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.

 
 
 
 

Tackling toxic air in our cities is also a matter of social justice

Oh, lovely. Image: Getty.

Clean Air Zones are often dismissed by critics as socially unfair. The thinking goes that charging older and more polluting private cars will disproportionately impact lower income households who cannot afford expensive cleaner alternatives such as electric vehicles.

But this argument doesn’t consider who is most affected by polluted air. When comparing the latest deprivation data to nitrogen dioxide background concentration data, the relationship is clear: the most polluted areas are also disproportionately poorer.

In UK cities, 16 per cent of people living in the most polluted areas also live in one of the top 10 per cent most deprived neighbourhoods, against 2 per cent who live in the least deprived areas.

The graph below shows the average background concentration of NO2 compared against neighbourhoods ranked by deprivation. For all English cities in aggregate, pollution levels rise as neighbourhoods become more deprived (although interestingly this pattern doesn’t hold for more rural areas).

Average NO2 concentration and deprivation levels. Source: IMD, MHCLG (2019); background mapping for local authorities, Defra (2019).

The graph also shows the cities in which the gap in pollution concentration between the most and the least deprived areas is the highest, which includes some of the UK’s largest urban areas.  In Sheffield, Leeds and Birmingham, there is a respective 46, 42 and 33 per cent difference in NO2 concentration between the poorest and the wealthiest areas – almost double the national urban average gap, at around 26 per cent.

One possible explanation for these inequalities in exposure to toxic air is that low-income people are more likely to live near busy roads. Our data on roadside pollution suggests that, in London, 50 per cent of roads located in the most deprived areas are above legal limits, against 4 per cent in the least deprived. In a number of large cities (Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield), none of the roads located in the least deprived areas are estimated to be breaching legal limits.

This has a knock-on impact on health. Poor quality air is known to cause health issues such as cardiovascular disease, lung cancer and asthma. Given the particularly poor quality of air in deprived areas, this is likely to contribute to the gap in health and life expectancy inequalities as well as economic ones between neighbourhoods.


The financial impact of policies such as clean air zones on poorer people is a valid concern. But it is not a justifiable reason for inaction. Mitigating policies such as scrappage schemes, which have been put in place in London, can deal with the former concern while still targeting an issue that disproportionately affects the poor.

As the Centre for Cities’ Cities Outlook report showed, people are dying across the country as a result of the air that they breathe. Clean air zones are one of a number of policies that cities can use to help reduce this, with benefits for their poorer residents in particular.

Valentine Quinio is a researcher at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.