We Need To Talk About Camden: The Future of the Northern Line

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A very strange thing has happened in the past year or so regarding London Underground and the Northern Line – senior managers have actually wanted to talk about it.

This comes as quite a surprise. One expects the usual over-excitement as they proudly remind you that London Underground can now run 33 trains per hour (tph) on the Victoria Line, or talk enthusiastically of the sheer scale of modernisation underway on the sub-surface lines. Even evangelising over the Jubilee Line is comprehensible given that, now that it is finally working properly, its operation is increasingly impressive. Indeed they now seem itching to get 33tph on the Jubilee Line but they don’t have the trains.

But the Northern Line? Traditionally discussion of the Northern Line has been restrained, unless it is to illustrate how difficult it is to run a tube line and to highlight that in some ways it is a miracle we have such an intensive service at all. So what’s changed?

A history of Misery

The Evening Standard used to routinely refer to the Northern Line as “the Misery Line.” The twin curses of being starved of investment and being the most difficult line deep-level line to run meant that it was an easy source of horror stories for commuters to read about.

Everyone, even the Government, had recognised that what was needed was a major overhaul of the line. A comprehensive upgrade was planned for the mid 1990s, with new trains and new signalling. The new trains arrived and constituted a vast improvement, but the signalling project was cancelled by the Government leaving the line to soldier on with out-of-date signalling equipment that was liable to breakdown. Worse, without the new signalling, the trains could not run at their full capability. The service level failed to match the original aspirations since that relied on the signalling being replaced and consequently there were more trains available than could be usefully utilised.

The split that wasn’t

At around the same time as the signalling was due to be replaced, the possibility of the splitting the line into two was once again investigated. This had for a long time been recognised as a very cost-effective way of increasing tube capacity in central London. Unfortunately it was well-known that to do this one would have to rebuild Camden Town station, in order to cope with the number of people who would then have to change trains there. London Underground drew up comprehensive plans, but there were many objections due to the loss of a market (not the market – Buck St Market), the Electric Ballroom, the facade of the station and other properties.

In effect those against the scheme, which included the local council, argued that the rebuilt and expanded station would change the whole character of Camden for the worse. At the public inquiry the inspector agreed with the objectors and recommended that the scheme should not go ahead. This was very awkward for London Underground who had argued that anything less that the full scheme would be completely unsatisfactory.

The lost decade

With no real “Plan B” ready and waiting, and subsequently no money available, a period of inaction seemed inevitable. For more than a decade, the strategy for senior managers facing questions about the Northern Line appeared to be to answer them as quickly as possible and then move on, in the hope that the next question would prove less awkward. It was not so much that the Northern Line had regressed back to its former misery line status, it was just that there seemed to be no long term integrated strategy and, entirely appropriately for the Northern Line, no light at the end of an extremely long tunnel.

The pieces start to fit together

In recent years, three things have arguably transformed attitudes towards the Northern Line within London Underground.

Probably the biggest catalyst for positive change has been the proposed extension to Battersea. Never mind that it doesn’t make much strategic sense. Don’t worry about the fact that this is an extension of an already busy line built to historical small tube dimension size. The important thing is that the government is keen on it and wants to see it happen, and with this short extension a complete separation of the Northern Line suddenly makes even more sense than before.

The Northern Line Battesea Extension

The Northern Line Battesea Extension

Artist's Impression of Battersea Station

Artist’s Impression of Battersea Station

Artist's Impression of Nine Elms Station

Artist’s Impression of Nine Elms Station

Although no-one from London Underground has explicitly linked the extension to the split, one gets the impression that a split of the line can now be reconsidered for it is needed to maximise the success of the Battersea extension itself. Crucially, it opens the door on Government support, something essential to facilitating the split – or so it is believed.

It should be noted that TfL have already submitted a Transport and Works Order (TWO) for the extension. This is a critical decision – a bit like ‘go’ or ‘no go’ in a space mission or paying a deposit on a house. Once you have gone this far you really are pretty much committed to seeing the project through. Both Airtrack and the DLR Dagenham Dock extension seemed to have plenty of momentum, but when the crunch came and the next step was to submit the TWO application the backers in question (BAA and the Mayor respectively) cancelled the project.

A second major impact on thinking has been the proposed HS2 terminus at Euston. It is all very well planning Crossrail 2 to disperse the crowds, but the obvious first thing to do is maximise capacity of the lines you already have serving Euston. Again, HS2 is something that the Government is anxious to see successful and therefore support for improving the Northern Line in any way possible is seen as something that will get their backing.

The third major impact is the success of the Jubilee Line resignalling and implementation of automatic trains. As the Northern Line will use the same system of automation as the Jubilee Line, London Underground can now be confident that they are implementing a tried and tested system known to work in the London tube environment. Although getting Jubilee Line automation working was both a technical and political nightmare, now that it is up and running it generally works very well indeed. The omens are therefore good for the Northern Line installation, with the painfully learnt lessons and teething troubles from the Jubilee Line hopefully a thing of the past.

It all comes together at once

As well as the game changers mentioned above, something else is creeping up upon the Northern Line – the early 2020s. These bring potential problems that may represent opportunities if handled well.

