West London Line cocooned by Earls Court development
The massive redevelopment at Earls Court took a step closer to fruition in November 2012 when the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea gave its outline planning approval. The London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham had already given their outline consent in September and, as Sir Terry Farrell’s grand vision for west London looks to become a reality, we ask what the implications are for the rail routes in the area: the West London Line and the District routes through Earls Court.
This is a huge redevelopment, straddling two London boroughs which are working with the Greater London Authority (GLA) to create an integrated strategy for the Earl’s Court and West Kensington Opportunity Area. The first phase of the plan, the Seagrove Road development alongside West Brompton station, received full planning permission in March 2012.
A surprisingly large part of the site is owned by the railway, including the LUL Lillie Bridge depot and the various running lines. TfL also owns the entire block of land beneath the Earl’s Court exhibition buildings where the lines west of Earl’s Court diverge, although this is subject to a long-term lease to Capco.
Is this a rare opportunity to create a step-change in capacity, to resolve long-standing bottlenecks and to future-proof for rapidly growing transport demand?
The District Lines around Earls Court are among the most overcrowded on the system, and the projected overcrowding on the West London Line (WLL) is proving a challenge for TfL. The unexpectedly high level of demand generated by new services on the WLL will combine with flows created by the Earls Court development. Even with 8-car trains, the resultant overcrowding threatens to tarnish the Overground success on which TfL’s aspirations rely.
Sadly, while there is a vibrant vision for Earls Court, there does not appear to be one for the WLL. As London’s population continues to rise it is outgrowing the city core, with the result that rail demand on the orbitals continues to outpace even the most optimistic projections.
A glance up and down the line reveals more Opportunity Areas, at White City (10000 jobs, 4500 homes), Battersea (25000 jobs, 16000 homes) and the gateway to Park Royal (14000 jobs, 3600 homes) at Old Oak Common. The new Old Oak Common HS2-Crossrail interchange is also projected to generate significant traffic along the WLL to Clapham Junction. As these Opportunity Areas become major traffic generators in their own right, will the WLL become as busy as the District is now?
Yet rather than future-proofing, the WLL alignment is being pared to the bone and will be hemmed into a concrete box below the new development, precluding any future expansion. What does this mean in terms of future capacity and operational resilience?
TfL’s position is presented below, but first let’s take a closer look at this fascinating part of the London rail network.
The Lillie Bridge tangle
The Carto Metro map below shows how the various lines interweave, noting that the Piccadilly Line runs beneath the District Line from Gloucester Road through Earls Court. At West Kensington East Jn there are effectively four levels of railway: Piccadilly, District, WLL and, at a slightly higher level, the Lillie Bridge Depot. The Tubeprune website expounds on the Depot and its slightly eccentric access arrangements from both West Kensington and Olympia.
The confluence of routes here prompts a perennial proposal to create a new interchange, which the Earls Court development might allow. TfL have looked at this and see no advantage: good interchange already exists at Earls Court and West Brompton, and the existing stations are closely placed which means a new interchange would have to replace them. The preferred strategy is to improve capacity at, and pedestrian access to, the existing stations.
The Carto map also omits the old Lillie Bridge Sidings on the WLL, which extended from Brompton Road north to Earls Court Jn. The legacy of this is a wide alignment right through to Kensington Olympia. On the east (Up) side the Lillie Bridge Sidings extended north into the Warwick Road Goods depot, the site of which (north of the West Cromwell Road) is now, inevitably, a Tesco car park. The Railway Clearing House map below shows these depots and gives a sense of the complexity in the area.
The map below is derived from an 1872 Board of Trade accident report at Lillie Bridge Sidings. Remarkably the layout changed little in the following century. When the Brompton & Fulham Goods depot was built a line was extended alongside West Brompton station beneath the road bridge to join Lillie Bridge Sidings, and this became a long Down Goods loop in the 1970s extending to Earls Court Jn.
The Earls Court development will entail the demolition of the huge new Earls Court 2 exhibition space built in the 1980s over the WLL and LU Lillie Bridge depot tracks, which will reopen this wide railway alignment from West Brompton north. It is a rare opportunity to safeguard four-tracks from south of West Brompton station through to Kensington Olympia. This is, however, not to be.
