“Once again,” the BBC correspondent says wryly to camera, “They – with a capital T – are sorry that we have been troubled. But for once, can the inconvenience have been worthwhile?”
“The Tube is a bit of London’s pride that has been handed down to us.” He continues. “Back in 1863, when London pioneered underground railways, it was properly the wonder and admiration of the world.”
“It still might be,” he says with a smile, “if there weren’t so many of us.”
Given the familiary of the theme it would be easy to assume that the speaker was Tom Edwards, BBC London’s Transport Correspondent. Doing so would, however, be wrong.
They are in fact the words of Douglas “Mac” Hastings, who was speaking about the Victoria line back in 1969.
Today, Monday the 10th of August, is the first day on which the scale of the current closures related to improving the Victoria line will have become apparent to many of the line’s users. For although the 23 day closure of the north-eastern-most section of the line began on the 8th, it is only today that the full force of the disruption for the Victoria’s commuters will be felt.
Given the Victoria line’s status as the busiest line on the network (in terms of passengers versus distance) it thus seems worth spending some time looking at just what is happening, and why it is necessary.
Built for the future
Despite its relative youth (it first took passengers in 1968), work to improve the capacity on the Victoria line has been a pressing need in recent Tube history. This is not because the line was badly built. Far from it. In fact of all London’s lines it can perhaps claim to be the line built with the most forethought. It is certainly true that compromises were made – plans to take the line out further from its current terminus at Walthamstow into Chingford were aborted, for example – but in general serious consideration was given to how to future-proof the track arrangements to support future traffic increases.
This partly explains the almost-unique arrangement of three platforms on one line which can be found at Seven Sisters (North Greenwich on the Jubilee Line is the only other instance of this on the network). We will not dwell too much on precisely why this arrangement exists as we covered the subject back in the Secret Life of Seven Sisters, but suffice to say it is in part a result of some creative thinking to ensure a smooth flow of traffic to the line’s depot at Northumberland Park.
That the Victoria line was built with the future in mind is no coincidence. After all, the line itself was arguably the first to be built solely for the purpose of relieving capacity issues on the existing transport network – hence Mac Hasting’s comments on the subject back in 1969. To not assume that the cycle of overcrowding and improvement would need to be repeated at some point in the future would have been remiss.
Whatever the reasoning, this has helped ensure that of all London’s lines the Victoria has seen the smoothest process of capacity upgrades in recent years. There were early issues with the 2009 Stock certainly but, media hyperbole aside, these were as much a consequence of the Bathtub Curve as anything else. In the end the full introduction of the 2009 along with associated signalling works meant that by the time the Olympics arrived in London in 2012, an impressive 30 trains per hour (tph) were running on much of the Victoria line during peak hours. That’s a train every two minutes.
If you build coffee shops, they will come
The key word in the previous paragraph, however, is “much.” Indeed it is the word that explains the need for the current works. For demand at the north-eastern end of the Victoria line, which was always predicted to increase, has arguably done so even faster than expected thanks to what could perhaps somewhat facetiously be described as the “hipster diaspora.”
This has seen demand for homes (both to buy and to rent) explode in E17, first as economic exiles from Hackney were driven further eastwards and now as Walthamstow itself becomes a focal point for gentrification.
Unfortunately it is this north-eastern end that lies outside the “much.” For it is currently impossible to run more than 24tph trains beyond Seven Sisters itself.
Sweating the marginals
We touched on the broader reasons for this back in 2012 in A Brief History of Sidings. Ultimately there comes a point where capacity improvements stop being about obvious things, such as the quantity and quality of trains (and the signalling they use), and starts being about lots of smaller physical or logistical pinch points.
Getting drivers in the right place at the right time, for example, becomes increasingly difficult as frequencies increase. Because there inevitably comes a point where the gap between trains is less than the time it takes to walk the length of the platform. This is not a problem for passengers, obviously, who can board at any point, but it instantly means that the same driver who brought the train in cannot take it out again. Thus a level of logistical complexity is increased to staff rostering that didn’t exist before.
There are other, more physical limitations. One of the reasons for the extensive works underway at Victoria, for example, is because as train frequency increases so does the speed at which you need to move alighting passengers off of the platforms (this is also why regular commuters often ignore the signage at Kings Cross – it is focused on getting infrequent travellers away from the platform areas quickly, rather than pointing regular passengers towards quick interchanges).
