Romford to Upminster to Romford again: An ode to Transport for London’s most obscure branch line

The London Overground train at Upminster. Image: Phil Richards/Wikimedia Commons.

Great news! The Romford-Emerson Park-Upminster line will be getting new train stock. One four-carriage Crossrail-style train will ferry people across the three miles of Havering the track covers. The train on what has been, since May 2015, the tiniest piece of the orange Overground network has been breaking down for days at a time recently, so an upgrade will be welcome.

Look at the top right of your tube map and you’ll see it. Situated completely in Zone 6, cut off from the rest of the network, the single-track line can only hold one train. So a shuttle service operates in each direction every half an hour, taking nine minutes to go from Romford to Upminster, with one stop at Emerson Park. 

Emerson Park, Wikipedia tells me, “has relatively low but fast-growing patronage for a suburban railway station, with 308,000 passenger entries/exits in 2017-18, compared to 114,000 five years prior and just 67,000 ten years prior.” That’s a huge increase – over 350 per cent in a decade – but the station still tops the least busy Overground stations list.

During the mid-to-late-Noughties, I was regularly part of the 67,000 entries and exits to Emerson Park station. I’d grown up in the neighbourhood and, by 2006, had come home after university to get started on my career. This involved a lot of temping and unpaid journalism work experience, which generally took place in Zones 1 or 2.

Emerson Park. Image: TBMurray/Wikimedia Commons.

It’s best to run a tight logistical operation if you’re going to take public transport in an area that’s barely connected to the rest of the network. Once that train’s gone off in the direction I needed, it won’t be any use to me for another half hour; the next time I’d see it, it’d be heading eastwards to Upminster, away from central London. Add in the solid 20 minutes of fast-paced walking from my family home that I’d powered through to be at the station in the first place, and I often found myself watching the four-carriager trundle off to Romford without me.


My house would be empty at this point, so without the option of someone giving me a lift, I had to make some quick decisions. I could wait 15 minutes for the train to return, then go to Upminster station (c2c, District line eastern terminus) in 9 minutes, adding another 24 minutes onto the morning commute. It was also further out of London than my house was, a psychological block.

Outside Emerson Park, buses one way would get me to Hornchurch station (District line) in 12 minutes – but they only run every 10 minutes. The other way, to Romford station (TfL Rail to Stratford, Liverpool Street), the buses go every 12-20 minutes, and took the same amount of time to get me there. That’s a lot of calculating to do in a very short amount of time, and back in 2006 I didn’t even have the CityMapper app. 

Little has changed in terms of those connections, but the continuing lack of back-up options, and recurrent train breakdowns, don’t seem to be putting commuters off. All those 308,000 passengers entering or exiting in 2017/18 are heroes of punctuality, true believers in TfL – or perhaps just know that they can get a lift to a better station with ease, and so entering and quickly leaving the Emerson Park station is no big deal for them. 

I really do hope that they enjoy their new trains. I’ll be thinking of them while I wait 19 minutes for the next train to Euston at South Hampstead station. That’s the second least busy stop on the Overground network, incidentally.

 
 
 
 

What Citymapper’s business plan tells us about the future of Smart Cities

Some buses. Image: David Howard/Wikimedia Commons.

In late September, transport planning app Citymapper announced that it had accumulated £22m in losses, nearly doubling its total loss since the start of 2019. 

Like Uber and Lyft, Citymapper survives on investment funding rounds, hoping to stay around long enough to secure a monopoly. Since the start of 2019, the firm’s main tool for establishing that monopoly has been the “Citymapper Pass”, an attempt to undercut Transport for London’s Oyster Card. 

The Pass was teased early in the year and then rolled out in the spring, promising unlimited travel in zones 1-2 for £31 a week – cheaper than the TfL rate of £35.10. In effect, that means Citymapper itself is paying the difference for users to ride in zones 1-2. The firm is basically subsidising its customers’ travel on TfL in the hopes of getting people hooked on its app. 

