London Bridge: The First Sign of Things to Come

Its been almost exactly a year since we last gave an update on the Thameslink work at London Bridge. Since then a lot of work has gone on. Some of this is visible at the front of the station but most of it has been behind hoardings or underneath the main station so isn’t entirely obvious. With the first two new platforms of the replacement station having just opened, now seems an appropriate time for a bit of an update.

Work prior and up to the opening of the first new platforms

Before the platforms were there

This picture shows the site of the current platforms 14 and 15 less than nine months before they opened. On the other side of the hoarding is the old platform 13 – then still in use. Note the progressive removal of the footbridge which is already being dismantled and no longer serves platform 13.

Under London Bridge

Not the most exciting of pictures but this view of a temporary storage tank for rainwater under the terminating platforms gives some idea of the space available below them in just one of the arches. What it fails to do is give any appreciation of the sheer magnitude of total area below with the multitude of arches present.

The last significant event that happened was in May 2013 when platforms 14-16 were taken out of use so that new platforms 14 and 15 could be built. Because the South London Line service had been withdrawn the previous December and there was a bit of slack regarding platform occupation built into the timetable, it was relatively easy to close these platforms without creating too many problems. One small issue was the removal of the footbridge from these platforms which also affected platform 13 as this was still in use by trains. Having passengers walk from just one platform via the buffer stops to get to the South East side of the station was not a big issue though.

platforms 13 and 15

Platforms 14 and 15 finally available for use. Thanks to Graham Feakins for this photo.

Map of platforms

A map on a publicity poster showing the new platform arrangement. Note the narrow platforms are highlighted. Also note the lack of an overbridge to three of the platforms – which will get worse later on in the year with another two platforms without a direct route to the through platforms to Cannon Street and Charing Cross.

Platforms 14 and 15 were finally brought into use on Monday 31st March 2014 and represent the first manifestation of the new station that will replace the old one. The current situation is not entirely satisfactory but the temporary unsatisfactory aspects are unavoidable.

platform 15

A slightly different view of platform 15 showing just how narrow it currently is. Again thanks to Graham Feakins.

It is clear from the photographs that the platforms are much narrower than they will eventually be due to the hoardings still present. This will undoubtedly cause problems unless carefully managed – especially on Friday evenings when there are an awful lot of people arriving at London Bridge for a night in London. The Friday evening inward flow is significant during the evening peak as well as later. Even during a mid-week evening peak it is quite surprising how busy the trains are coming into London Bridge.

platform 15 cattle pen

The holding area used at busy times for passengers waiting to board a train at platform 15. The inevitable comment is that they are treating people like cattle.

The other major problem is the current lack of an alternative exit on the new platforms. Obviously this exacerbates the problem of the narrow platforms and less obviously it increases the sheer volume of passengers transferring to the South Eastern side via the buffer stops and platform 8. Once the station is finished this will not be an issue but until the concourse under the platforms is in operation this problem is only going to get worse as more rebuilt platforms are opened.

The long weekend engineering works

A very unusual feature of the weekend engineering work was that it started on Friday after the morning peak period. The peak period was followed by a period of around 90 minutes when no trains at all arrived at or departed from London Bridge terminating platforms. Most trains terminated short at Norwood Junction, New Cross Gate or South Bermondsey and most passengers were advised to use Thameslink services or London Overground to Canada Water then Jubilee Line to London Bridge. Those ending up at South Bermondsey were recommended to catch a 381 bus to London Bridge – something which generally takes at least 20 minutes and can easily take twice that long in heavy traffic (indeed sometimes it is no quicker than walking).

A surprisingly quiet London Bridge in the Friday evening rush hour

A surprisingly quiet Friday evening peak period at London Bridge. The station seemed to be running remarkably smoothly despite this engineering work taking place causing only four terminating platforms being available.

When it came to the evening peak period on Friday 29th March two further platforms had been taken out of use but 14 and 15 had not yet been commissioned. This produced the highly unusual situation of passengers catching trains in the evening peak having a clear view of extensive and intensive engineering works taking place only yards away.

busy at london bridge

Friday evening peak period at London Bridge and work is underway with a vengeance on the tracks serving the former platforms 12 and 13.

The reduction of services in the evening peak was widely advertised in advance. This and the fact that Friday is a much quieter day for commuters anyway with numbers typically 10%-20% down on other working days meant that this seemed not to produce any major problems. It generally went smoothly though the cancellation of a train due to staff shortage and another one only being four cars long did not help matters.

more work in progress

Just taking the hoardings down the entire length of the platform and repositioning them was a major job.

The long weekend gets longer

The engineering work continued over the weekend and was completed on time on Monday morning shortly before start of service and handed over for train operation. There were a few planned cancellations just before the peak period but it was intended to a run more or less full service on that Monday morning. At around 06.30 a.m it all started to go horribly wrong with a major power problem affecting the terminating platforms. Four platforms were brought back into use relatively quickly but being two platforms short caused major disruption. This was of course made much worse by there being no warning of this unplanned event, with too many packed trains already approaching London Bridge.

The problem was discovered to be due to traction bonding issues. It appeared that this was not recognised as a risk factor but the removal of various sets of points meant that the proper functioning of the previously present infrastructure was now crucial and found to be inadequate for the job. Network Rail were able to restore platform 10 during the day but realised that platform 11 would still be out of use during the evening peak period. Because the lack of a platform in the evening peak was known about in advance the problem could be mitigated by pre-planned cancellations and one or two diversions to Victoria. A full service was not resumed until Tuesday morning when all the platforms that should have been in use were in use.

It is clear from the above problem that one of the severe issues that the Thameslink programme has is the lack of time to carry out major engineering works. Obviously in this case they did not have the opportunity to test it by running multiple trains before handing the site back to the operators. Network Rail have learnt their lesson about not assuming that the existing structure can be relied to function properly in the changed circumstances and will take this into account during future changes at London Bridge.

Future disruption for terminating platforms

There will be further engineering works later this year. The good news for those Southern passengers who aren’t continuing their onward journey by catching a SouthEastern or Thameslink train is that by very early January 2015 all the work on the new terminating platforms will be complete.

There will be a complete closure of all the terminating platforms for nine days around in late August 2014 when, amongst other things, two more new platforms (12 and 13) will be brought into use and two further old platforms (10 and 11) taken out of use.

Between Saturday 20th December 2014 and Sunday 4th January 2015, amongst other things, new platforms 10 and 11 will be brought into use. This will complete the rebuilding of the terminating platforms and the remaining terminating platforms (8 and 9) will be taken out of use and form part of the site for commencement of reconstruction of the through platforms which, amongst other things, involves three new through platforms being added.

As we have come to expect, Unravelled has a fine collection of photos recording the work at being done at London Bridge. The most recent ones are here and some older ones are here.

Written by Pedantic of Purley