Orbital Links at the Transport Committee

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One in five Londoners now lives within 15 minutes’ walk of a London Overground station.
Orbital Links are examined by the London Assembly Transport Committee.

On the 26th May 2010, the London Assembly Transport Committee chaired by Val Shawcross, welcomed Mike Brown – back after an absence of two years – as Managing Director of London Underground. He briefed them about the recent developments with the PPP agreements for upgrading the London Underground, but more on this in another post soon.

He was followed into the hot seat by Ian Brown, the Managing Director of London Rail, together with London Rail Strategy Boss Geoff Hobbs. Together with a number of informed observers from travellers’ stakeholder groups, they rounded out the players in what turned out to be a most informative session on the subject of Orbital Railways.

Ian Brown and Geoff Hobbs responded not only to issues raised by the committee, but also a cross section of interest groups represented by:

  • Tim Bellenger, Director Research and Development, London TravelWatch;
  • Peter Staveley, Secretary, North Orbital Rail Partnership (NORP);
  • Richard Pout, Secretary, Barking-Gospel Oak Line Users Group;
  • John Stewart of Save the South London Line Group;
  • Mark Balaam, Chair, West London Line Group.

The two purposes of the review were to examine the delivery of improvements to London’s orbital rail network and also make suggestions for any actions the Mayor, TfL and other relevant organisations could take to maximise the benefits from recent improvements and develop the network further.

A Little Bit of Background

TfL is responsible for London’s orbital rail network following the passing of the Railways Act 2005. The network, which consists of five Overground rail lines, links 20 of London’s 33 Boroughs. The five are:

  • The Gospel Oak to Barking line;
  • The North London line (from Richmond to Stratford via Willesden Junction);
  • The West London line (from Willesden Junction to Clapham Junction via Kensington Olympia);
  • The Watford DC line (local services from Euston to Watford Junction);
  • The East London line (from Dalston Junction to West Croydon and Crystal Palace and to Highbury & Islington by February 2011). Phase 2 from Surrey Quays to Clapham Junction is scheduled to open by 2012.

TfL appointed London Overground Rail Operations Ltd (LOROL), a joint venture company between MTR Corporation of Hong Kong and Deutsche Bahn AG of Germany, to manage the network on its behalf under a concession agreement and they are supported by a dedicated TfL team that monitors their work. LOROL is responsible for issues of quality, safety, staffing, and frequency of train service, station facilities and ticketing on the orbital rail network. Network Rail is responsible for the tracks and signalling.

Planning for the Future

The Mayor plans to improve orbital travel in London across different transport modes including Overground rail. Policy 7 of the Mayor’s transport strategy contains various proposals and schemes to help realise improvements to the orbital rail network, reflecting a forecast growth in demand for orbital rail travel.

The proposals relating to orbital rail provide for the Mayor, through TfL and working with other organisations, to:

  • Investigate the feasibility of providing extra capacity to the network (proposal 14)
  • Prioritise improvements to interchange stations to increase orbital travel (proposal 46)
  • Improve information to raise awareness of orbital travel (proposal 115).

The schemes listed for orbital rail are:

  • The current programme of expansion and enhancement of orbital rail services (anticipated completion by 2012); further train lengthening (anticipated completion post 2020)
  • The diversion of Watford Junction services to Stratford instead of Euston to release capacity for High Speed 2 at Euston (anticipated completion post 2020)
  • The electrification of the Barking Gospel Oak line and train lengthening (anticipated completion 2013-2020).

The Mayor’s focus on developing the orbital rail network follows on transport policies developed under Mayor Livingstone described in ‘Transport 2025’, TfL’s long-term vision document published in 2006. This featured the development of the orbital rail network as a means of helping increase capacity and reduces crowding on radial transport routes. It cited the importance of matching the additional capacity created with improvements to service quality. In recent weeks there have been media reports that the Mayor may be awarded new powers to extend his role in suburban Overground rail beyond the orbital rail network. This might lead him to seek improvements to service quality on other rail lines.

