It's Friday, so here's a 1935 map of some suburban London rail services

A detail of the 1935 LMS suburban rail network map. Image: Signage Design Society.

Oh, dear readers. I feel that recently we've let you – or at least, a significant minority of you – down of late. Not so long ago, CityMetric was over-flowing with tube map-y goodness. In February alone, we ran four different stories about the bloody thing.

Recently, though, between a mayoral election and Brexit and the gradual implosion of life as we know it, we've got distracted by other, less important subjects. As a result, we've published nothing on everyone’s favourite navigation-based design icon in weeks.

Rejoice, though, for the Sign Design Society is riding to the rescue. Last night it held a party/lecture/exhibition to show off some of its favourite tube maps. We couldn't make it, alas – but thanks to the wonder of the internet we can still enjoy some of our favourite metro maps and share them with you.

There's this display of experimental circle-based maps, for example:

 

There was a display of different takes on the tube map, using a range of different angles:

 

There were maps showing the evolution of Berlin's S-Bahn map...

 

...including that awkward phase when the city was divided and East Berlin decided to just pretend West Berlin wasn't there.

 

My favourite, though, because I'm a bit parochial, is this one.

 

It shows the suburban routes of the London, Midland & Scottish Railway (LMS) as they stood in 1935: a main line from Euston to Watford, an orbital route from the East End, around to the north London to the south western suburbs, the Bakerloo line (which it helped operate), and assorted branches.

Perhaps surprisingly, despite 80 years having passed, many of those lines are still associated with each other. Until 2007 they were bundled together as the London bit of the optimistically-named “Silverlink” franchise, before making up most of the first phase of the London Overground. (The Bakerloo still shares tracks with it between Queen's Park and Harrow & Wealdstone, though joint operation is long dead.)

Here's the whole thing. Click it expand:

So, what, I hear you cry (yes I do), does this map tell us about the history of London's rail networks?

Firstly, what is now the North London section of the Overground used to terminate at Broad Street, a long defunct station next door to Liverpool Street. In its early 20th century heyday, Broad Street was one of London's busiest stations, with a train arriving every minute.

After World War I, though, the growth of more direct Tube lines meant that it went into a steep decline, and it closed in 1986, to be replaced by the Broadgate office complex. Anyway, Paul McCartney made a film about it, so that's nice.

Another branch continued on through Hackney down to Poplar. That's mostly beeen swallowed by the Overground and DLR now.

There used to be branch lines from Watford to Croxley Green and Rickmansworth. (The former is coming back, sort of, as part of the Metropolitan line.) More excitingly, for a certain value of “excitement”, there was another branchline from Harrow & Wealdstone to Stanmore, which – I feel quite shamed by this – I had never heard of.

Apparently it opened in 1932 and ran to a different Stanmore station to the one now on the tube, but only last 20 years. The section to Belmont lasted a bit longer, but still, Stanmore Village must be pretty near the top of London's shortlist lived stations.

Kensington Addington Road is now Kensington Olympia. Uxbridge Road is now Shepherd's Bush. Chelsea & Fulham is not now Imperial Wharf, but was quite near it. S Quintin Park & Workword Scrubs is alas no longer with us - a strong candidate for London's best forgotten station name.

And Chalk Farm was later Primrose Hill, and later still a yoga studio.

That guy looks pretty bendy. Image: Google Streetview.

This map, incidentally, has been rescued from obscurity by metro map expert extraordinary Maxwell Roberts. By way of thanks, you should probably all buy his book.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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What other British cities can learn from the Tyne & Wear Metro

A Metro train at Monument. Image: Callum Cape/Wikipedia.

Ask any person on the street what they know about Newcastle, and they’ll list a few things. They’ll mention the accent; they’ll mention the football; they’ll mention brown ale and Sting and Greggs. They might even mention coal or shipbuilding, and then the conversation will inevitably turn political, and you’ll wish you hadn’t stopped to ask someone about Newcastle at all.

They won’t, however, mention the Tyne and Wear Metro, because they haven’t probably heard of it – which is a shame, because the Metro is one of the best things the north-east has to offer.

Two main issues plague suburban trains. One is frequency. Suburban rail networks often run on poor frequency; to take Birmingham for an example, most of its trains operate at 30-minute intervals.

The other is simplicity. Using Birmingham again, the entire system is built around New Street, leading to a very simple network. Actually, that’s not quite true: if you’re coming from Leamington Spa, Warwick, Stourbridge, Solihull or a host of other major minor (minor major?) towns, you don’t actually connect to New Street – no, you don’t even connect to the ENTIRE SYSTEM BUILT AROUND NEW STREET except at Smethwick Galton Bridge, miles away in the western suburbs, where the physical tracks don’t even connect – they pass over each other. Plus, what on earth is the blue line to Walsall doing?

An ageing map of the West Midlands rail network: click any of the images in this article to expand them. Image: Transport for the West Midlands/Centro.