Assuming that funding is secured, the fruits of the “Deep Tube” project to run new cabless trains will materialise at the start of the next decade. This is soon after the Battersea extension should be up and running. Therefore there is an opportunity, with a bit of shuffling around of rolling stock, to re-equip at least part of the Northern Line with new trains.

Again assuming the funding can be found, Bank station will also have been rebuilt by the early 2020s. Current plans envisage a completion date sometime in 2021. Currently, even if you could physically run more trains, it is unlikely that Bank station could handle many more people arriving in the morning peak (in the evening, strictly speaking, this is less of a problem – if the station is too crowded you simply don’t let people in). So it would be a big win to co-ordinate a more frequent service with a bigger, better Bank station.

Beyond Bank, there are also proposals to upgrade Old Street station due to the “Silicon Roundabout” effect. Something that would also have a major effect on the Line.

Kennington Cross Passages

Plans for additional passages at Kennington as submitted as part of the Battersea extension TWO application.

Finally another minor factor, often forgotten about, is improving interchange at Kennington before the Northern Line can be split. This is actually included within the Battersea extension project. It may be a small part of the Battersea extension project itself, but it is a “must address” issue before any full Northern Line split can take place.

Could Camden Kill it all off?

The feeling now is that the momentum is unstoppable. So what about Camden Town station? Here there seems to be a change of attitude. In the past it was thought necessary to sort out all the short-comings of the station. Now attention is focused on providing a scheme that just sorts out the interchange issues.

There is confidence that this can be achieved because it can be done without destroying the buildings and environment that people fought to save and, should it go to a public inquiry, any inspector will probably accept that this is essential for the greater scheme of splitting the line to go ahead. As the split, or at least the increase in service levels made possible by it, will effectively be government policy then the station enhancements are unlikely to be rejected.

It may be that the London Borough of Camden will not be overly happy with lots of work being carried out for no benefit of the people of Camden. Indeed they have already voiced similar concerns about HS2 at Euston. At the very least they thus may wish to see something in the package that would benefit the Borough itself. The reality, however, is that this would cost more money and increase the risk that the project would become too expensive. The likelihood of opposition, however, is far less than one might think. Sources suggest that TfL and Camden made their peace a long time ago, with an agreed compromise plan for the station in place, privately at least, if not publicly.

The reality, of course, is that even with objections from Camden Council, TfL would be unlikely to check their Camden advance. Although as an organisation they would be far too politic to say it, a feeling that the Borough had “missed their chance” ten years ago is likely to have some currency within TfL. One suspects that TfL would be determined not to let Camden halt progress on the Northern Line a second time, even if it meant publicly butting heads with the Borough. Indeed if Camden protested, one suspects TfL would expect the government to back them up and force the scheme through.

Such a scenario would hardly be ideal for all the parties involved but, if such a thing were to happen, one cannot help being reminded of that Millwall chant “You don’t like us, we don’t care”.

Signalling Progress – A Pleasant Contrast

A crucial question for the Northern Line now, of course, is just what progress is being made on the signalling upgrade.

Pleasantly, the answer seems to be that it is progressing as well on the Northern Line as it was progressing badly on the Jubilee Line. On 17th February the first of six stages was successfully upgraded without fuss. Of course the work required some weekend and early Sunday morning closures, but it only required a Sunday morning shutdown to actually implement – and that was just to test it before going live with passengers after midday.

Migration stages

The Northern Line Migration Plan to convert to TBTC. NMA1 is already live.

Indeed the project team are currently confident they can complete the job for the entire line well before the December 2014 deadline. This is largely thanks to their confidence of understanding the system based on the hard-won experience with the Jubilee Line. The only areas of nervousness are converting the junctions at Camden Town and the Kennington Loop. The junctions at Camden Town are a concern because nothing as complex as this has yet been converted to automatic train operation on London Underground. The Kennington Loop brings similar challenges – it will be the first case of this software ever being used on a system where trains do not reverse, but loop round to return to where they came from. In the latter case it is expected that, having identified the potential problem and catered for it, this will in fact go smoothly.

Trickle Down Rolling-stock-onomics

It is pretty self evident that if you build an extension to Battersea you are going to need to buy more trains. Indeed the original business case factored in the cost of buying these trains. The problem is that you don’t really want to build trains the are built to an old design, possibly with obsolete technology, just to be compatible with the existing twenty-five year old fleet – which is what the Northern Line trains will be by the time the Battersea extension is opened. Even if you did, it is quite possible that this wouldn’t comply with modern legislation on issues such as disability from which existing units might currently be exempted. In any case, it would probably be prohibitively expensive compared to an add-on of an existing order. Indeed one wonders if the cost of extra stock based on existing stock in the business case was only ever intended as an accounting exercise, and nobody really believed that this is what would actually be bought.

As it turns out, we can fairly safely discount purchase of additional 1995 compatible stock. This is because the Mayor, Mike Brown (head of London Underground) and now Sir Peter Hendy himself have all emphatically stated that London Underground will never again order an underground train with a cab.

