A Study in Sussex Part 5: Up The Junction
In our quest to look at capacity issues and opportunities in Sussex we come to part 5 and are still only as far south as Clapham Junction – and we still haven’t yet looked at London Bridge in this context. Within our look at Victoria it appeared that the terminal station was not a major problem. At least with our look at Clapham Junction we are getting to the heart of one of the major problems that prevents a better train service to Sussex.
It is worth noting here that we do not look exclusively at Clapham Junction from the perspective of the Brighton Line. The problem of the station being generally fit for purpose for the number of passengers using it is also important to consider. For this we have to look at the whole station and whilst we are here we might as well also look at other enhancements taking place.
Clapham Junction – an interesting station
Certain stations are interesting thanks to their singularity. Until recently this could probably have been said of Clapham Junction. It has 17 platforms which is far more than almost any other station that, at the end of the day, is just a suburban station. Currently only Stratford is really comparable, although maybe one day Old Oak Common will also be in the same category.
Clapham Junction station is in two parts – one hesitates to call them halves given that one is much bigger than the other. There is the western side with platforms 1-6. Platforms 1 and 2 are for London Overground services and platforms 3-6 serve the Windsor lines into Waterloo run by South West Trains. On the eastern side are platforms 7-11 for South West Trains Waterloo services to and from Wimbledon and beyond, platforms 12-15 for Southern services into Victoria and 16 and 17 for Southern services heading to Shepherds Bush and beyond via the West London Line. A diagram of the station layout can be found here.
As can be seen from the picture below, the area lying between the tracks which separates the two parts of the station is quite enormous and is used to stable trains – including an old slam-door set. There is space which could be reallocated to build additional platforms, which would perhaps help overcome some of the issues at Clapham Junction. The trouble is, as Carto Metro shows, the price of losing essential access to the very useful stabling area is probably too high.
Busiest station in Britain, reputedly
Clapham Junction is claimed to be the busiest station in Britain. Of course that depends on how you measure it. If you stick to National Rail services and include services which, or passengers who, simply pass through it then it is probably true. As Diamond Geezer’s wonderful collation of rail usage statistics shows though, in terms of passengers entering or leaving the station Clapham Junction is no longer the busiest National Rail station that isn’t a London terminus. That crown was lost this year to Stratford.
Of course, what makes Clapham Junction really busy is the number of people changing trains there – people who never venture outside the station and probably have little geographic idea of where Clapham Junction station is. The figures over the last ten years show (with one exception) that the number changing trains there is almost identical (within a few percentage points) of the number of people entering or exiting the station.
The sheer number of people changing trains at Clapham Junction and the need for sufficient interchange facilities is one of the two major problems that still needs to be addressed. The other is the obvious one – the need to run more trains through the station. That’s not to say that a huge amount of work to tackle the interchange issue hasn’t already been done. As with a lot of enhancement programs, however, one must not presume that just because a lot of (passenger) capacity upgrade has taken place in the past the problem has been solved for the foreseeable future.
Indeed one of the problems, if one can call it that, is that the very improvements designed to relieve passenger congestion within the station inevitably make the station more attractive to use. The reopened entrance in Brighton Yard is a perfect drop off point for passengers and seems to attract a steady stream of “kiss and ride” passengers who may well have not have previously used the station. Not only that but this reopened entrance provides relatively secure covered storage for cycles, thus attracting another group of users who might have previously been reluctant to consider Clapham Junction.
Many passengers nowadays seem to have remarkably voluminous and heavy suitcases that would have simply been almost impossible to lug around before lifts were installed serving all platforms. Using Clapham Junction in the past oft-times also involved the unpleasantness of waiting on a platform on a freezing winter’s day. For users of platform 13 or 14, at any rate, this is now tempered by the refurbishing and reopening of the former platform waiting room after many years of alternative use.
Busy, busier, busiest?
Clapham Junction has also become considerably busier in the past ten years – far more than the average increase in passenger numbers across London as a whole should dictate. In fact in the past ten years both entrance and exit figures and interchange figures have nearly doubled.
