diamond geezer

 Monday, December 10, 2012

World record attempt: The Overground Orbital Loop
Your time to beat: 1 hour 40 minutes 40 seconds

It's been dubbed the M25 of rail, somewhat over-grandly, as it doesn't even nudge as far as the North Circular. But the Overground's southern extension does make possible an orbit of the capital, via only two trains, interchanging at Highbury & Islington and Clapham Junction. Which yesterday laid open the possibility of grabbing a Guinness World Record for the fastest Overground circumnavigation of London before any of the usual Tube Challengers nipped in first. I prepared myself mentally and physically for this daunting task, even attempting a dummy run (which ended in failure). But I held out against the pressure, and I'm pleased to report that my 100-minute journey was a complete prize-winning success. Reckon you could beat that? Come and have a go if you think you're hard enough.

0:00 Highbury & Islington
It's important to start your orbit correctly, so beware. Trains bound for Clapham Junction now depart from two completely different platforms, so check the Next Train Indicator in the ticket hall for "via Willesden Junction" and "via Canada Water". On my visit both were departing within a minute of one another, but I'd consulted my timetables and decided that heading clockwise would obtain the optimum time. A glance at the newly-updated map on the carriage wall suggests that Clapham Junction isn't far away, but that's not so. Some graphic designer has stretched and condensed the Overground diagram into a long rectangle, wildly off-balance, so it now bears absolutely no relation to reality. Out west it's mostly white space, while to the east five lines are stacked on top of one another, so all you can really do is count the stops to your destination. In this case, thirty-three.

0:05 Dalston Junction
My fellow passengers are dressed like gnomes and Sirdar knitting patterns, because it's cold out. With Shoreditch approaching several are also sporting beards and bright red trousers, even the occasional bear-faced woolly hat, and nobody blinks. The guy sitting opposite me sports can-sized headphones blaring angry rap, but thankfully his phone can't multi-task so when he switches to games mode the racket ceases.

0:13 Whitechapel
By now we have one bike aboard, and two gentlemen lugging a huge wrapped plastic cylinder from an East End wholesalers. It being Sunday there's plenty of room for both, and no need for any prospective Overground Orbiter to feel anxious.

0:20 Canada Water
With the opening of the Clapham Junction extension, the East London Line now splits into four (count them, four) different southern branches. That explains why so many passengers at Canada Water stay rooted to the platform, not wanting to join us on the journey west. Up to fifteen minutes wait for them, an instant departure for us.

0:22 Surrey Quays
Beyond Surrey Quays station we do the new thing, and swing round fresh tracks to dive under the old. A keen trainspotter-gent has settled into a seat close to mine, his body twisted round so he can watch out of the awkwardly-placed window. He points his camera to capture various chunks of infrastructure, and also the green earthwork ridge built on Bridgehouse Meadows to shield residents beyond from noise. At the approach to the former South London line we halt at a red signal - indeed I think it'll be rare to exit this stretch in either direction without an unscheduled wait.

0:27 Queens Road Peckham
All the way from Surrey Quays an inebriated bloke has been bellowing semi-coherently into his phone. He spoke first to his sister, telling her he'll soon be at New Cross, before she handed the call over. "Kevin you're my big brother you mean the world to me," he said, before adding (somewhat defensively) "But I showed Pam the receipt!" My trainspotting neighbour is fizzing with anger at the intrusion, muttering retorts under his breath, but to no avail. That's until our rowdy passenger notices we've stopped in Peckham, not New Cross, and is not impressed. "You're having a laugh!" he cries, then adds an expletive as he staggers to the door. The new Overground extension's taken at least one SE Londoner by surprise.

0:30 Peckham Rye
And then another. "This is really nice," says a rugged football-type in matching top and trainers. "Look, the carriage goes all the way down, this is so cool." They've not seen trains as modern as this in Peckham for years.

0:33 Denmark Hill
For the best view, make sure you're sitting on the lefthand side of the carriage overlooking the centre of town. You'll see nothing in the station cutting, but as the land rises up there's a fine panorama past the Shard to the distant Gherkin and City cluster. And stay alert later too, else you might miss the aerial pass over the heart of Brixton market at clocktower level. This platform-free flyover's no use whatsoever to those shopping down below, although travelling non-stop is of course perfect for maintaining world record breaking pace.

