Peeling the Orange: Usage Stats on the London Overground


Last month’s Rail and Underground panel featured an interesting short report that broke down London Overground usage and ridership. It included a look at the East London Line figures since its reopening.

We looked in some detail at the Overground back in the summer, with a short series exploring both its past and its future. Nonetheless, the report presented to the Panel is worth spending some time on, as it provides an interesting insight into some of the numbers (and passengers) behind the various lines that make up the Overground. Beyond this it also gives us a further idea as to what the future may hold for London’s Orbital, particularly when taken alongside the excellent London Extensions Special in this month’s issue of Modern Railways.

An East London Numbers Game

Before looking to the future, however, we should look at the past – the recent numbers on the Overground. Here, the headline figure is clear – and it’s one that TfL have not been afraid so far to trumpet: the East London Line now carries 0.6m passengers per week. According to the report, that’s 3.5 times as many as the pre-closure ELL and indeed double the volume of usage in June 2010.

Of course it’s worth remembering that the original ELL was a much smaller beast. When it closed in 2007 it was operating between Whitechapel and New Cross/New Cross Gate, having been shortened back from Shoreditch in 2006. That year, it carried 9m passengers. Today, the ELL runs from Highbury & Islington in the North down to New Cross, Crystal Palace and West Croydon. It carried 16m passengers in the year up to May 2011 and is on course to carry 38m passengers in 2011/2012. Much of that increase is down to the ELL Extension. According to the report, 23m passengers have travelled on the extension so far, with demand having doubled since its opening.

Indeed the breakdown of journeys and destinations on the ELL makes interesting reading. Canada Water (30,000 passengers a day) and Whitechapel (15,000 a day) lead the passenger figures, with Highbury & Islington and New Cross Gate just behind Whitechapel on 12,000 passengers. The implications are clear: the ELL has become a path to interchange with other services – particularly the Jubilee – and a key service for commuters who now make up 60% of passengers, which is comparible to London Underground. That can clearly be seen in the graph below:

ELL Average Passengers

ELL Average Passenger Numbers

It’s also interesting to look at how demand at key stations on the core has changed in comparison with 2007. Again, it’s the interchanges that have seen traffic climb most quickly. The section of line between Canada Water and New Cross Gate is now the most used section of the line, with 50,000 passengers a day using it in both directions.

ELL Demand: 2007 vs 2011

ELL Demand: 2007 vs 2011

Switching Modes

The report also includes a look at precisely where the new ELL appears to have extracted its passengers from.

Modes Used before the ELL Reopened

Modes Used before the ELL Reopened

As can be seen above, the largest switch has been from the rail network at the southern end of the line. What’s interesting to note, however, is that almost 10% of the ELL’s new passengers have switched from using cars. The switch from buses – mostly at the northern end of the line between Dalston and Highbury & Islington – is also notable, and it seems likely that we’ll likely see a review of London Bus services there as a result.

Widening the Scope

Moving beyond the ELL’s numbers, the report also provides a nice overview of how demand has changed on the rest of the Overground network. The graph below shows just how striking this growth is, even if the ELL’s reopening is excluded.

Growth in Overground Demand

Growth in Overground Demand

Since 2009, demand on the Overground network (excluding the ELL) has increased by an average of 1.5 million journeys per month, with – as we saw above – the ELL continuing to add to that trend. Passenger volumes are now two and a half times what they were when Silverlink held the Franchise, with demand increasing over 80%.

The report includes a waterfall diagram that, based on survey responses, attempts to show what the primary motivators have been for new passengers during this period.

Overground Growth Drivers

Overground Growth Drivers

As can be seen, they seem to demonstrate that the general increased demand for rail travel in London and the South East is only a small part of the story – just as important have been the three basic principles on which the original Overground principle was pitched. This was that a good metro service should be clean, reliable and frequent – get that right and the passengers will follow.

Indeed it’s the frequency improvements that seem to have had the most impact. This is largely due to the fact that all the Overground lines now (at the very least in peaks) have broken through the magical “turn up and go” point – a service every 15mins. Past this point, passenger confidence and usage increases as users start treating the service as a regular metro and, to a certain extent, stop being too worried about catching particular services or checking the timetable.

The emphasis on maintaining this service level is perhaps no surprise, as current RfL COO Howard Smith (London’s Prince of Orange, if you will pardon the pub) is a confessed proponent of the importance of service frequency and reliability, particularly in relation to service growth and the positive impact rail can have on an area.

“For some reason it doesn’t matter if an area has buses every two minutes,” He commented on the subject when we visited the ELLX2 site back in July, “People still feel disconnected – as if that service could be taken away at any time. Stick some track down and put a train on it every 15 minutes though and they’ll start using it.”

“There’s something special about the Permanent Way that feels so… well… permanent.”

Who Do We Think They Are

As with the ELL, it is also interesting to see where the Overground has generally gained its extra passengers from. Here, even more than on the ELL, it is from the buses that many of the new passengers have come.

Modes Previously Used by Overground Passengers

Modes Previously Used by Overground Passengers

Finally, the report includes a nice pie chart breaking down Overground usage across all lines by journey type.

Reasons For Travelling on the Overground

Reasons For Travelling on the Overground

Worth noting is that the Overground does indeed present a general passenger profile more similar to an Underground Line than a National Rail Line, which – when taken with the average journey distance of 7km – seems to suggest that putting longitudinal seating in the 378s was on balance the correct decision to take. What’s also interesting to note, however, is that it also has, relatively speaking, a higher amount of educational usage than most comparable lines. Given the shift from buses to Overground, this would seem to suggest – as the report notes – that the Overground has become a route well-used by school children. This would help to explain why the line, anecdotally speaking, appears to have a longer rush-hour spread than most other lines (something the report also aludes to, but sadly doesn’t have figures on).

