London could get a whole new rail terminal

London's next rail hub? Image: Diamond Geezer via Flickr, licenced under creative commons.

So, one of the jobs performed by Network Rail, the public agency which looks after Britain's public rail infrastructure, is to produce long and largely boring reports looking at what we need to do with said infrastructure to stop it breaking. Last month it produced a draft of its Anglia Route Study, looking at the future of the rail network to the north east of London, for public consultation.

The reason we mention all this is because Table 5.7, buried on page 80 of a 145 page report, caught our* eye. The table looks at ways of adding extra platforms to London's Liverpool Street station, so you can run more trains on the Great Eastern Main Line to Essex and beyond. Here are the options it offers:

  • New platform 0 located within the shopping area to the west side of London Liverpool Street Station, but potentially requiring platform 1 to be shortened

Okay, fair enough, we can live without that Starbucks.

  • Three new platforms between the existing platforms 10 and 11, one adjacent to platform 10 and two within the taxi rank area

Those who want taxis can drag themselves up on to Bishopsgate with everybody else.

  • Remodelling of the existing platforms 1-10 within the westernmost train shed to allow provision of an additional three 12-car length platforms or an additional two 12-car and two 10-car platforms

Sounds a bit of a pain while they're building it (where will the trains stop?), but I guess it'd help in the long term.

  • Creation of an additional terminus station to the north of London Liverpool Street within the area of Network Rail owned land adjacent to Shoreditch High Street station on the East London Line. This would potentially be utilised by services from the West Anglia route.

...Whoa.

This isn't just building a few extra platforms. it isn't even building a new station. It's building a new rail terminus, London's first since Marylebone began life under the faintly optimistic name of Great Central in 1899. We’re basically talking about London Liverpool Street, London Paddington and London King’s Cross and so on being joined by London Shoreditch.

So, what would this theoretical new London rail terminal look like?

Well, it'd sit on the site of an earlier terminus, known initially as Shoreditch, but soon renamed Bishopsgate on the grounds that it sounded more like the sort of place City commuters would like to go. (How times change.)

That stopped being a passenger terminus in the 1870s, when the more central Liverpool Street opened, and became a goods station, much of which burnt down in the 1960s. For the last half a century, the Bishopsgate Goods Yard has been derelict, and everything that isn't listed as a site of architectural importance has been demolished.

Until relatively recently no one much cared: London was for a long time littered with derelict sites that remain vexingly undeveloped (increasingly insane land prices mean that is, gradually, changing). But over the last 15 years, Shoreditch has changed rather a lot: first into a fashionable district full of bars and people with asymmetrical haircuts, then into the heart of the city's nascent tech industry. Suddenly Shoreditch is exactly the sort of place people would commute to, and there's helpfully already a station there.

Here, courtesy of those nice people at Google, is a map. The red box marks where the new station would go. Note the lack of, well, basically anything there at the moment:

There are a number of reasons why it'd be the West Anglian lines (those that run north through Hackney, towards Stansted and Cambridgeshire) that would use those routes. They arrive on a separate set of tracks and so are more easily segregated. What's more, from next year, the suburban services on those lines (to Enfield/Cheshunt/Chingford) will be taken over by Transport for London under its London Overground brand. It'd thus be less inherently baffling to terminate these services at the London Overground-run Shoreditch High Street station than it would, say, the mainline to Norfolk.

It'd still mean turfing a bunch of commuters out at a station which currently has no services into any of London's major commercial districts, of course: from Shoreditch High Street, you can get trains north to Dalston or south to Croydon, but you can’t get trains heading west. It  won't be much use as a terminus unless they put in some platforms on the Central Line which conveniently runs underneath it. 

This is already such an obvious interchange, in fact, that one might ask why they haven't already done this. The answer seems to be that this bit of the Central Line is already so crowded that everyone thinks that making it easier for passengers to change to it from the East London line is a terrible idea.

The arrival of Crossrail, due in 2019, should sort that out, at least a bit. It'll also, by the way, take a chunk of services that currently terminate at Liverpool Street out of contention, sending them instead onwards through new tunnels beneath the West End. It's a mark of how fast passenger numbers are going that, even though this is happening, Liverpool Street will still too small to meet the demands upon it within a few years.

Shoreditch terminus will very probably never happen. Building a new station and plugging it into the underground is an expensive business. Plans are already afoot to redevelop Bishopsgate Goods Yard, and a major new rail terminal is conspicuous by its absence.

More likely seems to be some combination of new platforms at Liverpool Street and better signalling, to allow slightly more trains to force their way through the limited entry paths available. The Network Rail report says that the final cost of additional platforms at Liverpool Street would be between £15m and £35m in 2023 prices. The cost of a whole new station isn't specified, but, if it means new platforms on the Central line, I think we can safely assume it'd be more.

There is another possibility raised in the Network Rail route plan: diverting some of the West Anglia services down the Lea Valley to Stratford. This would, oddly enough, cost more than expanding Liverpool Street, but it would be more convenient for Docklands and does at least include a link to the existing Central line.

Anyway, if there's just one thing to take away from all this it's as follows: avoid Liverpool Street in the 2020s, eh? It's gonna be a nightmare.

*Technically it actually caught the eye of our colleague, the New Statesman science correspondent Ian Steadman, to whom, kudos.

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.