I'm in the midst of circumnavigating the capital via a potential future orbital rail route - the R25(caveat: this is a Mayoral/TfL pipedream, lightly pencilled in for the 2040s, and may never happen). I started two hours ago in Abbey Wood, following the central section via Lewisham and Wimbledon. I've just crossed the Thames at Kingston, a couple of stations before Hounslow, and am about to change trains in Twickenham to start the journey back east. [here's a map to follow]
ROUND LONDON BY TRAIN 6) Twickenham → Kew Bridge (2:09 → 2:33)
[timetabled 24 minutes, frequency every 30 minutes]
Twickenham station is very obviously not Abbey Wood, as the class of passengers makes clear. A group of rugger chaps waits stereotypically by the footbridge, while a faux-shabby bohemian couple in felt hat and cloth cap are busy checking their iPhones nearby. The approaching service is another train from Waterloo to Waterloo, this time via the Hounslow loop, again running at frequencies that would make an Underground user wince. We set off back the way I came, then stick to the river along the line to Staines, then veer off again to Hounslow. And then we stop, which the driver explains is for a timetabled five minute pause, and time slowly passes. An American woman boards and asks "Is this train for Mortlake?", which we eventually deduce requires the loop going the other way, and she nips off just before the doors close. If the London infrastructure plan 2050 gets its way, this quiet pair of platforms will be one terminus of a new NW orbital route. You'll find it listed on the last page of Appendix 2, namely "Hounslow - Brentford - Old Oak - Neasden - Brent Cross @4tph", and this must be the intended route on the map at the top of the page. Hounslow to Brentford is easy enough, but the next curve is only used by freight trains at present, hence I can't ride it in 2014. Off at Kew Bridge it is, and then a walk.
It's a non-trivial walk too, because I have to get to the Overground. I could have done this by staying on train 5 until Richmond, but then I wouldn't have been through Hounslow, and the map is very definite about Hounslow. The walking route is intermittently signed, and requires a crossing of the Chiswick Roundabout, which is rarely a treat on foot. I'm heading for Gunnersbury, which may hold the title of the Underground's ugliest station, and is so well disguised as an office block that you might never notice it from outside. My fast walk takes 14 minutes, which is longer than two of the train journeys I've taken thus far, but I then get to wait for 7 minutes so I could have dawdled.
ROUND LONDON BY TRAIN 7) Gunnersbury → Gospel Oak (2:54 → 3:33)
[timetabled 26 minutes, frequency every 10/20 minutes]
You might think the rest of my journey round to Barking is going to be pretty dull, because it's basically one existing Overground train followed by another. And you'd be right. But there is an intriguing catch, which is that the 2050 Overground isn't go to go this way. I'm riding from Acton to West Hampstead the only way I can, but City Hall's crayonistas have a different route in mind to open up a couple of the Mayor's favourite development areas - Old Oak Common and Brent Cross. Old Oak is currently a vast area of railway sidings and industrial estate, but would be worth a lot more as flats, so flats it is. A key driver of potential redevelopment is HS2 which'll probably stop here before zooming off to Birmingham, and maybe interchange with Crossrail, except there's no money for that yet. More to the point Utopian planners see Old Oak as the centre of a spiders web of Overground routes, some old, some new, which pretty much makes all the flats unaffordable before anyone moves in. Precisely where an Old Oak Common Overground station might go is currently open to consultation. Options including the dramatic relocation of one or other of the lines adding minutes onto existing journeys, or leaving things where they are and expecting passengers to use a lengthy travelator to change trains. Whatever's decided will probably be the option that leaves the most room for extra flats, but that's how these projects get funded these days, so best grin and bear it.
7a) Hounslow → Brent Cross (due mid-2040s?)
Imagine a railway line running roughly parallel to the North Circular from Acton to Cricklewood, how useful would that be? Well imagine no more, because it already exists and is currently used by freight. It's the Dudding Hill line, a Victorian leftover from 1868 and which last saw passenger traffic in 1902. For two years it was even part of the Circle line, or more correctly a 'Super Outer Circle' from Earl's Court round to St Pancras. The Midland Railway couldn't make money out of the route, but things might be very different two centuries later. An Overground takeover would probably include a station at Harlesden (for the Bakerloo) and another at Neasden (for the Jubilee), then a run through the foot of Gladstone Park to the Thameslink line. The Brent Cross Cricklewood redevelopment at the end of the line could be worth billions, should it ever happen, but Barnet council's been saying that for years and as yet there's no sign. And as yet no Overground train.
7b) Brent Cross → Barking (due mid-2040s?)
And then another far-fetched rail idea takes over. What if, it goes, what if someone finally gets around to electrifying the Overground line from Gospel Oak to Barking? And then what if Brent Cross turns out to be a really important redevelopment area and needs more trains? TfL could extend the GOBlin line at its western end via the existing Carlton Road Junction and run trains all the way through to Brent Cross. Trains would no longer stop at Gospel Oak, they'd be diverted just before that, but interchange with the existing Overground would still be perfectly possible at West Hampstead. You may never live to see it happen, but some rail planners are looking at the bigger picture, and things may finally link up one day.
8) Gospel Oak → Barking (3:37 → 4:01)
[timetabled 26 minutes, frequency every 15 minutes]
Meanwhile, back in reality, I'm changing orange trains at Gospel Oak. It's a very simple change, in a clockwise direction at least, and the grand switcheroo takes no more than four minutes. Indeed this arc round the north of inner London is by far the fastest section of my orbital journey, thanks to TfL investment, infrastructure upgrades and a mayoral franchise grab in 2006. Hence I rattle through northeast London with a minimum of fuss, and a seat, which turns out to be very useful when the train gets packed out round Walthamstow. And when Barking comes around I've been on the go for one minute over four hours, my almost-circumnavigation complete.
So yes, essentially the R25 already mostly exists, it's just slow and inconvenient with a lot of waiting around. Completing the circle with a tunnel at Thamesmead would be hugely expensive, and there are of course dozens of other potential transport projects competing for austerity-limited funding. But just ten years ago the entire Overground concept was merely blink in a planner's eye, and now look at it. Imagine the transformation some joined-up thinking, and another thirty years, could create.