Here are three of this week's developments in the East London transportsphere...
1) A new Woolwich Ferry arrived
Woolwich's previousferries had been in operation since 1963 - three gloomy leviathans named John Burns, Ernest Bevin and James Newman. But there comes a time when modern replacements are required, even in the midst of a budget squeeze, and in 2016 TfL put in an order for two new ferries. One's to be named the Dame Vera Lynn, after East Ham's Forces sweetheart, and the other's already called Ben Woollacott. Deckhand Ben was only 19 when he died in a tragic accident after falling overboard during mooring, seven years ago, so his boat has a bittersweet title. And it's already here, having sailed across the North Sea from Poland where it was built, arriving just after ten on Thursday morning. Darryl was there to see it in.
The Woolwich Ferry is due to restart after Christmas, once Dame Vera Lynn arrives and tests and trials are complete. Meanwhile Ben is moored up at one pier or the other, and staff are on board familiarising themselves with the new set-up. Expect a lot more capacity onboard, with an increase in deck space for vehicles, a separate section for cyclists and room for 150 foot passengers, should 150 foot passengers ever turn up. Hurrah, the new vessel has step-free pedestrian access rather than steep stairs down below deck, and a diesel-electric hybrid propulsion to ensure lower emissions. And yes it's still going to be free to use, tolls having been outlawed by an Act of Parliament in 1885 that's never been revoked.
I popped down to North Woolwich yesterday and saw several folk aboard, and a much sparkier vessel than I'm used to. There are more straight lines, and several big blue river roundels, and an orange panel on the side which screams FERRY for the benefit of boats plying the Thames in a longitudinal direction. I don't recommend rushing down for a look. The riverside footpath beyond the flood defences is a grim place at the best of times, let along in misty November drizzle, and the team of workers using the lull to dig up the approach road don't make for an especially welcoming atmosphere. But come back in the New Year and you'll be able to cross the river in style, months before Crossrail manages to make the link.
2) Newbury Park station went step-free
TfL are on a very slow quest to make as many tube stations as possible step-free. It's hard to do underground, but suburban stations often provide better opportunities to add lift shafts without exorbitant cost. Newbury Park had been on the step-free list before, but Boris Johnson dropped plans in 2009 because of “funding constraints”, at which point £4.6 million had already been spent. The latest specification is slightly different, so needed fresh planning permission, and uses the same replicable technology that's also been used at Bromley-by-Bow and elsewhere. Bromley-by-Bow was number 73, Buckhurst Hill 74, Victoria 75... and Newbury Park is 76. Here's the press release.
They've done what you'd expect, which is to add lifts on either side on the footbridge, opposite the top of each staircase. The lifts are quite obvious from up top, with towers far enough from the famous bus station not to upset its heritage silhouette, but less obvious on the platforms unless you spot the new signs pointing towards an alcove in each wall. A few locals have noticed, and I saw an old lady with two shopping bags who looked more than grateful to be heading for a lift rather than shuffling up busy stairs. But the lifts were still empty enough during the Friday evening peak for me to get the 17-person-capacity metal boxes, both up and down, all to myself. Excellent stuff.
A curious thing I've not seen before is that both lift alcoves double up as emergency exits. Should it ever be necessary, two metal doors with push bars (opposite the lift doors) can be used to exit the station. A Help Point has been added to the far wall specifically for passengers unable to use the emergency stairs, because this has been deemed a "Platform Place of Relative Safety". There's even a caution notice on the wall advising refugees to "apply brakes to pushchairs and wheelchairs to avoid possibility of rolling onto the track". It is an amazing level of functionality for (hopefully) an incredibly rare occurrence, I think confirming that Health and Safety is being taken hugely more seriously these days.
3) The Goblin got hobbled
The Overground between Gospel Oak and Barking has been having a rough time of late. First it was the track. Electrification forced the closure of the line for several months in 2016, extending longer than expected into 2017 due to bodged design and inadequate logistics, and wasn't finally completed until earlier this year. The relentless use of rail replacement buses has been utterly miserable for those affected. And now there's a problem with the trains. The line was supposed to be getting new trains in May, with new Class 710 units arriving to replace the existing Class 172s, a deadline since put back to this month. The problem is that the new trains aren't now expected to be in service before January, but the old trains are already promised elsewhere.
West Midlands Trains are expecting the Goblin's diesel rolling stock to be running on their lines out of Coventry and Birmingham. The leasing of trains being what it is, one the Overground's eight units vanished up to the West Midlands in June, followed by a second unit at the start of November. This leaves exactly the six units needed to run the Goblin's basic timetable, but not enough if any of the units breaks down or needs maintenance or even regular servicing. There have already been days when the published timetable proved impossible to deliver, and this weekend a reduced service is being imposed to provide a breathing space. It's being advertised as running "every 15 to 30 minutes", rather than the usual 15, suggesting several deletions throughout the day.
Here's how bad it is eastbound on Saturday.... The following trains will not run: 0705 0735 0835 0905 1005 1035 1135 1205 1305 1335 1435 1505 1605 1635 1735 1805 1905 1938 2035 2105 2205 2325
...and on Sunday... The following trains will not run: 0940 1010 1119 1140 1240 1310 1410 1440 1540 1610 1710 1740 1840 1910 2010 2040 2140 2210 2310
No paper or electronic timetables have been published to show what trains are left, because that would require effort. Instead passengers have to check the marginal notes on the TfL status updates webpage, or plan a journey on the TfL website and see what gaps crop up. It's all wildly unimpressive, and wholly inconvenient, and the misery is likely to increase dramatically after New Year's Eve when TfL's lease on the existing trains expires. As ever, the Barking-Gospel Oak Rail User Group have all the latest news. Alas, as new trains become more technically complicated, disruption caused by delayed implementation is becoming ever more common.