What would London's new orbital rail link look like?

Image: Nick Hall on Flickr, re-used under creative commons.

Yesterday the mayor's office released its £1.3trn (yes, trillion) London Infrastructure 2050 plan. The document contains all sorts of goodies for the sort of people who get all excited by the prospect of new transport infrastructure (i.e. us), so we'll no doubt be writing about it rather a lot.

Perhaps the most striking proposal it contains, however, is the one for a new orbital rail link, which would connect a string of existing lines to the Overground Network and which, according to the Guardian, is referred to by officials as the 'R25', after London's orbital motorway.

Sadly, though, the map in the report is a bit on the vague side...

...so thought we'd flesh it out a little.

We can't promise that what follows is an entirely accurate reflection of City Hall's plans: In a few places we've had to guess where the new line would go, based on the jagged twists and turns on its own map.

We've assumed, though, that TfL would prefer to use existing lines wherever possible, and so would only construct new track where it had no other choice. (We've marked these bits using hollow tramlines.) We've also resisted the impulse to add new stations willy-nilly, and only included them where it seems almost certain the powers that be would do the same. (These are marked with ticks rather than interchange roundels.) Even so the project is just a teensy bit on the ambitious aide. 

 

As you can see, the new network swallows up the Gospel Oak to Barking line and the Bromley branchline; takes in large chunks of the North London Line, the Wimbledon-Sutton loop (currently part of Thameslink), the Kingston loop (currently South West Trains); and uses chunks of assorted other lines. It also means bringing the long forgotten Neasden spur back into passenger service.


Most ambitiously of all it implies several new tunnels - in Wimbledon, Bromley and, biggest by far, under the Thames from Barking down to Sidcup. You could run this latter section above ground - but only if you were willing to bulldoze large swathes of Kentish suburbia.

The whole thing looks distinctly like London's answer to the Grand Paris Express plan, which will see four new orbital lines built over the next two decades or so. But the Infrastructure Plan stresses that this project is "not included in the costings": even if the engineering challenge could he met, how much all this would cost remains to be seen.

So, it may well never happen. But you can forgive the authorities for dreaming big once in a while.

 

 
 
 
 

What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.


Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.