Rail 722: Barking – Gospel Oak line is London’s Cinderella

So what does the Department have against the Barking- Gospel Oak line? On the face of it the case for electrifying the line is unanswerable, and the deeper one digs, the stronger the case appears. Yet, time and again, the project to electrify the line, costed officially at £90 million has been put on hold or deferred and is currently not even in the industry’s long term spending plans

The line runs from a junction with the North London line at Gospel Oak, near Kentish Town in north London to Barking where it connects with the London, Tilbury & Southend railway. It has been very much a Cinderella service and was actually threatened, along with the North London line for closure by Beeching. This was averted but for many years the line seemed to be in what was terminal decline. There was, throughout the 1970s, just one train per hour and usage was tiny, but even that was underestimated since it was, without staff at stations or on train ticket checks, a free railway. In any case, the thinking went, who wants to go between destinations such as Walthamstow and Harringay, or Leyton and Holloway?

Well, the answer is lots of people. The line was improved somewhat in the early 1980s and a half hour service introduced, but it was still a pretty minimal service when it was operated by Silverlink – part of National Express – after it was franchised out in 1996. The trains were ancient, the stations still unloved and it seemed as if the line was closed every weekend for trackwork.

Then it all changed when Transport for London took over in 2007, introduced new trains – 172 Turbostars – increased the frequency up to four trains per hour, and tarted up the stations. Now, at peak times, the line, which has become part of the London Overground network, is as overcrowded as many Tube lines, with sometimes as many as 200 standing passengers and people unable to get on the first train. It is not unusual to see up to 60 people boarding at my local Upper Holloway station, which is a short walk from Archway and the big Whittington Hospital. The improvement to the service has created a new link for many journeys.

Increasing the capacity is, therefore, essential to ensure the line’s potential is fulfilled. The obvious short term measure would be to put in an extra carriage which, of course, is what is happening on the rest of the London Overground network with the introduction of a fifth carriage on its 378 electric trains. However, according to Richard Pout, the chairman of the Barking – Gospel Oak Line Users Group, ‘adding a third carriage would be very expensive because it would break emissions standards and special adaptions would have to be made. The Department could seek a derogation, but it is not very good at that sort of thing.’

The logic, therefore, would point towards electrification. After all, the line connects two electrified railways and therefore infill of the 13 mile long line would appear to be a no-brainer. Freight would be a great beneficiary. Containers from the massive nearly completed London Gateway terminal are expected to need the line and as they will go to container transfer terminals such as Daventry and Wakefield, they would be running diesels under the wires on their whole route apart from on the Goblin.

So what is the reason for the reluctance to carry out this scheme? The cost is reckoned by Network Rail to be £90m which appears high for such a short line. All sorts of reasons have been given, such as the difficulty of fitting overhead wires to viaducts, the low tunnels and the poor condition of the track, but Pout and his colleagues are convinced that ‘it could be done for £40m or £50m absolutely max’. He adds: ‘We have been up and down the track numerous times, and while there might have to be the odd bridge replacement, nothing can justify the high estimate’. He suggests separating out the trackwork, which will have to be done anyway, from the rest of the costing.

All the supporters of the improvement are agreed this is a lost opportunity. The transformation of the North London line from a Beeching-threatened anachronism to a vital part of London’s infrastructure is complete. So is the radical change to the East London Line which has helped regenerate several lost areas of East and South London. These relatively small schemes are often far more beneficial and give far greater bangs per buck than much biggest ones like Crossrail – whose completion, incidentally, will according to some make it more difficult to carry out the electrification of Goblin.

Mysteriously, this small scheme did not even find itself in the investment plans for the next five years spending by the industry, known as Control Period 5. Nor was it in the Chancellor’s autumn statement, even though a senior source at Transport for London informed me a few days before that he was absolutely convinced it would be. s

My guess that the great Goblin mystery is not down to any great conspiracy on the part of the Department but rather is down to two factors. First, the Department – and indeed ministers – are very bad at realising the importance of small-scale improvements preferring the big projects that attract public support and media interest. Secondly, the scheme has suffered from the fact that there have been just too many stakeholders and no one party responsible for driving it forward. Transport for London wants Department money which in turn is seeking support from the private sector and so on.

The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, could probably have taken the lead role but has shown little interest, although at one point Transport for London seems to have offered £25m towards the cost.

Let’s hope that when the Chancellor announces his spending plans on June 26 that at last this ridiculous logjam over what is a trifling sum of money in terms of rail investment will be broken.




The UK’s secret railway


We do not hear enough about the success of the railway in Northern Ireland, an example of an integrated publicly owned railway that has seen healthy recent growth thanks to investment.

My friend Paul Gosling recently rode on the newly reopened Derry – Belfast line and not only was it a bargain at £16 for a day return for him and his son – compared with £20 to park in Belfast for a day – as there was a special promotional deal, it also took him along a railway which Michael Palin once described as one of the best rail journeys in the world – quite a compliment from the well-travelled TV celebrity.

Gosling told me: ‘Palin is right, it is the rail journey between Derry and Belfast is quite stunning. It passes along the Foyle river, then along the north Derry coast by Castlerock and Downhill, and by the side of the River Bann, so we watched various wading birds on the shoreline, people on the beach and boats on the rivers.’ He said the track is now much smoother than before but currently there is only a two hourly service which will become hourly when a passing loop is created between Derry and Coleraine, which is expected as a second phase of the work.

Yet, until a few years ago, this line had been threatened with closure and was starved of investment, but thanks to a powerful lobbying campaign by the Into The West group, it was not only saved but has now benefitted from new trains and a major refurbishment. It has now been reopened in time for most of the activities in Derry’s year as the first ever UK City of Culture, so it is to be hoped that it will be heavily used throughout 2013 for people who arrive for the year of culture.


Cycle awards


For many years, I have been a judge on the Cycle rail awards, supported by the Association of Train Operating Companies, and they are now getting bigger, with more categories and attracting greater number of entries. I rarely mention my passion for cycling in this column, but I am eager to see wider interest in this excellent scheme.

Cycling is not just about cyclists. The more people who cycle, the better it is for all of us – less congestion, less CO2, less call on the national health service and a better environment. Cycling is, like rail use, a very human and interactive form of transport. Entries are opening on May 28 for this year’s awards – just go to http://cycle-rail.co.uk even if it is just to recommend an organisation or person for an award. There are a couple of categories aimed at individuals and these are always the most rewarding to hand out.



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