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 many ways, smart cities are really very dumb

Rio de Janeiro’s control centre. Image: Getty.

It’s not news that anything and everything is increasingly being prefaced with “smart”: phones, watches, homes, fridges, and even water (yes, smartwater exists). And it’s not unintentional either. 

Marketeers know that we, the public, are often stupid enough to believe that thanks to their technology, life is better now than it was way back in, say, the primitive Nineties. Imagine having to, like a Neanderthal, remember how to spell words without an autocorrecting algorithm, or open the fridge door to check if you’d run out of milk, or, worse still, interact with actual people.

So it’s hardly surprising that we’re now also witnessing the rise of the so-called “smart cities”; a concept which presupposes that cities that are not technologically  “smart” are dumb, which, as anyone interested in the millennia-old history of cities — from the crypto-currency grain storage algorythms of ancient Mesopotamia to the complex waste infrastructure of ancient Rome, to London’s public transport infrastructure — will know, is not true.

Deployed in these smart cities are cameras and other networked information-gathering devices, load cells and other “sensing devices” detecting passing pedestrians and vehicles, audio surveillance devices listening for gunshots – and even vending machines equipped with biometric sensors to recognise your face. This is not to mention beacon technology — tiny anonymous looking black boxes hidden in trees and on lampposts — which transmits advertising, offers and other information directly to smart phones in the vicinity. 

If that doesn’t seem sinister enough, take, for example, Rio de Janeiro, where, in 2014, the International Business Machines Corporation designed a mammoth “control centre” that integrates data from 30 agencies for the city’s police. 

Described by the Guardian as having “the functionality of a Bond villian’s techno lair”, the then local mayor, Eduardo Paes, claimed the centre was making the city safer while using technology to deploy its “special” police unit to carry out the state’s “pacification programme”. Launched in 2008, the programme, which aims to push out drug gangs from Rio’s favelas, has been criticised by Amnesty International: “in January and February 2017 in Rio de Janeiro alone, at least 182 people were killed during police operations in marginalized neighbourhoods (favelas) – a 78 per cent increase in comparison to the same period in 2016”.

Sinister or not, as smart cities grow, they create new problems. For example, as urbanist Adam Greenfield writes in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, neither the algorithms nor their designers are subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability – a problem that international academics are currently attempting to tackle.  


“We need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act,” writes Greenfield. “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power.”

The Real Smart Cities project, founded by Dr Gerald Moore, Dr Noel Fitzpatrick and Professor Bernard Stiegler, is investigating the ways in which so-called “smart city” technologies present a threat to democracy and citizenship, and how digital tools might be used create new forms of community participation.

Fitzpatrick is critical of current discourses around smart cities, which he says “tend to be technical fixes, where technology is presented as a means to solve the problems of the city.” The philosophy underpinning the project is “that technologies function as forms of pharmacology”, he adds, meaning that they can be both positive and negative. “The addictive negative effects are being felt at an individual and collective level.” 

An example of this lies in the way that many of these smart cities replace human workers with disembodied voices — “Alexa we need more toilet roll” — like those used to control the Amazon Echo listening device — the high priestess of smart home. These disembodied voices travel at the speed of light to cavernous, so-called “fulfilment centres”, where an invisible workforce are called into action by our buy-it-now, one-click impulse commands; moving robotically down seemingly endless aisles of algorithmically organised products arranged according to purchase preferences the like of which we never knew we had — someone who buys a crime novel might be more likely to go on and buy cat food, a wireless router, a teapot and a screwdriver. 

Oh to be the archeologists of the future who while digging through mounds of silicon dust happen upon these vast repositories of disembodies voices. That the digital is inherently material and the binary of virtual/real does not hold — there is no cyberspace, just space. Space that is being increasingly populated by technologies that want to watch you, listen to you, get to know you and sense your presence.

One project looking to solve some of the problems of smart cities is that of the development of a “clinic of contribution” within Pleine Commune in greater Paris (an area where one in three live in poverty).This attempts to deal with issues of communication between parents and children where the widespread use of smartphones as parental devices from infancy is having effects on the attention of young children and on the communicative abilities between parents and children. 

This in turn forms part of a wider project in the area that Stiegler describes as “installing a true urban intelligence”, which moves beyond what he sees as the bankrupt idea of smart cities. The aim is to create a “contributory income” in the area that responds to the loss of salaried jobs due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. 

The idea being that an income could be paid to residents, on the condition that they perform a service to society. This, if you are unemployed, living in poverty and urban deprivation, sounds like quite a simple and smart idea to try and solve some of the dumb effcts of the digital technology that's implemented in cities under the ideology of being “smart”.