A Study In Sussex part 13: Norwood Junction
Seemingly illogically, now is the time to look at Norwood Junction and its future importance in enabling an upgrade to the Brighton Main Line. Initially this station was not intended to form part of this series. Only now have we fully understood the critical role played by upgrading Norwood Junction as an essential early part of upgrading the Brighton Main Line.
What’s this got to do with Sussex?
The title of this series seemed to be a sensible one at the time of inception as we looked at how the Brighton Main Line could be upgraded. We would look at the London suburbs but we would also report on significant developments further south that create extra capacity on this vital route. That capacity is generally recognised as being needed as currently this main route is inadequate, capacity-wise, for the needs of the next generation.
It was expected that a lot of the focus would be within the London suburbs. In particular, it was realised that East Croydon and the junctions north of the stations would form the key to the entire line upgrade. What is becoming more apparent is how East Croydon impacts on even more than was initially appreciated by us. This is why, out of sequence, we need to include a look at Norwood Junction.
Norwood Junction not initially seen as a problem
Norwood Junction would not initially seem by us to need to be a vital part of the Brighton Main Line upgrade in its own right and we saw it as something minor that was part of the East Croydon scheme that was happening on the fringe of the area covered. In retrospect, and with more details emerging of Network Rail’s scheme, it seems to make more sense to consider it a separate portion of the entire Brighton Main Line upgrade in its own right.
Norwood Junction has five through lines – basically up and down, slow and fast with an additional down slow line to West Croydon. The station seemed basically fit for purpose as far as providing a train service is concerned and it certainly wasn’t seen as a particular constraint on the whole line.
It is true that there was a long-term desire to provide terminating capacity for local all-stations trains from the north but this didn’t really impact on plans for the Brighton Main Line and wasn’t considered urgent or vital. There was also a slight capacity issue that was caused by some trains on the fast lines making a station stop at Norwood Junction but capacity restrictions elsewhere meant that this was not of particularly great concern.
East Croydon design developments and consequences
The design process for redeveloping the layout at East Croydon appears to be going well. The work for this preliminary phase has been, for the most part, completed and the planning team has gone on to look at the proposed construction sequence.
It is now our understanding that the early reconstruction phase at East Croydon station looks likely to involve a period when there would only be four platforms available there instead of the current six and eventual eight. This is largely because of the need to relocate the westernmost two platforms further north than existing, due to the constrained geometry of the site.
Whilst closing two platforms and doing a London-Bridge-style slew to make best use of the remaining four platforms still open may seem to be an onerous restriction it is not as bad as it first seems. In the up slow direction you effectively currently only have platform 4. On the fast lines platform 2 has only limited capacity due to it being used bi-directionally and in any case there will be some limited opportunities to spread services more evenly between the fast and slow platforms. When a lot of analysis was done it was discovered that the station could work with only four platforms providing there were no terminating trains at East Croydon.
It follows from the last paragraph that before work can start at East Croydon, hopefully around 2020, there must be adequate terminating facilities elsewhere to replace those lost at East Croydon. This can easily be arranged on the Victoria side of the Brighton Main Line by terminating some trains at Selhurst and this can be achieved by installing a crossover on the double track spur leading into the depot. On the London Bridge side there may be some opportunity to terminate additional trains at West Croydon but realistically you need some decent facilities at Norwood Junction. From the south there are trains from Uckfield and elsewhere that currently terminate in service at East Croydon before continuing out of service to Selhurst Depot. Ideally you want to be able to run them to Norwood Junction in service and have sufficient capacity there to terminate the trains without delaying other services.
The implication of all the above is that, if you want to start work at East Croydon in 2020, you need to have an improved layout at Norwood Junction by that date. In fact, this all fits in rather well as the work at East Croydon will probably be subjected to some form of planning process (not necessarily a public inquiry) whereas it it believed that any work necessary at Norwood Junction could be done under permitted development rules and so it could commence much sooner.
Brief Station History
Norwood Junction is a station with a much more interesting history than one might expect. It started off, not on the current site, with the name of “Jolly Sailor” – named after a local pub as there was not much else around. Originally its importance as a passenger station was almost entirely due to it being a multi-junction station. In different directions the next station at various times would be Selhurst, West Croydon, East Croydon, Beckenham Junction, Anerley and Crystal Palace. Nowadays the direct link to Beckenham Junction is gone and the link to Selhurst cannot be done with passengers on the train as it goes through Selhurst Depot.
