After a 100-day closure, which is a heck of a long time to be without trains, the eastern half of the North London Line finally reopened earlier this week. Now at last you can take the train again from Gospel Oak to Stratford (so long as you don't want to travel on any of the next 50 Sundays because the engineering work's not quite done yet). During the shutdown 6km of track was replaced, several platforms were lengthened and 17km of overhead lines were strung out. It's all part of a lengthy plan to upgrade the Overground in readiness for 2012, and for the greater good of long-suffering residents who've endured a less-than-great service before now. At one station in particular, the change is dramatic.
Caledonian Road & Barnsbury is one of those stations you'll probably never need to use unless you live round here, or unless you're visiting a prisoner stashed away in neighbouring Pentonville. It also boasts the longest station name in London (unless you know better), so the signwriters have had to shrink their font substantially to make it fit inside the standard TfL roundel. CR&B has never been a lovely station, with no ticket hall to speak of and accessed via a long ramp up a side alley from the Caledonian Road. But it used to be a fairly standard two-platform affair, with two further freight lines whizzing by unseen behind a fenced-off thicket. Not any more.
Blimey they've been busy round here since February. The entire station layout has been remodelled, so that Overground trains now only use the two central tracks and not the pair nearest the entrance. A new island platform has been constructed, with the former eastbound platform becoming the new westbound, and one of those former freight lines appropriated for the new eastbound. The old westbound platform has been taken out of passenger service altogether, fenced off from passing trains and with a footbridge/lift slapped down two-thirds of the way up. This is bad news for anyone running a bit late for a train. Formerly you only had to sprint up the long ramp from the street - now you have to jog along most of a defunct platform, ascend 30 steps, cross a footbridge and descend 32 steps - by which time your Richmond service has almost certainly departed. But that's improvement work for you.
Fresh and swish though the new station looks, it's evidently not yet finished. There's a new ticket office by the main entrance, admittedly little more than a shed, but it's not yet selling anything. No, not even if you stare at the bloke inside, not even then. There are lifts on either side of the footbridge but they're not yet functional, which is 62-steps of bad news to anybody with a pushchair. And then there's the central island platform. Don't get me started.
There are only two platforms and yet they've been numbered 2 and 3. This appears to have come as a surprise to the signsmith, because both enamelled line diagrams have had to be retouched with a hand-drawn felt-pen sticker. I've seen professionaller. Platform 2 is a carriagesworth longer than platform 3, which is a bit of a mystery. There are two sets of semi-sheltered seats - one obvious and one hidden out of sight up the quiet end. But if you want to know when the next train's due, sorry, no clues. There are no next train indicators, not even one of those ancient TV screens mounted on a pole. There are no announcements, nor any loudspeakers from which announcements might be made. And there are no poster timetables, on either platform, nor any indication that there are ever going to be. There are some numbers scratched on a whiteboard by the station entrance, but that's two minutes walk away so they're unreferrable. All that would-be passengers can do is wait and see what turns up when, and hope nothing's cancelled.
Caledonian Road & Barnsbury also boasts the Overground's most inexplicable luxury - the Loudhailer Twins. Every refreshed station along the NLL and ELL has two dedicated staff to assist passengers, one on each platform, whose main duties appear to include keeping everyone behind the yellow line and answering questions about when the next train's due. Here at Caledonian Road & Barnsbury there's only one island platform but there are still two staff, each responsible for their own half. They demarcate carefully so as not to tread on one another's toes, but this arrangement still has the unmistakeable whiff of expensive overkill.
On the bright side, there are no hanging baskets filled with nasty cheap plastic flowers at this station. Yet.
When a train finally arrived and I boarded the carriage, the lady standing closest to the doors poked her head out to take a look at the newly-refurbished station. "Ooh that looks nice," she said, and she was right. But functionally, no, it's not terribly impressive at all.