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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British television once sounded like Britain. But then, the ITV mergers happened

The Granada Studios, Quay Street, Manchester. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

This summer, several ITV franchises celebrated half a century of continuous operation. There was a Yorkshire Television themed cake, and a flag bearing the company’s logo was flown over ITV’s Yorkshire base for a time. It was all very jolly – but while a few people beyond Britain’s small community of television historians and old telly nerds engaged with the idea, any excitement was brief.

The main reason for is not, as you might assume, that, in the era of streaming and so forth, ITV is no longer a dominant presence in many people’s cultural lives: even the quickest of glances at the relevant figures would tell you otherwise. No, it’s because the mere existence of ITV’s franchises is now passing out of common memory. They are the trademarks, literally rather than figuratively, of a version of ITV that today exists only nominally.

For most of its history, ITV operated on a federal model. ITV wasn’t a company, it was a concept: ‘Independent Television’, that is, television which was not the BBC.

It was also a network, rather than a channel – a network of multiple regional channels, each of which served a specific area of the UK. Each had their own name and onscreen identity; and each made programmes within their own region. They were ITV – but they were also Yorkshire, Granada, Grampian, Thames, and so on.

So when I was a child growing up the in Midlands in the ‘80s, no one at school ever said “ITV”: they said “Central”, because that’s what the channel called itself on air, or “Channel Three” because that’s where it was on the dial. To visit friends who lived in other regions was to go abroad – to visit strange lands where the third channel was called Anglia, and its logo was a bafflingly long film sequence of a model knight rotating on a record turntable, where all the newsreaders were different and where they didn’t show old horror films on Friday nights.

The ITV regions as of 1982, plus Ireland. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Of course, there were programmes that were shown across the whole network. Any station, no matter in what part of the country, would be foolish not to transmit Coronation Street during the period where it could persuade nearly half the population to tune in. But even The Street wasn’t networked from the beginning: it started in six of the then eight ITV regions, and rolled out to the other two after a few months when it became clear the series was here to stay.

This was a common occurrence: The Avengers, one of the few ITV series to genuinely break America, began in an even more limited number of regions in the same year, with other areas scrambling to catch up when the programme became a hit.

The idea behind ITV’s structure was that the regions would compete with each other to put programmes on the network, opting in and out of others’ productions as worked best for them. ITV was, after all, an invention of a 1950s Conservative government that was developing a taste for the idea of ‘healthy competition’ even as it accepted the moral and practical case for a mixed economy. The system worked well for decades: in 1971, for example, the success of London Weekend Television’s Upstairs, Downstairs, creatively and commercially, and domestically and internationally, prompted other regions to invest in high end period dramas so as to not look like a poor relation.


Even away from prestige productions there was, inexplicable as it now seems, a genuine sense of local pride when a hit programme came from your region. That Bullseye was made on Broad Street in Birmingham was something that people knew. That 17.6m people watched the 1984 Xmas special, making it one of the ten most watched programmes of the year, made Bully a sort of local hero. In more concrete terms, Bullseye and other Birmingham based programmes provided jobs, and kept that part of the country visible from all others. This was true of all areas, and from all areas.

ITV franchises would often make programmes that were distinctive to, or set in, their region. Another of Central’s late eighties hits was Boon. It might have starred the cockney-sounding Michael Elphick, but it was filmed and set in Birmingham, just as Central’s predecessor ATV’s Public Eye had been at the end of the sixties. In Tales of the Unexpected, one of the poorest and smallest ITV regions, the aforementioned Anglia, made a bona fide international hit, largely filmed in transmission area, too. HTV produced a string of children’s series set in its south west catchment area, including some, such as The Georgian House, that examined the way the area had profited from the slave trade.

There was another element of ‘competition’ in the structure of ITV as originally conceived: the franchises were not for life. Every few years, a franchise round would come along, forcing the incumbent stations to bid to continue its own existence against other local offerings.

The process was no simple auction. Ministers were empowered to reject higher financial bids if they felt a lower bid offered other things that mattered: local employment or investment, programming plans that reflected the identity of the region they were bidding to serve, or simply higher quality programmes.

Yorkshire Television itself owes its existence to just such a franchise round: the one that followed a 1967 decision by regulator IBA that Granada, until then the holder of a pan-northern England licence, was insufficiently local to Yorkshire. For a decade, commissioning and production had been concentrated in Manchester, with little representation of, or benefit for, the other side of the Pennines. IBA’s decision was intended to correct this.

Yorkshire existed in practical terms for almost exactly 40 years. Its achievements included Rising Damp, the only truly great sitcom ever made for ITV.

But in 1997 it was, ironically, bought out by Granada, the company who had had to move aside in order for it to be created. What had changed? The law.

In 1990, another Conservative government, one even keener on competition and rather less convinced of the moral and practical case for a mixed economy, had changed the rules concerning ITV regions. There was still a ‘quality threshold’ of a sort – but there was less discretion for those awarding the franchises. Crucially, the rules had been liberalised, and the various ITV franchises that existed as of 1992 started buying out, merging with and swallowing one another until, in 2004, the last two merged to form ITV plc: a single company and a single channel.

The Yorkshire Television birthday cake. Image: ITV.

Yorkshire Television – or rather ITV Yorkshire as it was renamed in 2006 – is listed at Companies House as a dormant company, although it is still the nominal holder of the ITV licence for much of Northern England. Its distinctive onscreen identity, including the logo, visible on the cake above, disappeared early this century, replaced by generic ITV branding, sometimes with the word Yorkshire hidden underneath it, but often without it. Having once been created because Manchester was too far away, Yorkshire TV is now largely indistinguishable from that offered in London. (It is more by accident of history than anything else that ITV retains any non-London focus at all; one of the last two regions standing was Granada.)

The onscreen identities of the all the other franchises disappeared at roughly the same time. What remained of local production and commissioning followed. Regional variations now only really exist for news and advertising. TV is proud that is can offer advertisers a variety of levels of engagement, from micro regional to national: it just doesn’t bother doing so with programming or workforce any more.

Except for viewers in Scotland. Curiously, STV is an ITV franchise which, for reasons too complicated to go into here, doesn’t suffer from the restrictions/opportunities imposed by upon its English brethren in 1990. It also – like UTV in Northern Ireland, another complex, special case – Its own onscreen identity. Nationalism, as it so often does, is trumping regionalism – although it was not all that long ago that Scotland had multiple ITV regions, in recognising its own lack homogeneity and distinct regions, while respecting its status as a country.


As is often observed by anyone who has thought about it for more than four seconds, the UK is an almost hilariously over-centralised country, with its political, financial, administrative, artistic and political centres all in the same place. Regionalised television helped form a bulwark against the consequences of that centralisation. Regional commissioning and production guaranteed that the UK of ITV looked and sounded like the whole of the UK. The regions could talk about themselves, to themselves and others, via the medium of national television.

The idea of a federal UK crops up with increasing frequency these days; it is almost inconceivable that considerable constitutional tinkering will not be required after the good ship UK hits the iceberg that is Brexit, and that’s assuming that Northern Ireland and Scotland remain within that country at all. If the UK is to become a federation, and many think it will have to, then why shouldn’t its most popular and influential medium?

A new Broadcasting Act is needed. One that breaks up ITV plc and offers its constituent licences out to tender again; one that offers them only on the guarantee that certain conditions, to do with regional employment and production, regional commissioning and investment, are met.

Our current national conversation is undeniably toxic. Maybe increasing the variety of accents in that conversation will help.

Thanks to Dr David Rolinson at the University of Stirling and britishtelevisiondrama.org.uk.