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Under and OVER

London is finally joining up the disconnected national rail lines that resulted from Parliament’s interventionism in the 1840s. Howard Smith, chief operating officer for London Rail at TfL, explains how it’s all coming together.

In March this year, another major step towards a true orbital railway for London was taken with the opening of the section between Dalston Junction and Highbury & Islington. By the end of next year, the entire circuit will be up and running, by linking Surrey Quays to Clapham Junction using existing national rail lines and the construction of 1.3km of new track near Millwall Football Club.

Howard Smith, chief operating officer for London Rail for TfL, told RTM that the orbital railway is a long-held dream and a vital strategic transport objective.

He said: “During the height of the railway mania in the 1840s, Parliament stopped people building railways across the centre of London, and now, well over 160 years on, London still consists of a set of ridged radial routes that basically bring you to the edge of town but no further.

“From the perspective of, say, a typical Asian city it appears extraordinarily odd: everybody gets out of these long-distance radial trains, then walks or Boris bikes or goes down to the Underground in great numbers, all transferring themselves up and down to get to another train station.

“The significance of the orbital railway is that it cuts across the capital and resolves exactly those problems. It allows people to avoid coming into town; it allows them to make links around the edge of town, as the North London line very characteristically does. You can get off at Willesden, you can get on a different route at West Hampstead, you can travel from West Hampstead to Highbury, and avoid that journey into town.

“The other thing the Overground does, although we call it ‘orbital’, is to also provide cross-river links. The West London line up from Clapham and, obviously, the East London line, don’t go across the absolute heart of London as Crossrail will, but they do avoid the need to actually change while going between north and south London.

“So that’s the strategic importance, which was all effectively forgotten about. Certainly, 30 years ago, people were almost envisaging the complete closure of most of these lines and some of them didn’t exist. Now, we’re re-opening them, putting on more services, and our biggest challenge is actually coping with the latent demand you generate that comes forward when you offer people a reasonably reliable and high-quality service on these sort of routes. That’s the significance.”

As RTM went to press, work was about to start on construction of 1.3km of new track linking the existing East London Line to what will be called Old Kent Road Junction.

But Smith said: “That slightly under-sells the importance of that stretch of track, because obviously the link itself is much longer than that; it goes on to Clapham Junction and creates the orbital network. We’ll soon by physically on site, starting work on Phase Two.

“It’s quite a short build period. We’re already well into 2011 and we will be running trains on the route from the end of 2012. Work will be ‘visible’ by the middle and latter part of this year.”

Once the link is complete and services begin, an intrepid passenger determined to circle outer London could do it with only one change on the London Overground.

Smith said: “We’ll be running four trains in the peak and two trains off-peak, through from Clapham Junction to Stratford, so you’d get on one of those trains and as far as Highbury & Islington. From there, you’ll be able to take the train to Clapham Junction.

“The only small caveat is we’ve yet to decide whether the trains from Clapham Junction will go through to Highbury or whether they will actually turn at Dalston. But essentially, it would be one change, or, conceivably, two very easy ones.

“We’ve got quite a clever platform design at Clapham; if you want to change, the trains will effectively sit staggered on the same platform so you won’t have to hike across from platform 2 to platform 17; you just stay on platform 2. The train for the West London will be in one part of the platform and the train for the South London line, going round the other way, will be on another part of the same platform.”

Class 378s

Smith has also been pleasantly surprised by the reaction to Bombardier’s Class 378s in use on the Overground network. He told us: “Feedback has been amazingly good, really. I expected them to be popular with most people and not popular with a small minority, but to my surprise, the minority appears to be almost nobody! I live in London and get the reactions of people who use the trains: they vary between absolutely delighted and simply quite happy. I have yet to find anybody who actually says, ‘no, these aren’t good’.

“Even the television programme, Great British Railway Journeys, said that they were the most wonderful things.”

Performance on the London Overground network is up hugely since 2007 when TfL took over from Silverlink Metro.

Smith explained: “The challenges essentially all come down to completely rebuilding something while also offering a good service that people recognise as better than what preceded it. In November 2007, on ‘Day One’, we staffed all the stations, we cleaned things up, including the trains, but we were still dealing with old infrastructure, old trains, staff who’d to some extent been used to being fairly ignored, as part of a bigger network.

“We immediately did some things to improve it, but the challenge was that we had to, at the same time as keeping it up to a better standard, close it, rebuild it, introduce new trains, do away with the old trains which is never easy, open the East London line which of course we were trying to do while also upgrading north London.

