Blackfriars: Safeguarding The Future
The subject of safeguarding has cropped up in several of our recent posts, and here we explore a current example: at Blackfriars.
As the Thameslink work at Blackfriars progresses apace, the opening of the South Bank entrance drew our eyes towards the station throat – most particularly to those naked piers that used to support the old west bridge, also known as the ‘409’.
These piers raise a number of questions. Could the ‘409’ piers be used again for an extension of the station west, to provide additional bay platforms for an intensive metro service on the Elephant & Castle route? If this is possible, what routes would this intensive metro service serve, and how might it relieve congestion elsewhere? More generally, whose responsibility is it to identify rail infrastructure of strategic importance, and then safeguard it?
Without clarity and leadership on safeguarding, strategic alignments will continue to be lost. As we have explored in the routes around Farringdon, it only needs one new building at a key point for an alignment to be lost. Sadly the route north to Farringdon is now hemmed in to two tracks, but what of the route south from Blackfriars?
We’d like to be proved wrong, but it appears that another opportunity is about to be lost.
View south from Blackfriars station on the north bank.
LR readers unfamiliar with the Blackfriars rebuilding are welcome to peruse our earlier coverage. The diagram below represents the basic concept of shifting the core route to the easternmost tracks, so that the westernmost tracks become two terminal bays.
The photo below is taken from Ludgate House, an office block that sits close to the alignment at the south end of the new station and built on the site of the old Blackfriars Bridge station. The building can be seen in the photo at the top of this article and lies across the old alignment over the bridge and restricts the expansion of the station throat. Its days, however, are numbered: it is due to be redeveloped. So what potential is there for this to facilitate an expansion of the station and provide much-needed terminal capacity in the city?
A smidgeon of history
It is hard to imagine now that the western bridge carried a four-track mainline, continuing north through to Holborn Viaduct, a route now reduced to two tracks through City Thameslink. The extract below from Joe Brown’s invaluable London Railway Atlas shows the layout and the location of the stations in this short stretch.
It’s a strange quirk of history that such a glut of stations nestled in a stretch less than a mile: Blackfriars Bridge, Blackfriars, Ludgate Hill, Holborn Viaduct (and the Low Level station at Snow Hill) through to Farringdon, a story well told on Nick Catford’s Disused Stations website and also on Abandoned Stations. The photo below shows just how close these stations were, and the four-tracks over the old west bridge can be seen stretching south towards Elephant & Castle.
Thameslink 2000 – revisiting an early option
A six-platform Blackfriars station was proposed by the Corporation of London following the 1997 submission of the Thameslink programme. The Corporation’s proposal was outlined in 2004 in the Network Rail Alternatives report, which summarised the main options considered in the Thameslink development stages, including further proposals that were examined after the 1999 Transport and Works Act (TWA). The Corporation had concerns that the existing level of service to Blackfriars could not be maintained with two terminating platforms, and proposed two options with four terminal bays, both options using the redundant piers of the west bridge.
The two Corporation options were assessed by Railtrack but were rejected because of the lack of operational need, cost and because of environmental impact. Railtrack concluded that the proposed four-track arrangement, with two through platforms serving up to 24 trains per hour in each direction, together with two terminating platforms, could provide for the anticipated future level of services to Blackfriars, and the estimated cost of both six-track options would be substantially greater than that of the proposed four-track scheme. Also, a six-track station would be closer to the Blackfriars road bridge, so the new station roof would result in a greater degree of obstruction to views of St Paul’s Cathedral than that of the scheme that we now have.
Addressing these points in turn:
- The environmental impact of the station was anyway addressed in the new low-profile design, so this is now unlikely to be an issue
- A six-track station would clearly cost more, but how much more? The original bridge was removed because the lattice-girder superstructure had deteriorated, but the supporting piers were still sound. If the footings of the piers were found to be unsound then that would provide a major expense, but there is no mention of this. Most importantly, costs need to be weighed against the benefits of a new metro service… which we explore further below
- On “the anticipated future level of services to Blackfriars”, the 2018 Thameslink service will indeed provide a step-change in service provision, but according to the London & South East RUS there will still be a shortfall. But the south-London network as a whole is at capacity partly because there is insufficient terminal space. Could Blackfriars provide some breathing space, as well as new metro routes through the congested inner-suburbs?
We’d like to know more about this Railtrack assessment, and whether Network Rail or TfL have revisited it in the light of the severe capacity problems in London which the RUS now identifies.
Threading the maze ? Thameslink south of the city
Back in March 2011 we analysed the complex service patterns south of the river and speculated on what the eventual Thameslink service would look like in 2018. Then in July 2011 the London & South East RUS included an indicative service pattern for the core route through the city.
