diamond geezer

 Friday, December 09, 2016

Repurposing the North Woolwich line

Ten years ago today (sorry, it's a bit of retrospective week), one of East London's oldest railway lines closed down. On Saturday 9th December 2006 the very last purple and yellow Silverlink train passed through Stratford station, headed down to Canning Town, then wiggled through (and under) the Royal Docks to North Woolwich. The line wasn't especially well used, nor overly mourned, but that wasn't the reason they got rid. The North Woolwich spur was sacrificed so that three other projects could thrive, so I've been back to see how the transformation has been going. Spoiler - it's been going pretty well.

Stratford - the Overground
Ten years ago the Overground was a funded pipedream. The Mayor had launched the orange roundel back in September and declared his aim for an orbital railway around London, but it'd be a year before there were any Overground trains. The North London line was a key part of the plans, but with trains to terminate at Stratford rather than running all the way through to North Woolwich. This required two new high level platforms to the north of the station, a switch which occurred in 2009, a couple of years before Westfield opened alongside.

Ten years later the new Overground platforms are a bustling fiefdom, and testament to the good sense of introducing the orbital Overground franchise. It might once have seemed incredible that quite so many people would want to travel this way, but now it seems incredible that they didn't before, such is the transformation wrought. New rolling stock and a more frequent, reliable service are to thank, which goes to show what a bit of integrated forward planning can achieve. Grab your seat in the standing-room only carriages, and the delights of Willesden, Richmond or even Clapham Junction await.

But isn't the rest of the station congested? And one of the reasons for this is that the old railway line to North Woolwich has been transferred to a different use. All the other tracks through Stratford station run through roughly parallel, but the North London line runs perpendicular underneath, essentially dividing the station in two. Most of the upper platforms straddle both halves, making it important to go down the correct staircase, whereas the other platforms are only in one half or the other, which makes for a lot of going up and going down again. If only the old Low Level line had been filled in rather than given to the DLR, getting about the station could have been a heck of a lot easier. Was never going to happen, obviously.

Stratford to Canning Town - the DLR
Since 1999 this section of the North London line had doubled up alongside the Jubilee line, making it technically defunct. But it would have been a waste to have spare railway lines in East London and not use them, so they were reused, with plans drawn up before winning the Olympics made this essential. The DLR would throw out another branch from Canning Town up to Stratford, then curl round to a brand new station at Stratford International to connect with Eurostar. Along the way it'd fill in the gaps and stop at three new stations, serving insignificant bits of Newham previously skipped.

The Eurostar connection never happened, alas, so Stratford International remains woefully inappropriately named. But the new DLR branch opened in 2011, and five years later the section south of Stratford is actually quite busy. I've often wondered why. Anyone trying to get to West Ham or Canning Town could get there a lot quicker on the parallel Jubilee line, plus the trains are a lot more frequent than one every ten minutes. As for the three intermediate stops, Stratford High Street always feels woefully underused, while both Abbey Road and Star Lane serve grateful, but minor, local communities. There is no way that the green light would be given to these stations today, given the lack of new housebuilding alongside, but thankfully 2006 was a less mercenary time.

And so the DLR stops and starts where once the North London line held sway. Passengers now have the opportunity to travel direct to City Airport, rather than to a minor halt nearby, and can travel all the way to Woolwich rather terminating on the wrong side of the river. That's great. But the aftermath of the old line is still causing problems at Canning Town where trains arrive on a separate alignment, requiring inefficient interchange. Which platform's the next train to Woolwich leaving from, is it down here, or is it across and up and up again? A futuristic station modelled in the 1990s has been made less practical by changes in the 2000s, and passengers in the 2010s are paying the price.

Canning Town to North Woolwich - Crossrail
Above all, shutting the eastern end of the North London line was a clever move designed to allow a far more important railway through. The groundwork had been laid the year before by extending another finger of the DLR to City Airport and the south side of the Royal Docks, so that residents wouldn't be disconnected when the old railway closed. Its path would then be reused by Crossrail, saving an inordinate amount of money by avoiding tunnelling, and allowing the new Custom House station to be built above ground. A fresh tunnel would then be dug beneath the Thames to extend Crossrail to Woolwich, although the DLR would get there ten years earlier.

Back in 2006 it was thought Crossrail would be up and running by now, indeed at the time the intended completion date was 2013! Not a chance. We do now have a rock solid deadline, and a phased introductory schedule, with the first trains through the central section running TWO YEARS FROM TODAY. In the meantime construction workers continue to swarm around every future station, flyover and portal, and tens of thousands of jobs will disappear when construction is complete. A fair number of those will be along what used to be the line to North Woolwich.

The first bit of reused track runs either side of Custom House. Trains running east from Canary Wharf will emerge on the old railway alignment via the Victoria Dock Portal, currently a twin bore of activity, topped off by a utilitarian box covered in brightly coloured slats in shades of orange and mostly purple. A short distance away the new Custom House station is substantially complete, though no less busy, and connected to an unsuspecting neighbourhood via a new broad footbridge. It's probably no coincidence that all the shutters are down at the first five shops on Normandy Terrace, while across the road is an Ibis hotel that hints at an markedly less lowbrow alternative future.

Past Prince Regent station Crossrail is taking advantage of the old line's tunnel beneath the dock, but because it's Victorian there's been lots to do. Several workmen are wandering on and beside the tracks, on both sides of the Connaught Tunnel, plus there's yet another worksite beneath the bridge in the middle. Along with all the usual security notices on the hoardings I was amused to see one targeted at Dairy Crest deliveries (DO NOT leave milk unattended!!!!) and broadcasting a telephone number for the milkman to ring instead.

Beyond the other end of the tunnel Silvertown station has been wiped from existence, and fresh rails now sweep up and under the one remaining footbridge. A small collection of shops survives, the sandwich bar I suspect kept in business only by Crossrail workers pausing for lunch, but it's sad to see the flats which replaced the local pub sitting with empty whitewashed spaces underneath, their retail potential vastly overrated. The long straight strip of railway which follows divides local housing from the enormous Tate and Lyle factory, previously fenced off with wire, but now sealed behind concrete walls six to ten feet high. Passengers travelling this way in two years time will no longer be able to see much of Silvertown, merely a barren security barrier and the sky.

Finally, a short distance from what used to be the North Woolwich terminus, another portal leads Crossrail back down below ground. Woolwich proper awaits, leaving a strip of former railway line which might one day be flats, if foundations allow. That fate has already befallen the sidings at the end of the line, courtesy of an undistinguished set of five-storey blocks called The Sidings Apartments, with 74 hutch-like spaces already under occupation. Where the modern station used to stand is an empty space, an abandoned lamppost and a sealed-off forecourt colonised by buddleia. And the old station building stands empty, as it has for many a year since the museum closed, silently decaying until somebody works out what to do with a mid-19th century listed shell.

Crossrail may have failed to rescue the far end of the North Woolwich line but, ten years on, the rest is very much reborn.

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