Playing The Waiting Game: Rail’s Future in London’s South East

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To complete our round-up of what the London and South East Route Utilisation Strategy (RUS) proposes for routes south of the Thames we look at the south eastern sector – essentially the routes into Charing Cross, Cannon Street and Victoria (East).

There is actually not that much said about this part of London. There are various reasons for this.

The first reason for the lack of substance is that the Kent RUS was only published in January 2010 – about a year previously. Some commenters have picked up on the fact that these articles have tended to treat the all-encompassing London and South East as a replacement for the RUS’s published so far. They argue, correctly, that it should be treated as an update, but sometimes it is not clear if silence means a proposal is dropped or unaltered. However, in this case one really has to amalgamate the contents of the two documents to try to get a clear picture of what is proposed for the future.

The second reason for the lack of substance requires a bit of a history lesson. Back in the 1980s and early 1990s there was a plan to extend the trains on the south east suburban network from 10 to 12 carriages. This scheme was, for the most part, already implemented before a recession came along and the government of the day canned the scheme. Many of the large construction tasks were completed, including extending suburban platforms at Charing Cross, making all the platforms at Cannon Street available to 12 carriage trains (and reducing the number of platforms from eight to seven in the process) and major reconstruction at St Johns involving a replacement of the road overbridge. Work never started, however, on Dartford station which was a major and complex piece of the jigsaw. Of course the other thing that didn’t happen was the ordering of sufficient new carriages to run a 12-car service, so when times got better the scheme still couldn’t be implemented.

Given that so much work has already been done, therefore, the RUS can thus make a short comment on extending the trains to12-cars and not have to do a lot of analysis on the work involved to make it happen. As this is believed to be largely sufficient to cope with traffic for the foreseeable future, it means that we are largely spared an investigation of the various options that need to be considered to find further capacity.

The third reason for the lack of anything more positive is that there are two big unknowns that really make detailed planning rather difficult at the moment. We have raised these issues before. The first unknown is Crossrail and the second is, of course, Thameslink. If Crossrail is extended beyond Abbey Wood to Gravesend then a lot of the issues of London terminal capacity could go away. Thameslink can also contribute to this issue. The problem is that decisions about Crossrail and Thameslink destinations are not really ones that Network Rail can unilaterally make. Certainly the final routes for Thameslink rest firmly with the DfT.

One encouraging development is that an element of humility has crept in regarding taking over the Hayes line by either an extension of the Bakerloo line or the DLR from Lewisham.
In the Kent RUS, it was rather arrogantly suggested one of these two scenarios could take place to free up paths into London. This does rather seem like the tail wagging the dog and neither London Underground or the DLR seemed to show any enthusiasm for the idea. This latest RUS is much more muted and merely says that it will “support any further development of this scheme” [the southern extension of the Bakerloo line] and notes plans for the Mayor’s Transport Strategy for extending the DLR south of Lewisham.

One very significant change that will affect this area of London is the almost certain need to change from a peak hours timetable based on a 20 minute cycle to one based on a 15 minute cycle so that it dovetails with Thameslink. Presumably, as this isn’t strictly a capacity issue, this isn’t really addressed but it is going to affect for better or worse just about everybody whole travels from the south east into London Bridge.

Thameslink impacts on the south eastern sector in other ways too. On the downside, the ability to forward Cannon Street terminators to Blackfriars siding in the morning rush hour will be lost forever with the disappearance of the single track Metropolitan junction curve which enables trains to leave Cannon Street and go west once they have crossed the Thames. On the more positive side there will be an island platform with two platform faces for up trains to Charing Cross at London Bridge, and an equivalent platform for down trains. This will do much to relieve the congestion at London Bridge and also enable all Charing Cross trains to call there. How much extra capacity this provides before the problem of turning the trains around quickly using the six cramped platforms at Charing Cross becomes critical remains to be seen.

So it seems that the strategy to address capacity issues for this part of London’s rail service is to lengthen the trains to 12 carriages then wait and see what the effect of Crossrail and Thameslink are and then look again at the situation. This is not ideal but given what is going to happen and how much is not currently known it does seem to be the only sensible way forward.

Written by Pedantic of Purley