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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Here’s how Copenhagen puts cyclists at the top of the social hierarchy

A cyclist in Copenhagen, obviously. Image: Red Bull/Getty.

Have you ever wondered why Britain is not a nation of cyclists? Why we prefer to sit in traffic as our Dutch and Danish neighbours speed through the city on bikes?

Forget about hills, rain, and urban sprawl: the real reason we aren’t cycling is much closer to home. It is not just lack of infrastructure, or lack of fitness, the reason that 66 per cent of Brits cycle less than once a year, is because of status.

An obsession with social status is hard-wired into our brains. As we have built a society that relies on cars, the bicycle has slipped to the periphery, and gone from being regarded as a sensible mode of transport, to a deviant fringe-dwellers choice.

Even though cycling to work has been shown to be one of the most effective things an individual can do to improve health and longevity, researcher David Horton thinks that there are a set of collective anxieties that are stopping us getting in the saddle. These include not just an unwillingness to be made vulnerable, but fear of being thought of as poor.

A quick look over the North Sea shows that there is an alternative. Danish culture has elevated cycling to the point of reverence, and the social status of cyclists has followed. As we have busied ourselves building infrastructure that testifies to the dominance of the car, Denmark has been creating magnificent architectural features, aimed specifically at bike users. The Cycle Snake, or Cykelslangen, literally suspends the cyclist above the city, metaphorically elevating the cyclist and creating a sense of ceremony.

In doing so, they are subtly persuading people of all backgrounds to see past their prejudices or fears and take it up as the clearly better choice. This means there are more women cycling, more older people cycling, and more ethnic minorities cycling. The activity is less dominated by comfortably middle class white males: there are cyclists from every side of the community.  

The Cykelslangen, under construction in 2014. Image: Ursula Bach and Dissing+Weitling architecture.

Despite abstract motivations like getting ripped and conquering global warming, it is only when the bike path becomes the obviously better choice that people will start to cycle. It can take years of traffic jams before people try an alternative, but if you make motorists jealous of cyclists, then the tables can quickly turn.

Another way that Copenhagen has done this is by taking privileges normally afforded only to the motorcar, and given them to the bike. The city has ensured that cycle routes do not include blind corners or dark tunnels, and that they form a complete, coherent network, and a steadily flowing system – one that allows cyclists to maintain a reasonable pace, and minimises the amount of times you have to put your foot down.

The ‘Green Wave’, for example, is a co-ordinated traffic light system on some of the main thoroughfares of the capital that helps minimise the amount of cycle congestion during peak times. It maintains a steady flow of cycle traffic, so that there is no need to stop at any point.

Small measures of prioritisation like this one increase the sense of safety and consideration that cyclists experience, making it natural for the citizens of a city to act in their own self-interest and get on their bike.

As well as redefining the streets around the bicycle, the Copenhagen Cycle Chic blog positively fetishises cyclists. The tagline “dress for your destination, not your journey” depicts the social fashion life of the cycle lane as a “never ending flow of happy people heading from A to B”. Its writers are  literally making cycling sexy, dispelling the idea that going anywhere by bike is odd, and helping the world to see that the bicycle is actually the ultimate fashion accessory.

So unlike in London, where cycling is still a predominantly male pursuit, Copenhagen sees a more even split between men and women. Not just because they feel safer on the roads, but because culturally they are comfortable with their appearance as part of a highly visible group.

So while our low level of cycling is partly due to our physical infrastructure, it is also due to our cultural attitudes. The mental roadblocks people have towards cycling can be overcome by infrastructure that is not only safe, but also brings old-fashioned notions of dignity and grace into the daily commute.

Of course, office shower facilities might stop cyclists being ostracised, too.