Beyond Thameslink and Crossrail: A London Transport Update
Accounts of what is happening in the world of transport in London in the past few months have largely been focused on Crossrail and Thameslink. Whilst these two major construction projects (together totalling over £22billion) have their own problems, it should not be forgotten that other issues in the transport world continue to make their presence felt.
The publicity concerning the big projects tends to mask the substantial issues that TfL are now experiencing on a lot of their smaller, but strategically important, projects. To provide a break from Crossrail and Thameslink we take a look at various TfL schemes.
Four lines modernisation
The main outstanding part of this enormous programme is the resignalling of the subsurface railway (Circle, District, Hammersmith & City and Metropolitan lines). This is being replaced and upgraded to automatic train operation (ATO) in order that more frequent services can be run. The system will be similar to that currently operating on the Northern and Jubilee lines but will rely on wireless technology to a greater extent than is currently found there.
As TfL staff like to remind the TfL Board, you don’t get the main capacity benefits of the entire project until the new signalling is in place. They tend not to add that signal failures on the subsurface railway are currently one of the ‘big three’ causes of delays on the Underground.
What was supposed to happen in late June was that the first small section of the subsurface railway would go live with the new signalling. It would have only been between Hammersmith and Latimer Road stations. This meant only five stations were affected and it was on a section of a dead-end route with no pointwork involved other than at the Hammersmith terminus and access to the stabling sidings – also at Hammersmith. Despite promising reports of successful running during trial periods of previous weekend closures, the planned live implementation was quickly abandoned on the Saturday morning in question.
The problem appeared to be the failure of the trains to communicate with the lineside antenna. The system, updated since being installed on the Northern and Jubilee lines, does away with track loops (the orange cable between the rails). This is certainly a good thing, as in the long term it will facilitate maintenance and should be more reliable, but it seems to be experiencing some teething problems at the moment.
TfL has made much of the resignalling schedule being greatly in advance of contractual dates, but this does seem to be slipping with phase 2 already put back from September 2018 to January 2019. A second attempt to go live seems to have been planned for this weekend (21st – 22nd July 2018) and the weekend closures notice show the relevant track closures. One unsubstantiated comment on District Dave’s Forum, however, suggests that even this has been put back to September.
This may have knock on effects elsewhere. Naturally, Thales have only a limited supply of signalling engineers. So one wonders if the longer the Four Lines Modernisation goes on, the less the opportunity they have to tweak and improve the signalling on the Northern and Jubilee lines for some relatively easy wins.
32tph to Morden on the Northern line
Way back in September 2013, TfL gave a presentation to Camden Council showing (on page 13) the planned 32tph to Morden on the Northern line from December 2014. Since then other aspects of the plan have been introduced. Furthermore, when the issue of the cancelled future Northern and Jubilee line trains was looked into at an Assembly Transport Meeting in November 2017, TfL assured the Assembly Members that the 32tph to Morden was not affected and would still go ahead. The date given for introduction was September 2019, which meant that the previous postponed date had already slipped again from April 2019.
At the latest Programme and Investment paper this was then further descoped and delayed to
A minimum of 31 trains per hour on the Morden branch in peak periods in early 2020
which was accepted by committee members without challenging it.
One would really like to think that they will manage more than the 31tph, given that this is the first time such a low figure has been quoted and it has always been the case that 32tph was not supposed to be dependent on extra Tube trains.
Increased frequencies for the Northern line
In conjunction with the probably-not-happening 32tph to Morden, there was optimism expressed that some increase in frequency could be achieved on the central sections of the Northern line. Now all that is promised is an extra 1tph on the Bank central section to provide a total of 27tph, which is tied in with the extra 1tph from Morden in the peaks. Note that this probably means one extra train in one direction in the busiest hour of the peaks – often referred to as a ‘push through’. Basically the timetable is adjusted to squeeze an extra train in.
One of the disappointments of the lack of an improved service is that the capacity enhancement benefit of Bank station will not be translated into more than a few extra passengers being able to use the Underground, since the constraint on space on trains will still apply.
Slightly concerning for the future is the extra housing development taking place at Colindale. This is above and beyond the already extensive recent high-rise development there. This latest phase is a consequence of the sale of land that previously made up the Metropolitan Police training centre. It may well be that, in future, considerable use of the turnback siding at Colindale may be necessary to turn back some trains currently destined for Edgware. This would release trains to provide an enhanced service as far as Colindale. The final two stations (Burnt Oak and Edgware) are busy, but not nearly as busy as Colindale will be. As one TfL board member said, think of it as another Barking Reach.
