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Train frequency on the London Overground network has shot up as Transport for London completes its upgrade programme of the constituent lines, stations and rolling stock – with passengers constantly filling the additional capacity. Howard Smith, TfL’s chief operating officer for London rail, is both happy and scared at the prospect…

London is benefiting hugely from capital investment, and is just a few years away from a confluence of projects whose completion will have transformed rail in the capital – most notably Crossrail, the Tube upgrades, Thameslink and the extended London Overground network.

The increases in capacity, service frequency, journey options and sheer comfort that this combination will unlock is startling.

The London Overground network, prioritised because of next year’s Olympic Games, will be the first of these major transformations to be ‘finished’, following the upgrades to the North London Line (NLL) and East London Line (ELL), and the upcoming ‘phase two’ of the ELL works, linking Surrey Quays to Clapham Junction to complete the orbital network, as described in the last edition of RTM.

The train now arriving…

Howard Smith, TfL’s chief operating officer for London rail, said that at £75m, that project is “a bit of a bargain”, adding: “It provides so much new capacity and new linkages around south London.”

The project involves the construction of about a kilometre of new track, which will link up with the national rail lines to Clapham.

Smith said: “The intention is to use it to run four trains an hour from Clapham Junction round onto the core of the ELL and up to either Dalston or Highbury, so the passengers in south London will receive an absolute minimum of four trains an hour service. Some stations which have other services as well, such as Peckham Rye and Denmark Hill will have far more. That’s a turn-up-and-go service with Overground, and the four services, when they run onto the core of the ELL section of the Overground, will increase frequency there by 33%, from 12 trains an hour to 16 an hour. That’s really badly needed, because after having opened the ELL, that section of the Overground, just over a year ago, we are already full in parts of the peak and quite a decent proportion of the day so the extra capacity is really badly needed.

“Physically, the NLL was completed in about April and from the timetable change in May we stepped up the service so the core of the NLL from Stratford through to Willesden in the peak now has eight trains an hour. That compares with about three trains an hour – increased to four or occasionally even five in the peak, but using much smaller trains, when we took over just under four years ago – we’ve effectively more than doubled the frequency. We’ve increased the capacity by an even bigger percentage, and the good news is that they’re all new air-conditions trains, and the stations have been refurbished.

“You don’t get much self-satisfaction in railways, and I’m less self-satisfied than most, but at the moment Overground is doing extremely well!”

Statistically speaking

Overground’s performance in the PPM statistics, already impressive, is creeping even higher, threatening the dominance of Merseyrail – whose passenger transport authority has recently rejected plans to further integrate track and train operations.

Smith noted also that in Passenger Focus’s National Passenger Survey, Overground “shot up” to 89%.

He added: “As Passenger Focus were kind enough to pick out, some of the sections on some of the lines showed some of the highest scores ever for a franchise or concession service. The only people who have ever beaten it were the genuinely-lamented Wrexham & Shropshire, with their free breakfasts and things like that. Free breakfasts aren’t really an option for us, so we just have to run smart trains on time!”

Less of the levers

Another change for some of the old hands has been the shift on the NLL to signalling control from Upminster.

Smith said: “It’s a standard SSI installation – very computerised – but it now controls the whole of the NLL as far as Acton Wells box, so at Willesden now you’re looking to Upminster for signalling; that’s a bit of a culture shock for staff who’ve been used to men pulling levers. It also took over a whole series of very fragmented signalling activities on the NLL, like the Dalston Western Curve box, which has been there since, we think, 1865.  

“But looking forward now, it’s all about the Games – the upgrade was paid for principally by TfL, but the second biggest contributor was the Olympic Delivery Authority, alongside Network Rail, and we’re looking forward to running that full service, eight trains an hour, pretty well all day every day for the Games period, moving thousands of people into and out of the Olympic site at Stratford.”

Standing room only?

In most other parts of the country, such rapid increases in capacity and service frequency would be with one eye on the future, with the understanding that there would empty seats in the short term.

Smith said: “The extra capacity we’re putting in is to deal with the growth we foresee in the short term – you always want more passengers, and there’s always a balance to be struck. At one stage there was a very grandiose and more expensive plan for upgrading the ELL that gave us eight-car trains. Eight-car trains would be lovely, but the question is, do you wait until you’ve got a scheme that gives you eight-car trains, or do you do the one we did? The answer is, we very successfully have done what we have done, and now we’ve got to look at how we increase the frequency or the length of trains.

“The other characteristic of the orbital Overground lines is that they’ve got almost infinite latent demand. So many of the journeys you can make on Overground have very close comparators with journeys where the alternative is to travel across London. It’s therefore enormously beneficial in taking passengers out of central London. I live near Richmond, so the journey I talk about is Richmond to Highbury & Islington. The way to do that until very recently would have been to go up to Vauxhall, on a crowded South West Trains service, and then go on the Victoria Line through the most crowded part of central London in the peak. Now, with an upgraded and more frequent NLL, it’s far more sensible to go round the orbital network. It’s good for passengers, but the orbital network is also incredibly useful in terms of decongesting some very busy and expensive-to-work-on parts of the Tube network, and the inner London rail network.”

People, people, everywhere

“You could almost fill any train that you can put onto the Orbital network,” Smith continues. “The flows that you can divert, if you can get just a fraction of the flows of people making their way into central London and crossing it, well, your trains look very full. The other example is the West London Line – I was on that this morning – and up until a couple of months ago we were running two trains an hour and three in the peak. We’re now running four; Southern run their two or three on top of that – and if you were at Shepherd’s Bush this morning, you’d see that every single one of them was coming in full. Those people, physically, can’t have been there eight weeks ago because they couldn’t have got on the trains that were being run. The ability to switch people across and get them onto something they find attractive and frequent is heartening but also slightly frightening if you’re trying to manage capacity!”

London Overground is also an unusual example of line and track infrastructure upgrades accompanied by station refurbishments and new rolling stock.

Smith said: “That’s something that hasn’t been done properly, you might say, since the days of Network SouthEast, who used to do total route modernisation. There are some real benefits of bringing all the aspects up at the same time.” 

Finding the money

Despite the money being spent, no budget is infinite, and the grandest plans to overhaul Highbury & Islington station, for example, had to be scaled back.

Smith told us: “Although we serve it quite substantially with our services, it’s technically an LU station, so they’ve led on the works there. What has been done is the Overground tracks upstairs were slewed over to create the new space for the ELL, so we’ve now got four platforms for Overground, two terminating round from the ELL, and two through-platforms, where there were previously just the two through-platforms. Upstairs, LU has built and opened their new control centre which allowed us to make the most of the new station and control the information systems.

“What isn’t likely to go ahead, because of the cost, is making the station step-free by opening up the old station over the other side of the road, and using that to sink a shaft down to the Victoria line platforms. That, frankly, is just too expensive. We’re delighted with the settlement we got in terms of allowing Crossrail to go ahead, to do the Overground, and do the Tube upgrades as well; but the money for that upgrade at Highbury & Islington just can’t be found.”


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