The first phase of the Earls Court development at Seagrove Road is being built on the site of the Brompton & Fulham Goods depot, and the boundary between the development and the WLL is being retained as a wetland wildlife area, reminiscent of the WLL’s previous incarnation as the Kensington Canal. The elegant road bridge on the west side of West Brompton station is a remnant of this era: an old canal bridge.
The extent of the railway infrastructure is also shown in a fascinating 1928 aerial photograph below, looking roughly north. The District Lines out of Earls Court are uncovered, with West Brompton station on the right and the Lillie Bridge Sidings extending up the WLL towards Kensington Olympia. Below these, i.e. to the south-west, is the LU Lillie Bridge Depot, with the main shed extending much further south than today.
More maps and fascinating pictures telling the history of the area are to be found on the developer’s website, including this extract from the Environmental Statement.
The Earls Court Masterplan shows a “Lost River Park” running above the WLL alignment, but it takes a lot of digging through the planning documents to find how much railway land will be taken, and what is left of the WLL beneath. Essentially the plan cocoons the WLL into a two-track box throughout.
The cross section below is taken from the planning documents, at a point close to St Cuthbert’s Church, alongside which will be a large new building with the eloquent working title of WV01. The cross-section of the existing structures is misleading, suggesting that the WLL is already boxed in. The reality is quite the opposite, as shown in the recent photo below and on the photos included in the planning documents themselves: the WLL is still an open and wide alignment at this point.
So much for the WLL, but what of the District Line? Noting the extensive TfL freehold in the development area, is there also an opportunity to improve the junction arrangements on the District Line at the Earls Court West Junction?
A new flyover was provided here in 1914 which allowed eastbound District services from West Brompton to cross westbound to Hammersmith, but at the time it was not possible to take these eastbound services over to the northernmost Platform 1. The result, as explained on Mike Horne’s blog, is that:
…High Street trains were in the right hand platform but turned left at Cromwell Road, while City trains were in the left hand platform and needed to turn right. Clearly this created a conflict, so delays continued. With rising traffic this is a really unhelpful arrangement and offers a real constraint to developing services, an issue only mitigated by the relative infrequency of trains to High Street or Edgware Road (not necessarily something to be proud of). The long term answer is to improve the flyover arrangement, but this is clearly impractical with all the railway lines confined within the piling of a working exhibition building. That is, until now.
TfL maintain that there would be negligible gains from further grade-separation here, and that an additional crossover and operational improvements already built into the upgrade program will allow the service pattern to operate more efficiently over the flat junctions at Earl’s Court.
In terms of the additional demand generated by the development itself, the planning applications were supported by the November 2011 Earl’s Court & West Kensington Strategic Transport Study Review. This detailed multi-modal study assessed the projected travel demand using the TfL Railplan model and other data, based on an agreed set of development scenarios.
In essence the study found that, given planned capacity increases on the routes serving the development area (District, WLL), 2031 crowding levels will be similar to today. Hence the redevelopment will need to provide extra capacity: in concourse areas and gatelines, step-free access, platform lengthening and improved interchange, including with other transport modes.
Given that the Earls Court development is not served by one single station at the centre, but by three stations on the periphery, it is expected this will spread rather than concentrate demand. But if that demand exceeds expectations, as has been the trend in the last ten years, then the only route with the potential to expand is the WLL. Yet this is being hemmed in beneath the new development.
The WLL ― throttling a strategic orbital route?
Given that the sharing of freight and passenger trains on the WLL limits capacity, is there a case for quadrupling this section to provide loops? Is there a further case to strategically safeguard the entire WLL route allow for future quadrupling?
We explored the issue of capacity on the WLL in the second of our three-part series on rail freight, noting how few paths are available to expand the Overground service. A particular problem was highlighted in the London & SE RUS:
“there is only limited capability for southbound trains to be held whilst awaiting a path through Kent or northbound trains to be held whilst awaiting a path on the WCML. Freight trains must in general therefore be kept moving to avoid delaying the following passenger traffic (and vice versa). The planned commencement of London Overground services via the South London Line to Clapham Junction can be expected to increase this existing issue, given that these passenger trains will use sections of currently freight-only line” (Section 9.7.9)
Our concern was that, as passenger and freight traffic increases, this will significantly reduce operational resilience as delays rapidly knock-on. Arguably, capacity needs to be provided, either as loops or 4-tracking key sections.
