diamond geezer

 Thursday, August 13, 2015

I think we have a new contender for TfL's worst map. Perhaps not surprisingly, it's on the Overground.

When you travel on the Underground, every carriage contains a line map (so you can see where your train is going) and a network map (so you can see how everything links together). When you travel on the Overground unfortunately you only get the network map, and the network map is bloody complicated.

Things were fine when the Overground launched in 2010, and remained mostly comprehensible when the orbit completed in 2012. But this year's takeover of the completely separate West Anglia lines appears to have been one step too far, making everything that bit too complex.

Online, or in the Overground's printed timetable, the good news is that the map is square. This allows the layout to be approximately geographically correct, and therefore legible.

But on board the trains there isn't space for a square, only a very long thin rectangle. Alas somebody's decided to try to cram the whole network into this rectangle by wrapping it up like a bowl of spaghetti, and the end result is a tangled mess that's verging on unusable.

Here's the eastern half, in close-up, because that's where the topological disaster is.

The underlying layout is much as it was before this recent expansion, with three approximately correct east-west lines and the West Croydon branch bent awkwardly underneath. Obviously that great U-bend around Canada Water doesn't really exist, the line's more north-south than that, but this was the only way to fit everything into a narrow rectangle. What the new map's designers have had to do is squeeze in another line that forks into two, then into three, and this has meant several awkward compromises. At one point, aligned with Walthamstow, there are eight separate lines all jockeying for position within the same shallow vertical slice!

In particular they've had to shove Liverpool Street way out to the east, in line with Stratford, rather than position it nearer the centre in its correct location. In reality Liverpool Street is a very short walk from Shoreditch High Street, whereas in this misleading arrangement they look miles and miles apart. More importantly this arrangement means Overground trains out of Liverpool Street have to head to the left, whereas in reality they run east, and services to Chingford have to track relentlessly up and left, whereas the true direction is northeast.

It's not good news for unfamiliar passengers aboard these trains. It means anyone glancing up at the map while they travel will likely first be looking in completely the wrong place, and then scanning in the wrong direction. It means those boarding at Hackney Downs will be forced to think in the opposite direction to those boarding at Hackney Central, and the same at the two Walthamstows. The map is deliberately instinctively incorrect, and all for the sake of brand inclusivity.

Nobody, I'd argue, gives a damn about the entirety of the Overground network apart from the management who run it. If you're on a train to Willesden Junction it's surely not important that the Overground also runs to Enfield. Likewise the line to Chingford is almost entirely irrelevant to travellers in Watford, Wapping or Wandsworth. And as for the runty separate branch line to Upminster, that doesn't even connect to anything, so why is it here, apart from to satisfy some high level orange delusion?

These new maps are currently rolling out on Overground trains on certain lines - I spotted them on a Crystal Palace service earlier this week. This might make sense if the rolling stock could be used on any Overground line, because then you'd always have the map you need. But not so. The Gospel Oak to Barking line uses different trains, ditto the Romford to Upminster shuttle, and ditto all the Overground services out of Liverpool Street, so the all-inclusive nature of the maps is practically unnecessary.

Ironically the newest Overground services, the lines that have made these maps so complex, have the simplest maps of all. Trains to Chingford, Enfield and Cheshunt have instead been fitted out with simple tuning fork-style diagrams, without a hint that Dalston or Clapham even exist.

But passengers on the main Overground network now have to contend with a godawful muddle, their journeys harder to follow, and the lines they need hidden amongst a tangle of superfluous irrelevance.

Until TfL admits that there are in fact several Overgrounds, rather than colouring them all orange and promoting them all equally, this sort of mess is alas increasingly likely.

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