What we now have is a situation where trains on the Bakerloo and Piccadilly need to be replaced in the early 2020s at the latest. Some extra trains are going to be needed for the Northern Line as well as the desire for around seven extra trains for the Jubilee line to get that service up to 33tph. It looks like it won’t be a straightforward case of “out with the old, in with the new”. The challenge is to allocate the proposed “Evo” (cabless) stock and reallocate the existing stock in such a way that each line solely consists of either Evo stock or legacy stock. This does presume that one does not wish to mix “cabbed” and “cabless” trains on the same line. Ideally each line should have only one type of stock (e.g. 1995, 1996 stock) and there should not be a significant surplus of perfectly serviceable legacy stock that has to be prematurely scrapped.

What will undoubtedly make things more complicated is the platform edge doors on the Jubilee, which will either restrict the options available or add to the cost if these have to be modified. What could well help to enable an optimal solution to be found is a split Northern Line with Evo stock on one of the lines and legacy stock on the other.

Piers Connor, writing in Modern Railways for January 2013, described various rolling stock permutations that would be possible. Clearly in these early days the numbers are not exact and it is all a bit tentative but the article ended with the statement that “London Underground is looking to have firmed up its ideas by July 2013”.

What does the future for the Northern Line hold?

Any description of a possible timeline for the Northern Line is inevitably going to be very speculative. It is almost certainly going to be wrong in the detail, but we hope the general gist will be accurate and give you an idea of how things are expected to pan out.

The remainder of 2013 will see TBTC (Transmission Based Train Control), a form of Automatic Train Operation, continue to be introduced on the Northern Line and the critical junction at Camden Town will be converted. By the summer, or shortly after, London Underground will have developed a rolling stock strategy for the early 2020s for the deep level tube lines. A crucial element in that may or may not be the fully splitting of the Northern Line into to separate lines.

If all goes well then by about September 2014 the Northern Line will be fully automated. Based on Victoria and Jubilee line experience, they will no doubt want the system to settle down before imposing changes to the timetable too rapidly.

In 2015 there will be an increase in frequency which has long been held up as an objective. There will be limitations as there will be a constraint caused by the limited number of trains and a limit to what can be handled at Bank. 24tph on both central London branches has long been held to be an intermediate objective for the peak period. As the line down to Morden already has 27tph, this will have to be maintained. In the peak period Morden trains will run via Bank except for 3tph which will go via Charing Cross. Off-peak all Charing Cross branch trains will terminate at Kennington and in the peak hours only 3tph will go through to or start from Morden.

It may be that the above service improvement will be introduced cautiously in stages, so may not be complete by the end of 2015 itself. It should be apparent how awkward it is to have 3tph in peak hours “off-pattern” and starting at Morden and going via Charing Cross. A desired objective will be to get to 27tph on the Bank branch as soon as practical so that all Morden trains can go via Bank. Ultimately it is hoped to get this figure to 30tph. Amongst other things this relies on sufficient rolling stock and the ability of Bank station to handle the passenger numbers.

Probably around 2016 London Underground will know if they are definitely going for a full split of the Northern Line. This is tied in with the crunch decision of whether to apply for a TWO to build extra cross-passages at Camden Town. This will not be anything like as easy as at Kennington as the platforms in question are considerably further apart. If these are to be built, it would be nice to have them ready by the time the Bank Station Upgrade is complete.

Around 2020 the Battersea extension will open. It would be unthinkable that the opening would be delayed for want of rolling stock. It would appear to be extremely unlikely that extra rolling stock would be available on opening day, but most new or extended tube lines take time for traffic to build up so it may be that London Underground implements a short term plan to provide a limited service to Battersea with the stock that it has.

Around 2021 the Bank Station Upgrade will be completed. It may be that the station has been sufficiently upgraded before this date for an earlier increase in service to be introduced – if there is the rolling stock.

Depending on what the rolling stock strategy is, it may be that the Northern Line has gone to the top of the queue to receive new cabless trains. If that is the case and a full split is to take place then this will take place soon after the Bank Station upgrade. It would then be possible to run at least 27tph on the new Morden – High Barnet Line as far as north Finchley Central, although 27tph may well have been implemented a few years previously. It remains to be seen how Mill Hill East is handled.

The number of trains per hour would be expected to increase gradually to reach 30-33tph. Note that the split has to be Morden-High Barnet and Battersea-Edgware due to the main depots being at Morden and Golders Green. On the Battersea-Edgware Line we can be reasonably confident that by the time HS2 opens around 2026 this too will be operating at near maximum capacity, which would be also presumed to be around 30-33tph.

A Complex Plan

Although the constituent parts of the plan may all be sound, it is apparent that this is quite a complicated plan. Like all plans it is reliant on funding for every part of it. It is also reliant on the Deep Tube project producing the goods, namely cabless tube trains, in the timescale required.

For the first time in a long, long time, however, it appears that the fortunes of “the Misery Line” are now looking up. If all the disparate elements of the Northern Line work come together, then we will see increased tube capacity and reliability in central London. One would be getting something that was equivalent to around half of a new tube line at a fraction of the cost – something that all parties would agree would be of enormous benefit to London.

Written by Pedantic of Purley