Forget road bridges. TfL should extend the London Overground to Thamesmead and Abbey Wood

The bustling transport hub that is Thamesmead town centre. Image: Darryl Chamberlain.

Listen carefully to local politicians in the east of London, and there's a low mantra you keep on hearing. A mantra of desperation.

"River crossings... jobs and investment... river crossings... jobs and investment..."

Newham's elected mayor may not be standing in Beckton, staring at Thamesmead with a tear in his eye; and the leader of Bexley Council may not be gazing over at Rainham, wondering what it'd be like to for her to be closer to the marshes there.

But getting between east and south-east London can be a pain, whether by road or rail. The River Thames widens dramatically once you pass Woolwich, and the communities on either side of the water have very little to do with each other.

That simple fact of geography has always been with us as London has grown. But in the recent years, it's been blamed for low employment levels in these riverside communities.

In this narrative, the area's problems have little to do with the decline of established industries – the Royal Arsenal, the docks, the Ford car plant at Dagenham – and the lack of new employment to replace them.

Neither does it have anything to do with London's politicians building a whole new town on the south bank – Thamesmead – with utterly inadequate public transport, leaving much of it more than a mile from a railway station. The nearest its residents get to fast, easy travel are London City Airport-bound jets roaring over their heads.

No, it's just evil geography to blame. Doing nothing is not an option, these politicians declare. But while elsewhere in London, public transport is improved and steps are promised to clean up the air, here, they want to build thumping great roads instead.

New roads would be ridiculed elsewhere

In most of the rest of London, laying down new tarmac would be met with ridicule. The capital is too scarred by memories of the London Motorway Box, which threatened to destroy now-desirable areas such as Hackney, Highbury and West Hampstead.

But south east London is a part of town that’s underneath the key on most maps. It’s always been expected to put up with second best.

Three crossings are proposed. By far the most advanced is the Silvertown Tunnel, four miles west of Thamesmead.

This road between the Greenwich Peninsula and Royal Docks – both already being redeveloped off the back of new public transport – will do little to connect areas that are currently lying dormant. Instead, it's an add-on to the Blackwall Tunnel, aimed at solving congestion there. 

But the plan is fatally flawed. It shares Blackwall’s already-congested southern approach, and is designed to allow HGVs easier access to streets north of the river.

It’s more likely to generate more traffic on its approaches and overwhelm local roads, creating new bottlenecks elsewhere and exacerbating already poor pollution problems.

Don't take my word for it – those are the findings of a report commissioned by Greenwich council. Greenwich dumped the report and supported the tunnel anyway.

But Hackney council recently passed a motion opposing it; Southwark and Lewisham councils have serious doubts about the scheme, too.

The other road crossings are planned to the east and west of Thamesmead – entrenching car dependency in an area the capital’s decision-makers created, then forgot about.

Ease demand by giving Thamesmead the Overground

Congestion is a London-wide problem, not just a parochial issue at a few bottlenecks. The Silvertown Tunnel won't do a thing to solve that. And without a serious effort to cut traffic across the capital, all of these crossings are doomed to failure.

Yet if London's ready to spend £1bn on a river crossing, then we should go easy on the tarmac. One solution would not just help ease demand on Blackwall Tunnel, but also spark interest in London’s neglected new town without putting an extra car on the roads. It's extending the London Overground, from Barking to Thamesmead and Abbey Wood.

The Gospel Oak to Barking line used to be the runt of London's railway litter, with clapped-out diesel trains wheezing their way across north-east London at miserly 45-minute frequencies.

Since 2007, it's been transformed as part of the London Overground network, with four new trains per hour, often full to bursting. Plans are afoot to electrify it and extend it onto Barking Riverside, a huge housing development by the Thames that's been on hold until decent public transport can be arranged.

That sprinkle of Overground magic is set to be the catalyst for 10,000 new homes on the brownfield site.

Yet despite the clamour for ways of making the Thames easier to cross, taking the extension on a couple of miles further, to Abbey Wood, isn’t on the agenda.

The effects would be dramatic. Thamesmead residents would be finally plugged into the London rail network for the first time since the town was founded in 1967, while Barking Riverside residents would gain an interchange with Crossrail at Abbey Wood.

Northbound traffic in the Blackwall Tunnel in the morning rush hour. The red diamonds are the vehicles' origin; blue squares its destination. The proposed Overground extension is shown in yellow. Image: TfL/Darryl Chamberlain.

It could also take pressure off the roads. A hefty chunk of Blackwall Tunnel traffic comes from Thamesmead, from people who end up driving because their current transport options are so poor. The area’s “town centre” is served only by a pair of poorly-placed bus stops.

