A Very Political Railway

by Wayne Asher
Capital Transport
184 pages Hardback
ISBN 9 781854 143785 £19.95

Book Review and extended further notes by Alan de Burton, January 2015

I have extended a summary of the book ‘A Very Political Railway’ by additional information from other sources mentioned below. The book is primarily targeted at the political background to the last 60 years or so of the North London Line. The author focusses particularly on the Broad Street – Richmond service and its modern successor  Stratford – Richmond. Inevitably the Euston – Watford d.c. lines and its use by Bakerloo Line trains gets involved. It covers very well why things happened and unlike most other works the things that didn’t and why. John Glover’s ”London’s Overground’ covers what did happen. Lovett’s book ‘The North London Railway 1846 – 2012’ is better on earlier periods and illustrates very well the decrepit railway of the 1950s, but it is somewhat sketchy on the later period. The 3rd edition of Joe Brown’s ‘London Railway Atlas’ and Frank Hornby’s ‘London Suburban’ proved to be excellent supplementary sources. Readers may find some duplication in the text below since at various times, several currents flowed in parallel. They will also find a bewildering succession of public bodies responsible for London’s rail transport systems.

While the detailed history was complex, these lines had long periods of semi stability but with 3 major periods of change at about 20 year intervals as follows:

1962 – 65: Intended closure of the Broad Street – Richmond service was followed by rationalisation of the North London line. On the Euston – Watford d.c. lines Bakerloo Line services north of Queens Park were reduced to Monday to Friday peaks.

1985 – 86: Electrification of Dalston Western Junction to North Woolwich, withdrawal of class 501 emus and closure of Broad Street station

2005 – 2011: In July 2005 the success of the British bid for the 2012 Olympics was announced providing vital impetus to network expansion incorporating the East London Line Extension while in 2007 the London Overground management concession took over from the Silverlink Metro post privatisation franchise

However, the lulls were the periods when the planning and politics generated the next phase of activity.

Pre-Beeching: up to c. 1960

The Euston – Watford Junction, Broad Street – Richmond and associated lines were mainly electrified between 1914 and 1922. In the mid 1950s the London Midland Region 3rd and 4th rail electrified services were primarily worked by the original ‘Oerlikon’ 3-car ‘open’ emu trains with hand operated doors ordered by the LNWR supplemented by the LMS compartment slam door stock built from 1927. However in WW2 and after:

ñ    A shuttle service between Acton Central and Kew Bridge was suspended in 1940 and not restored
ñ    An electric service between Willesden Junction and Earls Court worked by earlier ‘Siemens’ ‘open’ stock was also withdrawn in 1940 partly to provide capacity for heavy freight
ñ    A steam service from Broad Street to Poplar was suspended in 1943 after bombing and never restored
ñ    The branch service to Rickmansworth (Church Street) was withdrawn in March 1952

From 1952, BR’s mileage base fares made many journeys much more expensive than LT equivalent. Willesden Junction High Level, Hampstead Heath and Gospel Oak stations were rebuilt in the 1950s, but the other stations became increasingly decrepit, over-sized and many still gas lit. From 1957 new class 501 3-car partly open slam door trains replaced the ‘Oerlikon’ stock and by 1962 the LMS compartment stock.

The main Broad Street – Richmond service ran generally every 15 – 20 minutes. Except on Sunday morning there was a service from Broad Street via Primrose Hill to Willesden Junction Low level, most often running through to Watford Junction. The Eastern Region ran ‘tidal’ peak steam later diesel loco hauled services to and from Broad Street in the peaks at about 10 minute intervals. Up to withdrawal in October 1940, this was run by the LMS but the LNER / BR Eastern Region ran it after revival in July 1945. Until the mid 1960s there were a couple of peak steam trains to and from Tring; the morning arrivals were at 09 10 and 09 48! In their last years they were diesel loco hauled.

On the Euston – Watford d.c. lines peak frequencies between Queens Park and Harrow & Wealdstone including LT Bakerloo Line trains reached every 2 ½ minutes. Bakerloo trains ran through to Watford Junction at all times 7 days per week.

