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?

 
 
 
 

What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.


Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.