London & Freight Part 3: A Quart Into a Pint Pot


This is the final part of our look at how freight may become the Achilles’ heel for rail planners in London.

The first article provided some context, looking at the various strategies, the national flows and the issue of loading gauge. Then we explored the main intermodal (container) traffic flows through London in more detail. Here we explore some of the options and draw some uneasy conclusions – that whilst the RUS process has helped identify some of the problems, the investment strategy is far from clear. Given the near-term demand projections for both freight and passenger, and the opaque nature of strategic decision-making, what will this mean for London’s rail network in 2020 and beyond?

It is clear that a fundamental rethink is required if London’s orbitals are to provide capacity for the projected freight and passenger demand growth, and this has major implications for TfL’s aspirations for Overground and its strategic interchanges.

Furthermore, it is to cross-city lines and the orbitals that we now look to reshape the network and expand the city core. Yet it is these orbital routes that are now in high demand for freight traffic, most of which goes straight through London to destinations north and west.

The process of tweaking capacity out of over-stretched infrastructure has found a new name: “optioneering” and indeed it is a vexed process, because each investment (or lack of it) has ramifications across the whole network.

Another way of viewing these knock-on effects is that London rail planners need to persuade someone to invest in improvements in places like Leicester, Kenilworth, Ely and Basingstoke in order to create more paths for Overground services on the orbital lines. This must provide TfL with an interesting challenge in terms of tactics and strategy.

As in Part 2, we heartily recommend the marvellous Adlestrop atlas to help you trace the often tortuous freight routes beyond the London bounds, and Carto Metro for many of the routes and junctions within the London area.

Class 59 'Village of Chantry' approaches the SLL at Wandsworth Road

Class 59 ‘Village of Chantry’ approaches the SLL at Wandsworth Road with an aggregates train having threaded the maze of lines through Longhedge Jn. This is a busy freight route on which 35 Channel Tunnel paths per day (by 2030) will soon be shared with the Overground. Photo courtesy looper23

The bottlenecks

There are several sections of 2-track with flat junctions which share intensive freight and passenger services, including the North London Line (NLL) east of Dalston, the West London Line (WLL), GOBLIN and South London Line (SLL). And although the NLL could return to 4-track from Camden Road to Dalston, the route has multiple flat junctions, long signalling headways and still converges to a 2-track junction at Camden Road Jn.

Between Stratford and Forest Gate on the GEML, freight trains from Thameside must cross the mainline on the flat to reach the NLL. The timetable has been tweaked to the limit and infrastructure options are very limited where feasible at all. The obvious alternative is to send freight via GOBLIN, however this route is still not electrified and, although it has been cleared to W10 gauge, some of the structures still pose significant speed and weight restrictions.

As traffic intensifies the flat junction at Gospel Oak becomes a pinch-point for westbound traffic from GOBLIN, and beyond that at Kensal Green Jn before Willesden. Routing traffic onto the Midland Main Line (MML) at Carlton Road Junction is limited by the 4-track section through to Finchley Road, which is 4-track and tunnelled or in deep cutting which rules out infrastructure options such as flying junctions. Freight has to share this with the intensive Thameslink service, and west of Finchley Road the freight lines are on the other (south) side of the mainlines, which freight then has to cross.

The Dudding Hill route off the MML at Brent is also not electrified and is lightly used, and its potential is limited by the need to interleave with the busy Windsor Lines. Westbound freight also needs to cross the Down Fast and both Up Windsor Lines at the east end of Clapham Junction.

Channel Tunnel freight for the East Coast Main Line (ECML) almost does a complete circle around London using the SLL and WLL and while northbound traffic can travel via GOBLIN and Haringey, southbound goes via Maiden Lane and the NLL back up to Gospel Oak.

The WLL is well-connected to routes at either end and although there are sufficient Channel Tunnel freight paths until 2030, there is limited potential to expand passenger services. The WLL is already projected to have severe overcrowding by 2016, and this will only be exacerbated as the momentum to develop Old Oak Common gathers pace.