Six Kent services per hour will take the easternmost lines on the long viaduct down through Elephant & Castle. The other four Kent services will run via London Bridge and access the South East mainline (SEML) via the new Bermondsey Dive-under.
The Blackfriars bays will serve four services per hour all day to Tulse Hill and the Wimbledon Loop, taking the westernmost tracks on the viaduct through Elephant & Castle. These will be joined in the peaks by a further two stopping services per hour via Kent House and two per hour from the Medway Towns.
So the ex-London Chatham & Dover Railway (LCDR) mainline from Blackfriars down to Loughborough Junction and Herne Hill will become a shadow of its former self. Four tracks between them will carry ten services per hour off-peak and fourteen in the peak. Is this the least intensively used stretch of route so close to the city centre? Arguably this is a woeful waste of infrastructure. It is certainly perplexing when viewed alongside the traffic gridlocked along the nearby Walworth Road, and the calls for Bakerloo or Northern extensions through Camberwell.
Granted, the main limitation on the route is currently the flat junctions at Herne Hill, but grade-separation here is identified as a potential future project in the London & South East RUS. Indeed, the 2008 South London RUS recommended that the necessary land is safeguarded, although we are not aware that Network Rail or TfL have followed this up.
It seems prudent to prepare for the outcome that the Herne Hill problem will be resolved, at which point eyes will focus on the next bottleneck up the line: Blackfriars, with its two terminal platforms. Surely it is now worth safeguarding the space for terminating capacity, which would allow a more intensive metro service?
The developers, the architects and a grand vision for the South Bank
This is where big money steps in, but will this be viewed by TfL as an opportunity?
The south end of Blackfriars station is hemmed in by two large office blocks: the brutalist Sampson House to the east, and the more benign yet deeply unremarkable Ludgate House to the west. These are shown clearly in the aerial view below, which we brought you back in 2010. It highlights the ‘409’ bridge piers on the west side and the constricted station throat between the two buildings. The lower photo looks north from track level on the south side, and shows how Ludgate House cuts into the old alignment to the west bridge.
In July 2010 Carlyle Group bought Ludgate House and Sampson House for £671 million, as part of a portfolio of six London offices, and appointed PLP Architects to draw up plans for a mixed-use scheme. Back in November 2011, the architecture website bdonline noted that:
The sites are separated by a railway line but it is believed they will be treated as a single development which would include around 30,000sq m of office space and nearly 20,000sq m of retail.
Then in May this year, PLP revealed early-stage images of a 93,000 sq m scheme comprising eight new buildings, and held a public exhibition.
A project of this scale and nature is designated an “Environmental Impact Assessement (EIA) development” under the planning regulations. So duly, in May, Carlyle Group started the EIA process by submitting a Scoping Report, from which the plan below is taken. If this is indeed a “single development” separated by a railway line, has there been any analysis by TfL or NR on the opportunities this might provide?
The footprint of Ludgate House butts up against the end of the new Thameslink station platforms, therefore any expansion of the station westwards will require that the alignment within the new development is safeguarded. In order to expand the station westwards, the proposed development would have to be redesigned to provide a wider station throat.
The plan above is derived from the Network Rail planning permission documents, and indicates the approximate alignment that would be required for two additional 12-car terminal bays. If the additional bays were for 8 or 10-car trains then less width may be required, but some land will still need to be clawed back.
Compare this to the Thameslink 2000 plan above of the Corporation of London’s two options for a six-platform station. It is clear that the new Thameslink station extends further south, therefore the Corporation options would no longer work as specified. More land is required.
There might be potential for a trade, however: once the building works at Blackfriars are complete then the space on the west side of the viaduct between Ludgate House and Southwark Street may be surplus to requirements. The extent of this area is clearly shown in the EIA plan above.
So, there is a challenge ahead. Negotiating at this stage in the development process will not be easy, and will require a high-level intervention from a strategic body such as TfL, backed by strong political support. But given the costs and the likelihood of protracted and challenging negotiations, why might this scheme be attractive?
Comparing with Fenchurch Street, and some route options
Before we look at why TfL should look at this as a viable proposition, let’s consider a comparable terminus in London: the diminutive Fenchurch Street. Two tracks feed into just four platforms, yet the station turns around 19 trains in the morning peak hour. If the Blackfriars bays could provide such an intensive service then theoretically fifteen additional trains per hour could become available on south London’s overcrowded routes.
The 2011 London & Southeast RUS included a brief analysis of terminal capacities and turnarounds and found that there was significant variation, which indicates that some may be operating more efficiently than others.
Measured in terms of trains per platform per hour or trains per approach track per hour, Fenchurch St performs well. With more platforms, however, Cannon Street and Charing Cross manage 25 and 29 trains per approach track per hour respectively. Given that Blackfriars effectively has four tracks approaching from the south, and has exits at both ends of the platforms which will reduce turnaround times, four bay platforms at Blackfriars could conceivably take 20+ tph and still maintain operational resilience.