Politicians are waking up to the idea – but they need to move fast

Why isn’t it happening already? Thamesmead and Abbey Wood are missing out because of short-term thinking at London's City Hall. Just as with the Bakerloo and Northern line extensions, the Barking Riverside extension is intended to regenerate land that has seen little development.

Creating new links to serve existing communities is at the bottom of the priority list. A Thamesmead Overground connection languishes on TfL’s wishlist for the year 2050. If London’s politicians are serious about reviving the community they forgot, they need to be pushing this up the list as soon as they can.

If only. TfL's map of the Overground in 2026, with the Thamesmead extension drawn on in crayons. Image: TfL/Darryl Chamberlain.

Some already are. Barking & Dagenham council leader Darren Rodwell was the first to call for it last year.

A petition from the No to Silvertown Tunnel campaign was followed by action from two Labour assembly members. Fiona Twycross asked if building a new station at Barking Riverside that could quickly become redundant was a waste of money, while Len Duvall suggested that an extension that didn’t cross the river was a missed opportunity.

Only a fool would pretend the puzzle of making it easier to cross the Thames is an easy one to solve. But the people of Barking and Thamesmead deserve the same sustainable solutions that are being proposed elsewhere.

Occasionally, an extension of the Docklands Light Railway is suggested for Thamesmead – usually to make one of the road bridges seem more palatable. Yet an Overground link would dramatically widen opportunities for Thamesmead’s residents to get around the capital compared with the slow and limited options provided by the already-overloaded DLR.

In May, a new mayor will have to decide what to do with Boris Johnson’s transport legacy. Whoever gets the job should ditch the £1bn Silvertown Tunnel – a project that’s doomed to failure. Instead, he or she should start putting the river crossings programme on a sustainable track, and bring the Overground to Thamesmead.

Darryl Chamberlain is a writer and one of the founders of the No To Silvertown Tunnel campaign. He blogs at 853

 
 
 
 

Seville has built its entire public transport system in 10 years. How has it done?

Just another sunny day in Seville. Image: Claude Lynch.

Seville, the fourth largest urban centre in Spain, was recently voted Lonely Planet’s number one city to visit in 2018. The award made a point of mentioning Seville’s impressive network of bicycles and trams, but it neglected to mention that it’s actually their ten year anniversary. The city’s metro opened just two years later.

This makes now an excellent time to look back on Seville’s public transport network – especially because almost all of it was completed in the middle of the global financial crisis. So, is it a good model for modern public transport? Let’s find out.

Cycle Hire

Seville, like any good metropolis, features a cycle hire scheme: Sevici, which is a clever portmanteau of the words ‘Seville’ and ‘bici’, short for bicicleta, the Spanish for, you guessed it, bicycle.

The service, launched in 2007, is run as a public-private partnership. Users can pay a flat weekly fee of €13.33 (£11.81) for unlimited rentals, as long as all the journeys last 30 minutes or less. For the fanatics, there’s a year-long subscription for €33. This makes Sevici cheaper than the London equivalent (£90) but slightly more than that of Paris (€29).

However, the reason why the bike hire scheme has gained particular praise in recent years is down to Seville’s network of cycle paths, snaking around the town centre and into the suburbs. The sheer scale of the scheme, 75 miles of track in total, has prompted comparisons to Amsterdam.

But there is a meaningful distinction between the two cases. First, cycling culture is such a big deal for the Amsterdammers that it has its own Wikipedia page. In Seville, cycling culture is a growing trend, but one that faces an uphill struggle, despite the city’s flatness. Around half of the cycle paths are on a pavement shared by pedestrians; pedestrians often ignore that the space is designed specifically for cycles.

A Sevici station in the town centre. Image: Claude Lynch.

Surprisingly, cyclists will also find exactly the opposite problem: the fact that bicycles enjoy the privilege of so many segregated spaces mean that, if they dare enter the road, motorists are not obliged to show them the same level of respect – because why would they need to enter the road in the first place?

This problem is only compounded by the Mediterranean driving style, one that takes a more cavalier attitude to objects in the road than that of the northern Europeans. While none of this makes cycling in Seville a write-off – it remains the cycling capital of Spain – budding tourists should bear in mind that the cycle paths do not extend far into the old town proper, making them a utility, for the most part, for budding commuters.

Metro

The metro system in Seville consists of a single metro line that travels from Ciudad Expo in the west to Olivar de Quintos in the east. It has three zones, which create a simple and straightforward fare system, based on the number of journeys and number of “saltos” (jumps) between zones, and nothing more.

The need-to-know for tourists, however, is that only three of the metro stations realistically serve areas with attractions: Plaza de Cuba, Puerta de Jerez, and Prado de San Sebastian. Given that a walk between these is only a few minutes slower than by metro, it shows the metro service for what it is: a service for commuters coming from the west or east of town into the city centre.

