“It’s a waste of money”: why is Kensington & Chelsea at war with cyclists?

A cyclist passes the V&A museum in South Kensington. Image: Getty.

As the number of bikes on London’s roads climb higher, pressure has been building on councils to get onboard with the Greater London Authority’s cycling push.

An interconnected web of cycling lanes and superhighways has meant the nation’s capital is fast becoming a more cycling-friendly destination, as the authorities seek to cut pollution, congestion and the city’s carbon footprint.

But the Hammersmith & Fulham branch of the London Cycling Campaign believes one west London council is shirking its duty to improve conditions for cyclists – and has instead become an ideological opponent of the city’s push toward greener transport options.

The Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea recently laughed a public consultation on the proposed new 1.6km quietway route between Shepherd’s Bush and Kensington High Street. The stated aim of the project is to make Holland Road safer for cyclists by installing speed humps, reducing parking areas and removing traffic islands to create more space for cyclists.

A map of the proposal. Click to expand. Image: RBKC.

Kensington & Chelsea councillor Will Pascall trumpeted the plans as the next step in the council’s quietway program. “Cycling schemes and initiatives in our borough have won national awards and our ambitious plans to build on these continue to go from strength-to-strength,” he said. “We have built more than 8km of quietway routes across the borough and we have plans to build more.”

But Casey Abaraonye, co-ordinator of the London Cycling Campaign in the neighbouring borough of Hammersmith & Fulham – a place from which anyone cycling to central London would need to travel through Kensington & Chelsea – said that the council’s proposal would have little effect. He labelled the plans as no more “than a box-ticking exercise”, arguing that the new route would be seldom used and that the quietway program was an attempt to placate the borough’s cyclists by doing the “bare minimum”.


“There’s no safe or decent way of getting to [the quietway], and when you get to the end of it you’re back out onto Addison road,” he said. “It spits you back out onto roads that have high traffic volumes, in excess of 11,000 vehicles per day, and no infrastructure to help cyclists.

“It’s a waste of money.”

Kensington & Chelsea Council’s first quietway routes were completed earlier this year. But they only arrived after the council blocked Transport for London’s plans to transform the borough’s roads into a safe haven for cyclists.

Cycle Superhighway 9 was slated to connect Hyde Park to west London by travelling through the boroughs of Kensington & Chelsea, Hammersmith and Fullham, and Hounslow. But in 2013, the Kensington & Chelsea Council singlehandedly blocked TfL’s original proposal, which would have created a segregated bike lane on Kensington High Street.

Councillor Pascall defended the council’s stance, claiming any segregated bike lane on Kensington High Street would increase congestion and decrease foot traffic for local businesses.

“We continue to work with TFL about their ideas for a route through West London,” he said. “We are not opposed to cycle superhighways.”

Despite councillor Pascall’s objections, TfL has trudged on with its plan without the co-operation of the council.  Construction on a revamped Cycle Superhighway 9 is slated to finally begin in 2019, and will run from Kensington Olympia station to Chiswick – stopping just short of the problem borough’s boundaries.

The new route for CS9, stopping short of the borough boundaries at its eastern end. Click to expand. Image: TfL.

Abaraonye argues that the council’s actions clearly demonstrate an ideological opposition to cyclists, with its stance putting people’s lives at risk. “Kensington & Chelsea Council needs to recognise that its constituents are not going to prioritise cars in the way they do,” he said. “The notion that a car is a symbol of status is past its best before [date], and [the council] can no longer continue to put the lives and health of people at risk because motor vehicles exist.”

A spokeswoman said TfL was in talks with Kensington & Chelsea council about its future involvement in the superhighway program, however little progress has been made in the past five years.

“We have been working closely with the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea, along with the London boroughs of Hounslow and Hammersmith and Fulham, at all stages of the design process,” she said.  “TfL is continuing to work with them to agree the next steps and will seek the necessary approvals from them as appropriate.”

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan was contacted for comment.

 
 
 
 

The tube that’s not a tube: What exactly is the Northern City line?

State of the art: a train on the Northern City Line platforms at Moorgate. Image: Haydon Etherington

You may never have used it. You may not even know that it’s there. But in zones one and two of the London Underground network, you’ll find an oft-forgotten piece of London’s transport history.