“If you drew all this on a Gantt chart it would look terrifying; we were kicking off a station upgrade programme which is now coming to fruition, but there has been about three and a half years of rebuilding and refurbishing the stations. Every station has got a complete change to its lighting, customer information, help points, alarms and a decent upgrade to its ambience: so, not just a paint job, but a real refurbishment.

“We were doing all that simultaneously, while every few months changing the timetable or opening a new bit.

“It was like spinning lots of plates all at once. So, we’ve had a big increase in passengers, a big increase physically in the network, and all the projects are now pretty well doing exactly what they said on the tin: on-time and on-budget.

“London Overground has now reached the top of the PPM league. In individual periods we’ve already been top before now, but this is the first time we’ve been top in terms of Moving Annual Average.

“I mean no disrespect to the people who ran it before, because they’re good people, but it was a bit of a dog’s breakfast in terms of assets and infrastructure. We’ve increased its size enormously, increased ridership and made it significantly more punctual.”

Successfully completed

Is London Overground ‘done’ from next year then, or else what does the future hold? Smith told us: “We’ve got a number of things in the pipeline; the question is what we’ll brand as London Overground and what we won’t.

“In terms of the initial London Overground, then yes from next year we’ll be complete and we’ll have successfully completed our five-year plan begun in November 2007.

“Elsewhere, we’re continuing to step up the DLR in various ways, having just started running new three-car, 50% lengthened rolling stock.

“We’re also hoping to obtain, in pretty short order, some additional trams to step up the services on the tram network, and then start thinking about physical expansion strategies for trams before coming back to heavy rail.

“In due course we will be the operator for Crossrail, which isn’t as far away as you might think, because effectively the services will be taking delivery of trains and introducing new trains on the Great Eastern, pre-Crossrail, in not that many years’ time.

“It’s unlikely we’re ever going to describe Crossrail as a part of London Overground, but there are parallels: it’s effectively doing the same job and largely the same people doing it. TfL is taking a greater and greater role in National Rail.”


A recent example has been the award that TfL jointly won with ATOC and Cubic for the roll-out of Oyster services to national rail services in the capital.

Smith told us: “That was a big success and shows how TfL is getting more involved in national rail, ranging from the input we had to the Southern re-franchise, at what you might call the ‘lighter end’, where we put a bit of money and resource into linking things up but it essentially stays branded as part of the national rail network, through to the physical expansion of Overground.

“That involved actually taking some more routes within London, and saying ‘right, these are now going to be run by us, branded by us, operated by us, on behalf of us’.

“I think there’s a genuinely long-term trend in TfL’s expansion. It’s not in an empire-building sense, but the history of London’s transport from about the 1920s and 30s onwards has been more and more elements being brought into the London Transport and TfL family. Most recently, TfL took in streets, which were previously separate, and with the Overground we began to get involved in National Rail operation.

“There’s almost nothing, other than Green Line buses, that went the other way. Historically, London works on integration between light routes, which suggests that TfL will only ever get more involved in national rail, not less.

“It’s sensible, because while other parts of the country have the rail journey and then completely separately you go in a car the next day, in London it is so integrated and so joined-up that it makes sense that the same party that runs the Underground, has control of parts of National Rail, has buses, and integrates fares, ticketing, and all the rest of it.”


As well as the five-year plan, there has been an unavoidable deadline in place for many of the upgrade works TfL has been engaged in: July 2012 and the London Olympics.

Smith said: “Without tempting fate, the works for the Olympics are very largely done. The last big part of the jigsaw for the Olympics is the step-up in services on the North London line, at the end of May this year.

“That represents the almost-completion of the Olympic building projects. We have got some stuff out there, bits and pieces to do, but the vast majority of it is done.

“The really good thing is that we can now turn our attention 100% to operations: it’s not that we’ve been ignoring it, but it’s very important for us to have a period of stability before the Games when we’re not concentrating week by week on opening things, we’re actually concentrating on getting the operations into absolutely tip-top shape ready for the Games.”

“This is an exciting time for us. For me, personally, too: I was brought up in London, I’ve lived in London, I’ve used all these railways almost throughout my life, and to actually have the opportunity to invest £3bn pounds in improving them has been a huge privilege. Professionally, we’re looking forward and genuinely, and I mean genuinely, seeing a renaissance in public transport and rail in London and the South East.

“When I joined British Rail 25-odd years ago, demand was static, possibly slightly declining. Now, it’s the use of cars in London that is static and in fact declining, while the use of public transport is growing every year. The appetite for infrastructure development in London is more like, in some ways, that in an Asian city than it is in great parts of Europe and North America. It really is a truly exciting time to be working in public transport and in railways and in particular in London.”

(Image of Howard Smith copyright TfL)


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