Some of the behaviour on the network is worth noting, too. Manspreading is still dangerously common. There are no signs telling you to “stand on the right”, so people queue in a huff instead. Additionally, there is no etiquette when it comes to letting passengers debark before you get on, which makes things precarious in rush hour – or if you dare bring your bike on with you.

On the plus side, that’s something you can do; all trains have spaces reserved for bikes and prams (and they’re far more sophisticated than the kind you see on London buses). Trains are also now fitted with USB charging ports for your phone. This comes in addition to platform edge doors, total wheelchair access, and smart cards as standard. Snazzy, then – but still not much good for tourists.

Platform edge doors at Puerta Jerez. Image: Claude Lynch.

The original plan for Seville’s metro, launched in the 70s, would have had far more stations running through the city centre; it’s just that the ambitious plans were never launched, due in equal measure to a series of sinkholes and financial crises. The same kind of problems led to Seville’s metro network being opened far behind schedule, with expansion far down the list of priorities.

Still, the project, for which Sevillanos waited 40 years, is impressive – but it doesn’t feel like the best way to cater to an east-west slice of Seville’s comparatively small urban population of 1m. Tyne and Wear, one of the few British cities comparable in terms terms of size and ambition, used former railways lines for much of its metro network, and gets far more users as a result. Seville doesn’t have that luxury; or where it does, it refuses to use it in tandem.

You only need to look east, to Valencia, to see a much larger metro in practice; indeed, perhaps Seville’s metro wouldn’t look much different today if it had started at the same time as Valencia, like they wanted to. As a result, Seville´s metro ends up on the smaller side, outclassed on this fantastic list by the likes of Warsaw, Nizhny Novgorod, and, inexplicably, Pyongyang.

Seville: a less impressive metro than Pyongyang. Intriguing. Image: Neil Freeman.

Tramway

The tram travels from the high rise suburb-cum-transport hub of San Bernardo to the Plaza Nueva, in the south of the Seville’s old town. This route runs through a further metro station and narrowly avoids a third before snaking up past the Cathedral.

This seems like a nice idea in principle, but the problem is that it’s only really functional for tourists, as tram services are rare and slow to a crawl into the town centre, anticipating pedestrians, single tracks, and other obstacles (such as horse-drawn carriages; seriously). While it benefits from segregated lanes for most of the route, it lacks the raison d'être of the metro due to the fact that it only has a meagre 2km of track.

The tram travelling down a pedestrianised street with a bicycle path to the right. Image: Claude Lynch.

However, staring at a map long enough offers signs as to why the tram exists as it does. There’s no history of trams in Seville; the tracks were dug specifically for the new line. A little digging reveals that it’s again tied into the first plans for Seville’s metro, which aspired to run through the old town. Part of the reason the scheme was shelved was the immense cost brought about by having to dig through centuries-old foundations.

The solution, then, was to avoid digging altogether. However, because this means the tram is just doing the job the metro couldn’t be bothered to do, it makes it a far less useful service; one that could easily be replaced by a greater number of bike locks and, maybe, just maybe, additional horses.


So what has changed since Seville’s transport revolution?

For one thing, traffic from motor vehicles in Seville peaked in 2007 and has decreased every year since, at least until 2016. What is more promising is that the areas with the best public transport coverage have seen continued decreases in traffic on their roads, which implies that something is working.

Seville’s public transport network is less than 15 years old. The fact that the network was built from scratch, in a city with no heritage of cycling, tunnels, or tramways, meant that it could (or rather, had to) be built to spec. This is where comparisons to Amsterdam, Tyne and Wear, or any other city realistically fall out of favour; the case of Seville is special, because it’s all absolutely brand new.

As a result, it’s not unbecoming to claim that each mode of transport was built with a specific purpose. The metro, designed for the commuter; the tramway, for tourists; and cycling, a mix of the two. In a city with neither a cultural nor a physical precedent of any kind for such radical urban transportation, the outcome was surprisingly positive – the rarely realised “build it, and they will come”.

However, it bears mentioning that the ambitious nature of all three schemes has led to scaling back and curtailment in the wake of the economic crisis. This bodes poorly for the future, given that the Sevici bikes are already nearing the end of their lifetime, the cycle lanes are rapidly losing sheen, and upgrades to the tramway are downright necessary to spare it from obsolescence.

The conclusion we can draw from all this, then, appears to be a double-edged one. Ambition is not necessarily limited by a lack of resources, as alternatives may well present themselves. And yet, as is so often the case, when the money stops, so do the tracks.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook