The Past and Future of the Bromley North Branch

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The branch line from Grove Park to Bromley North is only one and a half miles long. It has but two stations (excluding Grove Park itself) and those two are ridiculously close to each other. Traffic by London standards is pretty minimal and indeed there is no service on Sundays. Despite this, the branch attracts attention like no other in London because of the conviction of many people from the Mayor downwards that this is really an under-utilised asset that could be used more effectively. Here we take a brief look at the history and the options that are talked about and see how realistic they are.

A sensible location for a station

Bromley North is a natural rail head. Next to the station is the bus station where many routes terminate. There is also quite a large potential catchment area with no obvious alternative station for passengers who want to go to the City rather than the West End. More to the point, Bromley is a large town that would naturally be expected to have a good rail service to London and, given that a station in the town centre would raise a number of problems, the logical place for a station is to the north of the town which is closer to London.

Nowadays A Quiet Branch Line

The branch is not especially busy. It is easy to quote figures for station usage but on their own these are fairly meaningless. To put the usage in context, Bromley South (a major station) is almost ten times busier than Bromley North. The nature the traffic at the two stations is completely different however as Bromley South is busy throughout the week whilst Bromley North is primarily a rush-hour station.

Elmstead Woods station is located in a rural setting about 2 km NE of Bromley North. Instinct would tell you that it would be much quieter than Bromley North but even that station manages almost double the passenger traffic. This is probably explained by the fact that, being on the main line, the service is much better.

The only other station on the branch is Sundridge Park. It is so close to Bromley North that the ‘home’ signal for Bromley North that tells the driver which platform he is entering is actually located on the down platform at Sundridge Park. Surprisingly, despite being so close to Bromley North, it has about half the number of passengers that Bromley North has. Like Bromley North the vast majority are classified as season ticket holders. Although busier than one might have expected, it is still a very quiet station outside peak hours. In the wider context of South London surburbia, Sundridge Park would probably be a strong candidate for one of the dozen least used stations.

A Very Short History

The line from Grove Park to Bromley North (then just called Bromley) opened in 1878. It was double track from the start suggesting that reasonable traffic levels were expected. Although gradients weren’t especially steep it was on a continually rising slope all the way to the Bromley terminus. This would not have been that much of a problem for the steam engines on passenger trains at least as they were unlikely to be hauling many carriages and the only intermediate station was initially just a private halt.

The original station

By all accounts the original station at Bromley was pretty awful

The diplomatically-written history of the station on the Kentrail website states that:

the SER had entered its ‘economical’ era of station construction, when buildings were erected at modest cost

The Railway Magazine for July 1929 is not so polite when referring to the rebuilding of Sundridge Park as a public station:

One might have thought that the opportunity would have been taken to reconstruct the Bromley terminus at the same time, for a more undignified and out of date station would be hard to find, consisting as it did of a wooden shed for the booking office and waiting room, and another for the goods office, with a disused railway carriage as extra office space.

Given that there would have been more competition from the recently rebuilt Bromley South station (now with four platforms) at the other side of town, it is strange that such a state of affairs was allowed to exist.

One possible explanation is that the South Eastern Railway wasn’t really interested in passenger numbers and built the branch line either for goods traffic or to establish territory in the way that railway companies did at the time. Another more intriguing one is that the company still had hopes of implementing an 1865 proposal to tunnel under part of Bromley and continue onward to Hayes. Given that Bromley North is located on considerably higher ground than Bromley South, this would have almost certainly necessitated complete abandonment of the existing terminus and possibly the station at Sundridge Park as well.

The Service in the early days

It appears that from the early days the railway company ran a decent-enough service. Some trains ran all the way to Charing Cross or Cannon Street, whilst others provided a shuttle “connecting (or otherwise)” at Grove Park. There appeared to be an intriguing third category and that was trains that were worked through as rear portions of slow main-line trains which divided at Grove Park.

