Off-peak on the London Overground and the DLR

We recently looked at the off-peak service on the eastern Crossrail branches. We have also seen what future plans there are for the off-peak service on London Underground, which to a certain extent did not show Crossrail off-peak services in a good light. It would be somewhat unfair to rely solely on the Underground off-peak to determine what one would expect on Crossrail, however, so for the sake of completeness we now extend our look to London Overground and the DLR.

In many ways, a look at London Overground provides a fairer comparison for Crossrail because it is only then that we start to encounter the issues of running a service on the National Rail network. Similarly whilst the DLR does not have much physically in common with the Crossrail, it does operate in a similar geographical area and both will serve Canary Wharf, Stratford and Canning Town and Woolwich. This too gives us some clues as to what we might expect.

The London Overground example

Although London Underground does share the national rail network in a very limited way, in practice it only has to share it with London Overground and both are overseen by TfL. The converse however is certainly not true and looking at London Overground demonstrates clearly the potential limitations of running an off-peak service over national rail metals.

GOBlin timetable

London Overground timetable. Timetables don’t get much simpler than this, although it is a pity that departure time on Sunday are unrelated to the Monday-Saturday times.

A feature of recent years has been how much the off-peak train service has improved – both on national rail in general and more particularly on TfL services. On London Overground the peak and the off-peak services are now often identical except for a short period very late at night. Within London Overground the core of the East London Line, with its 16tph all day service, stands out as impressive given that it is entirely in Zone 2, Shoreditch High St excepted (a station only in Zone 1 because a funding agreement required it to be, somewhat artificially, placed there).

The off-peak service on London Overground is less impressive, however, if you take into account that TfL are more-or-less running all the trains they can in the potential slots available to them. So really, on this basis, it is not the off-peak that is so good, but the peak that is so bad. This is not helped by the infrastructure limitations on train length. If it were possible to double the length of trains in the peak that would go a long way to resolving any crowding problems.

The case of the East London Line having as good a service off-peak (even on Sundays) as in the peak is exceptional but certainly not unique. It does cause one potential complication though. It can become very difficult to find time to maintain stock. This can, of course, be done at night but this is naturally a more expensive approach and it is harder to attract staff to work night shifts. The alternative would be to purchase extra trains to cater for this, allowing the rolling stock to be rotated. The problem with the latter idea is that it means the cost of providing the off-peak service is no longer entirely marginal and no longer entirely based on utilising existing assets that would otherwise be doing nothing.

Who pays?

When considering what is a reasonable service provision it is important to realise that on London Overground the DfT largely only pays TfL for the service level agreed by both sides many years ago. This will almost certainly be based on a “Silverlink” level of service as run by London Overground’s North London Line and the level of service formerly operated on the East London Line by London Underground.

The extra cost of enhancing the London Overground off-peak service to current levels is almost certainly funded, or at least underwritten, by TfL. The reason that TfL chooses to do this is because the marginal cost of running these extra trains is clearly justified in TfL’s, and ultimately the mayor’s, view because of the social and economic benefits to London. Indeed, the mayor is obliged to take this into account when determining the service level provided.

It’s the freight issue again

In our look at the off-peak planned service on Crossrail we saw how freight paths, whether used or not, prevented a frequent even-interval off-peak timetable being run. London Overground also provides us with a good example of why it isn’t always possible to provide the off-peak service that one would like. In peak hours along the North London Line there are an impressive 8tph which are evenly spaced. Come the off-peak, this, in contrast to most of London Overground, drops down to 6tph and the pattern is almost, but not quite, evenly spaced. The reason for this is because of the need to allow freight to use the North London Line outside peak periods. Whilst most people would agree that putting freight onto the railways in the off-peak is a good idea, it does play havoc with any attempt to run a decent “turn up and go” passenger service on the North London Line.

It should not be forgotten that freight tends not to stick to scheduled timings as rigorously as passenger trains and so has the potential to delay passenger trains even if, according to the working timetable, they shouldn’t. Worse still, freight train derailments are far from unknown as was experienced not so long ago on the North London Line.