This current Victoria line closure is also aimed at addressing a particular physical constraint – the Walthamstow Crossover. It is here that that northbound trains transfer to the southbound line for their return journey, but the current points layout restricts the speed and frequency with which this can take place – hence the 24tph limit.
The need for block closures
There is additional work, certainly, that is taking place at the same time – work to remove the current ticket hall, for example at sub-surface level, but to large degree this is opportunistic. If the station must be completely closed, then it would be silly not to take advantage of that closure for other work. Ultimately it is the Walthamstow Crossover work that matters, and which is the reason this work could not be carried out in smaller chunks overnight.
Complete (or “block”) closures are something that most railways obviously try and avoid but here the nature of points work rendered it essentially unavoidable. For replacing the points means pulling up rails, breaking up the underlying concrete track bed and then putting it all back again, all within a confined space. Not only is this complex, time-consuming, disruptive work – for a comparable home experience, try assembling a full-height flat-pack shelf unit in a downstairs washroom – but it also involves the re-pouring of the concrete bed on which everything else sits. This, inevitably, requires time to set.
Ripples of disruption
That the closure is necessary, of course, does not make the consequences any easier for those affected – and that is a considerable number of commuters. Indeed it is not just Victoria line users that are affected. Walthamstow Central sits on the most recently acquired section of the London Overground network, as well as other rail services into London Liverpool Street.
On the surface, this would seem to be an advantage – an instant alternative option for those displaced from the Victoria line. The problem, however, is that these services themselves are already near-capacity in the peaks. Indeed during particular periods of heavy usage the only reason capacity exists at Walthamstow Central is because passengers from further up the line alight in order to interchange there with the Underground.
It is for this reason that the alternative timetabling arrangements being put in place indicate that a considerable number of services into Liverpool Street will no longer stop at stations after Walthamstow Central – or that if they do (such as at St James Street), those stations will be exit only. The fact is that throughout the disruption the capacity at those stations simply isn’t going to exist, and thus it is better to simply channel all passengers to Walthamstow Central itself (or, at Clapton, to nearby Rectory Road on the Enfield branch) and regulate all traffic there.
A similar situation exists on the other branch of the Overground in the area – the Gospel Oak to Barking Line which stops at Walthamstow Queens Road. Again this is a line already at capacity, and even if it wasn’t the closure of Walthamstow Central car park for the duration of the work means that the (relatively) new cut-through allowing interchange between the two stations is no longer available.
All this means the arrangements made by TfL to help people travel during the closures are inherently complex. On the roads an array of additional buses to Stratford, a temporary express bus service and a traditional rail replacement bus service. On rails, changes to timetables and train lengths for a host of services (details of all of this can be found on TfL’s website).
Whilst the effort to provide such an extensive range of alternatives is certainly a positive thing, there is no escaping the fact that this is all an attempt to make the best of an inevitably bad situation for travellers both from the stations immediately affected on the Victoria line itself and those at surrounding stations caught in the ripples of disruption.
The complex nature of the relief effort also brings its own problems in terms of informing passengers of their alternative options. It is certainly not possible to argue that TfL haven’t gone above and beyond to try and warn passengers as to what was coming. The first public press release went out as early as February, and since then a steady stream of posters, leaflets, emails and train announcements have followed.
What has been less clear until now, however, has been the exact nature of the alleviating measures, as well as just which stations will close and which services will change. Even those commuters inclined to think ahead, therefore, are likely to have had limited opportunity to fully plan their own personal alternative journey, and this will inevitably lead to a huge challenge for the staff on the ground this week.
Just how well those staff handle the inevitable hordes of confused travellers will likely define the public (and media) perception of this closure as the engineering itself. For it is hard to argue that the work isn’t worthwhile. The ultimate consequence of this work will be a Tube line capable of running an incredible 36tph during peak hours in 2016 – or a train every 100 seconds. That’ll be a service which few metro lines worldwide can rival and will arguably represent the maximum that can be squeezed onto the line.
In the words of Mac Hastings again:
“To keep up with the modern world, London could not have produced anything better than this… we are for the future. And if we can’t live with it, we are for the past.”
This is undoubtedly as true for Victoria line works now as it was in 1969, albeit with one caveat:- TfL would do well to remember that for many commuters the present is going to be very tough indeed, and mitigating that situation is going to be no small feat.
How They Dug The Victoria Line, presented by Mac Hastings, can be viewed in its entirety on BBC iPlayer as part of BBC4 Collections. It is well worth watching.