Old Oak Common: Part 3 – Looking Over the Fence

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Think of Old Oak Common (OOC) as the Canary Wharf of west London. That’s the Vision: bold and challenging. But will a ‘super hub’ emerge?

While the grand plan for OOC may depend on decisions further up the metaphorical line, to a certain extent OOC leapfrogs the institutional black hole of rail strategy and drives deeper changes in strategic planning for London as a whole. London’s core is growing, and OOC is part of that. Indeed in some ways the OOC story could be a microcosm of London as a whole.

We introduced the various components of this fascinating project in Part 1, and started piecing the puzzle together in Part 2. Now we begin Part 3 by taking a peek over the fence at the neighboring council, the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea (RBKC), and its moribund ‘Portobello Crossrail’ proposal. We attempt to skirt around the dispiriting obstinance of the IEP depot at North Pole, and then consider other potential rail connections into the OOC interchange. Finally we present some thoughts on how the decision-making may unfold.

As ever, the CartoMetro map helps the reader navigate the maze.

OOC Poirot

An iteration of the proposed OOC station that will delight Poirot-lovers but that sadly didn’t meet the planners’ objectives of keeping the Overground construction ring-fenced from HS2 and Crossrail.

Portobello station and the potential for a local rapid transit network

In Part 2 we looked east from OOC towards Paddington and the Crossrail Royal Oak portals, and concluded that Crossrail will need a four-track formation. LR readers avidly following the Crossrail aspirations of the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea (RBKC) may be intrigued.

As we recently reported, a Crossrail station at what is now known as “Portobello” has been given the official thumbs-down by TfL. But a four-track alignment west of Royal Oak changes everything. It would make it possible to provide another station without compromising journey times and reliability, allowing local services to call and others to run through direct to OOC. The new station could be at Kensal, or equally could use reopened platforms at Westbourne Park.

The original RBKC proposition was for Crossrail services reversing at Royal Oak to be extended to serve Kensal. It would have been an east-facing station only, with no services west to OOC. In the context of the massive OOC and Park Royal redevelopment, a Crossrail station here would now need to connect westwards and not just eastwards into London.

RBKC originally offered £33 million to Crossrail towards the capital costs of a new station. It might now wish to revise its proposition to the Crossrail promoters and ensure that passive provision was made for a station. They would, however, likely still have a fight on their hands. The 2011 London & South East RUS declared that a station at Kensal is not consistent with the strategy for the Great Western Main line, set out in Chapters 7 and 8 (see LSE RUS para 8.3.14).

Indeed the tight width of the GWML alignment between the Ladbroke Grove overbridge and Westbourne Park may finally scupper RBKC’s aspirations. If, as is likely, Crossrail and the GWML both expand to four tracks east of OOC then there will be no room for a station here. There is opportunity at Westbourne Park, where the tracks still splay although the platforms have long gone. But at the Kensal Gas Works development, the new flyover for the Crossrail depot line will drop between the central Crossrail tracks where the alignment starts to narrow and it’s hard to see how a station can be shoehorned in.

Might there be other options? Two that are being explored are:

  • A local tram network, which could extend to Kensal
  • Personal Rapid Transport (PRT).

Either would be appropriate for this scale of development. They would perform a role similar to the DLR for Canary Wharf and the Docklands redevelopment. Interestingly, neither of these options feature in the Mayor’s Vision for Old Oak.

PRT sm

Personal Rapid Transport (PRT)

PRT is a tried-and-tested system: Heathrow Ultra is now operationally proven and successful. Costs per mile are much less than DLR, hence PRT could provide an affordable and appropriate solution for Kensal. A journey from Kensal to OOC hub would be around 4 minutes, and a system could be in place as soon as 2020 to support early phase development at Kensal Gasworks.

Detailed modelling of the PRT option has been undertaken for RBKC, for a route with three stops. Compared to a Portbello Crossrail station, the business case looks very favourable. PRT offers better accessibility and overall journey times, due to the link with OOC which then offers a more frequent service into London. Furthermore, PRT costs as set out by the Ultra company suggest that a Kensal-OOC line could be provided within the original RBKC £33m budget.

The other option, for a more extensive light rail or tram system, could be a new iteration of the Brent Cross light rail which has been promoted by the Campaign for Better Transport. Conceived in pre-OOC days, we covered this in the first of our String of Pearls series exploring new suburban hubs. The original proposal extended south along the Dudding Hill line then swung west to North Acton and Ealing Broadway. With TfL now actively considering an Overground service on this route, could this light rail proposal be revised to provide a core north-south link through Willesden Junction and OOC, before branching west to Ealing and east to Kensal?