Various railway books and others write about the Croydon Atmospheric Railway and the world’s first railway flyover at Norwood Junction. Possibly more relevant to today is the rather less famous (probable) world’s first use of reinforced concrete as a tunnel lining. The subway involved – a public one – is still there under the tracks and helps reduce the division of the local community that the railway created.
Depot and former Freight Yard
Apart from the station, there is important Selhurst Train Depot which could have equally well have been called Norwood Junction Train Depot as it is served by spurs from both stations. Lovers of trivia would be interested to know that it is one of very few places on the National Rail network south of the Thames and east of Maidenhead that currently has overhead electrification. This is in the form of a test track for Thameslink stock. The depot also gives away some of the early electrification history of the northern end of the Brighton Line by having a set of siding referred to as the “AC” sidings – which are in fact nowadays DC and have been for the past eighty seven years.
There also used to be a large freight yard which even survived into the TOPS era. Its demise enabled the depot to be expanded but quite a lot of land has disappeared on the other side of the tracks in recent years for housing. Fortunately some railway land has been retained to the east of the running lines.
Station site constraints
To the north the station site is considerably constrained by a low height underbridge notorious for being hit by overheight vehicles including once, embarrassingly, a rail replacement bus. At the other end the restrictive multi-arched Tennison Road overbridge has been replaced in the past few years by a huge structure with plenty of clearance below and little in the way of obstructions to hinder any future layout. In the western direction expansion is hindered by the station and other buildings and in the east by Clifford Road.
A multitude of platforms
The station currently has seven platform faces (more than East Croydon!) and five through tracks. One platform face (platform 7) is clearly signed and maintained but the track is very rusty and overgrown. Platform 2 adjoins a track which is served by platform 1 and is no longer used. Platform island 2/3 is particularly narrow whilst islands 4/5 and 6/7 are not so constricted but they are not generously wide either.
An inspection of the station will give strong clues as to how things were. There was clearly a terminating platform to the north of the station building adjacent to platform 1. Even if it could be reinstated, it is almost certainly too short to fulfil any useful purpose nowadays.
It is also clear that there were originally two tracks between platforms 1 and 2 . The large platform area on platform 1 with the subway entrance set well back is one major clue. Another telling, but not definitive, feature is a very short stub of what is presumably the old line and the presumed original platform face still present. One might think one could safely assume this was never used for passengers in its current state but this is not quite true as on one occasion many years ago, admittedly when the stub was longer than it is today, a DEMU service ran from this stub platform to Selhurst depot as part of an open day there.
Norwood Junction is nowadays a surprisingly busy station with over 6m passenger entries and exits per annum. Its practical catchment area is made bigger by the presence of a second entrance on the east in Clifford Road (generally known as the Woodside entrance) serving a large area that is otherwise generally devoid of a heavy rail service. One might not think this but, it is also a very important station when Crystal Palace play at home with many fans using it in preference to Selhurst.
Since the introduction of the East London Line service to West Croydon and the taking over of the running of the station by London Overground it appears to have surprising number of passengers using the London Overground trains to Canada Water and beyond – despite the trains being all-stations ones. The station is also served by Southern trains. In fact the majority of trains are Southern ones but despite this the station is run by London Overground. This leads to prominent notices about the temporary closure of the Gospel Oak – Barking line whilst more useful information to the average user at this station may be harder to find.
Most Southern trains are stoppers but there are generally 4tph semi-fast trains direct to London Bridge with some calling at New Cross Gate. As these semi-fast trains are run on the fast line they could potentially restrict capacity but it is probably fairer to describe these services as being a timetabling constraint rather than a capacity restraint.
A flawed infrastructure?
Infrastructurewise, Norwood Junction is not the most passenger-friendly station. Since the ending of slam door stock, platform 2 serves no useful operational purpose as trains stopping on the corresponding track have been banned from having doors opened on that side. Nevertheless the passengers on the platform are still exposed to the risks of the platform edge and passing trains. It is rather surprising that no kind of protective barrier has been placed on platform 2 for the safety and convenience of passengers using the adjacent platform 3.
Another quirk of Norwood Junction station are its yellow lines. These have clearly been relocated, sometimes more than once, and have in the past been quite impossible to comply with in places. The disused platform 7 has the obligatory yellow line as does an extension to platform 2 which serves no useful purpose.