1962 – 65: Cost saving then ‘up for closure’

1962 – 63 most services were reduced to a single 3-car unit. In September 1962 evening services on Broad Street – Richmond were cut by 2 hours saving a whole shift of BR staff. By January 1963 the base service both peak and off-peak was reduced from generally every 15 minutes to every 20. In March 1963 Dr. Beeching published ‘The Reshaping of British Railways’ in which the the Broad Street – Richmond service was listed for closure but curiously not the Broad Street – Primrose Hill – Watford Junction service. By this time there were widespread complaints about the service, e.g. higher fares than LT, no through fares to LT stations, no car parking, no later evening service, and overcrowding on peak trains. Action committees were set up with support of local authorities who lobbied Parliament and provided facilities such as meeting rooms and printing. Even then it was noteworthy that North London line off-peak patronage at 50% of total business was much higher than the then London norm of 25%. Internal BR papers also hinted that BR managers were interested in the development potential of the Broad Street site which included extensive goods stations.

In 1965 BR closed 4 of the stations on Sundays and investigated the 4 options below:

1:    Close Broad St. redirecting electric trains on a new spur to St. Pancras
2:    Terminating services at Dalston Junction with LT bus connection to Broad St. LT rejected this as impractical
3:    Continue with closure proposal
4:    Economise, ‘shrink’ most stations including Broad Street and continue Eastern Region peak services till their electrification.

In 1965 BR confirmed they would not proceed with the closure proposal but in 1966 ran the last direct peak trains between Broad Street and Croxley Green.

1965 – about 1978: Absolute Minimum Facilities and Stagnation

BR (LM) started promoting the line for the first time! In May 1968 the evening services were restored and from 1969 there were some cheaper non-mileage fares. However, there were frequent complaints about train cancellations, vandalised station toilets, etc.

After October 1964 patronage of the ER trains increased when the Northern City Line was severed at Drayton Park; 10 years later there were 14 evening peak departures from Broad St. on Mondays to Fridays and even a couple on Saturdays at midday. This scuppered any attempt at partial redevelopment of the Broad Street station site. The ER trains were dmu worked from May 1969 till final closure in November 1976 with GN suburban electrification. In 1969 the Goods Depots at Broad St. and nearby Worship St. were closed. However, there were two serious planning impediments to redeveloping the sites: (1) Office Development Permits restricting office development in London were needed as well as planning permission and (2) any BR land defined as ‘non-operational’ had to be offered to the Greater London Council for housing.

In 1966 – 69 Broad St. – Dalston Junction was ‘de-quadrupled.’ In February 1970 Broad Street’s east side platforms were closed and in August 1970 the 4th rail was removed. 5 of the smaller stations were rebuilt with minimal brick structures and at most stations canopies and platform buildings were replaced by ‘bus shelters.’ Highbury & Islington station was rebuilt (not very well) for interchange for the Victoria Line which opened here in September 1968. Fortunately the stations on the d.c. lines from Euston to Watford Junction were built in the 20th century and have nearly all survived. In April 1971 Kentish Town West station was burnt down; while trains no longer called, it wasn’t formally closed at that time. However, the downsized stations were perceived as ‘cheap and nasty.’ There was a very obvious gap between the standard of BR and LT surface stations. There was a container depot at Maiden Lane north of St. Pancras between 1964 and 1971 when it was replaced by better facilities at Willesden Junction and Stratford.

The 1968 Transport Act was crucial in introducing the concept of (1) national public subsidy for loss-making train services through Grant Aid for services on a line-by-line basis and (2) the right of local authorities to subsidise train services. The North London and Euston – Watford d.c. line services were both heavily loss making. On the d.c. lines BR took all the revenue but paid LT for operating costs of Bakerloo Line trains. From June 1965 Bakerloo services north of Queens Park were cut back to the peaks and after April 1966 electric a.c. services from Euston also depressed demand north of Harrow & Wealdstone on the section mainly in Hertfordshire. In 1966 Saturday services from Broad Street via Primrose Hill were withdrawn. The 1970 Heath government wanted to eliminate Grant Aid, provoking the formation of the NLCC (North London Line Committee); unlike predecessor committees, this worked well with BR. There was a major fare increase of up to 25% in 1971 but Grant Aid was consolidated into Regional blocks.