Perhaps we need to look more broadly than at the Sutton-Wimbledon Loop and regard Blackfriars as a potential solution to insufficient terminal capacity for the south London network as a whole, including Underground lines such as the Northern. Developing the routes into Blackfriars might have a stronger business case and be more achievable than, say, Crossrail 2, tube extensions or widening the South West Mainline (SWML).
For instance, an intensive suburban metro service into Blackfriars could spread demand and free up paths into London Bridge and Victoria. If you brought the under-utilised Nunhead-Lewisham route into play then relief could also be provided for the beleaguered Kent services.
The poorly-used route through Tooting could offer relief to the Northern Line, and may have a stronger business case than twisting the Crossrail 2 alignment via Tooting Broadway. The photos below are of Tooting and Haydons Road stations, served by 2tph in each direction yet each around a kilometre from Colliers Wood and Tooting Broadway stations on the overcrowded Northern Line.
And rather than looking purely at the Wimbledon Loop, there may also be potential to take services from the SWML. The London & SE RUS provided some options for relieving the SWML, but did not come up with any recommendations, acknowledging that this was a problem unresolved. Compared to the estimated £1 billion to provide a reversible fifth track from Hampton Court Junction to Clapham Junction, a far more modest 6-tracking from New Malden to Wimbledon and a new Up underpass onto the Wimbledon Loop would allow the Blackfriars route to provide the additional tracks to the city.
A metro service on the route through Elephant & Castle would also improve the business case to reopen Camberwell station and perhaps also Walworth Rd.
Much depends, however, on resolving the vexed problem of grade-separation at Herne Hill. The capacity of the Blackfriars route will always be limited while trains have to cross the busy SEML here. So much so that the London & SE RUS projects a capacity gap on the Herne Hill-Blackfriars corridor of some 900 passengers in the peak hour in 2031, primarily on inner suburban services. Platform lengthening at Herne Hill, Tulse Hill and Elephant & Castle is extremely problematic; hence the RUS suggests the use of higher density rolling stock, similar to the Class 378 units used by London Overground.
Herne Hill is a subject we return to in a future post, and also the potential to relieve the other bottleneck identified in the South London RUS: that of Lewisham. And we will also explore the potential to increase the throughput on the routes through Brixton, and at the same time create much-needed new layover capacity for freight on the South London line.
Blackfriars, and the opportunity for TfL
So, given the problems, why might TfL regard safeguarding bay platforms at Blackfriars as a priority?
One reason is that safeguarding strategic routes is a defined role in TfL policy. This is one of the things TfL is meant to do.
Plus, the projected travel demand and lack of route capacity, alongside the woeful underutilisation of the Elephant & Castle route, will at some stage put Blackfriars into focus. Given the opportunity presented by the Ludgate House redevelopment, it may be a higher risk for TfL not to take action on safeguarding.
A second reason is that TfL may seek to take over the new combined combined Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise in 2013, and perhaps also the South Eastern in 2014. Additional terminal capacity at Blackfriars will improve their proposition to DfT and boost revenue-earning potential on their services. TfL are uniquely placed for this, with the powers to set planning policy and regulation, which their rail operations could then directly benefit from.
A third reason is that TfL have made no secret of their ambitions to take a more direct role in running London’s rail network, and back in September 2011 we reported on the options analysed in the NERA report for TfL: The Costs and Benefits of Devolving Responsibility for Rail Services in London. The outlier option is for TfL to take some responsibility for infrastructure investment, and arguably this is what the recent HLOS is pushing TfL towards. With little new investment proposed in the London area, the HLOS puts the ball back into the combined courts of TfL, Network Rail and the TOCs:
The Secretary of State expects the majority of further CP5 enhancement to be identified by the rail industry in response to her requirements to provide for additional peak demand. She wants these enhancements to include efficient provision for likely demand growth beyond CP5.
This, however, provides the opportunity for TfL to develop an integrated and coherent portfolio of investments for London that will meet the Secretary of State’s requirements. In a sense it is the natural next step on from the February 2012 Mayor’s Rail Vision. Although this made very clear that the franchise model is not fit for purpose and that rail provision in London should be devolved to TfL, the Mayor’s Vision was short on detail of the investment required.
TfL now needs to develop the investment case, drawing on the recommendations in the RUS and identifying where costs and benefits can be shared between TOCs. The routes into Blackfriars should be part of this, not least because the business case is likely to be stronger if presented as a package of investments that together maximise the potential of the Blackfriars route and relieve overcrowding elsewhere.
But first someone needs to safeguard the bays at Blackfriars to allow this. Let’s hope TfL are prepared to.
Have your say! Consultation on the combined Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise closes on 14th September.