Some German fella has made a map of London’s “S-Bahn” network, and it’s glorious

It’s so, so beautiful. Image: U-Bahnfreund/Wikimedia Commons.

An S-Bahn is a type of suburban rail network with a bigger footprint than a traditional metro, which links a city to its outer suburbs and inner commuter towns.

The name is an abbreviation of the German: in various cities across the German-speaking world, you'll find Schnellbahns (“fast trains”), Stadtbahns (“city trains”) or Stadtschnellbahn (“fast city trains”).

The Berlin S-Bahn and U-Bahn map. This will become relevant soon enough. Click to expand.

But you'll also find S-tog systems in the Denmark and Esko systems in the Czech Republic. And while no one tends to call it an S-Bahn, the Parisian RER (“Réseau Express Regionale”) is really another version of the same sort of thing: a regional metro system, with largely segregated tracks, on which a number of suburban branch-lines combine to provide frequent services through the city proper.

London doesn't really have anything quite comparable to this, for reasons I delved into a couple of weeks back. (Short version: north of the river, at least, the Tube tends to play the same role.) But it does have the London Overground, and it's soon to have Crossrail, which are sort of the same thing if you squint.

So on Christmas Eve, a German train fan posting on the RailForums website as U-Bahnfreund (“subway friend”) decided to treat those networks and Thameslink as if they were London's S-Bahn network and draw a map, which he then put it on Wikimedia Commons:

Ooooh. Click to expand. Image: U-Bahnfreund/Wikimedia Commons.

Let’s get the inevitable nerd whinges out of the way first. These services are not all really much like S-Bahns, are they? Crossrail and that first phase of the Overground you can make a case for. But the Overground lines from Liverpool Street, where services are lower and stopping patterns more confusing? That silly branchline between Romford and Upminster?


And then there’s Thameslink, shown here with the vast number of branches it'll have once its apparently endless rebuilding project – once known, hilariously, as Thameslink 2000 – is finally completed. Even if the powers that be resist the urge to change the proposed service pattern for the 179th time, most of those outer branches will see relatively tiny numbers of trains, and several of them serve destinations a quite ludicrously long way form central London (hi, Peterborough). It’s not obvious to me why these services should qualify for S-Bahn status when the more frequent inner suburban routes run by, say, South West Trains shouldn't.

But let's leave the mean-spirited nitpicking aside and look at the actual map because it’s bloody gorgeous. Inspired by the Berlin S-Bahn map (above), it treats the inner ring of orbital Overground services as a box, from which other lines radiate. It places Farringdon, where Thameslink and Crossrail will cross, at its centre (a position roughly occupied by the Hauptbahnhof – main station – on the Berlin map).

Click to expand. Image: U-Bahnfreund/Wikimedia Commons.

It also gives each individual route its own line identity, consisting of a letter (which shows which network it's part of – T, C or O) and a number (which narrows it down further). Similar routes have similar colours, and shortened versions of services end in a five, a sort of digital version of “and a half”. Here's the  complete index:

Click to expand. Image: U-Bahnfreund/Wikimedia Commons.

Dotted lines mean “peak hours only”, incidentally.

It's so well-done, in fact, that I find myself wishing London’s rail network really did work a bit like this. I’m forced to conclude the problem is less the choices that have been made about how to represent the system, than the incoherence of the system itself – that the problem is not the design, but in the actual, real London.

At any rate: this map does at least offer insight into how much tidier London's rail network could look, given a little German rationality and efficiency. U-Bahnfreund, if you're reading, we salute you.

UPDATE, 1700hrs: 

Our mystery map-maker has come forward. He’s called Simon, and he tweets as @SimonSchre.

He messaged me to explain some of the thinking beind the map:

To answer some of your questions: this was really just a holiday project so I did not put *too* much thought into it. I chose these three systems (Thameslink, Overground and Crossrail) as together, they kind of resemble Berlin’s S-Bahn system (S1/2/25/26 north-south, S3/5/7/75/9 east-west and S41/42/45/46/47/8/85 circular), also, it was already hard enough to figure out all the service patterns planned only for Crossrail and Thameslink in 2019, let alone for the entire London rail system (see below though).

Once I picked these three systems, I drew all lines that (will) belong to them, including the Romford-Upminster shuttle, the Overground lines from Liverpool Street, and the outermost branches of Thameslink.

But just like you pointed out, many S-Bahn-like railway lines, especially in South London, are left out, and some of the lines shown do not really qualify for the label (although here in Germany, the S-Bahn brand also becomes increasingly “misused”, with some S-Bahn lines that are diesel, only run every one or two hours etc).

This is why I spent the first days of 2018 unravelling the London suburban railways, as of the 2018 timetable, and came up with a new version of the “S-Bahn” system with 94 individual lines (some are express services though, and there are still some weird stopping patterns or frequencies), with most lines running twice per hour. For example, the Southeastern service from Victoria to Orpington via Beckenham is the S50, or the Northern City line to Moorgate is covered by lines N3 and N4 to Welwyn, Hertford and Letchworth.