At the time we reported that TfL did not agree, and indeed the discussion following the article questioned the value of loops as opposed to keeping freight paths clear and the trains moving. Freight loops don’t really provide more capacity although they may help improve operational resilience on heavily used mixed traffic routes such as the WLL, particularly where these straddle different mainlines between which paths may not neatly align.
TfL’s position was clarified in November 2011:
“The West London Line (WLL) and West Brompton station capacities and future resilience are being assessed under our role as statutory transport authority alongside issues such as Underground line and station capacity, walking and cycling facilities, highway capacities and access, and bus routing and service levels. Following the submission of the three planning applications, this assessment is ongoing and TfL will continue to work with the transport consultants appointed by CapCo, the relevant local authorities and Network Rail (NR).
TfL considers that the predicted growth in passenger volumes on the WLL over the foreseeable future (the next 20 years) can be met by a combination of train and platform lengthening to provide 8-car capability and additional services that can be accommodated within the existing track layout. This would also require associated station capacity enhancements.
Regarding freight, modelling indicates the WLL will continue to be able to provide up to 35 freight paths to and from the Channel Tunnel per day which allows for the predicted growth in Channel Tunnel freight over the next 20 years. The route will also continue to be able to accommodate the current number of freight paths to and from the Kent Thameside ports. The predicted growth from these ports is focused on the London area, so it will not necessarily need to use the WLL. NR is investing in enhancements to Chelsea Bridge to increase the speed of freight trains. It should also be noted that the WLL was subject to comprehensive resignalling in the 1990s to enable it to accommodate a mixture of stopping passenger services and freight trains.
Neither TfL nor NR believe that the provision of freight loops is an effective way to deliver freight services on the WLL. The use of such loops can have an adverse impact on the reliability of passengers services because of the time freight trains take to accelerate from stationary. Keeping freight trains moving over the length of the WLL is the preferred option as it reduces the risk of delay to passenger services.
These comments are consistent with the findings of the London and South East Route Utilisation Strategy, which sets out the rail industry’s view of the enhancements required to meet the predicted growth in passenger and freight demand up to 2031.
Regarding Lillie Bridge Depot, TfL needs to ensure that the London Underground servicing and maintenance that is undertaken at the facility currently can continue either on site or in another location should the full masterplan proposals progress in full. A number of options are currently being investigated, but no decision has been taken. The District line is being improved as part of the full Tube upgrade plan and includes signalling and track replacement. By 2018 there will be a 24 per cent increase in capacity across the line.”
In Network Rail’s January 2012 statement in the Earls Court development planning process (on the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea website, under Meeting Documents, STR8, Appendices) there is clearly no concern over the capacity of the WLL per se, but on specific elements such as West Brompton station, and on the need to ensure gauge clearances within the new tunnels:
“There were three key areas that were raised in the latter dated 16/08/11, these were; a) capacity at West Brompton station, b) the TENS clearance requirements and c) West Brompton Station Platform Lengthening. The developers and their consultant team have continued to push for a conclusion on these matters and it is recognised that significant progress has been made…”
A vision for the West London Line?
It is difficult to avoid framing this discussion as a 1-in-100 year opportunity to safeguard future capacity as part of the Earls Court redevelopment. But is this opportunity being realised?
We hark back to Mwmbwls’ Pig in the Python discussion, that improving capacity on the orbitals may be hindered by a lack of joined-up network thinking and lack of a diversionary freight route. It’s hard to see 8-car trains being sufficient to alleviate demand on the WLL without a step-change in service frequency, and that appears not to be possible with the current infrastructure and demand for freight paths.
As London continues to expand, and the Opportunity Areas generate new demands, the WLL will come under pressure at precisely the time it is being cocooned under the Earls Court development. The growth in the Overground took even TfL by surprise, but significant growth is still likely along with potential new cross-London routes and, as service levels increase, the interchange for central London with the District and Central will become more attractive.
It’s a thorny problem and we look forward to the informed insight from our illuminati as to what might, or should, happen next.