As discussed in the article and comments on the proposed Crossrail off-peak service, a potential solution to the freight problem would be to run freight from east London to the West Coast Main Line via the Gospel Oak – Barking Line (GOBLIN) instead of using the much-in-demand North London Line. This will be more practical in future when GOBLIN is electrified and all the weight restrictions along the route are removed, but it remains to be seen whether or not the will from all parties involved can be found to push through the actual implementation of routeing freight via GOBLIN and freeing off the North London Line for exclusive use by passenger traffic.

Of course any freight rerouting, were it to occur, would potentially impact on the GOBLIN passenger service. There is some flexibility here, however, as the passenger service only runs every quarter of an hour giving plenty of opportunity for a freight train to be pathed between the off-peak passenger services. Any reasonably foreseeable off-peak capacity issues on the GOBLIN passenger service could be dealt with by diverting resources to running longer trains if necessary rather than increasing the frequency. Should it come to that, it would not be an ideal solution from a passenger perspective but it may represent a somewhat inevitable compromise.

If nothing else, these issues go to show how TfL and ultimately the mayor really need to get involved with freight. Few people would wish to see freight pushed off the railways and from that national interest point of view it makes sense to sacrifice a few off-peak passenger services in London in order that freight can be removed from the roads over a substantial part of the country. Nevertheless one suspects there must be some opportunity for “wiggle room” and a more co-operative approach all round.

DLR peak and off-peak routes

DLR frequencies Mon-Fri

Thanks to a comment by Diamond Geezer this frequency guide can be found here on the old TfL site. The times quoted for not stopping at West India Quay southbound appear to be incorrect.
At weekends it is every 10 minutes on the five off-peak routes (every 5 minutes Bank to Lewisham during the daytime).

The DLR has many quirks and one of them is the strange nature of its individual routes and when they operate. Two features in particular stand out. The first is that the service from Stratford to Canary Wharf has every other train extended to Lewisham in the morning peak period only. The second is that the service from Stratford International to Canning Town continues to Woolwich Arsenal in the peak period, but runs to Beckton at other times. This leads to the unusual situation that, when combined with the Tower Gateway – Beckton service, the Beckton Branch has a train every eight minutes in the peak hours but every five minutes off-peak. The reason for this seems to be that it is essential to run a better service on the Woolwich branch in the peak hours because of the large peak-only demand from commuters working at Canary Wharf who change from a SouthEastern train at Woolwich Arsenal. In the peak hours the service is effectively doubled though the additional trains do involve a change at Cannng Town to reach either Canary Wharf or Bank. Off-peak the best use these trains can be put to is to improve the service on the Beckton branch which is more buoyant during the day.

DLR

The DLR routes. The Stratford International – Beckton route (brown) only runs in off-peak hours. The Stratford International – Woolwich Arsenal route (red) only runs in peak hours. The route from Stratford to Canary Wharf is extended to Lewisham in the morning peak only.

Off-peak on the DLR

If we ignore for the moment the Stratford – Canary Wharf service as it is a special case, there is a very distinctive pattern that emerges on the DLR. For routes that operate both in the peak and the off-peak it is the case that if the peak hour service is every 4 minutes, then the off-peak service is every 5 minutes and if the peak hour service is every 8 minutes, then the off-peak service is every 10 minutes. Or putting it simply:- the off-peak service is 80% of the peak hour service.

The main and busiest route of the DLR is the Bank – Lewisham service that runs every 4 minutes in the peak period. The main constraint to running more trains is the capacity limitations at Bank caused by restricted passageways, platform width and solitary one-train-long shunt neck. As the peak station capacity appears to have been reached it would seem that there is no possibility of an improved peak service until 2020 when the Bank Station upgrade may make it possible to improve the frequency although this has never been mentioned.

The DLR seems to have reached the situation where on certain lines no more trains can be run in the peak and there is healthy off-peak usage. As on the London Underground one has to pose the question of whether it is desirable (or even possible) in the meantime to increase the off-peak service to the same level as the peak service. Unlike self-contained deep-level tube lines, most parts of the DLR operate as an integrated system and it may well be the that if you cannot justify a case for the entire network then one can’t make a case for an individual service.