The Northern City line is a six-stop underground route from Moorgate to Finsbury Park. (It’s officially, if confusingly, known as the Moorgate line.) But, unlike other underground lines, it not part of Transport for London’s empire, and is not displayed on a normal tube map. Two of the stations, Essex Road and Drayton Park, aren’t even on the underground network at all.

The line has changed hands countless times since its creation a century ago. It now finds itself hiding in plain sight – an underground line, not part of the Underground. So why exactly is the Northern City line not part of the tube?

The Northern City line, pictured in dotted beige. Source: TfL.

As with many so many such idiosyncrasies, the explanation lies in over a century’s worth of cancellations and schemes gone awry. The story starts in 1904, when the private Great Northern Railways, which built much of what is now the East Coast Main Line, built the line to provide trains coming from the north of London with a terminus in the City. This is why the Northern City line, unlike a normal tube line, has tunnels wide enough to be used by allow mainline trains.

Eventually, though, Great Northern decided that this wasn’t such a bright idea after all. It mothballed plans to connect the Northern City up to the mainline, leaving it to terminate below Finsbury Park, scrapped electrification and sold the line off to Metropolitan Railways – owners of, you guessed it, the Metropolitan line.

Metropolitan Railways had big plans for the Northern City line too: the company wanted to connect it to both Waterloo & City and Circle lines. None of the variants on this plan ever happened. See a theme?

The next proposed extensions, planned in the 1930s once London Underground had become part of the domain of the (public sector) London Passenger Transport Board, was the Northern Heights programme. This would have seen the line would connected up with branch lines across north London, with service extended to High Barnet, Edgware and Alexandra Palace: essentially, as part of the Northern line. The plans, for the main part, were cancelled in the advent of the Second World War.

The Northern Heights plan. The solid green lines happened, the dotted ones did not. Image: Rob Brewer/Wikimedia Commons.

What the war started, the Victoria line soon finished. The London Plan Working Party Report of 1949 proposed a number of new lines and extensions: these included extension of the Northern City Line to Woolwich (Route J) and Crystal Palace (Route K). The only one of the various schemes to happen was Route C, better known today as the Victoria line, agreed in the 1950s and opening in the 1960s. The new construction project cannibalised the Northern City Line’s platforms at Finsbury Park, and from 1964 services from Moorgate terminated one stop south at Drayton Park.

In 1970, the line was briefly renamed the Northern Line (Highbury Branch), but barely a year later plans were made to transfer it to British Rail, allowing it to finally fulfil its original purpose.


Before that could happen, though, the line became the site of a rather more harrowing event. In 1975, the deadliest accident in London Underground history took place at Moorgate: a southbound train failed to stop, instead ploughing into the end of the tunnel. The crash killed 43 people. The authorities responded with a major rehaul of safety procedure; Moorgate station itself now has unique timed stopping mechanisms.

The last tube services served the Northern City Line in October 1975. The following year, it reopened as part of British Rail, receiving trains from a variety of points north of London. Following privatisation, it’s today run by Govia Thameslink as the Great Northern route, served mainly by suburban trains from Hertford and Welwyn Garden City.

Nowadays, despite a central location and a tube-like stopping pattern, the line is only really used for longer-scale commutes: very few people use it like a tube.

Only 811,000 and 792,000 people each year enter and exit Essex Road and Drayton Park stations respectively. These stations would be considered the fifth and sixth least used in the tube network – only just beating Chorleywood in Hertfordshire. In other words, these usage stats look like those for a station in zone seven, not one in Islington.

One reason for this might be a lack of awareness that the line exists at all. The absence from the tube map means very few people in London will have heard of it, let alone ever used it.

Another explanation is rather simple: the quality of service. Despite being part and parcel of the Oyster system, it couldn’t be more different from a regular tube. The last (and only) time I used the line, it ran incredibly slowly, whilst the interior looked much more like a far-flung cross-country train than it does a modern underground carriage.

Waiting for Govia. Image: Haydon Etherington.

But by far the biggest difference from TfL is frequency. The operators agreed that trains would run between four and six times an hour, which in itself is fine. However, this is Govia Thameslink, and in my experience, the line was plagued by cancellations and delays, running only once in the hour I was there.

To resolve this, TfL has mooted taking the line over itself. In 2016, draft proposals were put forward by Patrick McLoughlin, then the transport secretary, and then mayor Boris Johnson, to bring "northern services... currently operating as part of the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise" into TfL's control by 2021.

But, in a story that should by now be familiar, Chris Grayling scrapped them. At least it’s in keeping with history.