When the Overground extended up the Lea Valley at the end of May, one of the slightly embarrassing things about the new network was that it didn't interchange anywhere with the existing Overground. And now it does. The long-awaited footbridge between Hackney Downs and Hackney Central opened yesterday, and now you can walk from one to the other without leaving the station. It's a relatively cheap and relatively simple construction, but also an inspired idea and a gamechanger for connectivity. [5 photos]
It works like this. The North London line crosses the West Anglia line about 200m to the west of Hackney Central, and about 200m south of Hackney Downs. What the contractors have done is to build a covered walkway along the edge of one line to the crossing point, then turned through 90 degrees and followed the other line to the other station. The two railways run at different elevations (obviously, else there'd be a crash), so at the halfway point there's a set of steps to lead you either up or down. And because this is the 21st century there's also a lift alongside (and this mechanical complexity is one of the reasons the project's taken so long to open).
There is a catch to such an austere link, which is that it only connects to one of the platforms at each station. At Hackney Downs on the new Overground that's platform 1, which is one of the two southbound platforms, so if you arrive on a train from Chingford good news, you're in the right place. Arrive on any of the other three platforms, however, and it's a bit of a trek, especially if your carriage doesn't stop near the stairs. The next step is to head down deep into the subway, then turn right and come up the other side, past the independent cafe. And even then the entrance to the walkway is right down at the far end of the platform, through a fresh gap in the brickwork on the viaduct above Spurstowe Road. If you're not right at the very front of the train from Chingford, you've a walk on your hands.
The entrance looks like an arch but is essentially an gate, so that TfL can seal off the walkway as and when required. The hole in the wall had two passengers fooled yesterday. As they stepped off the train they saw the opening ahead of them and went to walk through it, perhaps not twigging that the Hackney Something station mentioned wasn't the one they were at. When they saw the long passageway beyond they retreated and laughed off back to the exit, but they won't be the last. And it is a very long first passageway, taking at least a minute to walk down at yomping pace, and duly supervised by CCTV just in case. On Day 1 all was very clean and very white, echoing functional simplicity, although this may not last.
The steps at the dogleg point are broad, which futureproofs them somewhat should the connection become busy. But there's no sign of this as yet, indeed as I stood at the corner yesterday I could see nobody whatsoever in either direction. Signs have been erected all around both stations pointing to the new connection, but there's no wider publicity as yet, so why would any potential interchange user alight? But the lift is a very useful touch, so that for example it's now possible to ride in your wheelchair from Highams Park to Homerton... but alas it's not possible to go back again, thanks to that awkwardly deep subway at Hackney Downs.
Once you've descended to ground level, there's another long latticed walk ahead. This takes at least another minute, plus however long it takes to get down the 40 steps, making a total of I'd say about three minutes for the whole thing. But that's good, because the out-of-station walk used to take more than five minutes, I timed it earlier in the year, and the new link doesn't involve roads or pavements or awkward things like ticket gates.
But you do have to touch in on your way through. There are pink card readers at both ends of the new connection labelled "Please touch in and out", which is a lot more strident than pink card readers usually get. I'm not sure whether TfL expect you to go beep at both ends, given there's no other possible route you could have taken inbetween. But there were two staff standing on guard at the Hackney Central end urging every passer-by to touch in as they passed, presumably because otherwise the software assumes you've travelled via more zones than you actually have. "But I have a Travelcard!" I said (after being challenged for walking straight past), which really didn't satisfy one of the two men, until his colleague pointed out I might know what I'm talking about.
Again it's a bit of a hike at Hackney Central if you want a westbound Overground train, because the footbridge is down near the station entrance, so there's no crossing at what used to be the dead end of the platforms. But it's all still much better than the route you had to take before, and the L-shaped walkway really does link the two lines properly together. Perhaps there are other spots on the network where something similar might be tried, a quick win interchange alongside intersecting railway lines, even if only from one of the platforms to another. But for now simply rejoice that the connection TfL have been showing on the tube map since May is now genuinely a connection, and those who travel through Hackney now have a conveniently simpler option to hand.