The special case of the Stratford – Canary Wharf service

The Stratford – Canary Wharf DLR service is worth looking at in detail due to quirks and anomalies with this route. It is also the only DLR route where we can expect any change in service to occur in the near future. During the off-peak this route finds mixed and varied usage involving a lot of boarding and alighting at intermediate stations. During peak hours it consists almost exclusively of people travelling between Stratford and Canary Wharf with very few passengers using intermediate stations. This is despite the fact that for the Stratford – Canary Wharf service there is the alternative in the form of the Jubilee Line.

The trains on the Stratford – Canary Wharf in the peak period are a mix of 2-car and 3-car trains, which is most unsatisfactory. It is the DLR’s aim to achieve an exceptionally high fleet availability, even higher than it already is, in order that this service can consist entirely of 3-car trains. This would appear to be very challenging and the reality is that the DLR will probably have to wait until such time that more trains would need to be ordered for some other reason.

The lack of trains isn’t the only restricting factor on the Stratford – Canary Wharf service. The line has the advantage of being totally segregated in operation from all other DLR lines but the disadvantage of having two quite long single track sections. These are between Bow Church and Pudding Mill Lane stations and between Pudding Mill Lane and Stratford stations. By “the spring of 2014” a new relocated replacement station should open at Pudding Mill Lane as part of work needed for Crossrail. As part of that work the diverted trackbed, which is actually on a viaduct, has been built with the intention of double tracking in the future – although Crossrail’s obligation only extends to reinstating a single track on this double-track viaduct.

TfL have paid to have some of the new route that Crossrail has installed laid as double track from the outset. This was calculated as being much cheaper than doubling the track at a later date, as well as having the advantage of increasing service reliability now. So the section from the A12 (midway between Bow Church station and Pudding Mill Lane station) to the Waterworks River (midway between Pudding Mill Lane station and Stratford station) will be double track from this spring. Engineering work will take place between 18th – 27th April (so including a weekday closure) and the line will be closed between Bow Church and Stratford in order that the diverted track can be commissioned and implemented as double track from its inception.

The rather confusing press release suggests that an immediate improvement in capacity of 500 passengers per hour per direction will be possible, which is probably due to being able to optimise where the trains cross – currently they are forced to cross at Pudding Mill Lane station. Currently trains run every 6 minutes both peak and off-peak on Monday-Fridays. The implication is that after the spring of 2014 they could run slightly more frequently than that whilst still using the same number of trains. As is often the case it is unclear whether this will only apply to the peak period or to the off-peak service as well.

Future trains to improve frequencies?

Until such time as new trains are ordered, for which there are no current proposals, it would appear that the peak and off-peak service for Monday to Friday on the Stratford – Canary Wharf route will be identical to now (or at least almost identical). The weekend service is, exceptionally for the DLR, less frequent and is probably due to reduced demand to serve Canary Wharf at weekends.

TfL have not suggested any potential future date for a significant improvement in service between Canary Wharf and Stratford. This is partly down to the money not being there. It is also believed to be because the DLR has recognised that the best approach for the future is to add sections to the newer single articulated cars in order to make a full length walk through train in a similar manner to London Overground. In order to make this worthwhile the DLR needs to get to the point where in can interest a manufacturer in a sufficiently large order to justify setting up a production run, so future small orders of DLR carriages would not be encouraged.

A consequence of the lack of any future train order being on the horizon is that it seems highly unlikely that the service on any of the DLR routes is going to improve any time soon, even though the demand is probably there and there are opportunities for new routes (e.g. Woolwich Arsenal – Canary Wharf). So the DLR is going to remain, for the foreseeable future, a network where the off-peak service is going to generally be almost as good as the peak services and at some stations better.

The story so far

Some non-rigorous observations concerning the London Underground, the London Overground and the DLR would initially suggest that one would expect an off-peak service on Crossrail to almost match the peak service. It does seem that when Crossrail does open its Eastern Branches many members of the travelling public are going to be disappointed by the off-peak service that will probably not be as good as their expectations.

Written by Pedantic of Purley