Beating the Crush

All these statistics are important, of course, not just because they seem to demonstrate that the approach taken with the Overground so far has been a success, but also because they highlight that problems of capacity are very likely to occur sooner rather than later.

Indeed the report contains an updated version of the capacity level infographic that TfL submitted as part of their HLOS2 response. We featured that infographic in our previous Overground series, where it highlighted that TfL were anticipating serious overcrowding on the Overground by 2020 on areas in the West, South and North. The infographic in the Rail & Underground Panel report is almost exactly the same, highlighting the same issues of capacity. What’s striking, however, is the date it carries – according to this updated graphic those crush levels are now likely to occur by 2016.

Forecast Overground Passenger Levels in 2016

Forecast Overground Passenger Levels in 2016

RfL and TfL, therefore, clearly can’t afford to sit on their laurels, as overcrowding is certainly not a far-future problem. Indeed as the report notes, North London Line passenger usage is already beginning to approach crush levels again, and the section of the ELL between Canada Water and New Cross Gate is also very busy in the morning peaks.

Luckily, it appears that various initiatives are already being planned here (some of which are covered nicely in this month’s edition of Modern Railways).

The Question of Rolling Stock

Firstly, and most importantly, the process of expanding the 378s to include a fifth car seems now to be accepted as a “must do,” with Howard Smith indicating in Modern Railways that this may happen sometime around 2013/2014. This will no doubt come as good news to the Bombardier works at Derby, were such work would have to take place. It will mean, however, selective door opening at a number of stations. The new staggered platform at Clapham Junction for ELLX2 is being built big enough for 5-car services, but various existing stations aren’t – as can be seen from the graphic below (taken from the HLOS2 response). Perhaps crucially, thanks to the short-sightedness of the Jubilee Line Extension planners (or rather their accountants), one of the stations where SDO would be required is Canada Water.

Platform Lengthening and SDO on the Overground

Platform Lengthening and SDO on the Overground

As it stands, it seems likely that we may see 5-car services, with some platform lengthening and some SDO, on the NLL, WLL, SLL and ELL sooner rather than later, with perhaps the Watford – Euston services remaining 4-car until that process is complete. Moving beyond 5-car 378s will be tricky as they were always designed to be lengthened from 3 to 4, then to 5-cars, but not beyond, and 6-car services would also require further platform works and make SDO at some stations simply impractical. With hindsight this 5-car limitation (on both stock and platform) may seem shortsighted, but it’s worth remembering that when the original suggestion of planning for an eventual 8-car service was ruled out by the Strategic Rail Authority there was little to suggest that the Overground as a whole would prove to be the success it has been. Indeed the costs of the project if the scope had been that large may effectively have prevented it from being carried out at all.

It is, of course, worth remembering that its not just 378s that run on the Overground. 2-car 172s populate the GOBLIN and could, theoretically, be expanded. As Modern Railways rightly points out, however, RfL and TfL face a tricky political issue here in balancing current passenger need with approval for future projects – TfL have long argued for the electrification of the GOBLIN and, pragmatically speaking, the extension of the 172s may be seen in some quarters as an opportunity to delay that from happening even longer.

Service Frequencies

Beyond rolling stock changes, its clear that once again the issue of freight on the NLL is going to be a key battleground moving into 2012 and beyond. Here, there are some potential lights at the end of the tunnel, but we will cover this in a future post more focused on London’s freight issues in general.

There does seem to be some good news, however, for those looking for service increases elsewhere. Smith had suggested back in July that RfL was exploring the possibility of bringing the extra four ELLX2 services in early. The December 2011 timetable has four more paths for services between Highbury & Islington and Clapham Junction on the ELL, but the original plan had been not to introduce these until the end of 2012 when ELLX2 would be completed. Instead, Modern Railways confirms that these will now be introduced from this month onwards as PIXC-busters (Passengers in eXcess of Capacity) during the ELL peak. An additional PIXC-buster is also being planned for the WLL, paths allowing, and RfL are apparently also exploring the possibility of running the “spare” 172 on the GOBLIN as a PIXC-buster as well.

All of the above obviously comes with an associated risk – those extra services require pushing extra units into service thus placing a lot more pressure on the rolling stock maintenance regimes. If they work, however, then passengers will no doubt be grateful.

Summing it all Up

Overall, therefore, the Report presents an interesting insight into just what’s happening on the Overground, as well as a warning as to some major issues that appear to be lurking just round the corner. Five years is practically tomorrow in railway terms, something that politicians and the media often seem to forget. Both RfL and TfL, however, do seem to have at least acknowledged that these problems exist, and thus it is to be hoped that with careful management and expansion the Overground can be nursed well into – and through – a tricky adolescence.

Those who find themselves on – but currently not served – by the existing Lines would do well to note, however, that realistically speaking there seems little practical likelihood of TfL agreeing to have more stations upon them, even if they are currently too polite to explicitly say it. Just as any effort to re-open York Road on the Piccadilly Line is quietly, but firmly, batted aside due to the extra passenger (and timetable) pressure it would place upon the line, similar efforts with regards to Overground stations are likely to have the same result. Surrey Canal Road may now be happening, but the likes of Primrose Hill and St Quintin Park & Wormwood Scrubs will most likely exist only within aspirational developer and council plans, or the pages of local papers, for some time to come.

Written by John Bull
John Bull is the Editor of London Reconnections. A transport journalist and historian, his writing often focuses on the political or strategic challenges facing London's transport network and beyond.