The Shape of London’s Rail Network – A Peek Into The Future


In our previous post on the shape of the London rail network, we looked back at two key decision points which established our infrastructure legacy: the ring of termini that gave rise to the pattern of services which concentrates demand onto the city core, and the narrow 12′ standard for cross-city tube lines.

It’s been hard to break free from this legacy, and to find ways to reshape the London rail network and expand the city core. While the core has largely remained the same as it was in the 1860s, London’s population and travel to work area have grown enormously. As a result, the challenge is to establish new travel patterns that take the pressure off this core.

There are number of infrastructure options:

  1. New and improved orbital services that avoid the need to travel via the core – which may also encourage commercial expansion from the centre and create new travel hubs.
  2. Cross-city mainline services, such as Crossrail and Thameslink. These are inherently more efficient to run, release invaluable capacity at the termini, and offer multiple interchange and destination options. They are, however, very expensive – particularly the stations – and there is a practical limit to how many new lines we can (or would want to) burrow through the city core. This is a subject we’ll return to in a future post.
  3. New capacity on the Underground tube and sub-surface lines ? this is already being implemented through the upgrade plan and, although it is bolstering the network as a whole, it is not altering its shape. Currently, there is no real discernable pattern to the proposed tube extensions: arguably they are simply developer-led (Northern to Battersea) or opportunistic (“Hakerloo“).

So what should be the role of the tube lines in a strategy to reshape the rail network? The limitations of the narrow (12′ diameter) tube lines are now well-recognised. Developing our previous discussion on tube extensions, as the tubes fill to capacity in the centre there may even be a case for ‘over-extended’ tube lines to be cut back, and for some outposts to again be served by mainline services. The tubes could then focus on providing an effective service through the centre, with key interchanges in the inner suburbs.

But we are jumping ahead, so let’s look first at the infrastructure investments that are being outlined in the London and SE Rail Utilisation Strategy (RUS) and how that might help reshape the network.

Into the Land of Railway Acronyms

Over the last few months we have looked at the RUS on line by line basis, and have explored the challenges of providing for growth on the radial routes where there is generally little or no capacity to spare. Type “RUS” into the search box under Archive and up they will come, although some of these discussions may now need updating following the final draft of the RUS released in July.

To those unfamiliar with acronym-laden and seemingly tortuous governance arrangements, the RUS are the building blocks of the rail Industry Initial Plan (published on 29 Sept), which informs the DfT’s High Level Output Specification (HLOS) process. The HLOS defines what the government requires from Network Rail’s infrastructure in its next control period (Control Period 5, or CP5, 2014 – 2019) and what is expected of the train service operators. HLOS2 will be published as a government White Paper in summer 2012. It may seem a cumbersome way of developing a strategic rail policy, but at present it’s all we’ve got. Intrigued LR readers with a penchant for evaluation and review may care to peruse the current HLOS (for CP4, 2009-2014) which was published as the 2007 government White Paper Delivering a Sustainable Railway.

So, with the expectation that recommendations in the London and South East RUS will be bundled up into investment bids in the HLOS, it is useful to look at TfL’s own bid, summarised in its July 2011 recommendations for HLOS2. As TfL states, the document has two purposes:

(a) to influence the Initial Industry Plan, such that it contains TfL’s recommended schemes or near equivalents; and

(b) to provide material which TfL and stakeholders can use to lobby government over the investment needed in London’s railways in the HLOS itself.

The document summarises many of the recommendations in the London and SE RUS, and talks about a “rail strategy for London for 2014 to 2019”.

Tfl’s Take

But the real point of difference is how TfL views the network as a whole, and then embeds this in a broader transport framework across London. This overview may be what gives rise to the new pattern (below) of “strategic interchanges”, and the hint that travel through London may not actually need to involve London at all. This is all very encouraging, although it does spark hazy recollections of London rail plans in the dim and distant past.

Strategic Interchange Locations

Strategic Interchange Locations

As we’ve already discussed, TfL’s role in running the Overground is rapidly evolving and, unsurprisingly, they are seeking to develop more diverse travel patterns using the orbital lines:

7.2.2. The Mayor’s Transport Strategy emphasises the role of strategic interchanges to assist orbital movement that not only improves accessibility locally but also relieves pressure in central area. The nature of this covers:

  • Improving currently inadequate interchange in terms of quality
  • Calling more trains on radial routes to make the interchange more effective
  • Increasing frequency on orbital routes
  • Physical changes to reduce the time it takes to change from one platform to another and thus to make the interchange
  • New stations to allow interchange where none is possible currently

So how will TfL achieve this? Aside from the potential new governance arrangements, what does TfL’s vision of strategic interchanges look like in terms of infrastructure and service patterns?

Both the RUS and TfL identify the orbital routes as a key focus for new investment, with increased service frequency and longer trains to meet what is expected to be a rapidly growing demand. However, this could be characterised as a ‘bit more of the same’ rather than a quantum leap in service pattern.

Orbital Peak Traffic

Orbital Peak Traffic

They are significant improvements nonetheless, and edge closer to the service frequency we expect from the Underground. Yet as we highlighted in our Overground series, they barely keep up with projected demand. Even with the proposed investment, the projections show that there will still be overcrowding on the orbital lines, and no other options are offered.

AM Peak Traffic

AM Peak Traffic

TfL also recognise that a number of these interchanges (and the lines from them) are already overcrowded. At the very least, significant investment will be required at Finsbury Park, Barking, Bromley South, Herne Hill, Tulse Hill, Clapham Jn and Wimbledon, and these are included in the £68m improvements package identified by TfL.