Freightliner Class 66 diesel running under electrified lines

Freightliner Class 66 diesel running under electrified lines threading its way onto the WCML past Willesden Junc low-level platforms. Courtesy BowroadUK

HS1 freight currently uses the Barking route, which has the same traffic limitations as Thameside above. The development of European gauge traffic is limited by the lack of depot facilities in the Barking area or at the London end of HS1 at Maiden Lane, and as yet there no clear investment strategy on creating a W12 network or a UIC GB+ gauge route beyond London via, say, the MML.

This isn’t a particularly positive analysis, but major capacity gaps also lie outside London with the result that traffic is forced onto the congested cross-London routes. For instance, Haven Ports freight can only avoid London if the alternative route is gauge and weight-cleared and has route, junction and layover capacity. Similarly, accommodating the growth in intermodal container traffic from Southampton via Reading West is dependent on investment in places like Melksham, Coventry and Kenilworth.

Of greater concern is the West Coast Main Line (WCML), which the 2011 London & South East RUS identifies as the main route north for the additional freights projected from the Haven ports and Thameshaven. This depends, however, on HS2 freeing up those paths, and no fallback option is identified.

For LR readers interested in digging deeper into the capacity and demand at specific points in London, the 2006 Cross London RUS breaks the data down into short route sections showing the paths planned and used, and the projections for 2014 and 2023. This calculation of the paths required in 2023 assumed a proportion of the Haven Ports traffic would head north via the cross-country route, but it still gives an idea of the number of freight trains per day in each section. Even with a significant investment in capacity such as resignalling and loops, it gives a sense of how intensively used each section is and how many additional paths might be available, including paths for TfL Overground services.

Freight path requirements in 2014 and 2023

Freight path requirements in 2014 and 2023

Another way of illustrating this can be seen in the graph below. This focuses on the NLL and appeared in TfL’s 2007 Rail Freight Strategy, with the data taken from the table above. It neatly illustrates the scale of demand growth that rail planners have to accommodate, and also how that increased demand is almost entirely intermodal. Note that this is the data for 2014, not 2023 or 2030.

Forecast of NLL freight requirements

Forecast of NLL freight requirements

We’d be interested in seeing a detailed breakdown of more recent data/projections, and we’d also appreciate more information on the two Network Rail studies we mentioned in Part 1: the ‘Routes to the North’ (RTN) study looking at the preferred routes between London and the South-East, the Midlands and North of England and the enhancements necessary to accommodate rail freight activity forecast to 2030; and an optimal cross-London freight strategy (CLFS).

Some options

Within London there are few options on existing alignments.

The NLL can be 4-tracked to Camden Road, and resignalling will improve headways. Capacity on the NLL will always be limited, however, by the shared passenger-freight traffic, multiple connections and flat junctions.

The proposed HS1-HS2 connection will rise at Primrose Hill and therefore add to the congestion on the 2-track viaduct and junction at Camden Road. Indeed TfL objected to the link because of the impacts on Overground and freight services on the NLL. Interestingly the revised HS1-HS2 plans show substantial rebuilding at Camden Road (PDF), including new bridges, reusing the northern platforms and cutting back the southernmost platform to achieve GC gauge. It’s not immediately clear, but it seems possible that “Remodelling of Camden West Junction may be required”, perhaps refers to 4-tracking the bridge.

Remodelling Camden

Remodelling Camden

As we have already reported, when container lorries start trundling away from Thameside in 2013, eyes will again focus on GOBLIN and the upgrades required to take freight alongside an improved metro service. Alongside electrification, improvements are still necessary to improve speed and headways. As with most of the other orbitals however, this is a 2-track route with shared freight and metro services and with multiple flat junctions, so there will be a limit to the additional freight it can handle.

Similarly with the WLL, it is difficult to ignore the need to ramp up capacity to keep freight moving around an intensifying metro service. The WLL is 2-track throughout with a passing loop at Kensington Olympia. The alignment through to West Brompton allows for extended loops but this will disappear under the proposed Earls Court redevelopment and, as we reported in Part 2, TfL does not consider this alignment worth safeguarding. TfL is counting on train lengthening to 8-cars to resolve its WLL overcrowding problems, but beyond that few options are presented.

The WLL is a key artery through London and passenger growth has been rapid in response to the modest service that has been introduced – which indicates a considerable latent demand. It requires more investment foresight in terms of a strategic route, and at the very least safeguarding alignments for future options.