A rapid transit system was a component in the original Vision for Park Royal City International prepared by Farrells for LBHF back in 2011. It included links north through Willesden Junction and east to Kensal.

A very localised and self-contained system such as this could be built into the broader development with relative ease. A radial pattern of routes with OOC to Willesden Junction at the core would help resolve the OOC to Willesden Junction interchange issue, and this could boost the prospect of Willesden Junction also being transformed, as a complementary gateway to the wider Park Royal development.

The IEP depot

Just to the east of Mitre Bridge, a large area of railway land is considered surplus and is being released for redevelopment as part of the RBKC Kensal Gasworks Strategic Site. A ribbon is being kept for the tracks into the IEP depot at OOC, the thorn in the other side of the redevelopment and ranking a close second to the Crossrail depot as a symbol of fragmented planning.

As we mentioned in Part 1, given the IEP program’s resilience to almost universal criticism and the need to rewrite contractual commitments with Hitachi, the planners are steering well clear. Shame, because there is a strong case to relocate the IEP depot east and release the land at North Pole for early development. It would certainly ease construction overall.

The diagram below is from the planning permission documents (2011/03005/FUL) and gives a useful view over the south side of OOC where the proposed Overground route would hug the boundary, and then eastwards through North Pole Junction. The image quality suffers from the need to resize for the web and we recommend readers to download the PDF here.

IEP depot

North Pole IEP depot, planning permission Drawing #800372.

Retying the knot: other strands to weave in

Willesden Junction deserves an article all of its own, but suffice to say now that an interchange here linked into OOC and Park Royal via a rapid transit system would be relatively straightforward to create, and could offer an attractive business case.

It seems sensible then to introduce other connectivity options along the WCML, the most obvious being to extend the East London Line (ELL) from Highbury & Islington through Primrose Hill onto the Watford DC Lines. On paper this might look straightforward, but this is a story for another day, inextricably entwined as it is with the HS1-HS2 link, the difficulties with Camden Road Junction and the future role of the DC Lines into Euston.

The planners have rejected a Bakerloo extension from Queens Park to OOC and beyond. The additional connectivity this would provide is marginal, and it would duplicate the link to Paddington which is better served by Crossrail. Connecting to the Bakerloo for local travel would be best provided by a local rapid transit network through Willesden Junction.

Attempting to tie OOC into the Central Line also offers marginal value, as Crossrail serves similar points across central London. Relocating North Acton eastwards is not an option as the station is part of London Borough of Ealing’s redevelopment scheme there. It’s also hard to see how you would engineer an interchange slightly to the east with the NLL crossing above at Acton Wells Junction, or indeed with OOC itself.

North Acton is also a very busy station in the peaks. No doubt some relief will be provided by OOC, but it seems perverse relocating an already congested station in order to generate further demand. So the Central, one of London’s busiest tube lines, skirts nimbly past OOC, shunning the hordes.

The Bakerloo and the Central are the two obvious choices; but what others might be allured into the new hub?

Our analysis of the WLL and the Earls Court redevelopment indicated that the WLL is severely constrained as a two-track route sharing with freight. Might there be potential to provide relief by extend the District Line northwards from Olympia in a cut & cover route beneath the WLL and integrated into the major White City Opportunity Area redevelopments, terminating at OOC?

And finally, what of the Chiltern route via Banbury? We can’t help being drawn to the old GWR mainline to Birmingham, so are saddened to see that HS2 plans to cut it off due to, of all things, ventilation towers rising from the tunnels below in the OOC to Northolt section. It’s that hoary old theme: a depressing lack of integration, strategy or foresight. HS2 should be ashamed.

Being charitable souls, we’re prepared to regard this as an oversight. Better, we are heartened to see that our option presented above might allow the Chiltern to continue through to Paddington, via a new underpass into the south-side Overground station. It would be relatively straightforward to provide a connection from there to the GWML Fast lines around North Pole Junction, and the limiting factor would then be platform capacity at Paddington. With Crossrail taking all the GWML Relief line services, and some improvements on turnaround times at Paddington, there might yet be some capacity to spare. But that’s also for another article.

Who leads the merry dance?

The Mayor’s Vision for Old Oak notes the next steps for the OOC development and transport plan:

4.49 A Transport Study is now underway, led by TfL, in collaboration with the local authorities and other key stakeholders. The Study will assess the level of development which can be supported by existing services and proposed infrastructure enhancements and establish whether further transport schemes are required to help the area reach its full potential.

4.50 TfL is currently undertaking modelling activity, and will be conducting analysis over the next few months. The results will be presented in a draft Transport Study in early 2014.

