Here's how TfL could transform South London's railway network

"One day, son, all this will be orange." Image: TfL.

Last week, the Centre for London published a report calling on Transport for London (TfL) to take over South London rail services.

The vision the think tank outlined in the “Tuning South London Orange” report would mean replicating the successful transformation of fragmented, underutilised and disconnected urban rail infrastructure into the popular London Overground orbital. This would mean better public transport for South London; that in turn would unlock the capital’s housing development and growth potential.

The London Overground brand was born in 2007, when TfL took on responsibility for the orbital North London and Gospel Oak to Barking lines, and the suburban radial route from Euston to Watford Junction. The network expanded when the revamped East London Line was reopened in 2011, and again when the orbital completed in 2012.


Other routes, in the north east of the capital, have been added since. All these routes are now shown in orange on London’s rail maps.

Last week’s report argues that adopting the same model could improve services and increase capacity in South London. London Overground’s orbital demonstrated how rail investment encourages greater densification, as the better transport connectivity makes locations more attract to live in. So, better rail services could also enable more housing along South London’s rail corridors and focused around stations.

With large population and employment growth is forecast for London, policies to address the pressing issue are particularly timely. The Centre for London estimates upgrading the South London rail network to “orange” standards could add 16,000 new homes to this area – an increase of almost 79 per cent.

Counting the cost

There were several keys to the success of the new London Overground: new connectivity, more frequent services, greater awareness of the network and links between previously poorly connected location. The key changes that were undertaken for the “original” London Overground orbital were:

  • Increasing service frequency to at least 4 trains an hour;
  • Integrating the new network into the existing public transport network with integrated ticketing, interchanges and maps;
  • Running new “metro”-style trains;
  • Investing in the fully staffed station.

London Overground transformed connectivity along its route. Passenger numbers on these services have quadrupled since TfL started managing the service in 2007 – testament to the transformative nature of these improvements. In the first four years alone, ridership rose 80 per cent. Importantly, passengers have consistently rated London Overground amongst the highest in the country for customer satisfaction.

The developing London Overground network (click to expand). Image: Centre for London/TfL.

The report’s authors envisage these same “orange” standards being applied to the entire South London rail network. But the proposed changes would require substantial investment in the South London network to replicate the London Overground’s success.

The costs bringing “turn up & go” services (that is, those which run at least four trains per hour) is estimated to be somewhere between the £6.5bn cost of the Thameslink programme and the £14.8bn of building Crossrail. This project is also likely to take 20-25 years, and the costs would be spread across the time period.

This would make Turning South London Orange the fourth largest rail project ever undertaken in the capital after Crossrail, Crossrail 2 and High Speed 2. By comparison, it cost TfL approximately £1.5bn to upgrade the “original” London Overground to “orange” standards.


A question of frequency

South London’s suburban railway network largely dates back to the Victorian era. For it to perform like the London Overground will require considerable investment – to upgrade signalling, amend track geometry so more trains can run (for example, replacing flat junctions with flyovers), introduce metro-style trains and improve the stations.

These network wide upgrades are necessary to deliver a service a higher frequency service, including a minimum peak frequency of six trains per hour. They should also help reduce “dwell time” – the time trains spend at the stations – which the report describes as a “critical limit” on high frequency networks.

One key to creating a more frequent service will be to rationalise service patterns for South London. At present, many stations in the area have two or more sets of (low frequency) services, serving multiple terminal stations. The Centre for London report suggests funnelling all services on particular branches to either Victoria or London Bridge – but not both – to create service frequency of 14 to 18 suburban trains per hour on the inner parts of the line.

Institutional barriers

So even if TfL were to take over the south London rail franchises, there would be a lot of work needed to deliver the vision of turning south London orange.

For one thing, the national government’s Department for Transport must devolve power to specify, let and manage the network to the capital’s transport authority. This will allow TfL to specify “orange standards”: frequency, station staffing and trains.

A reform in governance of this kind was necessary for the creation of the current London Overground network. The transfer of responsibility will allow TfL to directly invest in the network, through station and track upgrades.