Incredibly, a letter in the Railway Magazine in 1929 refers to the year 1905 and a description of an all stations to Hastings train detaching a rear portion of the train at Grove Park for Bromley North. This would appear to be a ridiculous imposition and delay to inflict on the Hastings passengers whose journey would have been quite long enough anyway. All this just to save the need for a few passengers using a London branch line from having to change trains. Around eighty years later the Hastings Line would get its revenge.

The coming of Southern Electric

In 1923 the railways of Britain were amalgamated into “the big four”. In the next few years Southern showed a remarkable degree of ambitious but business-like management and rationalisation of the lines now owned. This was true rationalisation which involved best practice and consistency across the territory not the 1980s euphemism for cutbacks.

One of Southern Railway’s early decisions was to completely rebuild Bromley North station. The passenger station building including passenger platforms was brought into use by the end of 1925 and completed several months later.

The current station in 2012. Thanks to Phil Richards for allowing us to use this. According to a comment cited by Tom Burnham on the flickr page this was “replacing a wooden shack which … was called the worst station on the South Eastern Railway, but only by people who had never been to Dungeness.”

Modernisation did not end with the station. Southern’s 3rd rail electrification of the suburban lines into Charing Cross and Cannon Street was proceeding apace and by July 1926 full electric services were running. During the rush hours there were four trains each way (two to Cannon St and two to Charing Cross) and presumably eight carriages long.

At this time the service must have been beneficial to both passengers and railway management and such a service would not have been run if there wasn’t a demand for it. One attraction for the railway company must have been the ability to provide seats for large numbers of people at inner suburban stations without having to run a near-empty train to a far-flung destination. Moreover, it must have been one of the rare cases where rolling stock could manage more than one out-and-back journey in the peak hours which were of considerably shorter duration those days.

A Decline from 1976 but not because of lack of demand

All in all the service was popular, at least in peak hours, until 1976. Although Bromley South offered more frequent and faster services it was Bromley North that offered the better service to the city.

In 1976 Southern’s “Operation London Bridge” signalling scheme came into effect. This created problems when it came to pathing the Bromley North trains. The connection at Grove Park was to the fast lines. At least in the down direction the Bromley North trains would have to call at Grove Park using the otherwise-little-used fast platforms and hold up following fast trains. From Grove Park to Hither Green trains would either have to use the fast lines and do the same at Hither Green (or miss out the stop) or cross on the flat to and from the slow lines. The latter was not desirable because one of the main objectives of the resignalling scheme was to avoid crossing the main line on the flat on the approach to London.

The scenario then got worse. If the train stayed on the fast lines on its way up to London it would then find itself on the Charing Cross lines and have no means of calling at Lewisham, St Johns or New Cross. So Bromley North passengers would get a lovely fast service but hardly one to justify ten-carriage trains.

There was a simple (in railway operating terms) solution to this – just get rid of the through trains and run a shuttle. This was not feasible, in terms of adverse passenger reaction, in the peak hours but this was implemented for all off-peak services. This more-or-less doomed the branch to be little used off-peak. A factor that must have contributed to this was the existence of two reasonably frequent bus services between Bromley North and Grove Park. Why wait for a half-hourly shuttle when a bus will get you to Grove Park, where the trains are more frequent?

It was clear that Southern Region wanted to get rid of their through trains. During this period a vociferous local railway users association was set up to resist cuts to the peak-hour through service.

The end of a through service is inevitable

By the 1980’s Southern Region were coming under more and more pressure to find slots for the increasing number of long-distance commuters. In 1986 the Hastings line was finally electrified and the rather unsatisfactory narrow-bodied Hastings DEMUs replaced by EMUs. The old DEMUs were an operating pain in that they could not accelerate as fast as an EMU and they were also disliked by customers. The EMUs were more popular and that, as well as faster journey times, led to increased usage on the line.

A 4-car class 465 at Bromley North. Normally these would only be used in peak periods with a 2-car class 466 more than adequate to handle the very limited off-peak traffic. Thanks to Matt Buck for permission to use this.

