What other National Rail lines could TfL take over?

An extract from the map of TfL's rail network as it expects it to look in 2026. Image: TfL.

Last weekend, Transport for London (TfL) took over a new swathe of the capital's rail network, swallowing up most of the suburban lines into Liverpool Street.

 It’s taken over the line to Shenfield, which will form part of Crossrail, and which for the moment it’s rebranding “TfL rail”. It’s taken over the lines to Chingford, Cheshunt and Enfield Town, all of which will become part of the London Overground. It's now going to deep clean those trains and the stations they serve, give them new branding, and ensure they're staffed at all times.

It's the same model it's followed on the earlier waves of the London Overground and it has, so far at least, been a bit of a success. Passenger surveys suggest satisfaction is high, and there's likely to be calls for TfL to take on more routes. Like this one, yesterday, from Green party London Assembly member Darren Johnson. 

The obvious question, then, is – where next? Theoretically, which other routes could be added to TfL's rail portfolio?

What works

There are a number of characteristics that would make a line a good candidate for joining London's fledging S-Bahn network.

a) You want services that primarily serve suburban stations within London itself, and terminate at most a few miles outside the city limits (Transport for London can run trains to St. Albans; it shouldn’t run them in Bath).

b) You'd want them to be all-stops services, rather than the sort that speed through minor stations (a proper suburban train line shouldn't just try to get to stations where ticket prices are higher as quickly as possible).

c) And you'd want them to have their own tracks, wherever possible. This means you can muck around with timetables and so forth without having to worry too much about cocking up long-distance services. It should make it easier to separate out the suburban bit of the existing franchises from the regional bit, too.

That's a lot of variables to consider. And we're quite lazy round here.

So it's lucky, on the whole, that someone else has already done the work for us. To be specific, NERA Economic Consulting, who produced this report for TfL London Rail in 2011. (Hat tip: The very fine London Reconnections website.)

Here's what they came up with:

This map is a bit out of date – in the west, it only shows Crossrail extending as far as Maidenhead, rather than to Reading – but it gives some sense of the possible scale of TfL’s ambitions here.

What's in

Being dedicated CityMetric readers, you can no doubt identify any railway line in London, even from a map as blurry as this. But just in case you can't, here's a brief rundown of the lines shown in purple to idenfity them as potential targets, with some close ups so you can make out the labels. Starting in the north and moving clockwise, we have:


1. Thameslink's more suburban services, from Luton and (one day) Welwyn Garden City, across town to various destinations in south London, Surrey and Kent;

2. The Hertford loop line, from Stevenage into Moorgate;

3. The Lea Valley lines into Liverpool Street. Most of these came into TfL's hands over the weekend, but this map suggests the route from Stratford to Hertford, via Tottenham Hale and Cheshunt, as another possible candidate;

4. The lines currently operated by South Eastern trains, from London Bridge or Victoria out to Dartford, Sevenoaks, Orpington and Hayes;

5. The Southern routes, to Croydon, Sutton, Epsom and beyond;

6. The South West Trains suburban network from Waterloo, to the Surrey suburbs.

Which is potentially rather a lot of trains.

What's out

So what isn’t included? Mostly the lines in grey are the slightly longer distance trains, that exist primarily to serve commuter towns rather further from the city itself.

But all the lines into two entire mainline stations – Fenchurch Street and Marylebone – are also left out of the fun. At first glance, that seems a bit unfair.

Actually, though, what those two lines have in common is that their suburban services are already run by TfL – were swallowed up by the District and Metropolitan lines respectively, well over a century ago – leaving them only with longer distance trains.

That means that there are a few London stations – places like Dagenham Dock and Northolt Park – that are exceptionally unlikely to ever join the orange revolution. There are a few other stations in the outer reaches of south London – Sanderstead, Coulsdon South – that would excluded, too, purely because they’re on branches only served by longer distance trains. Which is kind of sad, but, them's the breaks.

Perhaps the oddest exclusion is the branch line from Ealing Broadway to Greenford. That's well inside the city boundary, branching off a line that's on course to become part of Crossrail – yet for reasons we can't quite fathom looks set to remain outside TfL's hands.

Were all this to go through, the result would be that every station in Greater London would be served by TfL trains, with just 13* exceptions. 

This map, as noted, is four years old. It’s already out of date. A few of the lines marked as targets have now actually joined the Overground. And TfL has already tried to take over the suburban services provided by Southeastern, but was rebuffed after opposition from Kent MPs.

Nonetheless, this is a pretty good guide to what London's transport authorities could one day run, if a government was so minded. We can but dream.

*For those who are wondering: Drayton Green, Castle Bar Park, South Greenford, Wembley Stadium, Sudbury & Harrow Road, Sudbury Hill Harrow, Northolt Park, Dagenham Dock, Rainham, Sanderstead, Riddlesdown, Upper Warlingham, Coulsdon South.