Life moves pretty fast sometimes…
There is no obvious single reason for this increase, but one factor is certainly the change in the nature of fast train stopping patterns. Within recent living memory Clapham Junction was basically just a suburban station with all-stations services stopping there. Most fast trains passed through without stopping. Not only that but the trains that did stop were never advertised at Victoria as stopping at Clapham Junction and the timetable would mark Clapham Junction as pick up only. Whether this was to make sure space was available for those joining at Clapham Junction, or was to minimise the critical dwell time there is not known. What is known is that a lot of savvy commuters at Victoria knew anyway which trains stopped at Clapham Junction and boarded them regardless.
What is clear is that as more trains stopped at Clapham Junction more people changed there. So long as you don’t have to wait too long for a connecting train there are a lot journeys that are best made via Clapham Junction. For example, if going to Heathrow from East Croydon, and you don’t want to pay for Heathrow Express, then the fastest way by public transport is by train to Feltham via Clapham Junction and then bus to either the terminal or to Hatton Cross to pick up the Piccadilly Line. Surprisingly East Croydon to Wimbledon via Clapham Junction beats the direct tram.
Clapham Junction – an information black hole
What is surprising about the information displayed at Clapham Junction, given it is a major interchange station, is just how difficult it is to find out which platform your next train will depart from. This is not such an issue if using National Rail Enquiries website to plan your journey as the platform will be shown. Nor it is an issue for most regular travellers. On the other hand for passengers who are unfamiliar with the workings of the station changing at this station must be quite a daunting prospect and something it is not really geared up to. This of course is worse if the unfamiliar traveller is travelling with luggage.
For many years the only way in and out of Clapham Junction station was by means of an underground subway. This could, of course, be used for interchange as well. In addition to this there was an overbridge providing access to all platforms but no entrance or exit. The overbridge is spacious – or at least was before they put retail units on it. It has copious displays and boards at the top of the steps to each platform giving information about train departures and passengers can find which platform they need without obstructing the passageway. Unfortunately they can only do this by checking each platform in turn.
The lack of information about trains from other platforms can be particularly frustrating if wanting the West London line. In the morning peak hour, for example, from 08.00 there are 4 trains from platform 1 and from platforms 16 and 17, at the other side of the station, there are 2 further trains from each platform (8 in all).
The subway, by means of a contrast to the overbridge, can become very cramped and, when busy, it is difficult to find which platform your train is due to depart from without obstructing other people. There is the same problem when it comes to catching a West London Line train.
Access for All
As recently as 2011 there was a huge improvement in interchange facilities as a result of an Access for All scheme at Clapham Junction. The program naturally included lifts to all platforms but it also needed to provide step-free access to the street. This it achieved by re-opening a long-closed entrance on a road called St John’s Hill. The entrance is called the Brighton Yard entrance but somewhat confusingly the other long-standing entrance on the eastern side is also in St John’s Hill and is called the St John’s Hill entrance. As a result of the reopening of the Brighton Yard entrance Clapham Junction now has three distinct entrances.
Another important aspect of the Access for All program was to replace the toilets which were unsatisfactorily located in the subway. The new ones (including a disabled one) are at the end of the footbridge by the new Brighton Yard entrance. Sadly they are not always as clean as one would like but at 20p they are 10p cheaper than most toilets in London terminals.
The Access for All scheme was not cheap – as you would expect at a station of this size. The final cost was £13.2 million at 2011 prices. One reason for its justification was that by doing just this one station it opened up a host of newly possible journeys with step free access – although the problem of the gap between the train and the platform, particularly bad at Clapham Junction, remains. Like all Access for All schemes, the benefits of Access for All benefit all passengers whether considered disabled or not. In the case of Clapham Junction the reopened entrance relieves pressure on the subway and many platforms received much-needed improvements to the stairs as well as new lifts.
London Overground already had a presence at Clapham Junction as its 3 car trains on the West London Line terminated there. Subsequent to the Access for All work at Clapham Junction the presence of London Overground has increased with the arrival of trains from the East London Line at a new platform 2. Meanwhile the 3 car trains have been replaced by 4 car ones.