Note that by the time Bank station upgrade is finished and the Colindale development is largely complete, Thales and TfL may well have signal engineers free to look again at extracting some improvements from the signalling system.
It is just about possible that there is a bit of long term thinking going on. It would be embarrassing for the government if Euston HS2 opened and the Northern line was only operating at around 24tph on the central sections (Charing Cross and Bank branches). HS2 looks like being delayed a bit but will probably open in some form with new platforms at an enhanced Euston station. If it were delayed to say 2028, or even later as has been suggested, for the first phase, and later still if a second phase took place, then there might be an opportunity to persuade the government to assist in buying some new trains for the Northern line. By 2028 the existing trains will have been in service for around 30 years and could be supplemented by new trains (Deep Tube Project or otherwise) that could be the vanguard for a future replacement order. If so, not to be underestimated is the cost and challenge of finding substantial extra stabling space for the Northern line.
Jubilee line 32tph
This appears to be a success story. When the new Jubilee line train order was cancelled last year there was some doubt as to whether even 32tph could be run between West Hampstead and North Greenwich. It now seems that TfL are confident this can be done with existing stock – although not until December 2021.
In a similar way to the Northern line, one wonders if any account has been taken of the enormous proposed further development of Canada Water. Unlike the Northern line there is no simple solution to any future capacity issues here. Adding more trains that happen to be available from a different rolling stock series isn’t an option, because of the presence of platform edge doors.
The Victoria line is always touted as the success story with 36tph in the peak. It is a success story, but there remains part of the plan that has not yet been implemented. The 36tph runs for about 80 minutes in the peak period though TfL talk of it as 90 minutes. The plan was to go for operating it for three hours in the peaks, with a gradual build-up over various iterations of the timetable. The evening peak is easier to do because you don’t have the problem of getting 41 trains into service in approximately two hours from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m.
The plan was for the Victoria line to operate 36tph for three hours in each peak from June 2018 but that plan went from being talked up to not being referred to. It did seem a bit surprising that the date of June 2018 was ever suggested, because the proposal is supposed to be dependent on signalling works at Northumberland Park depot to assist in getting the trains out quicker and that work hasn’t yet started.
At present there is no suggested date as to when the full three hour peak service will operate or – entirely possible – it is simply now an aspiration rather than a concrete plan.
Victoria and Bank Station upgrades
Most of the Victoria upgrade project is going well and it is nearly complete as far as the travelling public are concerned. The main delay is to the step-free access to Circle and District line platforms, due to contractual issues with the lift installation. This should be completed by December 2018.
For the most part, Bank also seems to be going well, with good reports on progress. However, at the start of the construction phase the final completion date for the entrance on Cannon Street was put back from 2021 to 2022. Whilst a lot of the benefits underground will still be apparent by Autumn 2020, the delay relating to the planned, highly-visible new entrance will be a disappointment to the City of London.
Bank Station – Bloomberg entrance
This has almost become a standing joke, with its schedule continually put back, yet it mysteriously remaining on track as the planned completion date is then suitable adjusted at the same time.
The original plan was that this entrance, located in Walbrook and providing direct access to the Waterloo and City platforms, would open in 2012. The entrance shell would be provided by the developer of the Bloomberg Building and all that London Underground had to do was fit it out.
The first three years delay were entirely due to the developer. In a sense the delay didn’t really matter because, as long as the development was delayed, the need for the new entrance was limited. In October 2013 we reported that the entrance was due to open in December 2015.
In fact, further contractor delays associated with the development meant that it was much later than intended that the shell was formally handed over to London Underground. Since then the fit-out appears to have been problematic, with fire doors not to specification and monitor and control systems being responsible for further delays. The expectation would have been that the entrance opened when the new building opened. A new Waterloo & City line timetable to cater for the Bloomberg building opening was introduced in October 2017.
In 2018 alone the planned opening month has so far been given as May, June, August, and now, December. The latest Investment Programme Report, in an amazing piece of chutzpah, states:
We are working with the contractor to ensure the station will open on time.
Crossrail did not start tunnelling until May 2012. Despite that, it looks like Crossrail will build and open a major new railway across London in little more time than it has taken the Bloomberg entrance to be completed. Indeed the expectation at LR Towers is that the Elizabeth line will open before this Tube entrance does.
Camden Town station upgrade
The project has a completion date of 2026. This appears to have slipped by a couple of years under the current proposals. Going back further, there is the 2004 scheme, when Ken Livingstone was Mayor, which was described as ‘essential’. The importance of the 2004 scheme going ahead was stressed because of the consequences that would happen if it did not – consequences that are played out every weekend due to the popularity of the Camden markets and the limited ability to get people in and out of the station.