I also started drawing a new map for this new version (with a new style) and by February I had all of North London finished – but because I also had a lot to do for school and the South London system is really complicated, I did not continue the map.

Although I appreciate that you like my map, I must say that there are loads of other people who can draw maps much better than me; I even struggle creating a map of the buses in my home city in Germany.

It is perhaps understandable that his full London rail map seems unlikely to see the light of day. Pity, though: I’d like to see someone come up with 94 different colours.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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In many ways, smart cities are really very dumb

Rio de Janeiro’s control centre. Image: Getty.

It’s not news that anything and everything is increasingly being prefaced with “smart”: phones, watches, homes, fridges, and even water (yes, smartwater exists). And it’s not unintentional either. 

Marketeers know that we, the public, are often stupid enough to believe that thanks to their technology, life is better now than it was way back in, say, the primitive Nineties. Imagine having to, like a Neanderthal, remember how to spell words without an autocorrecting algorithm, or open the fridge door to check if you’d run out of milk, or, worse still, interact with actual people.

So it’s hardly surprising that we’re now also witnessing the rise of the so-called “smart cities”; a concept which presupposes that cities that are not technologically  “smart” are dumb, which, as anyone interested in the millennia-old history of cities — from the crypto-currency grain storage algorythms of ancient Mesopotamia to the complex waste infrastructure of ancient Rome, to London’s public transport infrastructure — will know, is not true.

Deployed in these smart cities are cameras and other networked information-gathering devices, load cells and other “sensing devices” detecting passing pedestrians and vehicles, audio surveillance devices listening for gunshots – and even vending machines equipped with biometric sensors to recognise your face. This is not to mention beacon technology — tiny anonymous looking black boxes hidden in trees and on lampposts — which transmits advertising, offers and other information directly to smart phones in the vicinity. 

If that doesn’t seem sinister enough, take, for example, Rio de Janeiro, where, in 2014, the International Business Machines Corporation designed a mammoth “control centre” that integrates data from 30 agencies for the city’s police. 

Described by the Guardian as having “the functionality of a Bond villian’s techno lair”, the then local mayor, Eduardo Paes, claimed the centre was making the city safer while using technology to deploy its “special” police unit to carry out the state’s “pacification programme”. Launched in 2008, the programme, which aims to push out drug gangs from Rio’s favelas, has been criticised by Amnesty International: “in January and February 2017 in Rio de Janeiro alone, at least 182 people were killed during police operations in marginalized neighbourhoods (favelas) – a 78 per cent increase in comparison to the same period in 2016”.

Sinister or not, as smart cities grow, they create new problems. For example, as urbanist Adam Greenfield writes in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, neither the algorithms nor their designers are subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability – a problem that international academics are currently attempting to tackle.  


“We need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act,” writes Greenfield. “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power.”

The Real Smart Cities project, founded by Dr Gerald Moore, Dr Noel Fitzpatrick and Professor Bernard Stiegler, is investigating the ways in which so-called “smart city” technologies present a threat to democracy and citizenship, and how digital tools might be used create new forms of community participation.

Fitzpatrick is critical of current discourses around smart cities, which he says “tend to be technical fixes, where technology is presented as a means to solve the problems of the city.” The philosophy underpinning the project is “that technologies function as forms of pharmacology”, he adds, meaning that they can be both positive and negative. “The addictive negative effects are being felt at an individual and collective level.” 

An example of this lies in the way that many of these smart cities replace human workers with disembodied voices — “Alexa we need more toilet roll” — like those used to control the Amazon Echo listening device — the high priestess of smart home. These disembodied voices travel at the speed of light to cavernous, so-called “fulfilment centres”, where an invisible workforce are called into action by our buy-it-now, one-click impulse commands; moving robotically down seemingly endless aisles of algorithmically organised products arranged according to purchase preferences the like of which we never knew we had — someone who buys a crime novel might be more likely to go on and buy cat food, a wireless router, a teapot and a screwdriver. 

Oh to be the archeologists of the future who while digging through mounds of silicon dust happen upon these vast repositories of disembodies voices. That the digital is inherently material and the binary of virtual/real does not hold — there is no cyberspace, just space. Space that is being increasingly populated by technologies that want to watch you, listen to you, get to know you and sense your presence.

One project looking to solve some of the problems of smart cities is that of the development of a “clinic of contribution” within Pleine Commune in greater Paris (an area where one in three live in poverty).This attempts to deal with issues of communication between parents and children where the widespread use of smartphones as parental devices from infancy is having effects on the attention of young children and on the communicative abilities between parents and children. 

This in turn forms part of a wider project in the area that Stiegler describes as “installing a true urban intelligence”, which moves beyond what he sees as the bankrupt idea of smart cities. The aim is to create a “contributory income” in the area that responds to the loss of salaried jobs due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. 

The idea being that an income could be paid to residents, on the condition that they perform a service to society. This, if you are unemployed, living in poverty and urban deprivation, sounds like quite a simple and smart idea to try and solve some of the dumb effcts of the digital technology that's implemented in cities under the ideology of being “smart”.