Station Schemes 2014 - 2019

Station Schemes 2014 – 2019

Modest investments can certainly improve passenger capacity and the quality of the interchange experience, and they present an attractive business case for the HLOS.

Neither TfL nor the RUS, however, offer anything specific on changing the radial service patterns so that more services call at these new strategic interchanges. Clearly the value of spreading the load through the orbital routes is largely negated if the radial services don’t actually stop there, but increasing stops at these interchanges will slow journey times and reduce capacity overall on the radial routes, and this will exacerbate the very problems that the RUS and TfL are trying to resolve.

Getting Strategic with our Interchanges

This begs the question: what exactly is a “strategic interchange”? Are they just points on a map where lines cross and there happens to be a station? Or are they expected to become hubs in their own right, engines of local economic growth, for which TfL’s new interchange stations become the pride of the network?

Given the Mayor’s purview in terms of planning and development, should “strategic interchanges” be created at places where there is greatest potential for growth, combined with the need to support new travel patterns that take the pressure off the city core?

Let’s look at some examples. The Mayor’s Transport Strategy highlights Woolwich Arsenal as an exemplar, offering interchange between a radial route and DLR, plus integration with buses. But there is no talk of broader development themes, other than mentioning that the “strategic interchange will be further enhanced when the planned Crossrail station opens in 2017.” The Crossrail station will, however, lie 200m north which stretches the interchange definition somewhat. Woolwich Arsenal is also a two-track station with all trains stopping, so no changes were required to the service pattern. It does not have any of the challenges of interchanges on the mainlines.

Conversely, Ealing Broadway, Willesden Jn and Queens Park are on mainlines through which expresses thunder. West Hampstead has always been the interchange that never was, and many trains actually by-pass the station at Lewisham. Although Balham, Elephant & Castle and Vauxhall have Underground connections, so do Brixton and Kentish Town, but TfL has not identified these as strategic interchanges – and what of New Cross and New Cross Gate on the new ELL?

Stratford may offer a better example of what we might assume a strategic interchange would be: at the heart of the monumental redevelopment for the Olympics, orbital lines north and south, tube connection, and the advantage that many mainline trains stop here. The RUS is proposing track layout changes that can provide an additional platform, and also explores the potential for more Lea Valley services.

Looking west and into the future, perhaps Old Oak Common could become a new “super-hub”, with a new HS2 station at which GWML expresses trains would stop, linked to a resurgent Willesden which would become the WCML equivalent. To the plethora of connections on offer could be added a Bakerloo extension, or even blowing the dust off the curtailed District Olympia line and pushing it north.

Hammersmith & Fulham's Park Royal International

Hammersmith & Fulham’s Park Royal International

OOC has emerged blinking in the bright lights of both HS2 and Crossrail, driven by a local authority with economic development high on the agenda, and fêted by masterplanners seeing commercial opportunity. Is this likely to be a model that can be replicated in other parts of London?

Ones eyes are naturally drawn to places like Peckham Rye, Brixton and Tottenham Hale, where economic development programs could focus investment on smaller-scale developments built around new transport hubs.
This could then prompt a rethink on the purpose of tube extensions. For instance, should the Northern go to Brixton rather than the developer-led extension to Battersea? And should Hakerloo be ditched in preference to a more modest extension to Peckham Rye?

In terms of service provision, perhaps there is also an opportunity to rethink this pattern of hubs linked by metro services, and think of these hubs as destinations in their own right which could be linked by fast limited-stop services. This could, for instance, allow rapid cross-London travel that avoided the city core. The closest we have come to this was Anglia Railways’ London Crosslink services, which died a death in 2002 but could form the basis of a wider pattern of new services also using the West London and South London lines.



Options and Limitations

But back to the nuts and bolts of the RUS and TfL’s recommendations for HLOS2. It is clear that delivering a coherent program of strategic interchanges is going to require major investment in areas outside London’s core, and particularly on the orbital routes.

We will explore each of the orbital lines in more detail in future posts, but suffice to say now that the potential to provide more capacity is limited by a number of factors:

  • Platform lengths – especially on the ELL, which is limited to 4-carriages; the original ELL line had 6-car platforms but Canada Water, is only 4-car length
  • Signalling, junctions and track speeds – historically the orbital lines have been a low priority for investment; therefore, aside from the new ELL, capacity is generally restricted by signalling and low line speeds
  • Freight – the WLL and NLL are important strategic freight routes and metro services have to be interleaved with freight movements, but these two traffic patterns have very different characteristics and do not mix well. Or, to put it another way, TfL’s Overground aspirations will depend on its success in relocating cross-London freight flows to new routes outside London
  • Inter-operability between networks – railway operators invariably shy away from passenger services that cross between regions, as they are prone to delay and disruptions can easily transfer across the network. Hence the radial routes into London have largely remained compartmentalised, and the orbital routes are largely segregated.

Although the proposed investments in the RUS are to be welcomed, it is perhaps no surprise that the plans for the orbital routes are conspicuously modest. It suggests that the investment value-add of these routes is hard to quantify, and therefore they remain the poor cousins trapped between the dominant radials, which then helps perpetuate the “ring of deprivation” around the city core.

It is also clear that London’s rail network is coming up against some real capacity limits that require some outside the box thinking. On most radial routes there are very few options to create new capacity, particularly with the growth in longer distance commuting services. Here TfL is demonstrating some leadership, but it is likely to need a more visionary investment case to bring their strategic interchanges to life, and start to change the shape of the rail network.

Written by Lemmo