Even with a blue-sky scenario of 4-tracking the WLL from the Great Western Main Line (GWML) south, however, there is still the 2-track speed-restricted Thames bridge at Chelsea, along with the flat junctions the other side of the Thames at Latchmere Jn. Indeed the junctions around Clapham and Battersea pose operational problems if freights are awaiting paths onto the main lines – again, an argument for loops if only to provide network resilience.

Further west the Dudding Hill line could provide relief, but requires significant investment, not least in electrification. Some rethinking of the Windsor Line services is required for this route to become used more intensively. Various solutions are being cogitated upon and perhaps the Windsor Lines will benefit from a solution which involves a mix of Crossrail/Chelney, a putative Northern Line extension beyond Battersea, and new express lines from the South West Main Line (SWML) to the northern side of the SWML alignment at Battersea and into the empty ex-Eurostar platforms at Waterloo. If, for instance, a new SWML express tunnel included a branch for Windsor Line expresses, aside from boosting capacity on the Windsor Lines and resolving issues with some of the level crossings, it would free up capacity for freight onto the Dudding Hill line.

It is difficult though to see this working without grade-separated junctions from the SLL route onto the Windsor Lines at Clapham Junction, and perhaps also at Chiswick Jn east of Kew Bridge. At Clapham Junction there may be an option to create a Down underpass from the ‘Ludgate’ lines at Pouparts Jn rising directly onto the Down Windsor lines in the area now used by the carriage cleaning facility. This may also facilitate an extension of ELL services to Putney Bridge, although it will be a challenging project to undertake.

As an aside, the comments following Part 2 raised some interesting points on the purpose of loops in smoothing freight flows at key junctions (thank you ‘Anonymouse’ and others). Traditionally freight loops have been used to allow faster trains to overtake, but while this is useful on a long line with a wide range of speeds and services that are not too frequent, it is not that useful on short sections with intensive services. A heavy freight slowly lumbering out of a passing loop is likely to take up more paths than a continuously-moving freight slotted into the passenger pattern. Therefore the aim is to provide non-stop freight paths between the mainlines via the orbitals.

Inevitably there will be knock-on effects from delays on one line which result in paths onto the next line being lost, so the freight has to layover and await the next path. Hence the need for another kind of freight loop: close to junctions where trains can wait for an available slot onto the next line. These loops are important as they allow a decoupling of the timetables of the two lines, therefore the freight paths on each don’t have to line up precisely. It also improves network resilience by providing a schedule recovery buffer so that can small delays do not propagate from one line to the other.

As we noted in Part 1, the London & SE RUS acknowledges that there are few points on the London rail network where such layover capacity exists, and this could be regarded as a priority for future infrastructure investment. A scan over the network, however, reveals few places where such loops can be provided, which further emphasises the proposition that is misguided to relinquish space on alignments where such capacity could be put in place, such as on the WLL.

In fact, the more you look at the difficulties posed by London’s orbitals, the more important it becomes to explore investment options outside London. This fits with TfL’s aim to keep freight away from London, and perhaps then be able to use the orbitals for improved Overground services. Indeed, given the knock-on effects in the London area, the increasing passenger demand on the London orbitals will improve the business case for infrastructure improvements beyond London.

Looking further afield

As we noted in Part 2, the cross-country route north from the Haven Ports could be improved by addressing constraints such as the single-lead junction at Haughley near Ipswich and the busy Leicester area where the MML has shrunk to 2 or 3 tracks. The route also needs to be electrified. This is a classic example where investment in distant places has a direct benefit on London rail.

In that sense it is very heartening to see the Oxford to Bedford section of East-West Rail get the investment thumbs-up in the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement, despite being omitted from the Industry Initial Plan in November 2011. The 2011 London & South East RUS has already factored this in to its recommendations, as it will provide a valuable route from Southampton through to the Midlands and the North while avoiding bottlenecks such as Coventry.

