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?

 
 
 
 

It’s time to rethink how the British railway network works

Nothing doing: commuters await a long-delayed train. Image: Getty.

The recent meltdowns on Northern and Thameslink not only left many passengers besides themselves with frustration about not being able to get to work on time, if at all. It also led to a firestorm of criticism and condemnation from politicians and media alike.

With the immediate shock of that first Monday morning of the meltdown passed, there’s a now a bigger debate about whether the way that rail services are provided for cities needs some far reaching reform. But before coming to that, the first thing to say – and as we set out in our Rail Cities UK report, launched today – is that the fundamentals for urban rail remain very strong.

Here’s why. All cities want to become denser, more dynamic places which attract the best people to the growth sectors of the economy (including the ‘flat white economy’ of media, communications and information). In order to achieve this, as well as to improve air quality, cities are also reducing space for motorised traffic in favour of space for people.

It’s very difficult to see how this can be achieved without expanding rail networks and their capacity. What’s more, if housing need is to be met without creating more sprawl and traffic congestion, then again its rail that will be key – because it opens up former rail-connected brownfield industrial sites, it extends commuting range, plus housing can be built above or around new or existing rail stations and interchanges.

In some ways there’s nothing new here. From Metroland to Docklands, successful cities have always grown with their rail networks. And to be fair, there is significant investment going into urban rail at present. Northern will get a lot better (the pacers are doomed) and both Merseyside and Tyne & Wear are getting a whole new fleet of trains for their urban rail networks.

However, much (but not all) of this investment is incremental, or replacing rolling stock on its last legs. It stops short of the wider vision for the rail cities that we need.


What would that look like in practice? There comes a point when the biggest cities need more cross-city routes, because running trains in and out of edge-of-centre termini can’t cope with the numbers. That explains the push for Crossrail 2 in London, but also the need for more cross-city capacity in cities like Birmingham (on the Snow Hill route) as well as in Manchester (on the Oxford Road to Manchester Piccadilly corridor, as well as a potential new underground route).

Tram-train technology can also help – allowing the lucky commuter that benefits to get on board at their local station and get off right outside their city centre office on main street in the city centre, rather than piling out at a Victorian railway terminal on the edge of that city centre.

Tram-trains aren’t the only tech fix available. Battery packs can extend the range of existing electric trains deeper into the “look ma, no wires” hinterlands, as well as allow trams to glide through city centres without the expensive clutter of overhead wires.

More mundane but equally useful work to increase capacity through signalling, station, track and junction work offers the opportunity to move to turn-up-and-go frequency networks with greater capacity and more reliability – networks that start to emulate the best of what comparable German rail cities already enjoy. Interlocking networks of long distance, regional express, regional, S-bahn, U-bahn, trams and buses, all under common ticketing.

But in talking about Germany and common ticketing I am now getting back to where I started around the debate on whether some fundamental change is needed on how urban rail networks are provided. Obviously there is a bigger national discussion going on about whether the current structure is just too layered, with too many costly interfaces and too fractured a chain of command. And in addition another, on whether the railway should be publicly or privately owned and operated.

But it’s been heartening to see the growing recognition that – regardless of how these debates are resolved – more devolution for urban and regional services should be part of any solution. That’s not only because fully devolved services have been out-performing comparators both operationally and in passenger satisfaction; it’s because local control rather than remote control from Whitehall will mean that the dots can be joined between rail and housing, between rail and the wider re-fashioning of city centres, and between rail and local communities (for example through repurposing stations as wider hubs for local community use, enterprises and housing). It will also allow for rail and the rest of local urban public transport networks to be part of one system, rather than be just on nodding terms as is all too often the case at present.

The crisis on Northern and Thameslink has been a miserable experience for rail users, affected cities and the rail industry. If any good has come out of it, it is that it shows how important rail is to cities, and opens up a space for some bigger thinking about what kind of rail cities we will need for the future – and how best we can make that happen.

Jonathan Bray is the Director of the Urban Transport Group which represents the transport authorities for the largest city regions. You can read the group’s full report here.