The Shape of London’s Rail Network – a Peek Into The Past


The recently published RUS for London and the SE makes it clear that significant new investment is required to meet expected travel demand in the next few decades, and this is in addition to the major investment in Thameslink and Crossrail. TfL also emphasise this in their Recommendations for HLOS2, particularly on the capacity required on the orbital routes, which are the hubs of their burgeoning Overground empire. TfL’s vision is a network of strategic interchanges linked by these orbital lines, and this is a potentially significant re-shaping of the network that we shall explore in a following post.

London's Strategic Interchanges (MTS 2010)

London’s Strategic Interchanges (MTS 2010)

Along with Crossrail 2 (nee Chelney) and HS2, are we looking at a railway renaissance in London? It is hard to resist the temptation to reach for a map and a pencil, and before you know it London is laced with a tangle of new routes to meet every wish and whim. Pity the poor lot of the transport strategist, trying to make some sense of it all, feeling their way through the byzantine governance arrangements and finding a way of making it pay.

Perhaps it would be timely to take a peek back in time at a couple of historic decision points which have shaped London’s rail network and, learning from this, reflect upon our future legacy. What should the London rail network in 2030 look like?

What the network looks like now is a ring of termini serving interlaced radial routes. Back in the breathless days of railway mania, fuelled by seemingly limitless private capital, the railway companies were fighting for territory and markets. In London this first came to a head in 1846, when there were no fewer than 19 proposals involving lines into central London. Sensing there may be political fallout from swathes of central London disappearing under railways, the government set up a Royal Commission on Metropolitan Railway Termini. This decreed that no further railways could be built in the city itself. The fear was that London was already overcrowded and more travellers emptying from trains would bring the capital to a standstill.

The Commission's Limits

The Commission’s Limits

Although not legally binding, the restricted area set by Commission (above) established a quasi planning framework which largely endured and kept the railways at bay. The Commission did sanction Waterloo, and in the 1860s lines crept just over the river to Charing Cross, Ludgate Hill and Cannon St. Otherwise, the core of London remained unscathed by rail. Essentially, the Commission established the shape of the London mainline rail network.

Although an understandable response at the time, this route pattern is not a legacy that is well-suited to the modern metro. As many LR readers will be aware, operating trains in and out of a terminus is inherently less efficient than a through service. A 24tph Crossrail service needs only two through platforms at each of multiple destinations, but a 24tph terminating service will require several platforms at a single destination, with more crossing movements and longer stock layover times.

The Network in 1889

The Network in 1889 (source)

None of this would have been a problem if the railways hadn’t been so successful in generating traffic. But they were and, as a result, the suburbs boomed and the population of the city centre declined. And London grew, and grew.

Expanding London

Expanding London (Barker, T.C., Robbins, M., A History of London Transport, 1974)

The often grand stations in the inner suburbs were testament to this initial boom, but paradoxically the demand for fast services from the outer suburbs and beyond contributed to a decline of the inner suburbs. As more trains were rushed through, the inner London local services were reduced and stations closed. This was one of the factors that contributed to inner city decline, and this further concentrated the city core by creating a ‘ring of deprivation’ which discouraged commercial expansion from the city core.

The population of the London metropolitan area is now over 12 million. As services have become faster, commuters are now travelling from much further afield. The London travel-to-work area is now huge, but these trains still concentrate on essentially the same core as 150 years ago. Perhaps it’s time to grow the core?

London's Economic Relationship with the SE (MTS 2010)

London’s Economic Relationship with the SE (MTS 2010)

If one assumes that the fixed infrastructure of heavy rail has helped to create and maintain travel patterns, then it is not much of a leap to propose that new rail infrastructure could help create new travel patterns that are not concentrated on the city core. This is something we will return to in a following post.

The second historic decision point that has left a problematic legacy is that of the tubes, and in particular how big they should be. The decision in 1892 that new tube lines should be a standard 12’ diameter rather than to a mainline gauge of 18’ diameter has had a lasting effect.

Interestingly, this decision (by the Select Committee on Electric and Cable Railways, appointed to report on the schemes seeking Parliamentary approval in 1892) was a victory for the tube railway operators. They argued that mainline and metro systems were operationally distinct and should be kept separate. Countering this, the newly formed London County Council pushed for a more strategic approach, which would support London’s growth and also factor in social equity issues, such as cheap fares for workers. They argued for 16’ tunnels and connectivity, so that the lines proposed (in 1892) and those conceived in the future could easily become part of an established network.

The general consensus for some time has been that this lesson is learned: build new cross-city tubes to mainline standard. Most commentators assume that Crossrail 2 (Chelney) would be to mainline standard, although it is less clear whether it will be a limited-stop RER-type route or a more intensive inner suburban metro service.

It is also clear, however, that new mainline gauge tubes across central London are expensive, and the more we have the deeper they need go. The stations, which are the most expensive components, thus become prohibitively expensive, even assuming it is possible to engineer them at all. At some point we will be up against practical limits as to how much we want to tunnel across the central core and, learning from the discussions of 1846, we might want to reconsider just how many people we want to squeeze into this central core.

But we still have lots of narrow tube lines, and our recent post on extensions raises the question of what the purpose of these lines should be, and how they could be reconfigured for maximum efficiency and capacity as part of the network as a whole. The proposed extension of a tube line still tends to be dogged by discussion on whether the favoured route should be tube or retained for mainline services, for example the on-going discussion over the ‘Hakerloo’ ? the proposed Bakerloo extension to the Hayes branch. There is also little agreement with what to do with the odds and ends, such as the Waterloo & City, or the long section of Jubilee Line through Charing Cross abandoned when the Jubilee was pushed south through Westminster. Should this be bored out to the even larger 6m standard diameter for a DLR extension west from Bank, for example?

The discussion serves to remind us that, just as in 1892, standards matter. The wrong decision leaves a long-lasting legacy, and absence of a coherent overview can leave future transport planners with a plethora of systems and standards that present significant investment and management challenges.

Why is all this significant now? Perhaps it feels a touch pointless, decadent even, looking back at the past for pointers to the future. Given the major investment in new rail infrastructure in London currently being considered, however, a consideration of how London has been shaped by its past is one way of reframing the discussion, and may help answer the question: “where next?”

Written by Lemmo