diamond geezer

 Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The East London Line returns?

It didn't open over the Easter weekend. It didn't open last Thursday. It didn't open yesterday. But it must be opening soon, at least in part. There are staff milling around the stations. There are timetables up on view. They've even taken down the blue hoardings on the District line platforms at Whitechapel, leaving nothing but a flappy strip of yellow tape across the top of the stairs down to the Overground. That tape couldn't hold back a fly, let alone a surge of inquisitive passengers, so I can't believe it'll be in place for long. Surely the East London Line must open soon, maybe tomorrow, perhaps even today. And then, for sure, the entire face of pan-London travel will change. Sort of.

They've been running a ghost service on the East London Line for the last month or two. Test trains have been whizzing empty from Dalston to all points south, just to make sure that signalling works and drivers know where they're going. You may even have seen the trains scuttling by, occasionally even stopping in stations, at surprisingly regular intervals. What started out as valuable training seems to have lingered on rather longer than is economically desirable, with passenger services have been held until station construction was complete. The final delay is apparently because on-board CCTV hasn't been working properly, and it would never do to run trains without anti-crime snoop-video in full effect.
East London Line 'Preview' service
Runs 7am-8pm only
Runs Monday-Friday only
Runs every 7½ minutes between Dalston Junction and Surrey Quays
Runs every 15 minutes to/from New Cross and New Cross Gate
There was last a passenger service through the Thames Tunnel in December 2007. From Whitechapel down to the New Crosses, the trains were never frequent, never busy. A mere nine million passengers a year rode this way, well down on the 200 million plus who used the Northern line. Few people rushed to cross the river here, and those that did have all found alternative routes over the last two and a half years. Shoreditch station used to be one of the least used stations on the entire network, despite its prime position on cosmopolitan Brick Lane. And even the extension up to Dalston runs along a viaduct abandoned in 1986 because passenger numbers couldn't justify its survival. It's enough to make you wonder why TfL have gone to all this effort to spruce up and expand an underused railway backwater. In a time of austerity, isn't this just a complete waste of money?

And the new line, well, it's not exactly useful, is it? It doesn't run into central London, so you'll not get anywhere popular without changing. TfL have sneakily tweaked the zone 1 boundary to tug Shoreditch High Street inside, so that it'll cost just as much to travel orbitally as it will to go through the middle. Meanwhile the Central line passes precisely underneath Shoreditch High Street station but nobody's found the money to create an interchange. It would be too popular, apparently, and clog up the Central line at peak times. Sorry South Londoners, but you're not going to be able to change onto the Central without making an entirely impractical detour.

And then there's the lack of decent linkage at each end of the line. At the northern end the track runs out at Dalston Junction (which isn't a junction), leaving passengers with a trudge across the Kingsland Road to meet up with the existing North London line (which is currently shut). Down south they're reintroducing a split service, with half the trains venturing to New Cross and half to New Cross Gate. The central stretch may boast a 7½ minute service, but if you want a specific terminus you're going to have to wait up to quarter of an hour. New Cross may be useful for swapping to certain local trains, but far too many National Rail services speed through without stopping. And New Cross Gate isn't much of an interchange unless you want to go due south. Any attempt to switch west-ish towards Peckham or Streatham, not a chance.

So is there any reason to celebrate the imminent reopening of the East London Line? Thankfully yes. It rejuvenates an under-resourced section of railway. It brings regular train services to a ill-served strip of poor old Hackney. It links both sides of the river, bringing the eastern half of the capital together. It connects communities, and speeds their passage direct to the DLR, Jubilee and District. And all this construction has actually been relatively cheap, far far lower in cost than Crossrail will ever be, making the most of tracks and viaducts that (mostly) already existed.

Plus this only the beginning. A much fuller service kicks in on 23rd May, with more frequent trains continuing south to West Croydon or Crystal Palace, weekends included. Next year a northern link at Dalston connects the ELL to the NLL as far as Highbury and Islington. It's then predicted that passenger numbers will be as high as 33 million, not nine. And by 2012 there'll be an extra connection round to Clapham Junction, maybe even with an additional station at Surrey Canal Road. By this time frequencies on the main section will have increased to 16 trains an hour, and we'll have a complete orbital network around the congested centre of the capital. There'll be losers as well as winners, of course, as other services are scrapped or diverted to make way for the Overground's new trains. But, overall, East London life is about to get better.

There are scores of sections of London railway which, when viewed in isolation, make no economic sense whatsoever. But link them all together into a dynamic transport network and a wealth of economic possibilities are created. Whenever you're ready, TfL, bring it on.

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