diamond geezer

 Monday, October 27, 2014

Amongst the bluer sky projects in the Mayor's London infrastructure plan 2050, published earlier the summer, this map appears.

It's a schematic for an outer orbital railway, nicknamed the R25 by those in the know, and might be created over the next three decades by joining up existing lines and building new. Before you get too excited, the map is accompanied by some of the most non-committal text ever published in a mayoral document, namely this...
"There may be a case for providing some new orbital rail based capacity for key links in Outer London. An option for doing this could involve an extension of Overground services in stages, creating some new links initially where most feasible and joining up existing routes over time. An indicative network is illustrated."
The southern curve on the map (via Bexleyheath and Norwood Junction) would require at least five new stretches of track to be built, some brief curves, others great long things carving across built-up areas, and is lightyears from reality. But not all of the route is pie in the sky, indeed the central link is already 100% possible by train, just rather a lot of trains at present. So I thought I'd attempt an orbit of the R25 via the central and northern arcs, in order to check how feasible the journey was already. The one obvious impossibility is the Overground extension from Barking under the Thames to Abbey Wood, the first part of which is currently under consultation and the second part as yet unspoken. So I chose to make my journey clockwise from Abbey Wood to Barking, that's nearly orbital, using only ordinary scheduled services. I travelled off-peak on a weekday, because that's proper normal. And I didn't plan ahead, I simply turned up and waited for the next train, walking between stations only where absolutely necessary. Here's a map to help you follow my route.

1) Abbey Wood → Lewisham
(0:00 → 0:18)
[timetabled 18 minutes, frequency every 30 minutes]

It's all change at Abbey Wood at the moment. Crossrail is on its way, eventually, so the place is a flurry with workmen doing preparatory work. The new footbridge is up, though not yet connected, with a few conspicuous bigwigs in suits standing around watching progress. It's hard to imagine many of the existing Abbey Wood populace needing a fast train to Canary Wharf, but the regular trains to Cannon Street are packed, once Ellie's stopped holding the door open and Karol has nipped on with his dog. I'm waiting for the less frequent Charing Cross train, which skips a few stations before diverting off via the two-minute tunnel down to Blackheath. Progress is slow, but eventually we roll into Lewisham. A down-and-under change of platforms is then required, although there are existing points which would allow a train to cross over onto the next line. And when the train arrives it's much shorter than the very long platform, not that Southeastern thought to announce this in advance, nor to warn anyone not to stand down the far end.
I wait 12 minutes. That's half an hour gone already.

2) Lewisham → Peckham Rye (0:30 → 0:40)
[timetabled 7 minutes, frequency every 30 minutes]

Our train to London Victoria veers off at Lewisham Vale Junction and crawls slowly through residential streets. Those who live in south London are well used to such snail-like progress, but it'd be nice if a new orbital railway fixed the speed issue once and for all. We don't stop at Brockley station for the simple reason that it's beneath us. Trains stopped up here until 1917, but there are no plans to create an Overground connection because that would cost money, and only so many pipedreams can be funded. Instead it's first stop Nunhead, second stop Peckham Rye, and all change again. This is a no-fun interchange because Peckham Rye is essentially two stations on parallel viaducts, hence very much not ideal for stepping across. It's also no-go for trains, there being no existing alignment from one side to the other, so creating a new orbital railway would cost aerial millions. And sheesh, the Next Train Indicators here are poor - one at one end tiny, the other at the other only announcing what's on the other pair of platforms.
I wait nine minutes. It should have been five.

3) Peckham Rye → Tulse Hill (0:49 → 0:54)
[timetabled 9 minutes, frequency every 15 minutes]

I'm now on Southern, on the West Croydon train, pootling through Dulwiches East and North but not West. For those reared on the tube map, South London's mesh of railway services is uncharacteristically involved and complex. Hence I'm not going far before I have to get off and change again. I plump for Tulse Hill over Streatham because I can see my train on the adjacent platform, indeed it should already have left because we're running late, but thankfully it is too. A subway dash is called for, nothing especially enjoyable, whereas it turns out I could have gone one more stop for a same-platform change.
I wait only three minutes. It could have been thirty.

4) Tulse Hill → Wimbledon (0:57 → 1:12)
[timetabled 16 minutes, frequency every 30 minutes]

I'm now an hour into my inner orbit, on the northern rim of the Sutton Loop. This is the Cinderella service of the Thameslink railway, touring the suburbs via a sequence of stations with relatively few passengers... so yes, there are plenty of spare seats. It's crucial to get on the right train to Sutton going the right way round else it's even longer to your destination, and the trains only run every half an hour anyway. We pass through unloved Tooting station and unknown Haydons Road on the way to key hub Wimbledon, where almost everyone gets off. Loop trains use only one platform, as do the trams nextdoor, so I'm not convinced it would be easy to squeeze in a boosted two-way service. And when's the next train to Richmond? It's not on the board, it's not on the timetable, neither are there any relevant electronic displays up on the walkway. Only once down on the right platform is the truth revealed... drat, a near half hour wait. The current disjoint R25 orbital is alas rubbish.
Scheduled wait 26 minutes. But we arrived late, so 'only' 23.

5) Wimbledon → Twickenham (1:35 → 2:04)
[timetabled 29 minutes, frequency every 30 minutes]

There are no railways across Richmond Park, which is of course good, but it does make this next rail journey a bit of a long one. I've switched from one loop train to another, this the Strawberry Hill circuit from Waterloo to Waterloo via almost Surrey. Wimbledon's only in zone 3, but four stations later we're in zone 6, making this an expensive ticket for a supposedly orbital railway. Arriving at Kingston means a scheduled two minute pause, then the ceremonial crossing of the Thames at London's most upstream railway bridge. If you look at City Hall's simplistic 2050 map it looks like trains will run direct from New Malden to Hounslow. Not in any real world they won't. There's no curve at Twickenham Junction to join Strawberry Hill to Whitton, neither any obvious way to add one. The tracks in run higher than the tracks out, and even if the height differential could be sorted there are dozens of houses in Marsh Farm Road that'd have to be knocked down. Instead the only realistic possibility is to continue into Twickenham, then reverse back up the other line to Hounslow. In my case, that means yet another change of trains.
I wait five minutes. And I'll tell you about the two hours back to east London tomorrow.

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