Oxford - Bedford on the East-West

Oxford – Bedford on the East-West. Courtesy Wikipedia

By a strange quirk of foresight the double-track ‘white elephant’ Bletchley flyover onto the WCML has been in place since the 1960s. Encouragingly the route through to Bedford may improve the business case to quadruple the MML north through to Leicester… which will then improve capacity on the cross-country Haven Ports route north from Ipswich, and this will release more paths on the London orbitals.

The Bletchley Flyover

The Bletchley Flyover. Courtesy

The opportunities that East-West Rail provides will focus attention on the other bottlenecks on the route north from Southampton, including in the Eastleigh area, at Basingstoke and the 2-track section between Didcot and Oxford. It also raises the on-going issue of the Leamington-Coventry section which still needs to be doubled, and questions the wisdom of routing HS2 over the Kenilworth cut-off to Berkswell which could otherwise offer a direct route towards Birmingham and beyond but which avoids Coventry.

A new east-west strategic orbital route

In a sense what London needs is a mirror east-west rail that takes traffic from the GEML across to the ECML, MML and WCML. Although the cross-country route north from the Haven Ports achieves this, it requires further investment as noted above, and is of little direct benefit to Thameshaven or Channel Tunnel traffic.

A number of our commentators following Parts 1 and 2 agreed that it is highly likely that new freight routes will need to be considered, and various potential alignments to the east of London were proposed. Indeed the need for new strategic freight routes around London has recently been thrust centre stage by the grandest scheme of them all: the proposed Fosters + Partners Thames Hub. This mega-project includes a new high-speed orbital rail route outside London for freight and passenger services, with new stations at parkway locations on the London periphery. Although this is competing with the ‘Boris Island’ airport scheme the other side of the river, a new line like this appears to solve many of London’s rail freight problems and perhaps gives an indication of the scale of options that need to be considered. It would be interesting to study these plans in more detail to see how they a line can be engineered for combined freight and passenger services.

A new London orbital

A new London orbital. Courtesy Halcrow.

Perhaps there are more modest options that utilise sections of existing route. For example, there is potential to dust off the plans for the eastern section of East-West Rail, which we explored some time back. One of the options (PDF) was to head from Bedford to the ECML and onto the Hertford Loop then across to the West Anglia Mainline (WAML), before resuming the passage north to Stansted Airport. Along with the route options below the consultants’ study mentioned the potential to reuse the Hitchin-Bedford line. The financial case was relatively good but there were local objections to the new link between Hertford East station and Hertford North stations and at Rye House north of Broxbourne. Perchance an alternative design would alleviate local concerns, especially if the route tunnelled north-west to the Hertford Loop.

Linking the Lines

Linking the Lines, Davies and Gleave 2009

The existing Hertford East line south onto the WAML could provide the bones of a strategic freight route from Thameside and the Haven Ports to the Midlands and the Northwest, and also a useful route for traffic to the West of England down East-West Rail. It would also provide a new passenger route from Stevenage and the ECML through Hertford to London, which could simply be an extension of the existing Hertford East services or new services via Stratford with its connections to Canary Wharf. This would necessitate the oft-mooted quadrupling to Broxbourne, which is being considered anyway as an option in the 2011 London & SE RUS. At Stratford the 4-track bottleneck through Forest Gate would be alleviated with a tunnel direct to Woodgrange Park, on which more below.

There may be other options, for instance continuing on GOBLIN to South Tottenham and then via Seven Sisters back up to the WAML. A further option could be to tunnel beyond Enfield Town to join the ECML Hertford Loop north of Gordon Hill, where the four platforms provide the opportunity to turn back metro services. Such a link would provide new passenger travel opportunities as well as a strategic freight route, and a diversionary route for engineering works or network disruptions. Overall the choice between these options may well be influenced by which route is easier to convert to W10 gauge.

This would be a major investment in a new strategic freight route that used sections of existing line, and also offers the potential for improved passenger services. This is important because a common theme emerging from new freight proposals is the strength of local opposition – the perceived benefits are negligible compared to the increased noise and disturbance from heavy freight trains, loss of amenity and the potential reduction in passenger services.

Rail planners may want to bear this in mind for routes like GOBLIN, much of it on viaduct through residential suburbs. A significant increase in heavy freight traffic without a commensurate improvement in passenger services is likely to generate significant local opposition.