In the end it was inevitable. It was extremely hard to give preference to through Bromley North trains that just got in the way of everything over long distance trains carrying commuters who pay four-figure amounts for their season tickets. The through service was withdrawn in 1990 and the direct connections with the up and down fast line platforms at Grove Park were removed shortly afterwards.

Looking south east from the branch platform. It has been more than twenty years since there has been a direct connection to the adjacent fast lines.

A possible ray of hope dashed

By now the only possible glimmer of hope for a restored through service was if demand in the inner suburbs made it necessary to run some short workings into London to provide the necessary capacity. Whilst Bromley North was hardly ideal as an originating point for such a service, there wasn’t anywhere else very suitable either.

Of all things, it was the Channel Tunnel that put an end to that possibility. When trains were planned to run through the Channel Tunnel, the main proposed route through Kent was via Orpington. It was realised that there would a potential problem because trains often terminated there in one of the four through platforms. This would be awkward as Orpington would be the last place where it was possible to delay a domestic train so that the Eurostar train could have priority on the two track line down to Sevenoaks. Mainly for this reason, in the early 1990s new terminating platforms 7 and 8 were built on the down side of the station adjacent to the slow lines.

Platforms 6, 7 and 8 at Orpington are ideal platforms for terminating all-stations trains. Thanks to Nigel Chadwick for allowing us to use this photo.

If one were to run a service to ensure that passengers at Grove Park and Hither Green could get on a train in the peak periods one would far rather terminate it at Orpington in preference to Bromley North. The extra running time would be at most six minutes and there would be a virtual absence of conflicting movements.

Recent developments

The December 2011 timetable introduced a 20 minute interval off peak service. This is easily achievable for 2 car trains on a line with a journey time of just five minutes. It is not entirely benefical as it is a 20 minute service feeding into an off-peak timetable based on half-hour and quarter hour frequencies. Off-peak connnection times for trains to London are either 4, 5 or a whopping 13 minutes. It appears that the trains could still be described as “connecting (or otherwise)”.

The situation today

Whilst the future of the branch is secure it is now hardly ideal. For a start the shuttle service terminates at platform 1 at Grove Park but other services depart from platform 4 or 5 so changing trains is not trivial. With so many people changing trains it is probably impossible to get a seat at Grove Park in the morning rush-hour. In fact you would be doing well to get on the first train that arrives. Leisure traffic to Bromley is probably limited by the fact that the modern shopping centre is a five minute walk from the station and involves crossing a busy road.

It is time to look at the alternatives. The main suggestions, with varying degrees of official support are: conversion to tram, extend the DLR from Lewisham to join it and extend the London Overground from New Cross to join it.

Conversion to Tram

Shortly after Croydon Tramlink opened and was judged a success, it was natural that people looked around for somewhere else to emulate this. The Bromley North branch was an obvious choice with many similarities to the Addiscombe branch. Suggestions either used the Bromley North branch as the basis of a new tram system or by various convoluted routes proposed somehow joining it to Croydon Tramlink. Unfortunately the Bromley North branch is very different in character from the lines that made up Tramlink, excepting perhaps the original Elmers End – Addiscombe branch, the southern half of which was abandoned and is now a linear park. It is really difficult to see the potential for more than one additional stop (New Street Hill is the only obvious candidate) and a line that skirts the edge of Sundridge Park golf course for much of its route and also adjoins playing fields and a cemetery doesn’t have the potential for traffic that the Croydon Tramlink, which mainly passes through built up areas, does.

Significantly no suggestions have come from Bromley or Lewisham council, and West London Tram has shown what happens if you don’t have the local council at least supporting (and preferably leading) the project.

Extend the DLR from Lewisham to Bromley

An investigation into the possibility of extending the DLR to Bromley was the surprise suggestion of Mayor Johnson in his manifesto during the most recent mayoral elections. Whilst this has some initial attraction it is not obvious that this would generate any significant extra local traffic. If you could continue northwards from Bromley beyond Grove Park then it would appear that a single-track route to just short of Hither Green could be made by moving the NR tracks over to the east. It is hard to see how that route can be continued to join the DLR at Lewisham.

