London’s Gospel Oak to Barking line might be about to lose all its trains to Birmingham

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

The Gospel Oak to Barking Line, known as the GOBLIN because rail nerds share interests with other sorts of nerds, is a remnant of London’s industrial past, running through the former industrial suburbs of London’s outer north-east. Like most of the London Overground, it’s made up of a bunch of old railways that were built for freight or as waggly commuter routes, which became utterly useless in the early 20th century when commuters shifted to the Tube and cargo shifted to vans.

Angry locals – Oh Dr Beeching! but with a London flair – kept the GOBLIN alive during these days, but it suffered from the dominance of the car and the decline of London’s population. Unlike nearly all suburban London lines, the line was never electrified. After World War II, it no longer shifted people to the heart of the city but to Hampstead, which in those days was surprisingly low on wine bars and Tesco Metros.

Privatisation didn’t help much. National Express’s Silverlink subsidiary ran the line along with its more successful electrified North London Line cousin. But as London’s population grew and businesses moved to more distant suburbs, traffic rose again, and in 2007 the Labour government shifted control of the relevant lines to Transport for London’s new London Overground.

If you’ve been on the Overground, you’ll note that its lines have excellent turn-up-and-go service with modern electric trains that are like Tube ones but better. If you’ve been on the GOBLIN, you’ll note that it doesn’t – it has 2000s diesel trains that are a bit less awful than old diesel trains but still not great, and only turn up every now and then.

As London kept growing, the obvious plan came forward: TfL and Network Rail came up with a plan to electrify the line and bring in the same kind trains that exist on the rest of the Overground, and give everyone in the north-east of the capital the same deal as people elsewhere.

But they didn’t.

The first bit was Network Rail’s fault. Like many of its recent electrification projects, it overpromised and underdelivered timings; the line was closed last year to put up new overhead wires, but they didn’t work until the end of this year. This is a systematic problem with Network Rail’s upgrade project management, which was unfortunate for all involved.

The second bit was TfL’s fault. It didn’t take the same Bombardier trains that run successfully on the rest of the Overground, but ordered some fancy new trains that are supposed to do the same thing but better in every respect. Instead of being analogue technology, they are a smart computer with a train attached.


Unfortunately, this makes them hard to debug. It’s understandable if you’ve ever sat waiting for your smartphone to upgrade so you can listen to a podcast – software is hard, and everything these days is software. But bringing software to train design is new, and one might think that the people responsible for doing this would have thought about how long it takes. At least a bit. But they didn’t.

This problem is hitting a lot of new trains in the UK (and the rest of the world) right now, across train providers – mechanical engineers and software engineers don’t quite understand each other enough. So the fancy new trains that are supposed to be better than the last generation actually aren’t. It’s hard for them to run up enough hours to even be allowed to serve in passenger service.

Under Tf’L’s original plans for the GOBLIN, this would have been OK – the current diesel Class 172s were supposed to stay until the new electric Class 710s were in power. But there’s a big shortage of diesel trains in the UK, so the Department for Transport insisted that the 172s went to the West Midlands Railway franchise to boost services around Birmingham. TfL – under the previous mayor, who you may remember from certain gameshows and zipwires – signed up to transfer the trains early.

But the trains aren’t early. Two of the eight 172s on the GOBLIN have already been sent to the West Midlands, which leaves the GOBLIN service a mess because it requires all six trains to run a peak service. TfL is desperately trying to keep the trains running day-to-day by cancelling weekend services.

The 710s are still struggling to make it into operation. And – best of all – all eight 172s are now long-term leased by West Midlands Trains, who want the lot back for the 2019 season.

If TfL doesn’t keep the old trains at the start of 2019, they’ll have to replace the whole line with a bus, which if you’ve tried to get a bus in northeast London lately, will be upsetting. But if it does keep them, then the good people of Birmingham will forgo their much-touted new service upgrade. And contractually, the trains belong to West Midlands Railway, so only a government intervention could shift them.

Will the current government intervene to save Sadiq Khan from a problem of everyone else’s making? I’m no Malcolm Tucker, but I still reckon this one is “fucking unlikely”, given how popular the mayor is among the governing party. Northeast London commuters should look forward to a winter of some discontent.

