The new London rail maps are out, and they are horrible

It’s strange and ugly and I don’t like it. Image: TfL/National Rail.

Last weekend, the London commuter rail network coughed, spluttered and attempted to morph into a new shape, as Thameslink marched triumphantly into territory. It didn’t go very well, at first, but it seems to be bedding in.

Something that baffled me about this expansion while I was liveblogging on Monday was that the official maps had been oddly silent on the fact it was happening. Thameslink got its grubby tentacles onto routes to Dartford, Cambridge and Peterborough for the first time on Sunday – but that day I could find no map acknowledging the fact at either London Bridge or St Pancras International. The relevant authorities didn’t update their maps online, either: for three days, Thameslink was operating a rail service that seemed not to officially exist.

Until today.

There are two official maps of the region’s rail network: the “London’s Rail & Tube Services” map, which shows Greater London and a few stations just beyond its boundaries, and is a joint production between Transport for London (TfL) and National Rail (NR); and the London & the “South East RAIL SERVICES” (yes, with that capitalisation) map, produced by NR alone. Both of these have been updated to reflect the new service patterns

And the results are bleedin’ ‘orrible.

Let’s do the latter first. Several things are bugging me. Firstly, there’s this bit...

Click to expand.

...which highlights the weirdness of the new Thameslink service pattern. Effectively, it’s swallowed the mid-range Great Northern services, while leaving the original train operating company (TOC) with the long distance ones (fast trains to Cambridge, then stopping to Kings Lynn) and the suburban ones (basically, as far as Stevenage). Those two things would not, in a rational world, go together.

Then there’s the problem of some services only operating in peak hours. Like the bits to East Grinstead and Littlehampton:

Click to expand.

Euch.

Both of these are sort of the result of a single fiction: that Govia Thameslink is four separate companies, when really it’s one. Southern, Thameslink, Great Northern and Gatwick Express are all actually run by the same company under different branding. All that happens in peak hours is that some trains that normally terminate on the southern fringes of the city will continue across London and pretend to be run by a different company rather than exactly the same company as before.

I’m not honestly sure what the solution is – I’m not sure colouring all four as if they were a single thing would be any better, really. My suspicion is that a large part of the problem comes from pretending that operator is more important than route when, unless you happen to work in the marketing team of a TOC, it very obviously isn’t.

At any rate: the status quo feels strange and ugly and I don’t like it. So there.

Talking of which, here’s a problem that’s been bugging me for a while:

Click to expand.

What does that beige box around London represent? It’s shaped a bit like the M25, London’s orbital motorway, but it isn’t that at all: if it were, a much bigger chunk of Surrey would be inside. Nor is it the area in which you can use Oyster: that extends to Cheshunt, Brentwood and Gatwick Airport. The legend suggests it’s there to mark out TfL’s domain – but that doesn’t make sense either, because it’s missing chunk of that, too.

You know what it is? I’ll tell you what it is. Stupid, that’s what it is.

Anyway, let’s dive into the stupid and look at the other map.

It’s worse. It’s much, much worse.

For one thing, what’s going on here?

Click to expand.

As far as I can tell, new Thameslink services run to Cambridge and Peterborough all day, but those aren’t really suburban services: the only place they stop in non-central London is Finsbury Park. That, I suspect, explains the weird, aggravating gap between the purple (Thameslink) and gold (Great Northern) lines as the former runs through Harringay.

But then it starts hugging its little brother more tightly – because there’s also a stopping service to Welwyn Garden City. That doesn’t stop at Hadley Wood, though you have to look pretty closely to see it.

Compare and contrast. 

One oddity about that route: it only runs at peak hours. The map doesn’t bother to say this. I think that’s what the weird, ugly spur to Kings Cross is in aid of, but it’s very far from clear.

Elsewhere there’s this:

Which shows that the new Thameslink stopping service on the North Kent lines, which stops everywhere except Woolwich Dockyard, Belvedere and Erith, like some kind of metropolitan snob.

Then there’s this:

What are they trying to communicate with the profusion of lines out of London Bridge there? Because I haven’t the foggiest.

Away from Thameslink there’s the various C2C back up routes, shown as a hollow pink line. These mostly run during engineering work and probably aren’t needed on the map at all, but if you have to show them do you have to show them like this?

What on earth is going on there?

On this map, too, there are ugly things that have always been there, but which I’m only really noticing now I’m looking closely at this. Check this out:

You wouldn’t know that the light green line is following exactly the same route as the orange one, would you?

There’s something similar out by Heathrow:

This would be bad enough but just about excusable as a way of showing that Heathrow Express fares are outside the normal zonal fare system and so expensive – except that the excellent Diamond Geezer blog recently noted that TfL Rail fares to Heathrow are going to be bloody expensive too and they’re still in there. It’s a mess.

Some, though by no means all, of these problems have a similar source to those on the London South East map. Once upon a time, the London rail map coloured its routes by terminus, which made some sense: you could see the shape of the network. Then National Rail – which had previously produced its own version – got involved in TfL’s one, and because NR is an umbrella body for the TOCs it wanted the lines coded by operator rather than route. The result was this monstrosity.


I don’t know what the solution to these problems are either. I was staring open-mouthed at the new map at Marylebone earlier, trying to come up with one, when a kindly station assistant asked if I was alright. When I said I was just looking at the new map because it was horrible she said, “I know. And they’ve got the wrong colour for the Jubilee on the tube map”, and do you know they did? But I forgot to take a photo.

Anyway, it was good to know it’s not just me.

I should probably stop writing.

Honestly, I’m completely fine.

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

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Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.