Towards The Start of a New Era on the South London Line?

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Late last year we reported on the opening of stage II of the East London Line and also said farewell to the South London Line (SLL). Nowadays it is not often that we see a the discontinuation of a service on National Rail in the London area. The next planned discontinuation is the replacement of through trains to Greenford on Great Western by a West Ealing – Greenford shuttle because of Crossrail. This is not due until 2018 at the earliest and even then it only inconveniences the limited number of existing users to the extent that they will have to change trains rather than have a through service.

Whilst no closures are expected in the next few years it is also true to point out, as Diamond Geezer has observed, there are also no further major TfL new services scheduled to start in the next few years.

Alternatives Revived

At the time when proposals to terminate the SLL service began to emerge five various alternatives were proposed to mitigate the inconvenience. These came to nothing so it was quite a surprise to read that TfL are now reported to be in discussions with the DfT for some new proposals to make better use of the South London Line.

The saga of events that have led up to the withdrawal of trains on the SLL is quite complicated, as is the combination of journeys that still can and cannot be made directly. You can read about its impact in a detailed but not easily digested report or look at Diamond Geezer’s short but easy to understand summary.

A very short potted history

Train Loadings at London Bridge. On the face of it the argument for discontinuing SLL services seems overwhelming.

Thameslink reconstruction at London Bridge means that only six terminating platforms will be available instead of nine from May 2013. Clearly some services would no longer be able to terminate at London Bridge from that date. This does of course beg the question why it was felt necessary to discontinue the SLL service from December 2012. The SLL used only four carriages in the peak hours and each of the two trains an hour in the morning had an average of only around 240 passengers. This was in stark contrast to a train from Brighton which could be expected to have over 800 commuters aboard. It was inevitable the SLL would be one of the services proposed for withdrawal – at the very least until 2018 when fewer terminating trains due to Thameslink may mean that there will be platform availability again.

In mitigation Network Rail proposed a new service. Effectively the 2 trains per hour from Victoria would go south rather than north at Peckham Rye and call at Nunhead, Crofton Park, Catford and Bellingham instead of Queen’s Road Peckham, South Bermondsey and London Bridge.

The original Network Rail proposal. Its aim was simply to mitigate the inconvenience of withdrawing services from the SLL and if there were any additional benefits they were fortuitous rather than intended.

This would mean:

  • a continuing direct link between Peckham Rye and all stations to Wandsworth Road (inclusive) and Victoria
  • most journeys would still be possible without requiring a more circuitous route and needing, at most, one additional change at Peckham Rye
  • 4 trains per hour instead of just two serving Crofton Park, Catford and Bellingham

Short Platforms

Trains would have to be restricted to four carriages due to short platforms at Wandsworth Road and Clapham High Street. The fact that lengthening has never been suggested for any potential service serving these stations probably indicates that it would be very difficult or very expensive to do so, but in fact the platforms used to be much longer so this would appear not to be the case.

A fairly obvious alternative course of action would therefore appear to be to extend the platforms and have a few existing services call at these stations. Surprisingly this does not appear to have ever been suggested, though it would probably be rejected on the grounds that calls at these stations, which are on separate tracks, would add a significant delay to other passengers. It would also produce conflicting train paths as services crossed over to access these tracks.

East London Line Extension to the rescue

Around the time of the Bellingham proposal it was dawning on a lot of people that if ELLX2 (London Overground to Clapham Junction) was open it would do a lot to mitigate the problem of withdrawal of SLL services. In fact with 4tph it would probably be more beneficial than the 2tph Network Rail proposal. As is often the case the problem was a lack of money to pay for it.

TfL and others were arguing the case that the DfT really ought to pay, as it was critical to get this up and running before works commenced at London Bridge. Not surprisingly, the DfT was having none of this. In a bit of realpolitik, TfL and the mayor came to an agreement with the DfT that the proposed Victoria-Bellingham services could be abandoned if the money that the DfT would save was put towards ELLX2. When this agreement leaked out a lot of people using the SLL felt betrayed, particularly as TfL publicised their success in progressing ELLX2 but initially kept very quiet about the agreement that made it possible. The feeling held by many was that TfL were hoping to put the blame onto the DfT for the lack of a suitable replacement service and the DfT felt they had been “stitched up”.

For those who want a little more detail we advise re-reading our posts written at the time available here and here.

The Battersea Issue

Of course it wasn’t just at London Bridge that there was an issue of SLL trains occupying valuable platform capacity. This was also true at Victoria. As terminal capacity in London is becoming critical, it is hard to make a case for a train service serving two terminals and occupying a full-length platform at each of them but only having four carriages at most. There was however a potentially bigger problem preventing reinstatement in the future and indeed would have probably meant that even if the Victoria-Bellingham service had been inaugurated it too would have to be withdrawn eventually.

