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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It’s time to rethink how the British railway network works

Nothing doing: commuters await a long-delayed train. Image: Getty.

The recent meltdowns on Northern and Thameslink not only left many passengers besides themselves with frustration about not being able to get to work on time, if at all. It also led to a firestorm of criticism and condemnation from politicians and media alike.

With the immediate shock of that first Monday morning of the meltdown passed, there’s a now a bigger debate about whether the way that rail services are provided for cities needs some far reaching reform. But before coming to that, the first thing to say – and as we set out in our Rail Cities UK report, launched today – is that the fundamentals for urban rail remain very strong.

Here’s why. All cities want to become denser, more dynamic places which attract the best people to the growth sectors of the economy (including the ‘flat white economy’ of media, communications and information). In order to achieve this, as well as to improve air quality, cities are also reducing space for motorised traffic in favour of space for people.

It’s very difficult to see how this can be achieved without expanding rail networks and their capacity. What’s more, if housing need is to be met without creating more sprawl and traffic congestion, then again its rail that will be key – because it opens up former rail-connected brownfield industrial sites, it extends commuting range, plus housing can be built above or around new or existing rail stations and interchanges.

In some ways there’s nothing new here. From Metroland to Docklands, successful cities have always grown with their rail networks. And to be fair, there is significant investment going into urban rail at present. Northern will get a lot better (the pacers are doomed) and both Merseyside and Tyne & Wear are getting a whole new fleet of trains for their urban rail networks.

However, much (but not all) of this investment is incremental, or replacing rolling stock on its last legs. It stops short of the wider vision for the rail cities that we need.


What would that look like in practice? There comes a point when the biggest cities need more cross-city routes, because running trains in and out of edge-of-centre termini can’t cope with the numbers. That explains the push for Crossrail 2 in London, but also the need for more cross-city capacity in cities like Birmingham (on the Snow Hill route) as well as in Manchester (on the Oxford Road to Manchester Piccadilly corridor, as well as a potential new underground route).

Tram-train technology can also help – allowing the lucky commuter that benefits to get on board at their local station and get off right outside their city centre office on main street in the city centre, rather than piling out at a Victorian railway terminal on the edge of that city centre.

Tram-trains aren’t the only tech fix available. Battery packs can extend the range of existing electric trains deeper into the “look ma, no wires” hinterlands, as well as allow trams to glide through city centres without the expensive clutter of overhead wires.

More mundane but equally useful work to increase capacity through signalling, station, track and junction work offers the opportunity to move to turn-up-and-go frequency networks with greater capacity and more reliability – networks that start to emulate the best of what comparable German rail cities already enjoy. Interlocking networks of long distance, regional express, regional, S-bahn, U-bahn, trams and buses, all under common ticketing.

But in talking about Germany and common ticketing I am now getting back to where I started around the debate on whether some fundamental change is needed on how urban rail networks are provided. Obviously there is a bigger national discussion going on about whether the current structure is just too layered, with too many costly interfaces and too fractured a chain of command. And in addition another, on whether the railway should be publicly or privately owned and operated.

But it’s been heartening to see the growing recognition that – regardless of how these debates are resolved – more devolution for urban and regional services should be part of any solution. That’s not only because fully devolved services have been out-performing comparators both operationally and in passenger satisfaction; it’s because local control rather than remote control from Whitehall will mean that the dots can be joined between rail and housing, between rail and the wider re-fashioning of city centres, and between rail and local communities (for example through repurposing stations as wider hubs for local community use, enterprises and housing). It will also allow for rail and the rest of local urban public transport networks to be part of one system, rather than be just on nodding terms as is all too often the case at present.

The crisis on Northern and Thameslink has been a miserable experience for rail users, affected cities and the rail industry. If any good has come out of it, it is that it shows how important rail is to cities, and opens up a space for some bigger thinking about what kind of rail cities we will need for the future – and how best we can make that happen.

Jonathan Bray is the Director of the Urban Transport Group which represents the transport authorities for the largest city regions. You can read the group’s full report here.