So what's the company’s gameplan? After a painful, two-year long attempt at a joint minibus and taxi service – known variously as Smartbus, SmartRide, and Ride – Citymapper killed off its plans at a bus fleet in July. Instead of brick and mortar, it’s taken a gamble on their mobile mapping service with Pass. It operates as a subscription-based prepaid mobile wallet, which is used in the app (or as a contactless card) and operates as a financial service through MasterCard. Crucially, the service offers fully integrated, unlimited travel, which gives the company vital information about how people are actually moving and travelling in the city.

“What Citymapper is doing is offering a door-to-door view of commuter journeys,” says King’s College London lecturer Jonathan Reades, who researches smart cities and the Oyster card. 

TfL can only glean so much data from your taps in and out, a fact which has been frustrating for smart city researchers studying transit data, as well as companies trying to make use of that data. “Neither Uber nor TfL know what you do once you leave their system. But Citymapper does, because it’s not tied to any one system and – because of geolocation and your search – it knows your real origin and destination.” 

In other words, linking ticketing directly with a mapping service means the company can get data not only about where riders hop on and off the tube, but also how they're planning their route, whether they follow that plan, and what their final destination is. The app is paying to discount users’ fares in order to gain more data.

Door-to-door destinations gives a lot more detailed information about a rider’s profile as well: “Citymapper can see that you’re also looking at high-profile restaurant as destinations, live in an address on a swanky street in Hammersmith, and regularly travel to the City.” Citymapper can gain insights into what kind of people are travelling, where they hang out, and how they cluster in transit systems. 

And on top of finding out data about how users move in a city, Citymapper is also gaining financial data about users through ticketing, which reflects a wider trend of tech companies entering into the financial services market – like Apple’s recent foray into the credit card business with Apple Card. Citymapper is willing to take a massive hit because the data related to how people actually travel, and how they spend their money, can do a lot more for them than help the company run a minibus service: by financialising its mapping service, it’s getting actual ticketing data that Google Maps doesn’t have, while simultaneously helping to build a routing platform that users never really have to leave


The integrated transit app, complete with ticket data, lets Citymapper get a sense of flows and transit corridors. As the Guardian points out, this gives Citymapper a lot of leverage to negotiate with smaller transit providers – scooter services, for example – who want to partner with it down the line. 

“You can start to look at ‘up-sell’ and ‘cross-sell’ opportunities,” explain Reades. “If they see that a particular journey or modal mix is attractive then they are in a position to act on that with their various mobility offerings or to sell that knowledge to others. 

“They might sell locational insights to retailers or network operators,” he goes on. “If you put a scooter bay here then we think that will be well-used since our data indicates X; or if you put a store here then you’ll be capturing more of that desirable scooter demographic.” With the rise of electric rideables, Citymapper can position itself as a platform operator that holds the key to user data – acting a lot like TfL, but for startup scooter companies and car-sharing companies.

The app’s origins tell us a lot about the direction of its monetisation strategy. Originally conceived as “Busmapper”, the app used publicly available transit data as the base for its own datasets, privileging transit data over Google Maps’ focus on walking and driving.  From there it was able to hone in on user data and extract that information to build a more efficient picture of the transit system. By collecting more data, it has better grounds for selling that for urban planning purposes, whether to government or elsewhere.

This kind of data-centred planning is what makes smart cities possible. It’s only become appealing to civic governments, Reades explains, since civic government has become more constrained by funding. “The reason its gaining traction with policy-makers is because the constraints of austerity mean that they’re trying to do more with less. They use data to measure more efficient services.”  

The question now is whether Citymapper’s plan to lure riders away from the Oyster card will be successful in the long term. Consolidated routing and ticketing data is likely only the first step. It may be too early to tell how it will affect public agencies like TfL – but right now Citymapper is establishing itself as a ticketing service - gaining valuable urban data, financialising its app, and running up those losses in the process.

When approached for comment, Citymapper claimed that Pass is not losing money but that it is a “growth startup which is developing its revenue streams”. The company stated that they have never sold data, but “regularly engage with transport authorities around the world to help improve open data and their systems”

Josh Gabert-Doyon tweets as @JoshGD.