The extra demand created by the enhanced presence of London Overground has led to a new staircase being built next to an existing one from the London Overground platforms to the overbridge – such is the popularity of London Overground here. This popularity can be clearly seen on days when there is exceptional demand. A typical example is during tube strikes but a more recent example is the blockade at London Bridge. So expect the London Overground to be very popular at Clapham Junction between Christmas 2014 and New Year when the second London Bridge blockade will take place. On these days crowd control measures are implemented on the overbridge, which is fortunately very wide and unobstructed at this point, and the bridge appears to be able to safely take the weight of the intending passengers queuing on it.
One very obvious problem is that the nice wide staircase to platforms 1 and 2 from the overbridge is the intuitive way to exit the station via the Grant Road exit (also known as the Winstanley Road exit) on the west side of the station. The users of this wide staircase, unless catching a London Overground train, are funnelled into a much narrower staircase from the platform to the paid side of Grant Road ticket office. It is therefore not at all surprising that a commenter reported that there was a rumour that Network Rail were looking at a fourth exit from the west end of the footbridge onto Grant Road. Such a footbridge would logically complement the new Brighton Yard entrance on the east side of the footbridge. It would also mean that there was an entrance at each end of the subway and also at each end of the footbridge.
An alternative possibility, with many of the advantages of a new exit from the west end of the footbridge, would be an entrance from Grant Road that led directly to the London Overground platforms. This would reduce the height of any new staircase (or escalators) required which would be substantial at this point.
Assuming the rumour of plans for a fourth entrance to be true, what may be a big consideration as to the exact configuration of such access is whether or not there is a need to preserve the possibility of bringing the long abandoned platform 1 back into use. Curiously this is now designated platform 0, although there is no track alongside.
Reinstatement of platform 0 would be expensive, which is why London Overground opted for the cheaper option of staggering the original platform 2 to provide two separate short platforms – now numbered 1 and 2. Although expensive though, it would actually be relatively easy to do by replacing the deteriorating ironwork that supports the foundations of the track at that point. Of course, inevitably, Network Rail engineers can’t see a piece of disused trackbed without feeling an overwhelming urge to put some trackside apparatus onto it so there would also be the issue of the relocation of a few trackside cabinets.
Work on the current platforms 1 and 2 is not the only major platform work carried out recently. In the past few weeks platform 17 (the down West London Line) has been extended from 4 to 8 carriages. From the adjacent platforms this may have looked like a simple job, but the platform is at a considerable height above ground level and the worksite was more substantial than one might initially expect for what would appear to be a straightforward platform lengthening task. In many ways the result is rather unsatisfactory, with a wiggly shaped platform on a slight slope, but it is hard to see how that could have been avoided without substantial works.
As part of the work to extend the platform, direct access was provided from platform 17 to the subway and consequently to the St John’s Hill exit. This should do a lot to overcome the feeling that platform 17 is the hidden and inaccessible platform at Clapham Junction. Unfortunately it is not as clearly marked as it could be and so it easy to walk past without noticing it.
The far-from-obvious location of the lift for platform 17 may mean the perception of the platform being difficult to find is replaced by a new one of being difficult to access. Even without the problem of finding the lift there may be good reason for this perception as the step between the train and the platform is rather large. This gap is terrible on most platforms at Clapham Junction, but is truly awful on platform 17.
More and longer trains
There was clearly a need to make Clapham Junction suitable for the number of people that use it. Many would say that the need is still there despite the many improvements made. If there is any comfort it is that for above-ground stations this is generally a very solvable problem. What is often far more intractable, and certainly is the case at Clapham Junction, is to provide a better rail service by stopping more and longer trains there.
Because we are looking at the service to and from Sussex we really only need to look in detail at the Sussex fast lines which normally use platforms 12 and 13. These are very busy platforms both in the number of people that use them and the number of trains stopping there.
In addition to the stopping trains on the lines through platforms 12 and 13 there are 4tph Gatwick Express trains that do not stop but pass through. Nowadays these are the only Southern trains not to stop at Clapham Junction (Gatwick Express being run by Southern) and we are told the only reason they don’t stop is because the dwell time makes it unfeasible.
