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...

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...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:

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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:

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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?

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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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Here’s a fantasy metro network for Birmingham & the West Midlands

Birmingham New Street. Image: Getty.

Another reader writes in with their fantasy transport plans for their city. This week, we’re off to Birmingham…

I’ve read with interest CityMetric’s previous discussion on Birmingham’s poor commuter service frequency and desire for a “Crossrail” (here and here). So I thought I’d get involved, but from a different angle.

There’s a whole range of local issues to throw into the mix before getting the fantasy metro crayons out. Birmingham New Street is shooting up the passenger usage rankings, but sadly its performance isn’t, with nearly half of trains in the evening rush hour between 5pm and 8pm five minutes or more late or even cancelled. This makes connecting through New Street a hit and, mainly, miss affair, which anyone who values their commuting sanity will avoid completely. No wonder us Brummies drive everywhere.


There are seven local station reopening on the cards, which have been given a helping hand by a pro-rail mayor. But while these are super on their own, each one alone struggles to get enough traffic to justify a frequent service (which is key for commuters); or the wider investment needed elsewhere to free up more timetable slots, which is why the forgotten cousin of freight gets pushed even deeper into the night, in turn giving engineering work nowhere to go at all.

Suburban rail is the less exciting cousin of cross country rail. But at present there’s nobody to “mind the gap” between regional cross-country focussed rail strategy , and the bus/tram orientated planning of individual councils. (Incidentally, the next Midland Metro extension, from Wednesbury to Brierley Hill, is expected to cost £450m for just 11km of tram. Ouch.)

So given all that, I decided to go down a less glamorous angle than a Birmingham Crossrail, and design a Birmingham  & Black Country Overground. Like the London Overground, I’ve tried to join up what we’ve already got into a more coherent service and make a distinct “line” out of it.

Click to expand. 

With our industrial heritage there are a selection of old alignments to run down, which would bring a suburban service right into the heart of the communities it needs to serve, rather than creating a whole string of “park & rides” on the periphery. Throw in another 24km of completely new line to close up the gaps and I’ve run a complete ring of railway all the way around Birmingham and the Black Country, joining up with HS2 & the airport for good measure – without too much carnage by the way of development to work around/through/over/under.

Click to expand. 

While going around with a big circle on the outside, I found a smaller circle inside the city where the tracks already exist, and by re-creating a number of old stations I managed to get within 800m of two major hospitals. The route also runs right under the Birmingham Arena (formerly the NIA), fixing the stunning late 1980s planning error of building a 16,000 capacity arena right in the heart of a city centre, over the railway line, but without a station. (It does have two big car parks instead: lovely at 10pm when a concert kicks out, gridlocks really nicely.)

From that redraw the local network map and ended up with...

Click to expand. 

Compare this with the current broadly hub-and-spoke network, and suddenly you’ve opened up a lot more local journey possibilities which you’d have otherwise have had to go through New Street to make. (Or, in reality, drive.) Yours for a mere snip at £3bn.

If you want to read more, there are detailed plans and discussion here (signup required).