 
 
 
 

Cycling on London’s Euston Road is still a terrifying experience

Cyclists on the Euston Road. Image: Jonn Elledge.

The New Road, which skirted the northern boundaries of London’s built up area, first opened in the 1750s. Originally, it was intended to link up outlying villages and provide a route to drive sheep and cows to the meat market at Smithfield without having to pass through the congested city centre. 

As with bypasses and ring roads the world over, however, it increasingly became congested in its own right. Today, you won’t often find livestock on the route, which is now Marylebone, Euston and City roads. But you will find up to six lanes of often stationary buses, cabs, and private vehicles. In a city whose centre is largely free of multi-lane highways, London’s northern ring road has long been the sort of abomination that you avoid at all costs.

But now, somewhat surprisingly, the road is seeing yet another new use. Earlier this week, the first phase of a temporary cycle lane opened on the Euston Road, the middle section of the route which runs for roughly a mile. As London rethinks roads throughout the city, this addition to the cycling map falls solidly into the category of streets that didn't seem like candidates for cycling before the pandemic.

It is, to be clear, temporary. That’s true of many of the Covid-led interventions that Transport for London is currently making, though those in the know will often quietly admit to hoping they end up being permanent. In this case, however, the agency genuinely seems to mean it: TfL emphasized in its press release that the road space is already being allocated for construction starting late next year and that "TfL will work with local boroughs to develop alternate routes along side streets" when the cycle lane is removed.

At lunchtime on Friday, I decided to try the lane for myself to understand what an unlikely, temporary cycle lane can accomplish. In this case it's clear that the presence of a lane only accomplishes so much. A few key things will still leave riders wanting:

It’s one way only. To be specific, eastbound. I found this out the hard way, after attempting to cycle the Euston Road westbound, under the naive impression that there was now a lane for me in which to do this. Neither I nor the traffic I unexpectedly found myself sharing space with enjoyed the experience. To be fair, London’s cycling commissioner Will Norman had shared this information on Twitter, but cyclists might find themselves inadvertently mixing with multiple lanes of much, much bigger vehicles.

It radically changes in width. At times the westbound route, which is separated from the motor traffic by upright posts, is perhaps a metre and a half wide. At others, such as immediately outside Euston station, it’s shared with buses and is suddenly four or five times that. This is slightly vexing.

It’s extremely short. The publicity for the new lane said it would connect up with other cycle routes on Hampstead Road and Judd Street (where Cycleway 6, the main north-south crosstown route, meets Euston Road). That’s a distance of roughly 925m. It actually runs from Gower Street to Ossulton Street, a distance of barely 670m. Not only does the reduced length mean it doesn’t quite connect to the rest of the network, it also means that the segregated space suddenly stops:

The junction between Euston Road and Ousslston Street, where the segregated lane suddenly, unexpectedly stops. Image: Jonn Elledge.

 

It’s for these reasons, perhaps, that the new lane is not yet seeing many users. Each time I cycled the length of it I saw only a handful of other cyclists (although that did include a man cycling with a child on a seat behind him – not something one would have expected on the Euston Road of the past).


Though I hesitate to mention this because it feeds into the car lobby’s agenda, it was also striking that the westbound traffic – the side of the road which had lost a lane to bikes – was significantly more congested than the eastbound. If the lane is extended, it could, counterintuitively, help, by removing the unexpected pinch points at which three lanes of cars suddenly have to squeeze into two.

There’s a distinctly unfinished air to the project – though, to be fair, it’s early days. The eastbound lane needs to be created from scratch; the westbound extended. At that point, it would hopefully be something TfL would be keen enough to talk about that cyclists start using it in greater numbers – and drivers get the message they should avoid the Euston Road.

The obvious explanation for why TfL is going to all this trouble is that TfL is in charge of the Euston Road, and so can do what it likes there. Building cycle lanes on side nearby roads means working with the boroughs, and that’s inevitably more difficult and time consuming.

But if the long-term plan is to push cyclists via side roads anyway, it’s questionable whether all this disruption is worth it. A segregated cycle lane that stops without warning and leaves you fighting for space with three lanes of buses, lorries, and cabs is a cycle lane that’s of no use at all.

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