The RUS: The Windsor Lines and A Question of Crossings

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And now for something completely different. Well, almost. The recent RUS defines the Windsor lines as ‘routes via Putney’. To put it another way these are South West Trains routes that originate at Waterloo and turn right after Clapham Junction (as opposed to turning left and going via Wimbledon). Before launching into the issues we need a bit of background understanding. So lets talk about level crossings.

To those building railways in Victorian times, level crossings were wonderful. They saved masses on construction costs and required little more than someone to shut a wooden gate to keep out the pedestrians and horses whilst a train went past. Nearly two centuries later, however, in many cases it is clear what a burden these early cost-saving decisions have become.

It is sometimes difficult for those on lines with few level crossings to realise how critical an issue they can be. This author is primarily a Southern user, for example, and – unless our commentors know otherwise – Southern has none in Greater London and, apart from a couple of them on the Caterham branch, none north of Three Bridges. By way of contrast, the Windsor lines of South West trains can sometimes seems to have an innumerable quantity of them.

[There is apparently one at Mitcham Eastfields that is traversed by Southern – thanks to Simon for that. — JB]

In modern times, level crossings are disliked by the railways for three main reasons:

1) They are expensive to equip, maintain and operate.
2) They are a potential source of accidents. Indeed in recent years they have been a major cause passenger fatalities. They are a particular headache because the reducing the risk is largely outside the control of the industry.
3) On high speed lines they limit the permitted line speed.

Obviously the third reason doesn’t concern us in London and its environs.

One reason not mentioned above was that they limit capacity on the route. This is because generally railways have always had a priority over roads and thus for the railway industry at least this has not been a problem – or rather it hasn’t tended to be a problem until recently. In theory, if the train service was intensive enough to justify it, the railways could quite legitimately leave the barriers down for hours at a time. As it is, as the railways get busier the barriers tend to be down for more minutes in the hour.

Until recently this was mostly regarded as just tough on the motorist. His journey would be delayed for a few minutes that was all. However as the roads get busier, we get into the situation more often where the capacity of the road is reduced to less than the current demand – i.e. the queues would not clear between trains. At this point level crossings start becoming a serious political issue making arguments about the length of the pedestrian phase in London’s traffic lights seem like pleasant light-hearted banter.

In the context of the Windsor Lines, therefore, it becomes important to touch on a scheme called Heathrow Airtrack. We have written on the subject of Airtrack before, and parts of it are highly relevant – even if the scheme never goes ahead.

Airtrack is a plan to provide rail services to Heathrow from the south using a proposed rail link from Staines to the heart of Terminal 5. The platforms at Heathrow were built during the construction of Terminal 5, but the tunnel leading up to it does not yet exist. The original idea was that it would provide a direct rail service from places like Guildford and Reading to Heathrow. During the planning phase, however, it was realised that if the international platforms were to become available at Waterloo and they could find two train paths an hour into Waterloo, then the service would be both more attractive to passengers and give a much better benefit-cost ratio. Network Rail were initially sceptical that these paths could be found, but they were paid to do a full investigation to see what was possible and to their surprise they found that, with nothing more than a recast of the timetable, the two paths could be brought into existence. This was almost like manna from heaven – two extra train paths at no cost other than reorganising the timetable.

It was almost inevitable that, once capacity issues were identifed, making use of these additional train paths would be proposed in the recent RUS. It didn’t matter whether the trains terminated at Heathrow, Reading or elsewhere. Here was a easy solution to a problem.

The only problem here is that Airtrack has aroused considerable opposition, mainly due to the many level crossings affected. In some cases the barriers will be down for 40 minutes in each hour.

The local councils involved are often in a difficult situation. They don’t want more tailbacks. The have to be seen to be supporting local people (the areas affected tend to err towards car-ownership) and yet a lot of these routes are also rat runs – locations where a nice new bridge or tunnel would potentially encourage more traffic, even if it were technically possible and affordable.

In addition to this, the issue is often also one of perception. If the level crossing wasn’t inhibiting the flow, then the traffic throughput wouldn’t increase by much anyway since the capacity would simply be restricted by something else further along the route such as a critical roundabout. One suspects that all Airtrack has really done is bought these local issues to a head, but it is Airtrack that is seen by the local residents as the monster that needs to be slayed.

It was hoped in the early stages that Network Rail could provide some technical innovation to enable the barriers to remain open for slightly longer – enough to compensate for the extra trains. However this has turned out not to be possible. To complicate matters further, some of the critical level crossings are in the constituency of Runymede and Weybridge whose MP, Philip Hammond, just happens to be the Secretary of State for Transport. He has already declared that without a solution to the level crossing issue there will be no Airtrack.

The RUS assumes a lot of things about the Windsor lines. It presumes that 10-car trains will be implemented (which by the way will mean each time they traverse a level crossing the barriers will be down for a few seconds longer). It also presumes that Waterloo international terminal will be used for domestic trains (although this is a fairly safe assumption, because to leave it empty or not use it for railway purposes when the trains are overcrowded would be politically unacceptable). It believes there is still a slight shortfall of capacity which can be resolved by these two extra paths.

It has also identified that if platform 1 at Queenstown Road is reopened and various track layout changes are made there, then it can squeeze in a further train path per hour. If there is high growth the RUS suggests that extending the Windsor line trains to 12 carriages should be looked at, but it notes that only 10 car trains could run to any future service to Terminal 5 due to the length of the platforms which cannot be extended.

So as it stands, there appear to be three possible scenarios:

A) Somehow the level crossing issues are resolved and Airtrack gets built. This provides two trains an hour from Waterloo to Terminal 5 which both increases capacity into Waterloo and provide a service from the south-west London suburbs, including Clapham Junction with a decent service to the heart of Heathrow. This also brings in the other Airtrack services to Reading and Guildford.

B) Two, possibly three, new services an hour are introduced between Waterloo (former international platforms) and a destination beyond Staines as recommended by the RUS. Once this has been implemented, the additional Airtrack paths have effectively been introduced by stealth and it is relatively easy to argue the case for the new railway between Staines and Heathrow providing the money is forthcoming.

C) An attempt is made to add the new services, but this causes a political storm fuelled by accusations of “Airtrack by stealth” (whether true or not) and the new services are not introduced. It is possible that to save face the government opts for extending train lengths to 12 carriages as a way to avoid unpopularity with one side or the other.

Whether Airtrack gets built or not, it seems to have stirred a hornet’s nest. With regards to level crossings, it has certainly brought the issue of car vs train to a head, and hard decisions are going to have to be made. We live in interesting times.

Written by Pedantic of Purley