The latest Investment Programme Report makes it clear that the purchase of the site of the former Hawley Infants School has not yet been completed. There is expected to be a public inquiry with construction due to begin in 2021.
Holborn station upgrade
Despite the urgent need, this is also a project that has delays measured in years before construction is started. In 2013 TfL was looking at commencing construction in 2018. It probably got delayed due to TfL’s financial position and the fact that a lot of the impetus was to get this built in advance of the Piccadilly line Deep Tube Upgrade.
The project’s completion date has been put back to 2029, with the first indication of this further delay being the recent consultation report. Despite us saying that postponing Holborn station reconstruction was not an option it seems that it is – or at least it is if you postpone the Piccadilly line Deep Tube Upgrade even further into the future. The further delay, meaning the completion is more than ten years away, tends to add more indications that money at TfL is really tight – and it looks like being very tight for a number of years to come.
Gospel Oak – Barking Electrification
Up until now, the projects mentioned are ones involving proposed future improvements that seem to be delayed or not happening. As such passenger awareness is limited and criticism tend to be muted. With Gospel Oak – Barking (GOBLIN) electrification the situation is somewhat different and this is rapidly becoming TfL’s ‘bête noire’.
The first problem with the delayed electrification is that passengers have already suffered – greatly. The line had been closed for months – and also longer than planned – for electrification wiring. The delays were down to Network Rail, but there was also amazement that TfL didn’t seem to know that the project was going horribly wrong, given that a visit to the worksites visible from public locations would have made it fairly clear that not all was right with the world.
The second problem, from a public relations point of view, is that the passengers waiting for their diesel train can now see the wires all in place. Furthermore, electric freight trains already use it. So it is somewhat upsetting for passengers when a crowded, two-car diesel train turns up rather than the four-car electric trains they were promised ‘from April 2018’.
If that wasn’t bad enough, recent reports suggest that there are times you are lucky if your diesel train turns up, as there have been a high number of cancellations. Some of these are because ‘pixie buster’ trains were removed from the timetable, but nevertheless continued to run and local passengers knew about these. Unfortunately when the leasor of the trains said they wanted one of their trains back, TfL were in no position to refuse. Worse still, the advertised timetable can’t be operated without cancellations if a train breaks down in service, because the ‘spare’ is probably undergoing maintenance. Diesel trains are less reliable than electric trains, need more maintenance and are probably affected more by the current hot weather. You can read what the Gospel Oak – Barking user group has to say about this here.
Worse still, there are no signs that the new trains, already built, are near to being approved for use into service. Software issues are apparently the cause of the problems. Even this wouldn’t matter if the diesel trains could continue in service indefinitely, but they were due in service with West Midlands Railway come the timetable change on 9th December.
In what could be a fortuitous saving grace for London Overground, because of the problems with the May 2018 rail timetable, West Midlands Railway is one of those TOCS that are required to continue with the current (May) timetable come December 2018. This does not in itself make it entirely clear that there is now no requirement for the class 172 trains to be reassigned to the Midlands in November or December 2018 but it does seem that London Overground is now in a much less awkward situation if the getting the new electric class 710s in service is delayed to the end of the year – or beyond.
In the now less likely event that the class 172 trains do have to go to the Midlands in order to be in passenger service then there would be a problem. Some time has to be allowed for driver training for the West Midlands in advance of introduction into service in the Midlands, so the trains really need to leave London at the beginning of November at the latest. That means that London Overground drivers, trained on the new trains, need to be ready by November. This suggests, even on this short route, that they need to commence training on the new electric stock at the start of October. So, as of mid-July, there is about eleven weeks to go before London Overground really needs the new trains – unless, in the meantime, they can get confirmation that they can continue with the existing trains. Using old class 315 electric trains made spare by the new Crossrail trains has been suggested as a fallback, but is generally discounted as being logistically impractical. Yet, without using these, it is hard to see any alternative back-up plan that does not involve replacement buses.
Just to really rub salt into the wound, even if the new trains did arrive in service to save the day, the latest proposals for the December timetable changes do not allow London Overground to make timetable changes. To what extent this will be strictly enforced is unknown, but it could mean that even if the electric trains arrive, they will be forced to run on diesel timings.
In effect, if TfL are not careful then they are headed for their own mini-GTR moment on a line which, though small, provides a critical piece of connectivity in north London. A line where they have already spent any passenger goodwill long ago.
North London line service improvements
Not only was London Overground expecting to have new class 710 trains available for the Gospel Oak – Barking line, they were expecting to have some to replace some class 378 trains currently on the Watford – Euston line. These class 378 trains could then be used to supplement the North London line. This would allow a 6tph all day service between Richmond and Stratford. This is something that London Overground has long aspired to.