It has been a long term aspiration to have Gatwick Express trains call at Clapham Junction but it just isn’t possible without reducing the Southern service elsewhere. This would be the case even if the Gatwick Express service weren’t run using class 442 units featuring 23m carriages with a single door at each end – something which would lead to horrendous dwell times.
As well as the issue of dwell times, class 442 trains were built with ancient underpowered traction motors salvaged from earlier stock. This means that running the trains fast through Clapham Junction is very useful to make up time that is lost by being unable to accelerate as fast as other trains on the line. The new TSGN operators that will run the service in future intend to replace the Gatwick Express trains with modern stock but that will not be enough to make it possible for these trains to stop at Clapham Junction.
Although the reason given for not stopping Gatwick Express trains at Clapham Junction is the dwell time, another consideration is, or ought to be, the ability of the station to handle more airport passengers. The lifts can be pretty busy as it is and a solitary small lift at each platform would really be quite inadequate for dispersing jet-lagged airline passengers with their large wheeled suitcases. Platform 12 is quite busy enough in the morning but fortunately it has four staircases and a lift. A small crowd of tired and lost airline passengers would probably interrupt the relatively good flow of passengers.
As an indication as to how well used a stop at Clapham Junction for the Gatwick Express might be, it might come as quite as surprise to those who don’t use the line just how much a Southern fast train originating from beyond London can empty out at Clapham Junction on its morning inward journey. It is not unusual for a train that has many standing passengers on approaching Clapham Junction to have all passengers seated on departure. In the evening the fast down platform (platform 13) has throngs of waiting passenger preparing to join at Clapham Junction and here the converse is true and a train that may not have been that crowded on leaving Victoria is packed on departure from platform 13.
So what’s the problem?
The problem with the tracks through Clapham Junction fast platforms is that they cannot handle any more trains. During the peak period there are roughly 16tph and of those four are Gatwick Express trains that don’t stop there. With the current signalling this is about all that can be achieved. So what is to be done? There are some minor improvements that have been and can be made. Beyond that Network Rail currently has two ideas as to how to solve this. Unfortunately one option is expensive and the other one is very expensive.
And the solution?
The first minor improvement was implemented not that long ago and was very simple. Indeed the wonder is that it hadn’t been done before. All it involved was issuing an instruction to train operating staff that Southern up trains (fast on platform 12, slow on platform 14) were not to wait until their booked time to depart but were to leave as soon as they were ready. In other words trains were not to hog the platform unnecessarily.
The second thing that could be done is to reduce boarding time by making sure the gap between platform and train was minimised. Even if this could make 5 seconds difference per train then this would amount to a minute in each hour. The height of the platform might not affect fit regular commuters so much but can make a considerable difference to the time taken to board by those who carry heavy suitcases, push a buggy or have a slight disability.
Is modern signalling the answer?
Unfortunately, beyond optimising the platform, something big needs to be done. One approach that Network Rail is looking at is very simple in principle. Run the trains in automatic (ATO – Automatic Train Operation) mode to increase throughput. Tests run on simulators as part of the Thameslink Programme have convinced Network Rail that this would make a significant difference and the benefit would also apply elsewhere. Not only would it eliminate the human factor that leads to over-cautious braking, it would allow trains to “creep up” on the previous train so the next train occupies the platform much sooner after the previous train had departed. This is what happens on ATO lines of London Underground in order to obtain train frequencies that are just not possible with manual driving.
Naturally updating the signalling would not be cheap but ATO in the form of ETCS (European Train Control System) could be overlaid on top of a modern existing signalling system. It would also follow that it would be very difficult to justify the cost of fitting this both to the track and to the trains just for this one problem. However, as we shall see in future, ETCS would be of benefit elsewhere so it is believed that in the early 2020s this could be a viable solution when all the potential benefits considered together.
