as a basis for the initial service based on the fact that this is the limit at which a reliable service can be run with a fair degree of confidence. It is no secret that the signalling will be specified to cater for at least 30tph, and if it were found to be possible to run more trains then there would probably be a desire to do so. Whereas the Liverpool Street lines may be able to provide getting on for 24tph, which is double what was originally intended, it is hard to see how 30tph could be achieved whilst still making good use of existing facilities at Liverpool Street main line station.

So from a railway viewpoint alone there would appear to be sufficient justification for the Abbey Wood branch when one looks into the issues more deeply. But at the end of the day, railways only exist to satisfy a need (or a perceived need) from society, and it is society that provides the money for these schemes and determines whether or not they should go ahead.

So in this light why did the Abbey Wood branch go ahead?

First it is worth taking into account the huge importance of Canary Wharf station – which will be on the Abbey Wood branch. If this was to be cut then support for Crossrail from the business elements who pushed so hard for it would collapse – and remember it was those organisations that largely gave the necessary momentum that led to project being authorised. Without their final push there may have been no Crossrail. It is also worth bearing in mind that Canary Wharf needs better connections with South-East London, so simply truncating the branch at Canary Wharf would not have been acceptable.

Secondly, without the Abbey Wood branch it would be very difficult to sell the project to the voters who live south of the river. Politicians tend to be sensitive to registered voters feeling forgotten or ignored. A very big plus for Crossrail has thus been the proposed station at Woolwich – one that helps to make a deprived area no longer feel quite so forgotten. Given the hard campaigning done to get a station at Woolwich and the widespread support it received, it would be a political disaster if that were converted to alienation.

One cannot ignore the importance of all this. Indeed, one opportunity they did have to scale back Crossrail was to omit Whitechapel station, which was not included in the early plans. It is not necessary for the business case of the project, but it is necessary because without it you offer the East End of London only pain and no gain and (as ex-local MP George Galloway discovered) a cause with which one can whip-up support.

Finally, as they say, it all comes down to money. The Mayor of London has managed to secure a large contribution from business via business rates to support Crossrail. Business did not come on board to provide better commuting opportunities to Shenfield – they came because they were prepared to contribute to get better public transport into docklands and the city. One suspects that the money would not be there if Canary Wharf was not served. One also suspects that arguments that Crossrail would actually benefit the British economy, and provide the chancellor in the long term with more revenue than the project costs, would collapse without the Abbey Wood branch.

In some ways we are already seeing people starting to think of Crossrail, for operating purposes, as a dedicated railway from Paddington to Abbey Wood with limited services running on other networks westward beyond Paddington and eastward through Stratford and beyond. So in some sense the Abbey Wood line is part of the core service of Crossrail and the line up to Shenfield merely the appendage.

As a final thought, it is worth returning to the point where the routes diverge – Stepney Green. As cited above, there are parallels with the Bakerloo line which diverged at Baker Street for many years. Looking well into the future (and almost certainly not in this author – or likely the reader’s – lifetime) it is tempting to wonder if this will become a critical issue at some point.

One day there may well be serious proposals to construct a parallel tunnel for the two miles between Stepney and the city, and then beyond so that the eastern Crossrail branches each become part of a separate line. In many ways it would be almost pointless to speculate on a route as this would be so far into the future and, as the Jubilee line extension has shown, circumstances change. However, if the DLR were ever to be extended westwards from Bank it is tempting to think that it might turn out to be quite helpful if the tunnels were built so as to be compatible for running Crossrail stock through them…

Written by Pedantic of Purley