TfL just released a map with three different Elizabeth Lines on it

What the- Image: TfL.

One of the sillier pieces I have written this year – and isn’t that a competitive title? - was, in effect, a lengthy dissertation on the word “line”. Was a line a line if it branched? Was the Northern line a line, or more of a network? And so forth. It’s amazing how many words you can get out of these things if you try.

Anyway. I'm not saying that Transport for London are deliberately trolling me, but I do think it might be stretching its the definition of the word “line” to the limit. Here’s a draft of its new tube map, reflecting services as they’ll be next December, showing the Elizabeth Line for the first time:

Click to expand.

It might not be immediately obvious what's weird about this – In which case, look more closely at Paddington, or Liverpool Street:

Click to expand.

More like the Elizabeth Lines, am I right?

The trio of different Elizabeth Lines is an artefact of the way TfL is assembling the route formally known as Crossrail in stages. The Liverpool Street-Shenfield section has been operated by MTR as part of the TfL Rail franchise since May 2015. Next May, the Paddington inner suburban services, currently branded as Heathrow Connect, will come under the same banner.

Seven months later, the first proper bit of Crossrail – the actual tunnel, or at least most of it – opens, providing services between Paddington and Abbey Wood via Whitechapel and Canary Wharf.

But that’s when things get complicated – because it won’t yet be ready to connect up to the services on either side. The Shenfield line is expected to join the line in May 2019; the Heathrow route, and the western arm out to Reading, the following December.

So that leaves TfL with a dilemma. Next December it’ll be running three separate services that will one day become part of the Elizabeth Line – but which won’t, yet, be considered a single line. The map suggests that the authority’s intended solution is to brand them all as Elizabeth line anyway.

I’m not entirely sold on this, I must say. I can see the logic in showing signs of progress, and they’ll all be part of the Elizabeth Line soon enough. But there is a danger, surely, that someone will want to get from, say, Ilford to Heathrow, glance at the map, and assume they can now do it with one train. In fact, it’ll take three – the same number as now – with two awkward changes, at Paddington and Liverpool Street. Seems to be asking for trouble.

Also, whatever the truth about the District and Northern lines, surely we can all agree that three train services operating entirely separately don't count as one line. Right? Right?

It’s only a draft map – perhaps this’ll change. And on the upside, it has given me something to write about, so.

Anyway, happy Christmas, you lot. Here’s a video of how the new tunnel looks from the inside:

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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Why doesn’t London build an RER network, like Paris did?

A commuter walking by a map of the RER B line at the Chatelet-Les Halles station in Paris. Image: Getty.

I’ve heard many people make many different complaints about the Parisian transport system. That it does a bad job of linking a rich, white city with its poorer, more diverse suburbs. That, even as subway systems go, it’s a hostile environment for women. That the whole thing smells distractingly of urine.

I’m familiar with all of these complaints – I’ve often smelt the urine. And I’m aware that, in many ways, London’s is the superior transport network.

And yet I can’t help be jealous of Paris – In large part, because of the RER.

Central Paris. The Metro lines are thinner, and in pastel shades; the RER lines are thicker, and in brighter colours. Image: RATP.

Paris, you see, has not one but two underground railway systems. The more famous one is the original Paris Metro, opened in 1900: that’s the one with those fancy green portals with the word “metropolitain” written above them in a vaguely kooky font.

The Metro, though, mostly serves Paris Intra-muros: the official city, inside the Boulevard Périphérique ring road, site of the city’s last set of walls. As a result, it’s of very little use in most of the city’s suburbs. Its stations are very close together, which places a limit on how fast its trains can cross town. It was also, by the mid 20th century, becoming annoyingly overcrowded.

So starting in the 1960s, the city transport authorities began planning a second underground railway network. The Réseau Express Régional – Regional Express Network – would link suburban lines on either side of Paris, through new heavy rail tunnels beneath the city. Its stations would be much further apart than those of the metro – roughly one every 3km, rather than every 600m – so its trains can run faster.

And fifty years and five lines later, it means that 224 stations in the suburbs of Paris are served by trains which, rather than terminating on the edge of the city, now continue directly through tunnels to its centre.

The RER network today. Image: RATP.

London is, belatedly, doing something similar. The Elizabeth Line, due to open in stages from later this year, will offer express-tube style services linking the suburban lines which run west from Paddington to those which run east from Liverpool Street. And Thameslink has offered cross-town services for 30 years now (albeit not at tube-level frequencies). That, too, is going to add more routes to its network over the next few years, meaning direct trains from the southern suburbs to north London and vice versa.

Yet the vast majority of suburban National Rail services in London still terminate at big mainline stations, most of which are on the edge of the centre. For many journeys, especially from the south of the city, you still need to change to the London Underground.

So, could London ape Paris – and make Thameslink and Crossrail the first element of its own RER network?

In a limited way, of course, it’s doing just that. The next big project after Crossrail is likely to be (original name, this) Crossrail 2. If that gets funding, it’ll be a new south-west to north-east route, connecting some of the suburban lines into Waterloo to those in the Lea Valley.

The proposed route of Crossrail 2. Click to expand.

But it’s not immediately obvious where you could go next – what Crossails 3, 4 or 5 should cover.

That’s because there’s an imbalance in the distribution of the remaining mainline rail services in London. Anyone who’s even remotely familiar with the geography of the city will know that there are far more tube lines to its north. But the corollary of that is that there are far more mainlines to the south.

To usefully absorb some of those, Crossrail 3 would probably need to run south to south in some way. There is actually an obvious way of doing this: build a new tunnel from roughly Battersea to roughly Bermondsey, and take over the Richmond lines in the west and North Kent lines in the east, as a sort of London equivalent of RER C:

Our suggestion for Crossrail 3. Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

But that still leaves a whole load of lines in south and south east London with nowhere to send them beyond their current terminal stations.

In fact, there are reasons for thinking that the whole RER concept doesn’t really fit the British capital. It was designed, remember, for a city in which the Metro only served the centre (roughly equivalent of London’s zones 1 & 2).

But London Underground wasn’t like that. From very early in its history, it served outer London too: it was not just a way of getting people around the centre, but for getting them there from their suburban homes too.

This is turn is at least in part a function of the economic geography of the two cities. Rich Parisians have generally wanted to live in the centre, pushing poorer people out to the banlieues. In London, though, the suburbs were where the good life was to be found.

To that end, the original operators of some lines weren’t just railway companies, but housing developers, too. The Metropolitan Railway effectively built large chunks of north west London (“Metroland”), partly to guarantee the market for its trains, but partly too because, well, housing is profitable.

In other parts of town, existing main line railways were simply added to the new underground lines. The Central line swallowed routes originally built by the Great Western Railway and London & North Eastern Railway. The District line absorbed part of the London, Tilbury & Southend Railway.

At any rate: the Tube was playing the same role as the RER as early as the 1930s. London could still benefit from some RER-type services, so hopefully the Elizbaeth Line won’t be the last. But it doesn’t need an entire second metro network in the way 1960s Paris did.

There is another idea we could more profitably steal from Paris. Those suburban railways which aren’t connected to the RER are still run by the national rail operator, SNCF. But it uses the Transilien brand name, to mark them out as a part of the Parisian transport network, and – as with the RER – each route has its own letter and its own colour.

The Transilien & RER networks in Paris. Image: Maximilian Dörrbecker/Wikimedia Commons.

This would not have the transformative effect on London that building another half a dozen Crossrails would. But it would make the network much easier to navigate, and would be almost infinitely cheaper. Perhaps we should be starting there.

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

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