More positive was the production of 2 reports. The first was ‘New Ring Rail for London’ in 1973; in principle this was finally delivered in 2012. In 1974 the Department of the Environment, BR, LT and the GLC jointly produced the ‘London Rail Study’ in which the 2 Crossrail lines first appeared as proposals. Civil engineering work on the first Crossrail line is now approaching completion and the plans for Crossrail 2 are out for consultation.

While the Labour government was initially more positive, the fall of London’s population and economic crisis forced it to reduce subsidies to BR. In November 1975 BR proposed to cut all d.c. services to half hourly including the peaks. In 1976 the GLC stepped in with rights it had in an 1969 Act to provide a subsidy for the North London and North Woolwich lines but not the d.c. lines service since there were doubts about the legality with the line extending into Hertfordshire. The service shrank from every 15 minutes 7 days a week to every 20 minutes, but half-hourly on Sundays and on Monday to Friday peaks when the Broad Street services also ran. There were battles between the GLC who wanted the tube map to show the Broad Street – Richmond line and LT who considered that the line wasn’t of a compatible standard, but it did appear from 1977. In 1978 BR said they didn’t require any more subsidy from the GLC.

Expansion from 1979: Hackney and North Woolwich!

By the late 1970s, the borough of Hackney was in trouble. There were racial tensions, rising unemployment, low car ownership, bus service reliability was being hit by traffic congestion, race riots elsewhere in London, no tube service and rail service limited to access to Liverpool Street. Further east, employment was collapsing in Docklands. The pressure group HAPTAC (Hackney Public Transport Action Committee) was formed in 1971 and  had good relations with BR. In 1973 it asked for a link between Stratford and Highbury. In 1976 the GLC and 5 boroughs published a ‘London Docklands Strategic Plan’ and in 1977 the GLC agreed to pay BR to ‘tart up’ the stations on the Stratford to North Woolwich line. This involved singling the track between Custom House and North Woolwich, building new interchange platforms with LT’s railways at West Ham (opened May 1979) and building a new mini station building at North Woolwich. The service had previously shuttled between Stratford and North Woolwich with a few trains starting from Tottenham Hale.

The GLC sponsored a new service between Camden Road and North Woolwich which began in May 1979 using 2-car class 105 Cravens dmus. Services ran about every 20 minutes in the peaks and every 30 minutes off-peak, all on Mondays to Fridays only. Basic new intermediate stations partly paid for by the GLC and also the Urban Aid budget were opened over a period as follows:

Dalston (Kingsland): May 1983
Hackney Central: May 1980
Homerton: May 1985 (it had to await electrification since stops here would have made dmu timings too tight)
Hackney Wick: May 1980

The service was slow to build up custom at first due to chronic unreliability with 13% of trains cancelled and at best 75% timekeeping, but built up later on the section west of Stratford. Patronage shrank at the North Woolwich end since the local economy was in ‘free fall’ following closure of the last enclosed docks in 1981. In 1981 the GLC agreed to pay for electrification from Dalston to North Woolwich. This was achieved in May 1985 when the Richmond – Broad Street service was diverted to North Woolwich. This also killed off a residual shuttle service between Stratford and Tottenham Hale a couple of months later. See the next section on the related eventual closure of Broad Street station. While there were spare class 501 3-car units to operate the service, in fact it was to be worked by 2-car Southern Region Bulleid 2-EPBs based at Selhurst. This enabled the closure of the electric depot at Croxley Green in conjunction with the replacement of the class 501s on Watford trains by class 313 emus as also described below.

As noted, Kentish Town West station was in effect closed in April 1971 after a fire and BR wanted to formalise the closure. This caused inevitable friction with Camden Council, but BR received approval for closure in November 1977. However, the GLC financed rebuilding and the station eventually reopened in October 1981 after closure for over 10 years.

