Thameslink and London Bridge – Background, Progress and Still Some Confusion

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The original intention with this article was to write a short piece on what is to happen at London Bridge in the next seven years. Unfortunately, for reasons that will become apparent later, this has proven difficult. Details have been released, as is customary, on the Thameslink Programme website but at time of writing there is nothing yet on Network Rail’s website. The release of this information is thus in anticipation of an exhibition about the proposals at London Bridge station next week, after which we will no doubt write more.

London Bridge has always been one of the critical stations on the Thameslink Programme and one that has caused a lot of problems. Firstly, the need to serve it meant alterations to Borough Market which did not universally go down well. Much time was spent in the original consultation process trying to get the message across that it was necessary to access South London via London Bridge, because that is where people wanted to travel to and because the Elephant and Castle route with its flat junctions at Herne Hill and Tulse Hill was simply unworkable for the number of trains involved. Then, at the first public enquiry, the Inspector recommended rejection of the proposals until they were suitably amended, with one of the reasons being that he thought a critical landmark station such as London Bridge should be planned properly and rebuilt, rather than have cobbled-together alterations to accommodate the extra services.

London Bridge was always regarded as one of the most difficult parts of the Thameslink Programme to implement, and originally work was planned to start there early in the construction schedule. For various reasons, however, it was decided to tackle the job in two phases and it was also argued that it was madness to prioritise London Bridge which could already handle 12 car trains in preference to much needed re-building at Blackfriars and Farringdon. In effect, therefore, the biggest bit got saved until last. This revised schedule was probably sensible and more manageable, but it has contributed to the time taken to complete the project. The changes will be massive and, as railway engineers rightly never fail to remind us, they have to rebuild the station whilst the railway continues to run.

Work will start in 2013. From the December 2012 timetable the number of terminating platforms will be reduced from nine to six and the number of terminating trains per hour will accordingly be reduced from 30 to 24. It could have been worse. The number of platforms is reduced by a third but the train service is only reduced by a fifth. Through trains will not initially be affected. It is well known that two trains per hours lost will be the lightly loaded London Bridge -Victoria via Peckham Rye service which will partially compensated for by the introduction of London Overground services to Clapham Junction at the same time. It is not currently known which other services will need to be cut. One only hopes that this service does continue until December 2012 and is not discontinued from May 2012 as originally planned, when it was presumed that phase 2 of the East London Line Extension would be opened by then. The supplied leaflets talk about putting more carriages on the remaining trains to mitigate the problem, but whereas overall this may not lead to much loss of capacity it is clear that some selected routes, as yet unknown, are going to suffer.

Initially work will be carried out on the terminating platforms. It would seem that this will take until 2015 when the six new terminating platforms will be complete. It would appear that by 2015 work will then have started on the through lines and it will almost certainly be necessary to divert all Thameslink services via Elephant and Castle for a prolonged period starting around this time. It would seem that the only sensible way of working is to start at the southern platforms and work northwards, hence the need to start on the terminating platforms. Whilst this is going on the station needs to be rebuilt. It is noticeable that no-one has ever suggested that the current station has sufficient architectural merit for it to be retained.

At this point, we would have liked to describe the changes with plans made available for the forthcoming exhibition, but these were not yet available and we will need to revisit.

There are some diagrams available via the Thameslink Programme, but an uncharitable soul might suggest that the Programme has a history of producing pretty diagrams that aren’t always quite as accurate as they could be, and the current documentation seems to continue that tradition. Given that the source for many of these is in fact Network Rail themselves (as is the case with the diagram below), this sometimes seems rather strange.

Let us try and look at the future platform arrangement. Your challenge is to try and work out how to make any sense of this diagram:

One of the tenets of Thameslink is that trains are sorted out long before they reach London Bridge – especially from the east – so the terminating tracks should be separate from through tracks with white space between the two. We now look at the nine through platforms. It is obvious something is wrong with the diagram’s colour scheme in relation to the four bottom blue lines, but I am baffled as to what the colours should be. Finally the diagram seems to show a single track serving Cannon Street, four tracks brightly highlighted in red serving Thameslink (there will be two), and four serving Charing Cross (correct). Furthermore, I understand that the northernmost platform (1 or A) will be a single-sided platform with 2 and 3 (or B and C) an island platform and so on, whereas this diagram suggests that this is not how they will be arranged.

One would like to think that there would be other diagrams or plans to clarify things. So lets look at another diagram.

This one is far more useful, although it does have a number of bizarre features. The track layout looks rather like a marshalling yard. To orientate you, the road to the east of the Shipwrights Arms going approximately south is Bermondsey Street. The railway is on a viaduct at this point and in reality is about twelve tracks wide. Joiner Street appears to be a road, whereas it is the former road that is now a revamped passageway for those on foot in a similar way to how Stainer Street will be treated. Unfortunately the map does not mention Weston Street which (like Stainer St) is currently a road which runs underneath the arches, slightly to the east of Stainer St, but it looks like this will be subsumed into the concourse. So if in future they need to close Borough High Street at any time it looks like it will be a long diversion for drivers.

It is clear that one of the great improvements will be the much larger circulating area which will be at street level. One can get some idea of the massive width by taking a walk through the Stainer St, although I would not really recommend it as it is not the most pleasant of experiences. The new entrances to the south make a lot of sense when you see how close they are to the Shard. What does seem rather unsatisfactory is that it seems that the underground station is going to be further away from the main line station concourse, meaning an awful lot of people are going to have a less convenient interchange.

If you want to find our more I suggest you visit London Bridge Station between Tuesday 17th May to Friday 20th May between 8 am and 7pm or on Saturday 21st May between 8 am and 2 pm and ask questions and try and get the people there to clarify what is happening. We at LR intend to visit, so hopefully next week we will be able to explain a bit better what will happen at London Bridge as well.

Written by Pedantic of Purley