The issue was that, as part of the Southern train lengthening, Battersea Park will get lengthened platforms able to take 10 car trains. This will apply to platform 3 and according to Network Rail’s Control Period 4 Enhancements Programme (September 2012 update) it will be complete by December 2013. Now all the earlier talk was that this would be achieved by severing the SLL – rather like platform lengthening at Farringdon was possible by severing the Moorgate branch. If this is still the plan then obviously this will kill off any future running from the SLL into Victoria via Battersea Park, although termination at Battersea Park from the east would still be possible. It would appear though, from the fact that Battersea Park does not appear on any of the diagrams of proposed services, that trains will continue from Wandsworth Road to Victoria via the Stewarts Lane route and will not serve Battersea Park.

Taking a broader Overview

On the face of it, the case for abandoning a service on the SLL seems unarguable. One could, however, view the situation completely differently.

The first obvious thing to do is compare the South London line with the North London line. For years the North London line provided an indifferent service at not that frequent an interval. When it was improved and trains ran more frequently the service became more popular and today the problem is providing a service to meet demand. No-one says that we shouldn’t run the North London Line service because the trains are only short trains and are therefore not using the fixed resources to their best advantage.

The second important thing to realise is that if a service operates infrequently and is not heavily used it does not necessarily mean that there isn’t a large potential demand. We have seen how a two car shuttle used to operate between West Croydon and Wimbledon and was hardly used. When it was replaced by six trams an hour that was inadequate, so the service has been increased to eight trams per hour and plans are underway to make that twelve trams per hour.

The third thing is really almost a corollary to the second point, and the fact that the level of use of inner urban services is extremely volatile. The history of the SLL is one of reasonable passenger flows followed by intensive use when an early form of overhead electrification was introduced, followed by near abandonment due to a fast and frequent tram service developing and also priority being given to outer suburban and long distance trains. It is therefore highly probable that if a significantly improved service were to be offered then either a modal shift or entirely new journeys would quickly ensure that it was well used.

Indeed, following from the last point, many railway managers have openly stated that inner London services will always get a bad deal as managers will inevitably focus on their longer distance commuters who may well be paying thousands of pounds for an annual season ticket. One of the arguments for the success of London Overground has been that managers haven’t been distracted by longer distance services because they do not have these services to manage as part of their job. If north London and now south east London can have an improved service then why should this approach not also apply to south west London?

Finally, Howard Smith, when he was in charge of London Rail, casually remarked that the trick for providing new and better services is to find former railway routes that can be revived as providing a new surface route would be very difficult. Whilst this it undoubtedly worth pursuing it seems absurd that at the same time we are not utilising the lines that we already have and the services that already have a passenger base.

Will the South London Line ever be revived?

As everyone knows, once you get rid of a service it is extremely difficult to revive it. If it is a railway this applies even if the track is physically there and maintained. Even if the SLL will be cut off at Battersea Park, then it would presumably be possible to at least run a Battersea Park – London Bridge service if there was the will to do so. If not and there is no platform capacity at Victoria, one has to ask if it would not be possible to build a short platform, possibly a bay platform, somewhere at the southern end. The obvious place to start looking would have been in the wide gap between platforms 7 and 8. Unfortunately this has now been built on but it might still be possible to demolish some of the building in order to fit a bay platform.

At the other end is London Bridge. It is highly likely that once Thameslink is complete then any spare platform capacity will be used up coping with the general growing demand. Again one wonders whether space for a short platform could be found, although if so it would be rather sad that it would be tacked onto a station that had just been rebuilt. There are tentative plans for the functions of the signalbox (covering the site of the former platforms 17, 18 and 19) to be transferred in 2018 as part of Network Rail’s plan to control the entire network from 14 signalboxes. Whether the box will be demolished, which would free off some space at the south side of the station, is unknown. It may be the case that the relay rooms (basically the ground floor of the signalbox) remain in place, in which case squeezing in an extra short platform would probably be impossible. However the Thameslink website FAQ page reports that platform 15 will initially be only 10 carriages long but “There is passive provision within the design that if in the future the signal box moves, platform 15 could be extended to 12 carriages”. It may also be the case that space could be found for a short platform.

Deja Vu?

It has to be admitted that the chances of the SLL ever returning to London Bridge are pretty remote, and it is even more unlikely that the signal box is demolished and a SLL platform created in the space made available. If that were to happen though it would return the situation to one similar to the 1930’s when the four southernmost platforms (then 19-22) were shorter than most of the others and generally referred to as the South London Line platforms. The fact that there were four platforms to serve trains coming from the SLL shows how important this line once was.

A New Proposal : Victoria – Bromley South

Even if reinstatement were to be possible it would arguably seem to be the wrong thing to do. The right thing would be to look at all the proposals and see which one, if any, would be the most beneficial and this is in fact the approach adopted by London TravelWatch and TfL.

The recently emerged Victoria – Bromley South proposal. The peak only service shown is presumed to refer to an existing service.

It has been reported by the BBC that there are proposals to introduce an off-peak service from Victoria – Bromley South from 2014. This would basically be an extension to Bromley South of the original Victoria – Bellingham Proposal. Unfortunately statements released by TfL and the DfT are not encouraging.