Delivering Improvements

The delivery of improvements to the orbital rail network has given rise to various issues. In recent months, some passenger groups have questioned the arrangements put in place for passengers whilst lines on the network are closed for improvement. For example, Friends of Capital Transport suggested that during the recent closure of the North London line there was a failure to compensate with more trains and better frequency of service on the neighbouring Gospel Oak to Barking line. There were also some suggestions that the rail replacement bus services laid on were inadequate. The West London Line Group also raised issues about rail replacement bus services and reported un-coordinated and incomplete information about timings for engineering works on the West London line. TfL recently reported, however, that during the first tranche of closures in 2008 customers were either satisfied or very satisfied with the amount of information they received. In relation to recent closures, a comprehensive communications plan was put in place.

The committee were of the view that some improvements to the network appear to be taking longer to deliver than originally planned. It was suggested that work on the North London line – including resignalling work by Network Rail – was behind schedule, leading to speculation that the costs for improving the line will increase beyond the budgeted £326 million. The work on the North London line needs to be completed before the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games as the North London line is one of 10 lines due to serve the Olympic Park. In 2008, changes to the scope of the North London line project were announced to ensure TfL could deliver improvements on time and to budget.

Electrifying the GOBLIN

There are some long-standing proposals for improvements to the network which have not yet advanced; for example, the electrification of the Gospel Oak to Barking line. This was suggested some years ago and featured in TfL’s publication ‘Transport 2025’ (2006).

Earlier this year, the Mayor reported that TfL was committed to the electrification of the line but that, given its wider benefits (including those for freight operators), it was a matter for national rail planning and funding. The Mayor reported TfL had worked with Network Rail to develop a business case for this proposal and that he had also pursued it with the Secretary of State for Transport. Recently, TfL has reported that the next stage to progress the scheme is a detailed engineering study to develop a full business case. TfL has offered to fund 50 per cent of this study but to date has not found the remaining funding from other sources.

Some East London Line Queries

In relation to the East London line extension, issues have been raised about its benefits for south London given other changes to rail services in this area. In 2007, Network Rail announced that the South London line, operated by Southern between Victoria and London Bridge, would be withdrawn in 2012 to allow for rebuilding of London Bridge station to accommodate more Thameslink services. Network Rail identified that the extension of East London line phase 2 and a new Victoria to Bellingham service would mitigate the adverse impact on passengers but TfL subsequently identified there was only sufficient funding for one of these proposals and the extension of the East London line would provide more benefits. However, TfL has also recognised there could be some gaps in service when South London line is withdrawn and has recently been working with London TravelWatch on a study exploring possible options to mitigate the impact (See John Bull’s article on the outcome of that study).

Many local groups have suggestions for further changes to improve the network. These include more frequent passenger services, more carriages on trains, new stations and better information for passengers.

The West London Line Group would like to see more carriages on trains to increase capacity, platforms extended at six stations including Clapham Junction to accommodate larger trains, and changes to the timetable to improve the service on the West London line. The Group is planning to launch a new campaign, “The West London Line – a crack in the floorboards or a major plank in London’s rail network”, to generate support for further improvements. The Group believes that, if the line is to realise its full potential, there needs to be better cohesion and integration between the organisations involved with the West London line including TfL, London Overground, the Department for Transport, Southern, Network Rail and London Underground.

Rebuilding Victoria

During the final session of the meeting, when the attendees were invited to go off piste, Mark Balaam raised a number of interesting points that bear perhaps greater attention than time permitted.

He raised concerns that the debate over the South London Lines link to Victoria did not allow for the 8 year rebuilding programme that has recently begun at Victoria. He also pointed out that an already congested interchange would be more so during the construction period. He advocated using the West London Line as a relief route, allowing for interchange at West Brompton and Shepherd’s Bush possibly involving the use of the former North Pole depot as stabling and reversing point, [although Willesden might also be a possibility once the Gospel Oak to Barking Line has been integrated into the electric network – Mwm] This is an interesting suggestion and worthy of deeper consideration as to its overall impact on the Overground network. The NLL route already consists of a number of overlapping braided services from Richmond and Clapham Junction to Stratford. Once fully extended, the East London Line will also consist of overlapping braids. Because the reception pressures at Victoria a link from Bellingham to Willesden might be a viable possibility.

The West London Line Groups aspiration also includes the restoration of services from the WCML to Gatwick Airport and even Brighton – in the current climate that may have to be filed but not forgotten in the box marked “long term” until the sclerosis caused by the pinch points on the Brighton Main line are addressed.