View from the branch platform looking towards London. Nowadays this is the only connection to the branch line. Any plan for the DLR to take over the branch would probably involve punching a route beyond the buffers. This would be difficult and an engineering challenge but not impossible. The picture is deceptive and the overbridge is much wider than it appears to be.

From the other direction it is difficult to see how the DLR continue south from Lewisham. A viaduct for the DLR over Lewisham National rail station would be almost impossible and unsightly and going underground would be extremely problematic.

The orientation of the DLR terminus was carefully chosen to enable a continuation south, with Catford seen as a likely destination. It was recognised that such an extension would only be possible in the event that the borough of Lewisham went ahead with its proposals to reroute the A20 and bring the heart of the town centre nearer the station. It would still seem that this is the only realistic way that the DLR can be extended southward without abandoning its existing terminus.

This picture, showing the Ravensbourne in the foreground, is taken with the A20 behind the camera and is in alignment with route of the DLR. If extended it needs to cross the Ravensbourne and will probably need to go underground at the first opportunity.

The problem is that Lewisham have now published their proposals and there is no provision for southward extension of the DLR. The options for routeing the DLR southward would appear to be very limited and to be realistic would probably need to form an integral part of any future development. Given how advanced the plans are it would appear there is little chance of the DLR going further south unless there was a major intervention by the Mayor to overrule Lewisham’s proposals.

There does not appear to be any provision for a southward extension of the DLR in Lewisham council’s plan for regeneration of the area.

Extend the London Overground from New Cross to Bromley

The idea of extending the Overground to Bromley has has one good thing going for it – there would be a suitable match of traffic levels. More critically you wouldn’t overload the East London line. A four (or five) car train every fifteen minutes is the sort of traffic level one would be looking to run on the Bromley North branch.

The problem is that the Network Rail lines between Hither Green and New Cross are extremely busy. Even in 1958, when the report of the Lewisham Rail Disaster came out, the inspector wrote:

[W]ith the electrification and new signalling it became possible to run many more trains and, the four track main line through St Johns is now one of the busiest in the world

More recently Network Rail’s Summary Route Plan for Kent states that:

The route between Orpington and London Bridge operates at maximum capacity during peak times.

It therefore seems that no more peak period trains can be run between Hither Green and New Cross. Network Rail are moving towards a goal of making sure all trains are at their maximum length possible when occupying critical sections of track in peak hours. One just cannot see them agreeing to run five car units in each direction every fifteen minutes in peak hours along this section of track. These would not only to take up valuable slots currently used by packed trains, but also generate conflicting movements between lines where there are none currently. It should not be forgotten that the whole reason for withdrawing the branch trains in the first place was to free up slots on this section of track.

One alternative would be a dedicated track to bridge the divide, but even if this were possible it would be very expensive and not cost effective. Once any significant length of new tunnel is involved the costs would be completely disproportionate to any benefit. The only hope is if an additional track, or tracks, could be justified on the basis of a number of benefits of which linking up to the Bromley North branch was just one.

A sober realistic conclusion

It is really hard to see anything radical that can be done in practice to increase usage of the Bromley North branch when considered as a standalone project. It does seem another problem destined for the “too hard” pile. Perhaps a better idea is simply to single the completely unnecessary double track when the track comes up for renewal and then radically simplify the signalling so that the line can be run as economically as possible without affecting the quality of service. Then one day in the distant future maybe, just maybe, a radical scheme will evolve to relieve the railway congestion in inner south east London and, with the train paths released, the through trains from Bromley North to London can be reinstated or incorporated into a grand new scheme.

In the meantime the line will continue to stand out as the only remaining suburban shuttle service in London that is south of the river. Something future LR Quiz entrants would perhaps do well to mentally note…

Written by Pedantic of Purley