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

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook

 
 
 
 

What other British cities can learn from the Tyne & Wear Metro

A Metro train at Monument. Image: Callum Cape/Wikipedia.

Ask any person on the street what they know about Newcastle, and they’ll list a few things. They’ll mention the accent; they’ll mention the football; they’ll mention brown ale and Sting and Greggs. They might even mention coal or shipbuilding, and then the conversation will inevitably turn political, and you’ll wish you hadn’t stopped to ask someone about Newcastle at all.

They won’t, however, mention the Tyne and Wear Metro, because they haven’t probably heard of it – which is a shame, because the Metro is one of the best things the north-east has to offer.

Two main issues plague suburban trains. One is frequency. Suburban rail networks often run on poor frequency; to take Birmingham for an example, most of its trains operate at 30-minute intervals.

The other is simplicity. Using Birmingham again, the entire system is built around New Street, leading to a very simple network. Actually, that’s not quite true: if you’re coming from Leamington Spa, Warwick, Stourbridge, Solihull or a host of other major minor (minor major?) towns, you don’t actually connect to New Street – no, you don’t even connect to the ENTIRE SYSTEM BUILT AROUND NEW STREET except at Smethwick Galton Bridge, miles away in the western suburbs, where the physical tracks don’t even connect – they pass over each other. Plus, what on earth is the blue line to Walsall doing?

An ageing map of the West Midlands rail network: click any of the images in this article to expand them. Image: Transport for the West Midlands/Centro.

But Newcastle has long been a hub of railway activity. Tragically, the north-east has fewer active railway lines than any other region of the UK. Less tragically, this is because Tyne and Wear has the Metro.


The Metro was formed in 1980 from a somewhat eccentric collection of railways, including freight-only lines, part of the old Tyneside Electrics route, underground tunnelling through the city centre, track-sharing on the National Rail route to Sunderland, and lines closed after the Beeching axe fell in the early 1960s.

From this random group of railway lines, the Metro has managed to produce a very simple network of two lines. Both take a somewhat circuitous route, the Yellow line especially, because it’s literally a circle for much of its route; but they get to most of the major population centres. And frequency is excellent – a basic 5 trains an hour, with 10 tph on the inner core, increasing at peak times (my local station sees 17 tph each way in the morning peak).

Fares are simple, too: there are only three zones, and they’re generally good value, whilst the Metro has been a national leader in pay-as-you-go technology (PAYG), with a tap-in, tap-out system. The Metro also shares many characteristics of European light rail systems – for example, it uses the metric system (although this will doubtless revert to miles and chains post-Brexit, whilst fares will be paid in shillings).

 

The Metro network. Image: Nexus.

Perhaps most importantly, the Metro has been the British pioneer for the Karlsruhe model, in which light rail trains share tracks with mainline services. This began in 2002 with the extension to Sunderland, and, with new bi-mode trains coming in the next ten years, the Metro could expand further around the northeast. The Sheffield Supertram also recently adopted this model with its expansion to Rotherham; other cities, like Manchester, are considering similar moves.

However, these cities aren’t considering what the Metro has done best – amalgamated local lines to allow people to get around a city easily. Most cities’ rail services are focused on those commuters who travel in from outside, instead of allowing travel within a city; there’s no coherent system of corridors allowing residents to travel within the limits of a city.

The Metro doesn’t only offer lessons to big cities. Oxford, for example, currently has dire public transport, focused on busy buses which share the same congested roads as private vehicles; the city currently has only two rail stations near the centre (red dots).

Image: Google.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. For a start, Oxford is a fairly lateral city, featuring lots of north-south movements, along broadly the same route the railway line follows. So, using some existing infrastructure and reinstating other parts, Oxford’s public transport could be drastically improved. With limited engineering work, new stations could be built on the current track (blue dots on the map below; with more extensive work, the Cowley branch could be reinstated, too (orange dots). Electrify this new six-station route and, hey presto, Oxford has a functioning metro system; the short length of the route also means that few trains would be necessary for a fequent service.

Image: Google.

Next up: Leeds. West Yorkshire is a densely populated area with a large number of railway lines. Perfect! I hear you cry. Imperfect! I cry in return. Waaaaaah! Cry the people of Leeds, who, after two cancelled rapid transit schemes, have had enough of imaginative public transport projects.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire:

Image: Google.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire’s railway network:

 ​

Image: West Yorkshire Metro.

The problem is that all of the lines go to major towns, places like Dewsbury, Halifax or Castleford, which need a mainline connection due to their size. Options for a metro service are limited.

But that’s not to say they’re non-existent. For example, the Leeds-Bradford Interchange line passes through densely populated areas; and anyway, Bradford Interchange is a terminus, so it’s poorly suited to service as a through station, as it’s currently being used.

Image: Google.

With several extra stops, this line could be converted to a higher frequency light rail operation. It would then enter an underground section just before Holbeck; trains from Halifax could now reach Leeds via the Dewsbury line. The underground section would pass underneath Leeds station, therefore freeing up capacity at the mainline station, potentially simplifying the track layout as well.

 

Image: Google.

Then you have the lines from Dewsbury and Wakefield, which nearly touch here:

Image: Google.

By building a chord, services from Morley northwards could run into Leeds via the Wakefield line, leaving the Dewsbury line north of Morley open for light rail operation, probably with an interchange at the aforementioned station.

Image: Google.

The Leeds-Micklefield section of the Leeds-York line could also be put into metro service, by building a chord west of Woodlesford over the River Aire and connecting at Neville Hill Depot (this would involve running services from York and Selby via Castleford instead):

The path of the proposed chord, in white. Image: Google.

With a section of underground track in Leeds city centre, and an underground line into the north-east of Leeds – an area completely unserved by rail transport at present – the overall map could look like this, with the pink and yellow dots representing different lines:

Et voila! Image: Google.

Leeds would then have a light-rail based public transport system, with potential for expansion using the Karlsruhe model. It wouldn’t even be too expensive, as it mainly uses existing infrastructure. (Okay, the northeastern tunnel would be pricey, but would deliver huge benefits for the area.)

Why aren’t more cities doing this? Local council leaders often talk about introducing “metro-style services” – but they avoid committing to real metro projects because they’re more expensive than piecemeal improvements to the local rail system, and they’re often more complex to deliver (with the lack of space in modern-day city centres, real metro systems need tunnels).

But metro systems can provide huge benefits to cities, with more stops, a joined-up network, and simpler fares. More cities should follow the example of the Tyne and Wear Metro.