The Barking-Gospel Oak Line representative criticised high levels of overcrowding on passenger services due to increased freight services. They also sought clarification as to the funding of the Thameslink electrification over the route from the MML to Haringey –assuming that the depot proposals for Hornsey escape unscathed from Eric Pickle’s DCLG. It would make eminent sense to continue onwards to Barking, avoiding two sets of mobilisation costs, but the prospect of penny-wise yet pound-foolish cost cutting must loom large.

Interchange – Interchange – Interchange

Whilst Tony Blair applied the old rhetorical three card trick of “Education, Education, Education,” a common theme from all of the user representatives was “Interchange, Interchange, and Interchange.”

London TravelWatch’s, Tim Bellenger felt that this was the key issue in making London’s Orbital network truly effective. London TravelWatch believes the public may not know about the options for orbital journeys from existing interchange stations such as Stratford, Hackney Downs & Hackney Central, West Hampstead, Willesden Junction, Clapham Junction and Richmond – particularly if the journey involves using more than one transport operator’s service.

The need to provide for a major new interchange at Old Oak Common between Crossrail, the GWML, the West London Line and Chiltern was also raised. In the past, London TravelWatch has undertaken various studies and lobbied for improvements to individual parts of the network such as the North London line, Gospel Oak to Barking line and West London line, as well as working recently with TfL on the South London line study. Brixton was also raised as a possible interchange. The official response was that much as they would like to add one of South London’s busiest town centres to the London Overground network, the estimated £40million price tag, creating the new link to Brixton was just too expensive. Geoff Hobbs, London Rail strategy boss, was asked if there was a good “cost benefit case” for a stop at Brixton. His response was: “I’m afraid not. “If you want to build in the town centre there are gradients, curves and height and that adds to a lot of cost. “It’s about £40million and that means, in terms of value for money, it’s a hard one to make.” But Mr Hobbs said he would be “happy to build it if finances allowed”. Ian Brown said Brixton was a “key traffic generator” and indicated he discussed the possibility with Lambeth council.

This grass roots consensus on the importance of interchanges is not just a collection of enthusiast’s pipe-dreams. The significance of interchanges is authoritatively demonstrated as a critical success factor in a new book by Paul Mees of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology “Transport for Suburbia”. This book contains a global tour d’ horizon of urban transport policies and seeks to distil why some cities have tackled the question of how to reconcile the issue of public transport not only for the dense central core but also the dispersed suburbs in which the majority of the residents of those cities live. Peter White pointed out in the Bus Seminar in December that 75% of all bus travel occurs outside zone – the burbs do matter.

Paul Mees neatly sums up the secret ingredient that distinguishes success and failure:

Success in urban public transport is not really about technology: Vancouver, the Toronto transit Authority and London use much the same technologies as Los Angeles, Auckland and Manchester. The difference is that the successful cities have deployed these technologies as networks designed to minimise the inconvenience associated with the necessary walking, waiting and transferring.

Mee cites Zurich as his benchmark city that others should emulate because the city has driven the concept of the Interchange right out into suburbia. The nature of the TfL model for contracting both bus and rail services where it acts as a decider but not necessarily as a provider, provides a platform denied to the rest of the United Kingdom where privatised bus and rail companies act at a local level as both deciders and providers and see each other as competitors and not collaborators.

Tim Bellenger made one final point to the committee that it was important for London to take note of the implications of developments outside London such as the developments of expanded ports at Harwich, Felixstowe and Thames Haven. He pointed out that in many case the only way to create headroom on London’s orbital links such the North London and the GOBLIN routes was to divert traffic that did not need to transit London via other routes. He advocated the Mayor taking a robust stance in terms of supporting such projects as the Felixstowe to Nuneaton rail upgrade. Unfortunately, I am sure that because of the limited time remaining, he was unable to mention that the Mayor might also like to pedal off to Redhill to make sure that the planning proposal submitted by Tesco, which remains on the table before the local planning committee, does not block the alignment of a diversionary freight chord, traffic which otherwise would appear on the Brighton Main and West London Lines. (If Tim wasn’t planning to say that then I must apologise for putting words in his mouth).

Recommended Reading:

Transport for Suburbia – beyond the Automobile Age
Author: Paul Mees
Publisher: Earthscan
ISBN: 978-1-84407-740-3

Written by Mwmbwls