Returning to the prospect of tunnelling beneath the 4-track GEML section through Woodgrange Park as part of a new strategic freight route, it is perhaps surprising that this is a very similar alignment to the HS1 tunnel just east of Stratford. It seems a shame to duplicate a tunnel if there is potential to use the existing one, especially given that HS1 does not run to capacity. There are currently junctions from HS1 onto the Tilbury lines at Dagenham, but there is no corresponding junction from the Tilbury lines west onto HS1. Might there be potential to route Thameside freight onto HS1 at Dagenham and through to the NLL? And if so, might it also be possible to construct a short spur off HS1 at Stratford north up to Lea Bridge, and from there north to the WAML and ECML via Hertford?

Southeastern Class 395 unit at Dagenham Dock

Southeastern Class 395 unit at Dagenham Dock. The rusty line in the foreground is the Up connection from HS1 to the Tilbury lines. There is no corresponding connection which would allow Thameside freights to access HS1 from the Tilbury lines. Courtesy BowroadUK

HS1 and a new W12 gauge route north

HS1 is built to European gauge and will no doubt at some point take freight beyond Barking through to the connection with the NLL at Camden Road East Jn. A W12 gauge route north is also a core objective of the Strategic Freight Network, and the most likely contender is currently the MML.

It therefore seems sensible for a potential HS1-MML link to become a key component in a new strategy for rail freight in London, integrated with development of a W12 gauge network north and electrification of the MML. This would provide some certainty around which other infrastructure projects could be planned.

Future options should include the potential for a European GB+ gauge route from HS1 to the MML, for which the gauge clearance works would be undertaken at the same time as electrification and, presumably, 4-tracking north of Bedford. No doubt the business case for this has been improved by East-West Rail, as a route for Southampton traffic north, and also by W10 clearance for Syston to Stoke as a WCML diversionary route, also announced in the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement.

HS1 emerges at Maiden Lane and the freight route rises onto the NLL at Camden Road, where it has to negotiate the 2-track pinchpoint at Camden Road Jn. No provision has been made for am alignment to drop into tunnel for future extension to any of the mainlines west. This may become problematic, and is a shame given that in a commendable example of future-proofing the Kings Cross redevelopment has made provision for a Thameslink spur up onto the ECML.

What is required is a new direct route from HS1 to the freight lines on the south side of the MML at West Hampstead, beyond the Belsize tunnels. Some canny design may also allow connection to other routes. The current route from the east side of London through to the MML is via GOBLIN and Carlton Road Jn which, as noted above, is shared with Thameslink. Given the objections raised by TfL and others about the poor design of the proposed HS2-HS1 link rising at Primrose Hill, a new W12 tunnel north from HS1 will help relieve the NLL at Camden Road, which may then allow a metro Overground service.

Finally, amidst all the noise of HS2, we should spare a thought for a national mainline that was constructed to a more generous loading gauge and was laid out for express services but never quite seems to make it back into the limelight. The Great Central route from Marylebone, along with the joint GC-GW line from Paddington to Birmingham, also offers potential as a freight route north. Indeed it has been eyed up by Chiltern Trains, and prior to that might yet have become an express private freight line operated by Central Railway, before the proposal was rejected by the government in 2005. Could this become a European GB+ route north as an alternative to the MML? Is the route worth safeguarding as a future option, including the connection at the London end alongside the Central line through to the WLL at Shepherds Bush?

A route worth safeguarding?

A route worth safeguarding?

Channel Tunnel routes north: back to Redhill…

Enough of strategic routes north, what about a strategic route that skirts south of London? In Part 2 we looked at the opportunity to develop the Tonbridge-Redhill-Guildford route, allowing Channel Tunnel freight to travel west and north via Reading. This requires major infrastructure works including tunnelling around Guildford and a flyover at Redhill to cross the Brighton mainline. Alas, as Mwmbwls has reported, to bring this project to fruition Network Rail has a battle on its hands with Tesco, who have applied for planning permission to build a supermarket there. It is quite likely that an engineering solution can be found that allows for both uses, so we confidently expected Network Rail and TfL to be gunning for the route to be safeguarded, and that their submission would carry some weight in the planning decision. Oh how wrong we were: the application has recently been rejected by Reigate and Banstead Council, but because of the effect that a supermarket will have on the local high street, rather than on any objections by the rail planners. Quite the reverse, Network Rail and TfL appear to have quietly dropped their opposition, and it is only a matter of chance that the application has been rejected and therefore there is still some breathing space to safeguard this alignment as a strategic route.