What’s up with Wakanda’s trains? On public transport in Black Panther

The Black Panther promotional poster. Image: Marvel/Disney.

Black Panther is one of the best reviewed superhero films of all time. It’s instantly become a cultural touchstone for black representation in movies, while shining a positive light on a continent almost totally ignored by Hollywood. But never mind all that – what about the trains?

The film takes place in the fictional African country of Wakanda, a small, technologically advanced nation whose power comes from its main natural resource: huge supplies of a magical metal called vibranium. As is often the case in sci-fi, “technologically advanced” here means “full of skyscrapers and trains”. In other words, perfect Citymetric territory.

Here’s a mostly spoiler-free guide to Black Panther’s urbanism and transport.

City planning

It’s to the credit of Black Panther’s crew that there’s anything to talk about here at all. Fictional cities in previous Marvel films, such as Asgard from the Thor films or Xandar from Guardians of the Galaxy, don’t feel like real places at all, but collections of random monuments joined together by unwalkably-wide and sterile open spaces.

Wakanda’s capital, the Golden City, seems to have distinct districts and suburbs with a variety of traditional and modern styles, arranged roughly how you’d expect a capital to be – skyscrapers in the centre, high-rise apartments around it, and what look like industrial buildings on its waterfront. In other words, it’s a believable city.

It’s almost a real city. Image: Marvel/Disney

We only really see one area close-up: Steptown, which according to designer Ruth Carter is the city’s hipster district. How the Golden City ended up with a bohemian area is never explained. In many cities, these formed where immigrants, artists and students arrived to take advantage of lower rents, but this seems unlikely with Wakanda’s stable economy and zero migration. Did the Golden City gentrify?

Urban transport

When we get out and about, things get a bit weirder. The narrow pedestrianised sand-paved street is crowded and lined with market stalls on both sides, yet a futuristic tram runs right down the middle. The tram’s resemblance to the chunky San Francisco BART trains is not a coincidence – director Ryan Coogler is from Oakland.

Steptown Streetcar, with a hyperloop train passing overhead. Image: Marvel/Disney.

People have to dodge around the tram, and the street is far too narrow for a second tram to pass the other way. This could be a single-track shuttle (like the former Southport Pier Tram), a one-way loop (like the Detroit People Mover) or a diversion through narrow streets (like the Dublin Luas Cross City extension). But no matter what, it’s a slow and inefficient way to get people around a major city. Hopefully there’s an underground station lurking somewhere out of shot.

Over the street runs a *shudder* hyperloop. If you’re concerned that Elon Musk’s scheme has made its way to Wakanda, don’t worry – this train bears no resemblance to Musk’s design. Rather, it’s a flying train that levitates between hoops in the open air. It travels very fast – too fast for urban transport, since it crosses a whole neighbourhood in a couple of seconds – and it doesn’t seem to have many stops, even at logical interchange points where the lines cross. Its main purpose is probably to bring people from outlying suburbs into the centre quickly.

There’s one other urban transport system seen in the film: as befitting a major riverside city, it has a ferry or waterbus system. We get a good look at the barges carrying tribal leaders to the ceremonial waterfalls, but overhead shots show other boats on the more mundane business of shuttling people up and down the river.

Transport outside the city

Unfortunately there’s less to say here. Away from the city, we only see people riding horses, following cattle-drawn sleds, or simply walking long distances. This is understandable given Wakanda’s masquerading as a developing country, but it makes the country very urban centric. Perhaps that’s why the Jabari hate the other tribes so much – poor transport investment means the only way to reach them is a narrow, winding mountain pass.

The one exception is in freight transport. Wakanda has a ridiculously developed maglev network for transporting vibranium ore. This actually follows a pattern seen in a lot of real African countries: take a look at a map of the continent and you’ll see most railways run to the coast.

Image: Bucksy/Wikimedia Commons.

These are primarily freight railways built to transport resources from mines and plantations to ports, with passenger transport an afterthought.

A high-speed maglev seems like overkill for carrying ore, especially as the film goes out of its way to point out that vibranium is too unstable to take on high-speed trains without careful safety precautions. Nevertheless, the scene where Shuri and Ross geek out about these maglevs might just be the single most relatable in any Marvel movie.

A very extravagant freight line. Image: Marvel/Disney.

Perhaps this all makes sense though. Wakanda is still an absolute monarchy, and without democratic input its king is naturally going to choose exciting hyperloop and maglev projects over boring local and regional transport links.

Here’s hoping the next Black Panther film sees T’Challa reforming Wakanda’s government, and then getting really stuck into double-track improvements to the Steptown Streetcar.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray tweets as @stejormur.

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