0:38 Clapham High Street
A posse of amateur photographers are milling on the island platform, with large lenses and tripods, to capture our train as it pulls to a halt. Another enthusiast is aboard my carriage, wandering over to the open doors to take an iPhone snap of the station roundel, then returning to his seat. He doesn't notice, but his behaviour earns quizzical stares and a "what the hell is he doing?" from some of the more ordinary passengers aboard.

0:39 Wandsworth Road
This station and the preceding station have been wrested overnight from the clutches of Southern railways and are now the property of London Overground. Yesterday afternoon the old station signs were cut down, and now there are benches and shelters and even freshly-branded platform numbers. Two members of Overground staff are aboard the train carrying poster timetables rolled up in tubes, and here they alight to hang four more in frames on the northbound platform. It's all happening at Wandsworth Road, in a way it hasn't done here for decades.

The next curve previously saw only one train a day, the Parliamentary service, but now it's getting four an hour. Past the back of the bus garage, past the coffee-roasting warehouse, past umpteen other commercial premises squished into the gaps between swirling viaducts. Our line of attack is underneath the tracks from Waterloo, and all seems set for a fast time until the train grinds to a halt above Latchmere Road. I've ridden this way twice and it happens every time, a lengthy pause at a red signal while the driver waits for the next eastbound service to evacuate the platform ahead. And then our westbound train edges forward like an arthritic snail, making no attempt whatsoever to exceed 10mph, limping apologetically into Clapham Junction with total disregard for connecting passengers. "There's my train," one lady told me with a sigh. "I've missed it now."

0:46 Clapham Junction
For the potential Overground Orbiter, this is where records are won or lost. Time it wrong and the next Stratford service will be pulling out from the adjacent platform. Time it badly and the next train's only for Willesden Junction, with all the inefficiencies an additional change brings. I arrived with nine minutes to wait, which was enough time to pace up newly-opened Platform 2 to see what exciting facilities there might be. Not many, to be honest, and only one Next Train Indicator (which is utterly appallingly positioned for anyone approaching from Platform 1). Platform 1 is still where it's at, because people are much keener to cross the river than they are to go to Clapham or Peckham. Whereas every train on the new line boasted loads of spare seats, my Stratford-bound train was already rammed and I found only one place to sit right down at the far end. World record attempt phase 2 begins here.

0:55 Clapham Junction
1:16 Willesden Junction
1:30 Gospel Oak
To think, this section of the Overground once used to be exciting. Now it's a choked artery, taking south Londoners to the football and north Londoners home from Westfield. Everyone's polite, everyone's well dressed, or at least that's how they seemed on a pre-Christmas Sunday. Maybe I caught the boring train, or maybe there really is far more of interest going on to the south and east of town. Hurry now, the clock is ticking.

1:40:40 Highbury & Islington
And finally, with one eye on my stopwatch and another on the button by the door, I'm back at my starting point. A different platform this time, but the Overground has carried me around the heart of London and brought me home. And it's done so in one hundred minutes and forty seconds, which must be a world-beating time because the line's only been open for a few hours. If Guinness would like to send round the certificate and the champagne, I can start the celebrations. Obviously I remain slightly nervous that one of you could whisk the record from my grasp. Check the timetables carefully and you might find a changeover at Clapham Junction quicker than nine minutes, or decide that a different starting point or direction of rotation could make the crucial difference. But I'm counting on the fact that this 360 degree circumnavigation of the capital is an entirely pointless journey*, so who'd want to try to attempt it, even now the Overground makes it possible. No, the world record is surely mine, unless of course you know better.

* What's particularly pointless about orbiting the Overground is that there's a much quicker way from one side of London to the other. Forget the choice of two Overground trains from Highbury & Islington to Clapham Junction and take the direct route instead. That's the Victoria line from H&I to Victoria or Vauxhall, then a mainline train to Clapham Junction. It's only non-obvious to most people because the latter journey isn't on the tube map. Hide these rail links away and nobody thinks to use them, whereas the appearance of the new Overground route on the tube map is sure to boost passenger numbers.
Highbury & Islington → Canada Water → Clapham Junction 46 minutes
Clapham Junction → Willesden Junction → Highbury & Islington 45 minutes
Highbury & Islington → Vauxhall → Clapham Junction 23 minutes

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