Here’s why it’s actually good that London has so many rail terminals

Euston. Eugh. Image: Getty.

There are 14 railway terminals in London. That sounds like a lot, even by the standards of London’s 8 million strong population. For context, Beijing has just six terminals between its 21 million people. So if you decide where to live based on the obscure metric of “number of railway terminals per million people”, London is doing really, really well.

But it’s such a bother, isn’t it? Making the inconvenient, interchange-laden journey from Liverpool Street to London Bridge, for example, is the price we pay to travel cross-country; changing in Central London is the norm for many a journey, even though it’s expensive, inefficient, and adds to the footfall at stations that are already stereotypically congested.

In fact, as is so often the case, there’s actually a pretty sensible explanation for why London ended up with so many railway stations, even by European standards. As pioneers of the industrial revolution, Britain was the first country to build serious railway infrastructure. But in the hyper-entrepreneurial petit-bourgeois era of early industrialisation, there was no centralised transport system; like Aretha Franklin’s sisters, railway companies were doing it for themselves. (Sorry.)

Because London has been the overwhelming economic centre of England since they knocked up the Bayeux Tapestry, all railway services tended to radiate from it. But the great railway boom of the 1830s and ‘40s predated the arrival of the first underground railway, the Metropolitan Line, in 1863. And the difficulty and expense of demolishing existing suburbs meant that the new railways tended to terminate on the edge of the built up area. The result was separate stations, run by different companies, all around today’s city centre.

In any case, I’m inclined to believe that having all these railway terminals, strewn around London like a contorted hula hoop, is actually a good thing. It’s easy to demonise Birmingham, which is fast outgrowing its ugly duckling stereotype – but Birmingham New Street serves as a good example of the problem with terminals whose trains go straight through the city.

There, the trains run north to south, services reaching both London and Manchester, with easy connections to Moor Street and Snow Hill stations. The choice to run tracks through the station makes the area immediately around it – in other words, central Birmingham – less navigable. The interlocking railway infrastructure strangles the city.


If the same had happened in London, in the absence of a precarious, hyperbolically ambitious cut-and-cover scheme, we’d lose the precious, contiguous urban core that runs all the way from Paddington to Fenchurch Street.

There’s another benefit to all these terminals; it means fewer areas end up being cut in half. Urban policy wonks have spent the longest time discussing how arterial roads split communities, but we rarely stop to think about how a railway line could divide one area from another, too. Yes, they're much quieter than, say, the M1, but they're just as hard to cross – and dividing lines that are mildly problematic in King's Cross Central could've been overwhelming in areas in central London proper.

The suburban railways running through outer London are testament to this point. In Islington, the North London Line sharply divides the well-to-do N1 postcode from the more mixed area of N7, and the East Coast Main Line makes the Arsenal Stadium feel miles away even if you live just to the north on Tollington Road, simply because there’s no road crossing for a mile. Imagine if those divides existed in Central London, cutting you off from St Paul’s because you lived on the wrong side of the tracks.

The takeaway here might seem obvious: all this infrastructure would be much better off underground. Well yes, it would, and that’s what Thameslink and, hopefully, maybe, one day in the far flung future, Crossrail try to achieve, as do London’s subsurface Tube lines.

But it’s worth mentioning that when the Metropolitan and District railways were built, they lay on the urban fringe, which reduced disruption. Thameslink and Crossrail have been fare more costly (and indeed extremely delayed) because they’re now in the midst of a dense urban area. Also, if we wanted to connect, say, Liverpool Street and London Bridge underground, the tunnels would need to skirt around other underground lines. Shy of Brunel’s second coming, this is just too much to ask.

So, we should appreciate the ubiquity of railway terminals in London for what they’re worth. Their existence is testament to a tangential, tentative Victorian past where we stumbled through industrialisation, building great railway terminals as we went (and useless Cannon Street too).

Changing between railway terminals in London is a London experience in itself. At the risk of sounding sentimental, it’s an inconvenience with a history behind it. Unlike Crossrail delays. That stuff is beyond romanticising.

 
 
 
 

What Citymapper’s business plan tells us about the future of Smart Cities

Some buses. Image: David Howard/Wikimedia Commons.

In late September, transport planning app Citymapper announced that it had accumulated £22m in losses, nearly doubling its total loss since the start of 2019. 

Like Uber and Lyft, Citymapper survives on investment funding rounds, hoping to stay around long enough to secure a monopoly. Since the start of 2019, the firm’s main tool for establishing that monopoly has been the “Citymapper Pass”, an attempt to undercut Transport for London’s Oyster Card. 

