A Study In Sussex Part 8: If You Bridge It They Will Come
In our journey down the Brighton Main Line our last encounter was East Croydon. Instead of continuing southwards we remain at East Croydon and devote an entire article to something that at first glance might seem less than overwhelming – the new station footbridge. Footbridges don’t normally merit sufficient significance to be worthy of an article but this one is an exception.
In many ways this article complements the previous one in this series which was also about East Croydon. The footbridge is important because it is a vital part of the upgrade of the station – and therefore the Brighton Main Line as well. It is also a potentially significant part of the regeneration of Croydon. I would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that the regeneration of area is being built around the footbridge and the route from it to the centre of the shopping area.
It is somewhat tempting to say that the East Croydon footbridge is the mother of all railway footbridges, but in truth that accolade probably deserves to go to the footbridge at Reading. Nevertheless the new footbridge at East Croydon station is exceptionally wide and is much longer that one would generally expect from one that currently serves just three island platforms. We need to look into its history and future intended purpose to understand why East Croydon station has acquired such a behemoth.
The need for a new footbridge
When it was opened East Croydon only had one entrance. This was at the south end of the station on the road overbridge. By the end of the last century, however, increasing levels of passenger traffic resulted in the traditional station buildings being replaced by a very modern structure. The wider passageways which resulted were sufficient for the levels of demand in the 1990s and from the modern booking hall there were, and still are, three quite steep ramps leading to each island platform – technically step-free, but not disabled friendly by any means.
To make interchange between the three island platforms easier there was also, for many years, a subway with ramps up from it to the platforms. The ramps were necessary as they permitted direct access to the platforms from the Royal Mail sorting office next to the station, which had its own subway that linked up with the one belonging to the station. In the days when a lot of mail went by rail the sight of mail sorting bags on trolleys at East Croydon was a regular occurrence.
By the start of 21st century passenger numbers had grown to such an extent that it became clear that neither the entrance nor the subway would remain fit for purpose for much longer. In 2011 a solution to this problem was finally revealed. The proposal was to replace the subway with a footbridge which would of course be wider. To ensure that this major interchange station had user-friendly disabled access the footbridge would also have lifts to each platform. What it wouldn’t have was escalators – or even one escalator per platform. With the benefit of hindsight and modern attitudes this does seem a bit shortsighted given the fact that the stairs are quite challenge for anyone not fully fit.
The height of the resulting overbridge, as with all recent overbridges, has to allow for potential overhead electrification. The stairs each consist of three equal flights of steps with a short flat area between each one. A crude observation when a train is in the platform suggests that without the requirement to allow for the overhead wire only two of the flights would have been necessary.
And the need for a new entrance
An interchange footbridge might solve the problem of the capacity constraint of people interchanging but of course it would do nothing to reduce the capacity constraint on the original station entrance. This is where the benefits came from looking at the bigger picture. Many people were going to Croydon town centre, yet the route via the existing station entrance was needlessly long. By making a direct route available via a new entrance at the end of the footbridge, it was realised that not only would passengers would have a shorter and more pleasant walking route to the shops but this would also, very conveniently, take some of the pressure off the existing entrance.
… and a new platform
Those who have read the previous instalment in this series will be aware of the need for a new platform at East Croydon. Whilst it might seem obvious to build this and the footbridge at the same time, the need for better interchange facilities was too urgent. Especially as long term plans involving new platforms might never come to fruition. In the end it was decided to push ahead with the interchange work, but to do so with passive provision for a new platform in place.
2011 and plans are revealed
Whilst there clearly had been earlier discussions between various interested parties, “stakeholders” as we are now supposed to call them, it was only in 2011 that there was really any public inkling that the game was afoot. In 2011 Croydon Council and Network Rail both published their plans. Curiously they were very different.
Network Rail aims low
In 2011 Network Rail published their Route specification plan for Sussex. In it on page 8 they state:
East Croydon has six platforms and during the peak operates close to theoretical capacity with 36 peak direction services passing through in the high peak hour, 20 Fast line and 16 Slow line. With just three Fast line platforms available at the station, it is clear that even the eventual advent of ERTMS [European Rail Traffic Management System] will leave it difficult to squeeze additional Fast line services through the station.
For this reason the footprint for an additional track and platform has been protected by Network Rail on the Fast line side of the station, and this would need to be allied with an additional track between here and Windmill Bridge Junction and further grade separation at the junction to ensure a significant number of additional paths were created in this area. All of these interventions are outside CP5 timescales as a programme of train lengthening is anticipated to cater for growth in the medium term.
Now this is open to interpretation but note that they only refer to an additional track and platform in the singular. In fact this was the original plan. Incredible though it is to relate, Network Rail were actually thinking of having just one extra side platform to the west of the station. This does seem surprising as even the average commuter with no specialist railway knowledge could work out that having platforms 0 and 1 for up fast services and platforms 2 and 3 for down fast services where platforms 1 and 2 together form an island platform would create massive problems and be hugely unpopular.
Perhaps more surprising still, no reference was given to the issue of how this new platform was going to be accessed. In Network Rail’s eyes this was probably considered to be a minor detail. Possibly, they just thought in terms of extending the existing subway. There certainly didn’t seem to see the need for a major revamp of the station let alone to grasp the opportunity to make the station more easily accessible from the town centre.
Perhaps we push the point too far (the quote did, after all, come out of a route plan document) but the apparent failure of Network Rail to see the bigger picture in instances such as this is, its critics argue, symptomatic of Network Rail’s blinkered vision. It is hard to imagine TfL looking at the same issue and deciding to only do the minimum necessary to solve the immediate operational problem. “Customer Focus” appears to be lacking. To (perhaps mis-)quote Assembly Member Val Shawcross, “the trouble with Network Rail they think they are in the business of running trains when, in fact, they are in the business of moving passengers”.
Unfortunately, Network Rail’s short-termism had a very real impact beyond the page. Expanding the station would require land and theoretically this should not have been a problem as Network Rail owned it. But their plan required less of it than they currently held and they thus internally safeguarded only enough of the site to the west of the station for a single platform. The rest was sold off.
Croydon Council aims high
As mentioned above, Network Rail were not the only body with clear ideas as to what should be done at East Croydon. In March 2011, before the publication of Network Rail’s Route Specification Plan, Croydon Council published their East Croydon Masterplan. This showed East Croydon with eight platforms (four island ones) that would be arranged, very sensibly, as Fast Up (pair), Fast Down (pair), Slow Up (pair), Slow Down (pair). The footbridge was shown in the context of the wider renewal of the town, with a second station entrance leading to the town centre via a new high quality pedestrian route.
The Masterplan didn’t stop at a second entrance. Recognising how much of a barrier the railway was for access from one side of the line to the other, the opportunity was taken to add on an unpaid (public access) area footbridge to the paid area (railway passengers) in order to enable people living on the eastern side of East Croydon to get to the town centre without having to go the long way round by road. This would be especially critical as many high rise tower blocks were planned in the vicinity of the station and a direct route to the town centre would be highly desirable.
The Council plan is chosen
Details of the negotiations between Network Rail and Croydon Council are not in the public domain but it is fairly reasonable to presume that, their eyes opened to the possibilities, Network Rail could now see the advantages of having a new island platform rather than a single side one. Indeed it wouldn’t be surprising if Network Rail had, by then, already come to the same conclusion. Fortunately the lack of additional land for this turned out not to be crucial and probably Network Rail had worked out that, if necessary, they could get an extra island platform in with a bit of reworking of one of the existing platforms. It may well be that, given the price of land around East Croydon, they did the right thing by selling off as much as they dared. Nevertheless it is a sobering thought that, given the extensive railway land that used to exist in central Croydon, Network Rail and its predecessors now have scarcely enough for the station that East Croydon really needs for the immediate future. Selling off land the railway no longer needs is perfectly reasonable, but erring on the side of caution should very much be the norm in working out what “unnecessary” means.
One feature of the council plans that appears not to have subsequently been implemented is the proposed green roof for the platforms awnings. These roofs are currently being upgraded with extensive use of glass which should reduce the slightly dark feel that the platforms currently have – and certainly will have if they become surrounded by high rise buildings.
A costly exercise
It turns out that railway footbridges don’t come cheap by the time one takes into account materials, the difficultly of construction over a live railway and the provision of lifts and ticket gates. Indeed it is fortunate that East Croydon is designed to be able to be operated as half a station during quieter times (either platforms 1,2 and 3 or platforms 4, 5 and 6). This allowed preparatory work to be carried out on Sundays by implementing a slightly reduced timetable. Even so, the generally quoted cost for the footbridge was £20 million. Of this Croydon Council provided £6 million and this is generally regarded as the amount necessary to cover the additional cost of the unpaid area. TfL is reported to have paid £4.4 million towards the cost, though there does not seem to be any obvious reason why they should have had to do so. The rest of the bill was covered by Network Rail.