The dropped opposition is hard to fathom, and while several of our commentators have explored options following Part 2 there is precious little published analysis and thus little idea about the business case or the strategy. Mwmbwls will soon follow up with a post that explores the planning decision, the position of Network Rail and TfL, and what might happen next. In the meantime, Channel Tunnel freight will continue to go via the WLL, and progressively fill the capacity that TfL so desperately needs to secure for its burgeoning Overground services.

Who decides?

Back in Part 1 we noted how the development of a Strategic Freight Network, and indeed the 2007 Freight RUS, was a collaborative effort by a group of stakeholders led by Network Rail. As the Rail Engineer argues:

The unified approach has been successful in garnering funding for the sector. The Government’s Control Period 4 settlement included £251 million for Strategic Freight Network improvements from 2009 to 2014. In addition, £152 million was sourced from the Transport Innovation Fund and enabled a further £72 million to be leveraged from other sources.

This collaborative approach has yielded a comprehensive analysis of the problem, spread across a number of documents that we have drawn upon in this series. Yet it is still difficult discerning the process of investment decision-making, and indeed what the strategy is for rail freight in London.

The February release of the Mayor’s Rail Vision focuses on passenger services, but it is hard to see how TfL can take hold of the levers in inner-suburban London without having some control over decision-making for freight services which share these lines. We covered this evolving shift in strategic decision-making last year and drew attention to the three options presented in the NERA report for TfL: ‘The Costs and Benefits of Devolving Responsibility for Rail Services in London‘ (PDF). The more radical of the three options presented in the report was for some devolution of responsibility for rail infrastructure investment, and this could include freight projects. Indeed it could position TfL very favourably if it took responsibility for an integrated investment approach, overseeing projects that had both freight and passenger benefits and acting as the broker to ensure costs and benefits were equitably shared.

It is likely that new infrastructure projects on the orbital routes will require a business case that presents freight and passenger costs-benefits. Could a new TfL leadership role help bring these to fruition, and help reduce the fragmentation between the many stakeholders?

The need for a more integrated systems-based approach also recognises that resolving individual bottlenecks only pushes the problem onto the next point in the system. Someone needs to have a clear handle on the system as a whole. This then questions the validity of an investment approach that assesses the benefit-cost of individual projects rather than the benefit-cost of alternative packages of investments. This would provide a way of managing the many ‘what ifs’ when considering investment options system-wide.

What is clear is that London’s orbital routes will not be able to deal with the growth in freight and passenger demand, which raises fundamental questions about TfL’s ability to grow its Overground services and develop a network of “strategic interchanges”.

This will then limit the ability to reshape the London rail network to expand the core using the orbital lines alongside new cross-city routes. Therefore, as London continues to grow, the increasing passenger demand will continue to get focused on the city core.

Overall this could backfire on TfL, not only because its Overground services will be among the most overcrowded in London and yet have little potential for expansion, but also because overcrowding and reliability issues may raise questions about TfL’s capability to deliver a robust strategy for rail.

Alongside this we have seen a number of examples where routes or alignments are not being safeguarded by Network Rail or TfL, despite safeguarding being a stated aim in TfLs strategy and in the RUSs.

The inability for TfL and DfT to come to agreement on what appears to be an investment no-brainer with GOBLIN electrification does not bode well for any of the other schemes we explore here. As eyes and funds are focused on HS2, will there be any space left in decision-makers minds or budgets to consider the complex problem of rail freight in London?

Sadly a recurring theme is the gulf between aspiration and current investment reality, and this is resulting in capacity limits being hit in the near-term. But as ever we are by nature optimistic souls and, with a penchant for tying the threads together, we’ll follow on later with a look at the issue of freight and passenger on the orbitals in each of London’s quadrants N, S, E, W, on which we look forward to drawing upon the rich and welcome feedback from our Commentators.

Written by Lemmo