One potential challenge to the shift of power to Transport for London is that a number of stations on the routes earmarked in the report for “orange” standards are not within the Greater London Authority’s boundary, and therefore not under the mayor’s or Transport for London’s jurisdiction. Neighbouring county councils have blocked such reforms in the past.]

However, Kent and Surrey councils have both signalled support for the proposal – on the condition that services to their constituencies will not be negatively affected by management changes. Watch this space.

Nicole Badstuber is PhD Researcher and Research Assistant in Transport Policy and Governance at University College London at UCL.

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Barnet council has decided a name for its new mainline station. Exciting!

Artist's impression of the new Brent Cross. Image: Hammerson.

I’ve ranted before about the horror of naming stations after the lines that they’re served by (screw you, City Thameslink). So, keeping things in perspective as ever, I’ve been quietly dreading the opening of the proposed new station in north London which has been going by the name of Brent Cross Thameslink.

I’ve been cheered, then, by the news that station wouldn’t be called that at all, but will instead go by the much better name Brent Cross West. It’s hardly the cancellation of Brexit, I’ll grant, but in 2017 I’ll take my relief wherever I can find it.

Some background on this. When the Brent Cross shopping centre opened besides the A406 North Circular Road in 1976, it was only the third large shopping mall to arrive in Britain, and the first in London. (The Elephant & Castle one was earlier, but smaller.) Four decades later, though, it’s decidedly titchy compared to newer, shinier malls such as those thrown up by Westfield – so for some years now, its owners, Hammerson, have wanted to extend the place.

That, through the vagaries of the planning process, got folded into a much bigger regeneration scheme, known as Brent Cross Cricklewood (because, basically, it extends that far). A new bigger shopping centre will be connected, via a green bridge over the A406, to another site to the south. There you’ll find a whole new town centre, 200 more shops, four parks, 4m square feet of offices space and 7,500 homes.

This is all obviously tremendously exciting, if you’re into shops and homes and offices and not into depressing, car-based industrial wastelands, which is what the area largely consists of at the moment.

The Brent Cross site. Image: Google.

One element of the new development is the new station, which’ll sit between Hendon and Cricklewood on the Thameslink route. New stations are almost as exciting as new shops/homes/offices, so on balance I'm pro.

What I’ve not been pro is the name. For a long time, the proposed station has been colloquially referred to as Brent Cross Thameslink, which annoys me for two reasons:

1) Route names make rubbish modifiers because what if the route name changes? And:

2) It’s confusing, because it’s nearly a mile from Brent Cross tube station. West Hampstead Thameslink (euch), by contrast, is right next to West Hampstead tube.

Various other names have been proposed for the station. In one newsletter, it was Brent Cross Parkway; on Wikipedia, it’s currently Brent Cross South, apparently through confusion about the name of the new town centre development.

This week, though, Barnet council quietly confirmed it’d be Brent Cross West:

Whilst the marketing and branding of BXS needs to be developed further, all parties agree that the station name should build upon the Brent Cross identity already established. Given the station is located to the west of Brent Cross, it is considered that the station should be named Brent Cross West. Network Rail have confirmed that this name is acceptable for operational purposes. Consequently, the Committee is asked to approve that the new station be named Brent Cross West.

Where the new station will appear on the map, marked by a silly red arrow. Image: TfL.

That will introduce another irritating anomaly to the map, giving the impression that the existing Brent Cross station is somehow more central than the new one, when in fact they’re either side of the development. And so:

Consideration has also been given as to whether to pursue a name change for the tube station from “Brent Cross” to “Brent Cross East”.

Which would sort of make sense, wouldn’t it? But alas:

However owing to the very high cost of changing maps and signage London-wide this is not currently being pursued.

This is probably for the best. Only a handful of tube stations have been renamed since 1950: the last was Shepherd’s Bush Market, which was until 2008 was simply Shepherd's Bush, despite being quite a long way from the Shepherd's Bush station on the Central line. That, to me, suggests that one of the two Bethnal Green stations might be a more plausible candidate for an early rename.


At any rate: it seems unlikely that TfL will be renaming its Brent Cross station to encourage more people to use the new national rail one any time soon. But at least it won’t be Brent Cross Thameslink.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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