Other changes included the diversion in January 1981 of the Kentish Town to Barking service to start from Gospel Oak to free up Kentish Town for the Bed-Pan electrification scheme; the service reverted to half-hourly. BR’s freight sector paid to electrify Camden Road to Stratford at 25 kV a.c. from April 1988. In part this enabled BR to defer the replacement of various bridges on the Gospel Oak – Barking line

Closing Broad Street in 1986 and opening (and closing) the Graham Road curve

We have seen how the LM Region had been eying up the closure of Broad Street for property redevelopment as early as 1964, and by 1969 BR was looking at a more comprehensive redevelopment including Liverpool Street as well. In 1971 BR applied for the then necessary Office Development Permit (ODP). The GLC, City of London and Hackney borough were all involved as  planning bodies. Two factors now helped. Firstly in 1971 BR received approval for the Great Northern Suburban electrification which would in due course rid Broad Street of the Eastern Region’s peak trains; these last ran in November 1976. Secondly in 1973 the Dept. of the Environment sent BR a conditional approval for the scheme. However, at that time the Eastern Region were opposed to the concept of the future Graham Road curve enabling North London trains to be diverted from Broad Street to Liverpool Street. Accordingly BR was working on the basis of retaining a 2-platform Broad Street in some form.

After a brief hiatus on ODPs, the new Labour government issued an ODP in 1974 and planning started on the Graham Road curve. In 1975 the BR Investment Board approved in principle a scheme to build the curve and terminate Broad Street trains at a temporary terminus at Worship Street 600 yards back from Broad Street. This was to the horror of the LM Region which now wanted to terminate services at Highbury & Islington, but this was vetoed by the Dept. of the Environment foreseeing the strength of the lobby groups. To complicate matters, the western train shed at Liverpool Street was ‘listed’ in 1975 but in 1981 the Dept. of the Environment refused to list Broad Street Station.

From 1976 BR proceeded with development proposals based on a temporary Worship Street terminus, in 1977 received planning permission and in 1979 full planning consent. However, Hackney council was hostile since with 15% unemployment it had 2 concerns: it wanted to preserve employment of small businesses in the arches of the viaduct south of Dalston Junction and wanted new stations at Shoreditch and Haggerston to serve them. They achieved this over 30 years later! In 1981 BR formally proposed the closure of the section between Broad Street and Worship Street and this was approved by the minister in 1983. In 1983 BR (Network SouthEast) refused an offer from the GLC to build a Broad Street High Level station.

In September 1983, BR came up with a new plan. It discovered that some nearly new 3-car class 313 emus were spare from the Great Northern suburban electrification and could be used on the services then working from Euston and from Broad Street in the peaks to Watford Junction. Since they were dual-system, they could readily work the Watford services over a Graham Road curve into Liverpool Street. With Southern 2-EPBs working on the newly electrified line to North Woolwich, Croxley Green depot could be closed and the class 501s withdrawn. Since power supplies on the d.c. lines to Watford wouldn’t support 2 x class 313 units, extra peak Bakerloo Line trains would be needed out to Harrow & Wealdstone as seen below. Before this, the North London service had been interrupted between Finchley Road and Gospel Oak from December 1984 and April 1985 by a landslip in Hampstead.

In 1984 BR applied for complete closure of Dalston Junction to Broad Street without a temporary terminus at Worship Street. Despite objections from the usual lobby groups, Nicholas Ridley as the relevant minister approved the closure of Broad Street to be effective when the Graham Road curve was complete. After 14 May 1985 when the Richmond service was diverted to North Woolwich, the peak Watford Junction trains had become the only users of Broad Street. Hackney borough got some compensation; BR repaired London Fields station closed in September 1981 after a fire and reopened it in September 1986. From 1 July 1985 the Watford service used a truncated 2 platform Broad Street station with temporary ‘shack’ buildings and the last Watford train served it on 27 June 1986. The service over the Graham Road curve was not a success, and after classic ‘stealth’ processes of poor and reducing service, the last train on a service by then down to single train pair ran on 25 September 1992.

Euston – Watford d.c. Line / Bakerloo services

We have already seen that by the 1980s, the d.c. lines were served every 20 minutes (half-hourly on Sundays and also on Monday to Friday peaks when there were also Broad Street trains) plus 4 peak Bakerloo Line trains which berthed at the BR depot at Croxley Green. In May 1979 a new depot at Stonebridge Park accessible only over BR tracks served the Bakerloo Line as part of the opening of the Jubilee Line. There was a limited peak service north from Queens Park to Stonebridge Park. In 1982 this was withdrawn as were the peak trains from Watford which last ran in September 1982. These had survived in part because of lack of alternative stabling. This left no LT public service on the d.c. lines north of Stonebridge Park. Details are obscure on whether even the section between Queens Park and Stonebridge Park was served by Bakerloo Line public trains for the entirety of this period.

Peak Bakerloo Line services to Harrow & Wealdstone resumed in June 1984 partly financed by the GLC. As we have seen this also assisted BR’s scheme to replace the class 501 emus running in pairs in the peaks by 3-car 313s running singly. In 1988 Bakerloo Line service to Harrow & Wealdstone resumed all day operation on Mondays to Saturdays and in 1989 on Sundays as well. By 1999 the Harrow & Wealdstone service was running every 10 minutes at most hours.

With the 3-car service to Watford, the peak headway from Euston improved to every 20 minutes. From then till the days of the Overground over 20 years later, the service more or less remained every 20 minutes on Mondays to Saturdays and every half hour on Sundays.

‘Getting by’ for 20 years but not very well

The section covers the period after the closure of Broad Street through to privatisation and the 10 years of the Silverlink franchise. There were two crucial factors. The first was the abolition of the Greater London Council in 1986; responsibility for LT had already been transferred to central government in 1984 by the London Regional Transport Act of that year. This left these routes without any external organisation or finances to support the North London line and left it entirely at the mercy of national governments. The second was a sudden change round in demography in 1983. In the period 1961 – 83 London as a whole lost 15% of its population, the boroughs of Hackney and Camden 29% and Islington 38%. From 1983 to 2001 the overall population rose 8%, Camden 11%, Hackney 13% and Islington 16% and to some degree these boroughs were becoming gentrified. While 3-car class 313s replaced 2-car 2-EPBs in October 1989, the internal layout of the 313s with only 2 pairs of doors wasn’t suitable for a metro type service. In an unrelated change, in 1987 the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) took over the Bow to Poplar section previously used by the Broad Street – Poplar steam service.

In 1989 the government targeted BR’s Network SouthEast with eliminating its subsidy, leading to the partial destaffing of stations. The North London line’s fare yield was low since most stations were in Travelcard Zone 2. When engineering works disrupted train service, replacement buses were no longer provided. In 1993 there had been a proposal that the High Speed line from St. Pancras to Kent would share the surface alignment of the North London line from north of St. Pancras to Dalston almost certainly blocking the line between Highbury & Islington and Dalston (Kingsland) for 2 years, but this was fought off by the lobby groups. In compensation BR’s Freight Sector would have got electrification of Gospel Oak to South Tottenham and replacement of the line’s weak bridges. In 1994 the infrastructure of national railways was transferred from British Rail to Railtrack, but in May 1994, the Monday to Friday service was changed to from every 20 minutes throughout to every 15 minutes from Richmond to Stratford and every 30 minutes on to North Woolwich.

During this period, the Richmond – North Woolwich suffered two major blockages for engineering works. The first was from May 1994 till October 1995 between Stratford and North Woolwich for construction of the Jubilee Line Extension on one side of the formation between Stratford and Canning Town. However, LT paid for rebuilding stations at West Ham and Canning Town, the latter on a new site with interchange with Docklands Light Railway as well as the Jubilee Line. The Docklands Development Corporation paid for a major improvement to the Connaught Tunnel between Custom House and Silvertown. It is now being rebuilt more extensively for Crossrail.

The second blockage was more severe and lasted from October 1995 and September 1996 covering the entire line between Camden Road and Willesden Junction via Hampstead Heath when the line was heavily rebuilt for North of England Eurostar trains which never ran. The North Woolwich – Richmond service ran from North Woolwich via Primrose Hill (where the station remained closed) to Willesden Junction Low Level and from Willesden Junction High Level to Richmond. The line was re-electrified from Acton Central through to Dalston Kingsland on 25 kV a.c. which materially improved operation of the 313s. Unfortunately work to improve clearances for larger freight containers in Hampstead Tunnel wasn’t included. However, when the train service was restored, it was on the previous 20 minute frequency throughout, and the previous service wasn’t fully restored till January 1999. On 22 March 1996 the last train ran on the branch to Croxley Green in advance of road works severing the track formation. Latterly, the line had been served by a single early morning train pair, when run at all.

Privatisation of train operation under the Railways Act of 1993 led to the award to National Express of a franchise for operating the trains; this ran from March 1997 till November 2007 branded as Silverlink Metro. Since the franchise terms were to operate the service ‘as is’ on a line where passenger numbers were rising, there was little investment by the operator and the passenger experience deteriorated. One user described it as ‘shabby, unreliable, unsafe and overcrowded,’ and there were particular problems of communication if the service was disrupted. In 2000 Silverlink was rated as the worst or second worst franchisee in 9 PPM measures out of 12. However, there were a few extra peak trains from May 2004 and the new GLA (see below) paid for some extra through trains to run from Stratford to Clapham Junction in the peak. Meanwhile the Anglia franchisee had run through dmus over the North London from Ipswich to Basingstoke; the then Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) set up by the Transport Act of 2000) terminated the poorly patronised service which ran from May 2000 to September 2002. The SRA was abolished by the Railways Act of 2005 and its powers transferred back to the Department of Transport.

In 2000 came better news with the establishment of the Greater London Authority (GLA) with an elected mayor. While the the GLA set up Transport for London (TfL) in 2000 to manage its transport responsibilities, it was only able to take over London Underground in 2003 after it had signed an ill-fated PPP (Public Private Partnership) agreement for the infrastructure. The Railways Act of 2005 gave the GLA / TfL more explicit responsibilities which it exercises these through ‘London Rail.’ Both London mayors have worked through this to exercise greater control over national railways services throughout Greater London.

In July 2005 London was successful in its bid to host the Olympics in 2012. This provided the impetus for drastic improvements in service standards and completion of the East London Line Extension (ELLE) described later. London was primarily competing for the Olympics against Paris and Madrid which were at that time perceived as having more effective transport systems serving their proposed Olympic infrastructure. To win the Olympics, the SRA had identified these priorities in 2004:

ñ    To improve the North London line
ñ    The build the East London Line Extension to Highbury & Islington. In 2004 this had been the bottom of their 10 priorities. This is described in more detail in a later section
ñ    To replace the North London line by the DLR beyond Stratford

In August 2006 Network Rail published a Route Utilisation Strategy which foresaw capacity crises for both passenger and freight traffic on the North London line. This recognised the weakness of the Gospel Oak to Barking line through ailing bridges and long signal sections. For passengers it recommended reconfiguration of the class 313 emus, longer trains, more peak trains and a service from Stratford via Primrose Hill to Queens Park.

Since TfL already had authorisation to extend the DLR to King George V and North London line traffic to North Woolwich was still very poor, the last train ran between Stratford and North Woolwich on 9 December 2006. Rather belatedly, the North London line service was transferred from the Low Level platforms at Stratford to new platforms at High Level in April 2009.

London Overground

London Overground Rail Operations (LOROL) took over train operations from Silverlink as a concession from TfL in November 2007. This concession will now run till November 2016. While the original owners of the concession were MTR of Hong Kong and Laing Rail, the latter later sold out to Arriva now owned by DB of Germany. Their immediate tasks were to clean up the stations and trains, staff all the stations at all times trains were running, install automatic ticket gates at many stations, and improve revenue protection and security. Pay-as-you-go Oyster cards were accepted from September 2009. New dual system class 378 trains were ordered from Bombardier, delivered as 3-car sets from 2008, strengthened to 4-car from 2011 and in the future to 5-car. Parts of the line were closed twice. The line was closed from Willesden Junction High Level to Gospel Oak from September to November 2008 to adapt Hampstead Tunnel for 9′ W10 loading gauge freight containers. It was closed from Gospel Oak to Stratford from February to June 2010 for heavy rebuilding paid for by ‘Olympics’ money. The new track layouts provided space for East London trains to run as far as Highbury & Islington on separate tracks. Extensive rebuilding was needed at Caledonian Road, Highbury & Islington and Canonbury stations and complex work at Willesden Junction. LOROL have achieved commendable levels of timekeeping and customer satisfaction.

Train services have now settled at 4 trains per hour from Stratford to Richmond, supplemented by a service from Stratford to Clapham Junction via the West London line of 4 trains per hour Monday to Friday peaks, and 2 trains per hour at other times till about 20 00. Sunday services are the same but lower before about 11 00. The same improvements have been applied to the d.c. lines between Euston and Watford Junction. However, the new class 378 emus which replaced the 313s and latterly also some 507s drafted in from Merseyside still run only every 20 minutes, but the Sunday frequency has at last increased to every 20 minutes after about 09 30.

Plans for the link between the HS2 high speed line to the north and the existing HS1 had involved shared use of the North London alignment at Camden Road, no doubt creating disturbance in both construction and operation. This threat was removed in 2014 when a review by HS2’s new Chief Executive condemned this plan as unsatisfactory. Construction of a new station building at West Hampstead has now been authorised as well as reinstating at vast expense a long gone footpath connection between Hackney Central and Hackney Downs. New 2-car class 172 dmus were built for the Gospel Oak – Barking service in 2009 – 2010. While the service now runs every 15 minutes 7 days per week, trains are subject to gross overcrowding. After contention between the various possible funding bodies, electrification of the line has been authorised, but will probably take till 2017 to complete. It finally involves replacement of the weak bridges already highlighted as a problem 25 years earlier. The line will probably be extended on a new formation to a terminus serving a major housing development at Barking Riverside. Pathing conflicts for freight trains from the new Thames Gateway port opened in autumn 2013 crossing Great Eastern main line and Crossrail tracks in the Forest Gate area no doubt provided extra impetus.

The East London Extension

The abbreviated details may seem tedious but do illustrate the mind-bending difficulties in progressing the scheme until pressing national needs finally demolished the obstacles. We must congratulate the author of a ‘Very Political Railway’ for teasing out the details; many are in public but not very accessible archives. The complex tale of the East London Line Extension (ELLE) hangs around a series of 3 assets. The first was the East London Line starting from Shoreditch / Whitechapel and crossing the river by the Thames Tunnel. By the 1980s the line was suffering from falling traffic and had become an operationally isolated ‘orphan’ for the 40 years since October 1941. The second was Bishopsgate Goods Station which was the freight equivalent to the former Great Eastern Railway’s Liverpool Street passenger station. The bulk of the Goods Station was burned down in December 1964, leaving the Grade II listed brick approach viaducts and brickwork of the Goods Station on two levels. Much was built in 1840 to the designs of John Braithwaite, engineer of the then Eastern Counties Railway. By the mid 1980s, the substantial remains were in the ownership of the British Railways Property Board who wanted to sell or redevelop the site. The third asset was the viaduct between Dalston Junction and the demolished Broad Street station, vacant at track level since 1986.