Even if ATO were viable though, it probably would not buy much extra capacity at Clapham Junction. In any case that capacity may be very quickly used up if it was decided to allow a station stop at Clapham Junction for Gatwick Express trains. So it looks as if something more radical would be required by the mid 2020s.
There have been various schemes to resolve the issues at Clapham Junction. In the early days of privatisation, Sea Containers, who were bidding for a franchise, proposed a radical scheme involving relocating the station. In those early Railtrack days there was a bit of a presumption it would be the TOCs who would lead the way on enhancements. That first round of franchising did have some interesting ideas inspired by TOCs. It did seem though that the scheme had not be fully, or even partially, costed and in any case there was not any absolute commitment to invoke the scheme if a TOC got the franchise. It was also the case that a short franchise of about seven years would be woefully short compared with time it would take to fully implement such a solution and it would be far from clear what would happen if the franchise were not renewed.
In a similar vein to Sea Containers there was the scheme, probably initially developed by Railtrack, for two enormous towers at Clapham Junction to fund a rebuilt station. Not surprisingly Wandsworth Council were having none of it and that may have been influenced by Railtrack having a record of not being too enthusiastic in actually getting down to implement schemes that they were supposedly committed to – Thameslink 2000 being a particular case in point.
The Big Idea
Since then Network Rail have worked up the basis of a scheme to use what Southern platforms they have more effectively. In particular platforms 16 and 17 (West London Lines) may see one or two trains an hour whilst the next pair (14 and 15 for the Southern slows) would be pretty much at capacity with 16tph and the fast platforms, as we have seen, have no spare capacity at all due to a combination of dwell time and sub-optimal signalling.
The idea is simple in principle although probably very expensive to implement. Install facing crossovers so that platforms 12, 13 and 14 can serve the fast lines and platforms 15, 16 and 17 can serve the slow West London lines. In simple terms, organise platforms 12-17 in a manner very similar to the current day platforms 1-6 at East Croydon.
In the morning peak platforms 12, 13, 15 and 16 would be up lines and 14 and 17 would be the down lines. In the evening peak the situation would change so 12 and 15 would be up lines and 13, 14 and 17 would be down lines. In the evening peak platform 16 would still have to handle the up (e.g towards Shepherd’s Bush) West London Line traffic as this would not be accessible from platform 15. Ideally platform 16 would also be able to handle down trains in the evening peak as well but the track south of the platform is already sharply curved and it could be very challenging to install a crossover which would be necessary for this to be possible.
An obvious problem with this scheme is the lack of length of platform 17 which has only in the past few weeks been extended, rather awkwardly, to be 8 cars long. Because of the need to extend slow platforms for possible future 12 car use and, in the case of platform 17, straighten it out, it is presumed that this scheme would not be possible without obtaining additional land. In the event of such a scheme going ahead, one suspects that one day it will be hard to do one’s local shopping at Lidl if living near the station.
If plans for the distant future come to fruition it would seem that Clapham Junction will just get busier and busier. There are plans for a Crossrail 2 station here in around 2026. This might provide some relief for the South West Trains lines but for the Brighton Line it is not going to provide any relief here. In fact it will probably make the situation worse as people change to Crossrail 2. The one silver lining for the Brighton Line may be that, with an alternative route from Clapham Junction to Victoria, it could in future be possible to carry out major reconstruction and maintenance projects at Victoria without inconveniencing passengers too much.
Beyond Crossrail 2 we have a very tentative proposal to further extend the Battersea Extension of the Northern Line to Clapham Junction in the 2040s. Like Crossrail 2, it is hard to see how this would help relieve the Brighton Main Line at its busiest as the only relief it would provide would be north of Clapham Junction but, as we have already seen, the busiest stretches of line are south of Clapham Junction.
Returning to the near future, it would seem to be the case that capacity problems at Clapham Junction are solvable if enough money is thrown at it. Naturally, as far as looking at capacity in Sussex is concerned, these are only relevant for trains going to Victoria. Before we get further down the line we need to look at the London Bridge side of the Brighton Main Line and we will do that next.
Thanks to ngh for drawing the track diagrams and various people at Network Rail for giving an outline as to what their plans for the future may involve.