4.51 In addition, TfL will be working closely with RBKC and other local stakeholders to assess options to enhance accessibility to Kensal Opportunity Area.

As we noted in Part 1, this major project involves a lot of players, with very different objectives and with no clear path towards an integrated plan. It is difficult to ascertain who has the ability and willingness to take leadership, and this does not bode well for swift decision-making or the most effective outcome. The Crossrail depot will be testament to this for years to come.

The Crossrail depot at OOC looking east, with the West London Line crossing towards the top of the picture and the mothballed Eurostar depot on the right

Crossrail relentlessly rumbles on, fiercely ring-fenced from the machinations beyond. TfL is highly protective of its flagship project, in order that it delivers to spec, to budget and on time.

But TfL’s remit is obviously broader than Crossrail, and there is a strong motivation for a project like OOC to become reality. It clearly provides a boost for its Overground network, and delivers beneficial outcomes in terms of accessibility in west London. It demonstrates TfL’s commitment to its concept of “strategic interchanges”, and supports the Mayor’s broader economic development objectives through the Park Royal Opportunity Area.

A little over a year at the GLA Transport Committee meeting of 24th May 2012, TfL reported that:

“There have been no discussions concerning the delivery of a station at Old Oak Common as part of the Crossrail Project… It is currently assumed that this would be designed, delivered and funded as part of High Speed 2 project.”

Clearly TfL have had to work a tad harder than this statement suggests, but understandably they would like as much of the design, safeguarding, enabling works and cost of OOC to be integrated into the HS2 bill. Aside from the inevitable battle over who should shoulder the budgetary burden, there is also a pragmatic consideration: that it is preferable to fund such a large integrated project through a parliamentary process because it is more efficient than expending effort through several fragmented funding streams.

While a station at OOC is part of the HS2 remit, it’s taken some time for HS2 to be persuaded about the market benefits. West London rail connectivity or regeneration of an Opportunity Area are not HS2 drivers and, as the costs continue to spiral upward, each additional item on the bill will become harder to justify. The pushback from HS2 will therefore be strong.

The DfT understandably seek to avoid any project that might add to the costs of HS2 or Crossrail or endanger the delivery schedule. OOC could therefore be regarded as a substantial thorn in their side, which is digging ever deeper.

The HS2 timescale is very tight, driven by the need to finalise the design and complete the environmental assessments in order to submit a Hybrid Bill in October 2013. While the suspicions grow that the HS2 case is more prospective than might appear, the project relentlessly rumbles on, with cross-party support from MPs and a Treasury seeing big infrastructure spending as economic salvation.

HS2 has paved the way for the GLA and LBHF to create the OOC project to the point that, in the event that the high-speed line decelerates, a robust case for a new interchange at OOC will have been made. Arguably, enough inertia has already been built for OOC to proceed, based on Crossrail and the broader Park Royal Royal Oak redevelopment. With a strong partnership of local authorities and developers who see the opportunities, a Crossrail-Overground interchange is looking more likely, with or without HS2.

This is certainly the view of LBHF, who are keen to get moving and see Crossrail providing the crucial early stimulus to the redevelopment, far more so than HS2. In the longer run, it is more likely that the economic outcomes will be driven by the London Plan, the local authorities and by local and regional accessibility by road and rail.

The implications in terms of planning are significant. OOC lies on the border of the high-density inner urban zone dominated by public transport, and the outer suburban zone where the car holds sway. OOC is part of the growth of the London’s core, an inexorable dynamic which is accompanied by the policy settings around the Opportunity Areas.

So what is happening here is not unique. The same fundamental shifts are happening elsewhere around London’s inner core, but is strategic rail policy keeping up with these changing patterns of land-use?

In the end this will come down to politics and the lobbying by the Mayor, who has been consistently adamant that his four criteria for HS2 are met:

  • Interchange at OOC served by Crossrail and Overground
  • Resolving issues with the HS1-HS2 link, particularly around Camden Road
  • Providing capacity at Euston
  • Environmental mitigation along the route

This may yet provide the final twist. As Walthamstow Writer sagely observed in a comment following Part 1:

The requirement for the Mayor to find 50% of the funding for CR2, deemed essential for Euston, also creates another dynamic about who coughs up, for what and what development follows in its wake. It could all get very, very messy if the Government persist in HS2 but won’t fund CR2 and the Mayor is unable or even unwilling to beg for the 50% funding. Boris may view as doable but that doesn’t mean any successor will have the same view or even the same priorities. It’d be a tad ironic if the Mayor was able to stall HS2 through not being able to conclude CR2 successfully.

Clearly, how OOC evolves will depend much on what happens further up the line, in every sense.

Written by Lemmo