And there's another reason why what we call the Overground matters. When part of it isn't working, how do we know which part that is?
These rainbow boards are everywhere across the TfL network. They tell us whether or not a line is disrupted, then allow us to dig below the headlines to see the detail. And this works well on a simple line like the Bakerloo or Victoria, and pretty well on a more complicated line like the Central or District. But it works much less well on a complex collection of lines like the DLR or Overground, where large chunks can be working perfectly even when other parts are borked. And at the end of this month, when a clutch of fresh branch lines join the Overground family, that informations's going to get more complicated still.
To illustrate this let's jump ahead to the first full weekend of extended Overground services, specifically to Sunday 7th June, to see what track closures TfL have planned.
DISTRICT LINE: Saturday 6 and Sunday 7 June, no service between South Kensington and Aldgate East.
Yes, fine, I can picture that.
CIRCLE LINE: Saturday 6 and Sunday 7 June, no service between Gloucester Road and Aldgate (via Victoria). The Circle line service operates in two sections: Hammersmith - Aldgate and Gloucester Road - Edgware Road (via High Street Kensington)
A bit tougher to follow, but the severed Circle line service is all there in plain English.
Waterloo & City
WATERLOO & CITY LINE:- Does not operate on Sundays.
That's good to know, to prevent me from turning up when the line's closed.
And then there's this.
LONDON OVERGROUND: Sunday 7 June, until 1000, no service between Liverpool Street and Chingford. Use local buses via all reasonable routes between Liverpool Street, Hackney Downs and Chingford. Replacement buses operate between Walthamstow Central and Chingford.
Replacement buses operate Service L3: Walthamstow Central - Wood Street - Highams Park - Chingford First trains will operate as follows: 0955 Chingford to Liverpool Street 1018 Liverpool Street to Chingford
LONDON OVERGROUND: Sunday 7 June, until 1000, no service between Liverpool Street and Enfield Town / Cheshunt (via Seven Sisters). Use local buses via all reasonable routes between Liverpool Street and Seven Sisters. Replacement buses operate between Seven Sisters and Enfield Town / Cheshunt.
Replacement buses operate Service L1: Seven Sisters (for London Underground Victoria line) - Bruce Grove - White Hart Lane - Silver Street - Edmonton Green - Bush Hill Park - Enfield Town; Service L2: Seven Sisters (for London Underground Victoria line) - Bruce Grove - White Hart Lane - Silver Street - Edmonton Green - Southbury - Turkey Street - Theobalds Grove - Cheshunt Note: First trains will operate as follows: 1000 Liverpool Street to Enfield Town 1015 Liverpool Street to Cheshunt, via Seven Sisters 1022 Enfield Town to Liverpool Street 1031 Cheshunt to Liverpool Street, via Cheshunt
LONDON OVERGROUND: Sunday 7 June, until 1230, no service between Gospel Oak and Highbury & Islington due to Network Rail track works. Replacement buses operate between Hampstead Heath and Highbury & Islington, please interchange between trains and buses at Hampstead Heath.
Replacement buses operate Hampstead Heath - Gospel Oak (Agincourt Road / Southampton Road) - Kentish Town West - Camden Road - Holloway Road (for London Underground Piccadilly line and Caledonian Road & Barnsbury) - Highbury & Islington
LONDON OVERGROUND: Sunday 7 June, no service between Clapham Junction and Kensington (Olympia) due to Earl's Court redevelopment works. Please use local London Buses services via any reasonable
And that's much, much harder to pull apart.
Four different sections of the Overground have engineering works that Sunday, and they've all been crammed in together under the same umbrella title. If you scan through the list for LONDON OVERGROUND in capital letters you'll see where each separate announcement starts, but it's still not easy to determine precisely which announcement, if any, applies to the line you want to travel on. As a quick check, see how long it takes you to work out whether the Overground line from Gospel Oak round to Walthamstow is open or not. Unless you have a map of the disruption to help you, this isn't easy.
The first disruption in the tangle involves one of the brand new Overground lines, that from Liverpool Street out to Chingford. It'll be closed before ten o'clock, and there are rail replacement buses. The second disruption involves another of the brand new Overground lines, or possibly two, this time from Liverpool Street out to Enfield and Cheshunt. These'll also be closed before ten o'clock, and the rail replacement bus situation is more complicated, but by half past ten everything mentioned so far will be back to normal. The third break in service involves the middle section of the line that goes round the north of London, more normally called the Stratford to Richmond line, but that name doesn't get a mention here. And the fourth section of line to close is across the Thames from Olympia down to Clapham, this time all day, and you should go catch a normal bus if you can.
First I'm going to argue that these four disruptions are in the wrong order. The one that runs all day is at the bottom where it's most easily overlooked, which is unhelpful, while the two that might be over before you're out of bed are given the most prominent position at the top. Secondly I'm going to argue that which line is which isn't nearly prominent enough, with each disruption defined by the stations it disrupts, not the name of the line it's on. And thirdly I'm going to argue that the whole thing's horribly inconsistent. The Overground's other new line runs from Upminster to Romford and has no Sunday service whatsoever, but this isn't mentioned. The Waterloo & City is in a similar situation, and it gets a big 'Planned closure' flag in the rainbow list because it's a proper tube line, whereas Upminster to Romford gets bugger all. If you were planning a Sunday ride between these two outer stations, there's nothing whatsoever here to tell you not to try.
Wouldn't these disruptions be much, much clearer if each of the Overground's constituent lines were given their own separate identity? The Chingford line is closed before 10am, the Enfield Town and Cheshunt lines ditto. The North London line is closed all morning between Gospel Oak and Highbury & Islington. The West London line is closed south of Olympia all day. The Emerson Park line is closed on Sundays. And the Watford line, the East London line and the Goblin are all open and unobstructed.
Except maybe separate lines wouldn't be better after all. The London Overground has swiftly become one of TfL's strongest brands, a watchword for reliability and success, so the last thing they'd want to do is dilute their brand into seven separate silos. And rainbow boards are long enough as it is, without needing six new shades of orange for the Overground and four more blues for the DLR crammed in. Indeed it's telling that three years ago TfL chose not to give the cablecar its own row on the capital's rainbow boards, presumably either because there wasn't room or because they didn't think enough people would be interested.
Identifying track closures is a lot easier with a map, of course, and there's usually one of those nearby. The brand new over-Overgrounded tube map is due to arrive in stations on Friday week, and the online version on the TfL status webpage has updated today. It should also be remembered that commuters on the newly transferred lines are about to see information about their disruptions broadcast far more widely than before, which can only be good news. But the multiplicity of Overground lines is a naming problem that isn't going to go away, indeed is about to get a whole lot more complicated at the end of the month. And the next time you go to ride the Overground at the weekend only to find it's not running because you didn't understand the closure list properly, you may wish that somebody had finally come up with a solution.