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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Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.