Platform extensions at Norwood Junction also defy logic to the layman as the whole approach in recent years appears to be half-hearted. Platform 3 (up fast) in particular seems to be devoid of rationality. The extension at the north end has a very temporary feel and fails to continue as far as it could. Meanwhile, serving no purpose at present is an older extension to platform 2 that appears as if it could be widened to give platform 3 some of the extra length it needs when 12-car trains stop there. At the southern end platform 3 looks as it could be easily extended but this has not been done. Of course, one possible explanation for this is that Network Rail is reluctant to do the work knowing that the station is due to be redeveloped in the next few years.
The station subway
The station has no passenger footbridge. Vital to the functioning of the station is the single internal station subway. One end comes out at platform 1 and the other at the Clifford Road entrance. The only platform that can be reached without using steps down to the subway is plaform 1 – the up slow.
The ambience of the subway has improved considerably since London Overground took over. In fact prior to that the subway and staircases were pretty awful. Any improvements to the width or the height of the subway would be extremely challenging. The design of the subway also effectively prevents any reasonably priced modification of the platform locations or their width. There are already stairs on either side of the subway to each platform island but the restricted width of the platforms prevents the stairs being wider with platforms 2/3 having very constricted access.
Access for All
The biggest criticism generally made about Norwood Junction station is the lack of any disabled access. Apart from anything else this means the station is also not at all buggy-friendly and the stairs are not pleasant to use if they are busy and you have luggage.
The lack of disabled access is particularly concerning as most other stations served by the East London Line are nowadays fully accessible. The other exceptions are generally below-ground-level stations where it would be extremely difficult and costly to provide what is generally known as Access For All. Like at Clapham Junction, at Norwood Junction this is probably more important for the people who are preventing from changing trains here rather than for originating passengers. It is not an easy problem to solve and, as one Network Rail manager said, “the politicians can say what they want but if the platforms are too narrow to accommodate lifts then your options are pretty limited”.
The saga of platform 7
Readers may have been somewhat surprised that platform 7 is in such good condition, clearly potentially useful yet still unused. The history has been a long one and, as is often the case, it is the cost of signalling and the difficulty of finding resources to do the job that lie at the heart of the saga.
The idea of terminating trains at platform 7 really developed when it looked quite likely that Tramlink would be extended to Crystal Palace. The view was held that the trams might take over the remaining heavy rail line from Crystal Palace to Beckenham Junction. Platform 7 at Norwood Junction seemed to be an ideal place to divert the service that terminated at Beckenham Junction. The real advantage was that, by also reinstating a long disused track to the north of the station, the trains could terminate at Norwood Junction and make their way back to Crystal Palace without using any of the existing four tracks of the Brighton Main Line.
Tramlink wasn’t the only reason for the enthusiasm for reinstating platform 7 and it could also be seen that this would allow various other useful options e.g. a train could run in service slow from London Bridge to Norwood Junction then run out of service via Crystal Palace to get back to central London and complete another trip in the evening peak.
The problem with the Norwood Junction turnback scheme was that the signalling was prohibitively expensive. It was recognised that the only way the scheme would be viable would be if it happened when the area was being resignalled anyway – as it will be prior to the resignalling of East Croydon. And so it was that what was originally seen as an easy-to-do cheap upgrade option has been around for ten years waiting for a suitable opportunity to implement it.
A new layout
As can be seen, a new track layout is proposed for Norwood Junction. The idea seems simple and eminently sensible. Lengthen platforms as necessary. Reinstate platform 7. That gives six through tracks which can be split into pairs of fast, semi-fast and slow trains with some flexibility added for situations such as terminating trains, trains needing to access Selhurst Depot or new stabling sidings on the east side of the tracks or near simultaneous arrival of a slow train to West Croydon and East Croydon.
An alternative to the above plan is to actually use platform 1 as the terminating platform but, given the usefulness of this platform being the one platform that can be accessed without using the subway, this would seem less satisfactory as it would lead to increased use of the narrow platform 3.
Onward and Southward
With things dynamically changing it is hard to be sure what will be covered next in this series but the intention is to look at the importance of Stoats Nest Junction just south of Purley and how Network Rail proposes to resolve issues there.
Thanks to ngh for creating the diagrams and other assistance. Thanks also to Network Rail for helping us with our understanding of development to date.