According to the BBC, TfL state that:

The Mayor and TfL are in discussion with the government regarding the creation of a new South London off-peak service from 2014, between Bromley South and Victoria via Peckham Rye and Denmark Hill, to mitigate the withdrawal of the London Bridge to Victoria service.

Whilst, again according to the BBC, the DfT states that:

Any decision on introducing a new off-peak South London service is a devolved matter for TfL.

Which sounds depressingly familiar. If the service is not a London Overground service then surely this is still currently ultimately a matter for the DfT. Those who follow the saga of Gospel Oak―Barking electrification will no doubt note some nearly identical emergent themes.

TfL’s desire to pursue this proposal is confirmed on the TfL website. In case you are wondering how this was not spotted earlier, a clue can be found in the fact that TfL in the final analysis detailed the investigation of the original five shortlisted options and then subsequently looked into two additional ones. It referred to the Victoria – Bromley South proposal as “option 7”.

The most notable thing about the proposal is that it relies on the route from the SLL to Victoria not to be blocked by the platform extension at Battersea Park. It is unlikely, one hopes, that TfL would have overlooked such a basic flaw in the plan so we have to presume that the SLL route will not be curtailed at Battersea Park in the foreseeable future.

Ignoring the Battersea Park issue, this proposal does, however, intuitively make more sense that the original one terminating at Bellingham. The Bellingham proposal was really the “do-minimum” option. In particular Bellingham is not a major traffic generator but does have carriage sidings south of the station which would be convenient for terminating trains. It really was only intended to be a partial solution to mitigating the loss of the SLL service and didn’t consider any possible wider benefits.

Extending to Bromley South, a further four stops down the line, would have the advantage of:

  • Terminating at major traffic generator so ensuring that the service is better used throughout its length.
  • Providing all stations on the Catford loop line with 4 trains per hour off-peak which is what TfL and London TravelWatch regard as an objective for the minimum level of service for all stations within Greater London.
  • Being cheap to implement because presumably there is no capital cost of rolling stock as the service is off-peak only. There would probably be no or very little additional station staffing costs. Running costs would be dominated by the cost of providing train drivers, track access charges and a contribution to rolling stock costs.
  • Having minimal additional train pathing problems. The only junction beyond Bellingham is Shortlands Junction which was rebuilt at great expense as a burrowing junction for phase I of HS1 (when trains still ran into Waterloo). The trains would terminate before reaching the complex of Bickley Junction.

Off Peak Only

The most obvious disadvantage would be that the service would only be off-peak. One would probably have to take the attitude that an off-peak only service is better than no service and could lead to positive developments in future.

The reason given for providing an off-peak only service is that a peak hour service would not be possible without a recast of the South Eastern timetable. Differing dates can be found for when this is next due. It is not clear if it is dependent on completion of Thameslink (whether it is or not is another story we won’t go into here). There has also been the suggestion that the original Victoria – Bellingham proposal would have only been possible as a off-peak service, although this does not appear to have been raised at the time it was proposed.

Bromley South

A major problem with implementing this is that Bromley South, with its four through platforms, is hardly an ideal place to terminate trains. Currently this is only possible from the London direction at platform 2 (the down fast). One wonders whether the intention is to build a proposed fifth platform. The obvious place seems to be to the south of the existing station where there used to be sidings. At first glance this would seem hardly ideal because the fast lines are on the south side and the slow lines are on the north. Under normal circumstances this would lead either to conflicting movements or to running a slow (stopper) train on the fast lines thus delaying other trains. At Bromley South one can get away with this because the complex burrowing junction just west of Shortlands station means one can get from the fast lines to the Catford Loop and vice versa without any conflicting moves. Nevertheless, if a new platform were to be built one would probably have to slightly relocate platform 1 further towards the country end to accommodate the junction to the new platform.

Alternatively, the plan – if it has progressed this far – may be to create a turnround siding at the country end of the station. This of course has implications for checking that the train is empty before it enters the sidings, but is obviously less of an issue for 4-car trains only running outside peak hours.

A real possibility or just optimistic talk?

The proposal looks on the face of it to be eminently sensible if the necessary issues can be resolved. One problem seems to be finance and we know from the recent TfL business plan that TfL have not allocated any money to this in the next three years. It is difficult to see the DfT showing any enthusiasm for spending more money. It is unlikely to get support from the treasury as would not be seen as a capital project that could kick-start economic revival but instead something that would be more of a drain on resources. Indeed by being off-peak only it doesn’t even particularly help people get to and from work.

The other problem with this proposal is that it seems to have hit an impasse between TfL and the DfT. If looking for a timescale, maybe the best one can manage is “sometime after Goblin electrification”.

Clearly there would definitely be a benefit in such a service, it would be relatively cheap to initially implement off-peak and, with a timetable recast, has the potential to be a useful all-day service possibly run by London Overground rather than South-Eastern. With so little that is definitely happening in the near future this just may be one to watch.

Written by Pedantic of Purley