The bridge to nowhere
The £20 million mentioned not only covers the cost of the bridge itself but, presumably, includes the current steps up to it from the western entrance. The pedestrian route from the nearby road which has been built to a high standard of urban design was provided by the developers of the adjacent sites. The steps down on the eastern side, which have been dubbed “Cherry Orchard Steps”, are due to be completed by a developer of the site to the east of the station. The plans are not clear but it appears that this will only lead to the public access (unpaid area) bridge. Anyone who in future wishes to enter the station from the east will probably need to double back upon reaching the western end of the bridge.
Unfortunately, the developer who will build the Cherry Orchard Steps has no obligation to build these steps and the two linking footpaths prior to completing their development and clearly has no incentive to do so. This is very frustrating for the council. They even explored the option of putting in temporary steps and footpaths in the meantime but a suggested cost of £2 million quickly put them off. As well as the obvious epithet of the bridge to nowhere, the situation, which involves works carried out under the Connected Croydon banner, has, inevitably, been referred to as Unconnected Croydon.
Now and the near future
The railway-side footbridge itself is complete and has been so for well over a year now. Whilst not quite as convenient and direct as the subway, it is hard to see how the subway could have continued to cope with the number of people using East Croydon station. The lifts are very popular yet, as always, there are people who struggle up the steps with suitcases who probably didn’t realise the lifts were there.
The new entrance opened in December 2013 and was an instant success. It is well used. There is no ticket office but that does not appear to be a huge problem. Ultimately there will be a more direct pedestrian route from the new entrance to the original entrance for anyone who cannot, or choses not to, use the ticket machines. The route to the town centre (and hence the new entrance) will probably be even more popular when the shopping centre is redeveloped and a pedestrian crossing installed to enable people to cross the busy Wellesley Road without using the subway – but that is another story for another day.
The ancillary work to transform East Croydon station is not complete but is due to be finished this summer. It mainly involves upgrading the platforms. In due course, as developers get their developments built and become liable to complete their section 106 obligations, the work surrounding the station will also, hopefully, largely be completed.
Provision for the new island platform
When the footbridge was being built it was made clear that provision had been made for the potential future island platform. This is true but slightly misleading. The bridge was actually designed with provision for a future side platform and single extra track. Unfortunately, as it is, it cannot accommodate an extra island platform and two extra tracks. Whilst for most of the length the safeguarded site would appear to have sufficient width that is not the case for all of it. It is by no means certain that funding will be given for the extra island platform but, should that happen, an extra island platform can be fitted in providing the adjacent island platform is shifted along a bit. This, fortunately, can be done as at the most constrained point there is still a larger than necessary gap between the current platforms 2 and 3 where there was once an additional track.
A problem appears if one were to shift the current island platform 1/2 to the east. At best the existing steps and lift will at located too close to the platform edge and at worst actually in the future trackbed. This is not a fundamental problem and the steps and lift can be rebuilt. This will be quite expensive but not much in the context of the other works necessary to have an new island platform and extra track to the north of the station.
One may wonder why the existing platforms were not suitably realigned for provision of a future platform at the same time as when the bridge was built. It is hard to be sure but an obvious reason is that the extra island platform is not yet funded and it may not happen. However, if Gatwick were to acquire an extra runway, it is hard to imagine that the work would not go ahead. Another possible reason for not altering the platform in advance of the bridge construction may be that with all the Thameslink work going on it was felt that this work on top would be just too disruptive. As it is, the work, if it goes ahead, is unlikely to start until the 2020s which is well after the Thameslink Programme will have been completed.
As is obvious from a sequence of diagrams in the Croydon Masterplan document, the practical problem of building the new platforms, modifying one of the existing ones and slewing track over appears to have been considered and a complex plan has evolved to make this possible without too much disruption to passengers. The concept is similar in principle to what happens to the Southeastern lines through London Bridge but is a lot easier to implement when you are increasing, rather than decreasing, the number of working platforms. Unfortunately there is nothing to indicate that these diagrams originated from Network Rail. Maybe they are just the musings of one of the people who put together the East Croydon Masterplan.
The long term future
As many readers know, Network Rail plans are based on five year control periods. The current period up to 2019 is really about the Thameslink Programme as far as this region of Network Rail is concerned. Assuming the money is forthcoming, the next period (2019-2024) will centre on East Croydon and it is then that we may see the extra island platform built. Once that is complete, then the only way that East Croydon station can really expand is downwards. It must be hoped that with two entrances, a wide footbridge and eight platforms a future East Croydon station will be able to handle the passengers using it for many years to come. With East Croydon sorted one can then look at the Brighton Main Line as a whole and see what other capacity improvements can be made.