After the closure of Broad Street, local councils wanted the viaduct from Dalston Junction included in any redevelopment plans for the Bishopsgate Goods site, but at that time the BR Property Board were hostile. In 1987 London Underground set up an East London Extension Strategy but without positive outcome. The main difficulty was that the government expected property developers to finance any development at Bishopsgate. The Property Board had been working with the London & Edinburgh Trust, whose scheme had included a Shoreditch tube station on the Central Line which runs under the Bishopsgate Goods site. In November 1992 the government turned down a scheme on the grounds that the public sector contribution was too great. London Underground were not very interested at that time; despite this scheme having lower costs and higher Cost Benefit Ratio than other proposals, they seem to have been more focussed on the Jubilee Line Extension and Crossrail.

In 1993 the East London Line Group (ELLG) comprising local councils and property developers was especially active. By that time London Underground foresaw a line from Highbury & Islington to East Dulwich worked by Underground A stock. BR’s Network SouthEast opposed going any further but this damaged the financial prospects. However, the currency crash on Black Wednesday on 16 September 1992 scuppered the property developers, and the general government financial squeeze that followed also killed LU’s Aldwych and Ongar lines whose last trains both ran on 30 September 1994. However, to keep the scheme going, LU applied for an order under the Transport & Works Act. There was a planning enquiry in 1994 and in 1995 a PFI (Private Finance Initiative) was in place. The minister gave approval in January 1997. In 1999 negotiations were in progress on a wider PPP including Railtrack on the sub-surface lines including ELLE but were broken off in November 1999. In 2001 the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) announced a first tranche of funding for land purchase, design and development. In 2002 the SRA’s Strategic Plan intended to let a PFI.  Railtrack as successor to the BR Property Board sold off its property interest in 2002.

While matters may now have looked positive, a group of railway enthusiasts called the London Railway Heritage Society managed to slow the project by a couple of years by throwing in a legal challenge. They went to court to argue that London Underground were in technical breach of their Transport & Works Act order concerning the Braithwaite Viaduct structure which formed part of the Bishopsgate Goods buildings on the intended route. The Viaduct had been Grade II listed in 2002. The Society was joined by English Heritage and Prince Charles. Finally with the backing of Hackney and Tower Hamlets councils, the court rebuffed the enthusiasts in May 2003 and relevant demolition to enable to construction of Shoreditch High Street station went ahead without endangering the Braithwaite Viaduct.

By 2004 the project was firmly in the hands of TfL (Transport for London) and in June 2005 work started on the former Broad Street viaduct. After almost 20 years of dereliction, amongst other work 22 underline bridges had to be replaced. While ELLE had been at the bottom of London Underground’s priorities, two events suddenly raised it. The first was that from 2004 TfL now parent of London Underground was now authorised to raise money directly on the financial markets, potentially avoiding the need for PFIs. Secondly was the go-ahead of the London Olympics in 2005. This enabled TfL to raise the money in Luxembourg within 3 months. In October 2006 TfL placed the main construction contract and the last East London line trains ran on 22 December 2007.

Overground started its first ‘preview’ train service south from Dalston Junction in April 2010 and a full service on 23 May 2010. On 28 February 2011 the service was extended to Highbury & Islington. While most of the Overground service operates over Network Rail tracks, the East London section from Dalston Junction to New Cross Gate is run from a TfL owned control centre at the New Cross Gate.


Nothing has been inevitable in this story. The influence of national politicians has generally been neutral or negative. From the 1960s local lobbyists and politicians have greatly assisted providing the assets we have now. The lobbyists were powerful groups agitating effectively, with crucial support in the pre-internet age from local authorities who could provide meeting rooms, printing facilities, etc. The Broad Street to Richmond line running through 14 parliamentary constituencies of various political persuasions also assisted. Arguably the biggest fillip was UK winning the bid in 2005 to host the 2012 Olympics.

Lead times are incredibly long often exceeding half a century from initial studies, e.g. for Thameslink, Crossrail 1 and 2, the East London Line Extension and Broad Street redevelopment. 50 years after a catastrophic fire,  Bishopsgate Goods has still not been redeveloped.

The North London Line has finally become a success when it has become the main activity of the management team running it rather than a sideshow on something bigger. The sudden change of demographics from about 1983 was entirely unexpected and was no doubt crucial in preventing these routes just ‘fading away’ as was no doubt expected in the 1970s.

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