On London Overground’s Gospel Oak to Barking line, electric dreams do come true

A train approaches Leytonstone High Road. Image: Matt Buck/Wikimedia Commons.

Half-a-century after being saved from Dr Beeching’s axe, the last line on the tube map which still uses diesel trains is about to prove that electric dreams really do come true.

The London Overground line between Gospel Oak and Barking – lovingly nicknamed the “Goblin” – will shortly be welcoming a series of swanky new four-car electric trains, doubling capacity by replacing the current two-car diesel service.

Unless you’re a regular passenger on the leafy route that trundles over rooftops from suburban Crouch End, via Tottenham and Walthamstow, the Goblin’s story will likely have passed you by amid a constant flurry of news about Crossrail’s construction and Thameslink’s new timetable. But it’s is a story worth telling: this is a railway that has defied the odds to survive numerous changes in management, crumbling infrastructure, passenger declines, and a laughably botched upgrade, until finally reaching the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.

Back in 1964, a chunk of what is now the London Overground orbital network was under threat of closure from the government, amid the notorious axe of British Rail chairman Dr Beeching. In reaction to this a rail users’ group was formed which successfully campaigned to save the Goblin route, after highlighting its value to London commuters.

But although it avoided closure, the railway was left to rot for decades. “British Rail basically didn’t spend a penny on it for 50 years,” explains Glenn Wallis, secretary of the Gospel Oak to Barking Rail Users’ Group and a former signalman on the line. “As far as they were concerned there were always more important things to spend money on.”

The trains were unreliable, station facilities were closed down, and, as a short railway that avoided major interchanges and mainline stations, the Goblin remained obscure. “It was known as the ‘forgotten railway’,” says Glenn, who worked on the line for 29 years. “There was one year in the early 1990s when they didn’t even have anyone managing it. We had to organise our own rosters.”

Glenn alleges that TfL never wanted to run the line, such was its troubles. “But then the government told them they had to – so the line was sort of tacked on to the rest of the Overground network.”

The transfer from the former Silverlink franchise to TfL finally went through in November 2007, and the simple fact of putting the Goblin on the tube map seemed to give it a new lease of life.

“Most people didn’t know where the line went or what it did. But when it went on the tube map, with cheaper Oyster fares, passenger numbers began to explode.”

Even as the line’s fortunes turned, the rail users’ group kept plugging away, demanding further improvements. Stations were spruced up, the line gained new walk-through turbo trains, and services began running every 15 minutes.

But there was still one major obstacle preventing the Goblin from expanding further. “It was the only line on the tube map not to be electrified,” said Glenn. “We knew it had to happen.”

A geographically accurate map of the route, including the proposed eastern extension. Image: Pneumaman/Wikimedia Commons.

Funding for the electrification upgrade was finally announced by the government in 2013. It would enable four-car trains to run instead of two, providing a major boost for a line that was by then carrying 10,000 passengers daily and had become severely overcrowded.

Alas, nothing is ever simple with the Gospel Oak to Barking line. Glenn explains: “After the electrification of the East Coast Mainline in 1989 there was no money for anything, so we lost all of our experts in electrification. That’s why they’ve cocked it up.”

The Goblin’s electrification work was supposed to be completed in eight months, at a cost of £133m. It began in June 2016 and necessitated a part-closure of the line that summer, followed by a longer, full closure ending in February 2017. When the line finally reopened, Network Rail admitted that the work was still not complete and more closures were needed to get the job done.


The heights of station platforms and bridges had apparently come as a surprise. Materials arrived late. “The design work had errors in it,” said Glenn. “When the steelwork turned up, it didn’t fit and had to be scrapped.” Then there were the severed sewers; images appeared on social media of portable pumps being wheeled along rails in Walthamstow after the tracks were flooded.

Network Rail apologised and promised “a full review into what went wrong”. The Goblin’s long-suffering passengers endured yet more closures last autumn and winter. Finally, by May, it was confirmed that the electrification work had belatedly been completed.

After decades of neglect, the Goblin had at last caught up with the rest of London’s tube and rail services – the electric dream had come true.

Well, almost. In a noble effort to take the heat off of Network Rail for its handling of the upgrade, Transport for London now admits that new electric trains for the Gospel Oak to Barking line have been delayed because of “software issues” and will instead be introduced “later in summer”. But what’s a few more months when you’ve been waiting for half-a-century?

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.