It is looking less likely that these trains will be made available in time for the December 2019 timetable, but the slots are effectively ‘spoken for’ in the existing North London line timetable which has been written with this future service enhancement in mind. What remains to be seen is whether the trains will arrive and whether changes to the timetable will be permitted to allow them to be introduced.
A further complication to this plan is that the current proposal is to replace the five-car class 378 3tph service on the Watford Junction – Euston line with a four-car class 710 4tph service. This releases the necessary class 378 trains for the North London line enhanced service. If London Overground is not allowed to introduce a new timetable on the Watford Junction – Euston service come December they may not wish to replace the existing five-car trains with four-car trains.
With the Mayor’s proposal for Oxford Street in tatters thanks to a decision by Westminster Council, there is the outstanding issue of what is going to happen in December when Bond Street station gets much busier. The Mayor has described Westminster’s decision not to go ahead with the scheme as a betrayal. It has certainly put a major dent in his ‘Healthy Streets’ policy.
What appears to be the case now is that Westminster Council wants funds from TfL to fund a further study. TfL, not surprisingly, take the attitude that a study has already been done and paid for by TfL, so another study is not needed. It is unclear as to whether there will be some compromise arrangements implemented before December, or whether this will become the ultimate political football between Westminster and the Mayor (except that there is another contender).
The TfL board Programmes and Investment Committee have requested an update about Oxford Street for their next meeting so the situation should then become clearer.
CS11 cycle superhighway
To some extent the delays and problems with the Underground and London Overground are less fundamental to the current Mayor’s Transport Strategy than they were to previous mayors, as Sadiq Khan is placing a lot of emphasis on healthier streets. That is why, in many ways, the failure to pedestrianise Oxford Street is probably a bigger blow to his strategy than many might think.
CS11 is arguably one of the more imaginative cycle superhighways. It utilises Regents Park in an endeavour to make it a truly pleasant cycling route. Critical to it is a changed, cycle-friendly remodelling of Swiss Cottage junction. The scheme also involves more segregation than a lot of the earlier schemes.
Not surprisingly this scheme has not gone down at all well with various sections of the community, with Swiss Cottage Junction being the future battleground.
Raising its ugly head in a similar way is a judicial challenge to Cycle Highway CS11. Not entirely surprisingly, this comes from TfL’s ‘frenemy’ – Westminster Council. This despite the fact that the critical part of the scheme, Swiss Cottage, does not lie within the City of Westminster.
The City of Westminster seems to have grasped that they have to select their grounds for a judicial review very carefully and have chosen to do it on the basis of making air quality worse. It does seem quite incredible that a proposal to encourage people to use their bikes more should be opposed on the grounds of causing the air quality to deteriorate. No doubt, in the short term, Westminster could have a case, but the argument for the long term will include such hypotheticals as the take-up of electric vehicles, the effect of the Mayor’s plan for an Ultra Low Emission Zone, removal of congestion charge exemptions for private hire vehicles and other factors difficult to quantify. In addition Westminster has to show not merely that they think it is a bad decision but that the Mayor could not reasonably have made such a decision.
What is also not known is the extent to which reduction of injuries and fatalities is a legitimate factor in the Swiss Cottage proposals. One suspects road safety trumps an alleged deterioration in air quality but maybe a judge would have to decide on that point.
Whatever happens, if this goes to court, London Reconnections hopes to have another fascinating day at the Royal Courts of Justice.
Although the TfL schemes mentioned seem to be having their problems, they need to be put in some kind of context. If the Elizabeth line opens on time on the 9th December 2018, even if some of the stations are in a bit of an unfinished state, then these delays elsewhere will be almost insignificant in the bigger scheme of things. The TfL transport estate is wide, varied and complex. The challenges they currently face – particularly in terms of finance – are great. In that regard, that many of the projects here are still progressing, albeit with issues, is a significant achievement in itself. That doesn’t mean those issues shouldn’t be highlighted, however – particularly with regards to the GOBLIN, which has the genuine potential to fall foul of the same logistical issues that have plagued Thameslink, albeit on a smaller scale.
It also needs to be borne in mind that the Mayor’s Transport Strategy has significant elements to do with healthier living and air quality. These are subjects that we have hardly touched on, yet a lot of preparatory work in these areas is taking place in the background. With another Mayor we may have had headlines about issues concerning railway improvements striking at the heart of the Mayor’s Transport Strategy. With the current Mayor, this is still important, but some of the focus is elsewhere and the implementation of his Transport Policy needs to be seen against its broader context.