But Newcastle has long been a hub of railway activity. Tragically, the north-east has fewer active railway lines than any other region of the UK. Less tragically, this is because Tyne and Wear has the Metro.


The Metro was formed in 1980 from a somewhat eccentric collection of railways, including freight-only lines, part of the old Tyneside Electrics route, underground tunnelling through the city centre, track-sharing on the National Rail route to Sunderland, and lines closed after the Beeching axe fell in the early 1960s.

From this random group of railway lines, the Metro has managed to produce a very simple network of two lines. Both take a somewhat circuitous route, the Yellow line especially, because it’s literally a circle for much of its route; but they get to most of the major population centres. And frequency is excellent – a basic 5 trains an hour, with 10 tph on the inner core, increasing at peak times (my local station sees 17 tph each way in the morning peak).

Fares are simple, too: there are only three zones, and they’re generally good value, whilst the Metro has been a national leader in pay-as-you-go technology (PAYG), with a tap-in, tap-out system. The Metro also shares many characteristics of European light rail systems – for example, it uses the metric system (although this will doubtless revert to miles and chains post-Brexit, whilst fares will be paid in shillings).

 

The Metro network. Image: Nexus.

Perhaps most importantly, the Metro has been the British pioneer for the Karlsruhe model, in which light rail trains share tracks with mainline services. This began in 2002 with the extension to Sunderland, and, with new bi-mode trains coming in the next ten years, the Metro could expand further around the northeast. The Sheffield Supertram also recently adopted this model with its expansion to Rotherham; other cities, like Manchester, are considering similar moves.

However, these cities aren’t considering what the Metro has done best – amalgamated local lines to allow people to get around a city easily. Most cities’ rail services are focused on those commuters who travel in from outside, instead of allowing travel within a city; there’s no coherent system of corridors allowing residents to travel within the limits of a city.

The Metro doesn’t only offer lessons to big cities. Oxford, for example, currently has dire public transport, focused on busy buses which share the same congested roads as private vehicles; the city currently has only two rail stations near the centre (red dots).

Image: Google.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. For a start, Oxford is a fairly lateral city, featuring lots of north-south movements, along broadly the same route the railway line follows. So, using some existing infrastructure and reinstating other parts, Oxford’s public transport could be drastically improved. With limited engineering work, new stations could be built on the current track (blue dots on the map below; with more extensive work, the Cowley branch could be reinstated, too (orange dots). Electrify this new six-station route and, hey presto, Oxford has a functioning metro system; the short length of the route also means that few trains would be necessary for a fequent service.

Image: Google.

Next up: Leeds. West Yorkshire is a densely populated area with a large number of railway lines. Perfect! I hear you cry. Imperfect! I cry in return. Waaaaaah! Cry the people of Leeds, who, after two cancelled rapid transit schemes, have had enough of imaginative public transport projects.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire:

Image: Google.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire’s railway network:

 ​

Image: West Yorkshire Metro.

The problem is that all of the lines go to major towns, places like Dewsbury, Halifax or Castleford, which need a mainline connection due to their size. Options for a metro service are limited.

But that’s not to say they’re non-existent. For example, the Leeds-Bradford Interchange line passes through densely populated areas; and anyway, Bradford Interchange is a terminus, so it’s poorly suited to service as a through station, as it’s currently being used.

Image: Google.

With several extra stops, this line could be converted to a higher frequency light rail operation. It would then enter an underground section just before Holbeck; trains from Halifax could now reach Leeds via the Dewsbury line. The underground section would pass underneath Leeds station, therefore freeing up capacity at the mainline station, potentially simplifying the track layout as well.

 

Image: Google.

Then you have the lines from Dewsbury and Wakefield, which nearly touch here:

Image: Google.

By building a chord, services from Morley northwards could run into Leeds via the Wakefield line, leaving the Dewsbury line north of Morley open for light rail operation, probably with an interchange at the aforementioned station.

Image: Google.

The Leeds-Micklefield section of the Leeds-York line could also be put into metro service, by building a chord west of Woodlesford over the River Aire and connecting at Neville Hill Depot (this would involve running services from York and Selby via Castleford instead):

The path of the proposed chord, in white. Image: Google.

With a section of underground track in Leeds city centre, and an underground line into the north-east of Leeds – an area completely unserved by rail transport at present – the overall map could look like this, with the pink and yellow dots representing different lines:

Et voila! Image: Google.

Leeds would then have a light-rail based public transport system, with potential for expansion using the Karlsruhe model. It wouldn’t even be too expensive, as it mainly uses existing infrastructure. (Okay, the northeastern tunnel would be pricey, but would deliver huge benefits for the area.)

Why aren’t more cities doing this? Local council leaders often talk about introducing “metro-style services” – but they avoid committing to real metro projects because they’re more expensive than piecemeal improvements to the local rail system, and they’re often more complex to deliver (with the lack of space in modern-day city centres, real metro systems need tunnels).

But metro systems can provide huge benefits to cities, with more stops, a joined-up network, and simpler fares. More cities should follow the example of the Tyne and Wear Metro.