The Pass was teased early in the year and then rolled out in the spring, promising unlimited travel in zones 1-2 for £31 a week – cheaper than the TfL rate of £35.10. In effect, that means Citymapper itself is paying the difference for users to ride in zones 1-2. The firm is basically subsidising its customers’ travel on TfL in the hopes of getting people hooked on its app. 

So what's the company’s gameplan? After a painful, two-year long attempt at a joint minibus and taxi service – known variously as Smartbus, SmartRide, and Ride – Citymapper killed off its plans at a bus fleet in July. Instead of brick and mortar, it’s taken a gamble on their mobile mapping service with Pass. It operates as a subscription-based prepaid mobile wallet, which is used in the app (or as a contactless card) and operates as a financial service through MasterCard. Crucially, the service offers fully integrated, unlimited travel, which gives the company vital information about how people are actually moving and travelling in the city.

“What Citymapper is doing is offering a door-to-door view of commuter journeys,” says King’s College London lecturer Jonathan Reades, who researches smart cities and the Oyster card. 

TfL can only glean so much data from your taps in and out, a fact which has been frustrating for smart city researchers studying transit data, as well as companies trying to make use of that data. “Neither Uber nor TfL know what you do once you leave their system. But Citymapper does, because it’s not tied to any one system and – because of geolocation and your search – it knows your real origin and destination.” 

In other words, linking ticketing directly with a mapping service means the company can get data not only about where riders hop on and off the tube, but also how they're planning their route, whether they follow that plan, and what their final destination is. The app is paying to discount users’ fares in order to gain more data.

Door-to-door destinations gives a lot more detailed information about a rider’s profile as well: “Citymapper can see that you’re also looking at high-profile restaurant as destinations, live in an address on a swanky street in Hammersmith, and regularly travel to the City.” Citymapper can gain insights into what kind of people are travelling, where they hang out, and how they cluster in transit systems. 

And on top of finding out data about how users move in a city, Citymapper is also gaining financial data about users through ticketing, which reflects a wider trend of tech companies entering into the financial services market – like Apple’s recent foray into the credit card business with Apple Card. Citymapper is willing to take a massive hit because the data related to how people actually travel, and how they spend their money, can do a lot more for them than help the company run a minibus service: by financialising its mapping service, it’s getting actual ticketing data that Google Maps doesn’t have, while simultaneously helping to build a routing platform that users never really have to leave


The integrated transit app, complete with ticket data, lets Citymapper get a sense of flows and transit corridors. As the Guardian points out, this gives Citymapper a lot of leverage to negotiate with smaller transit providers – scooter services, for example – who want to partner with it down the line. 

“You can start to look at ‘up-sell’ and ‘cross-sell’ opportunities,” explain Reades. “If they see that a particular journey or modal mix is attractive then they are in a position to act on that with their various mobility offerings or to sell that knowledge to others. 

“They might sell locational insights to retailers or network operators,” he goes on. “If you put a scooter bay here then we think that will be well-used since our data indicates X; or if you put a store here then you’ll be capturing more of that desirable scooter demographic.” With the rise of electric rideables, Citymapper can position itself as a platform operator that holds the key to user data – acting a lot like TfL, but for startup scooter companies and car-sharing companies.

The app’s origins tell us a lot about the direction of its monetisation strategy. Originally conceived as “Busmapper”, the app used publicly available transit data as the base for its own datasets, privileging transit data over Google Maps’ focus on walking and driving.  From there it was able to hone in on user data and extract that information to build a more efficient picture of the transit system. By collecting more data, it has better grounds for selling that for urban planning purposes, whether to government or elsewhere.

This kind of data-centred planning is what makes smart cities possible. It’s only become appealing to civic governments, Reades explains, since civic government has become more constrained by funding. “The reason its gaining traction with policy-makers is because the constraints of austerity mean that they’re trying to do more with less. They use data to measure more efficient services.”  

The question now is whether Citymapper’s plan to lure riders away from the Oyster card will be successful in the long term. Consolidated routing and ticketing data is likely only the first step. It may be too early to tell how it will affect public agencies like TfL – but right now Citymapper is establishing itself as a ticketing service - gaining valuable urban data, financialising its app, and running up those losses in the process.

When approached for comment, Citymapper claimed that Pass is not losing money but that it is a “growth startup which is developing its revenue streams”. The company stated that they have never sold data, but “regularly engage with transport authorities around the world to help improve open data and their systems”

Josh Gabert-Doyon tweets as @JoshGD.