Dull London train journeys, number 1: Around the Overground

Tell the people something about London’s transport system often enough, they’ll believe it’s true. Bendy buses kill cyclists (no they don’t). The mayor is building a “new Routemaster” (no it isn’t). The London Overground is London’s railway version of the M25. Er…

Monday’s opening of the extra bit of East London Line between Dalston Junction and Highbury & Islington was a bit of a triumph for TfL’s PR people, who purred about an orbital railway so much that the line was dutifully swallowed. But it’s not an orbital service – there’s still a bit missing in south London, making it more of a horseshoe. Indeed, since Shoreditch High Street station has been plonked in zone 1, it’s arguable whether or not it’ll really be an orbital service at all. And when it is finished, it’ll be more of a North Circular/South Circular than an M25. Not that comparing anything to the South Circular is likely to entice anyone to use it, mind…

But it is now possible to travel right the way around central London, by train, without having to go through it. So I gave it a go, on a cold, wet Monday afternoon. I may have been the first person to do it. It didn’t even occur to me to give it a go until an hour before I found myself standing on the northbound platform at Canada Water. Where the train to Highbury was a few minutes late. Hopefully this wouldn’t be an omen. Next to me, a man ran his finger along the route map, presumably to prove to himself that the extra two stops on the sign really did exist and weren’t on a prankster’s sticker. The train pulled in – here we go…

It’s striking how the extended East London line has been open for less than a year, but feels like it’s been with us for ages. To be fair, much of it has – the 1990s platform paintings at Rotherhithe, Wapping and Shadwell look a bit dated if you know where to look – but the novelty factor of the rest seemed to last about five minutes. A PCSO boarded at Whitechapel – you don’t see many of them on Southeastern – and two women read a Metro underneath the gormless gaze of Rustic Farmer Ben. Up the slope to Shoreditch High Street, a quick glimpse of the old Shoreditch station beneath grey skies pierced by City skyscrapers and the Truman brewery chimney.

Curving round onto the new line (on an old viaduct, of course), and even the inevitable hipsters couldn’t make Hoxton feel less bleak and cold; a long way away from the sunny day when this line opened. Through Haggerston, across the canal, and down into Dalston Junction, where there isn’t much to see because you’re underground.

From Dalston – the new bit! Well, it’s actually an old bit which last saw trains in 1985, but the rest of the stations are looking shiny and new. Once-anonymous Canonbury station now looks huge with four empty platforms, with two trainspotters checking out the new service. A little spur line branches off towards Finsbury Park – where this line could have ended, if early plans were followed through. But instead we’re taken to Highbury and Islington, still being rebuilt to acommodate the extra passengers.

I’m fond of this corner of north London – I’ve had plenty of fun times in the Garage and the Buffalo Bar, so I’m pleased it’s a bit easier to get to now. TfL’s blurb goes on about only having to cross the platform to change here – well, if you’re lucky enough to pull in on the right-hand platform, that is. But here we see the big problem with London Overground – it’s just not frequent enough. There’s a 10-minute wait for the next train to continue my anti-clockwise mission. Granted, it’s more frequent than it was in the days of Silverlink, and more trains are promised from May. But with much of the East London Line having a train every five minutes, it’s a jolt to suddenly go down to four trains an hour.

On we went again through a rebuilt Caledonian Road and Barnsbury – a long way from the days when I used to wait here on Sunday nights after working nearby and watch rats scampering along the track – and Camden Road, with views of the West End. Over smart mewses at Kentish Town West, while at Gospel Oak, tucked away at the foot of Parliament Hill, where we hit the Overground’s next problem – pausing for a delayed aggregates train to rumble along ahead of us. The old North London Line’s got one thing in common with American railways – freight has always seems to take priority. The recent line upgrades are meant to be fixing this problem.

At Gospel Oak, I realise it’s taken an hour to get here from North Greenwich. This isn’t for anyone in a hurry.

The passengers got a bit posher as we trundle through Hampstead Heath and Finchley Road & Frognal, where the decorators are in installing shiny new London Overground signs. We rumbled past the backs of houses at Kensal Rise before alighting at one of London’s grimmest spots – Willesden Junction station.

No amount of revamping will ever make this place pretty, even though an information booth has been added – imagine that somewhere like Lewisham! The Bakerloo Line clatters below, fast Virgin trains shoot past too, and there are crunching noises from a distant recyling yard.

My next train, the 4.38 to Clapham Junction, pulled in two minutes late, but the displays still defiantly showed “on time”. A big crowd piled on and we crawled off, past the used car warehouse, before stopping in the middle of nowhere – next to Wormwood Scrubs – to change from overhead to third rail power. Once the change was done, we were faster, whizzing past the BBC’s half-demolished old Woodlands site, and easing into Shepherd’s Bush as an empty Pullman train came past.

I took a break at Shepherd’s Bush to stop my Oyster fare from timing out – planning to return in half an hour after the quickest of looks around Westfield. Great plan, but upon my return… the train I wanted was suddenly delayed by 40 minutes. Not the Overground’s fault, but a Southern problem, plunging me deeper into the rush hour and meaning I had to squeeze onto a packed Overground train through Kensington Olympia – once an inter-city station, now a commuter stop – and West Brompton. I could wax lyrical about passing Stamford Bridge and the new station at Imperial Wharf, by Chelsea Harbour, and crossing the Thames, but there isn’t much to see when the train’s rammed and it’s getting dark…

At Clapham Junction, the problem I hoped to avoid. There’s two ways to change platforms at this gargantuan station – and both the subway and the footbridge were struggling with the hundreds of people getting off the Overground. It’s from this spot that the final piece of the orbital puzzle will fall into place in 18 months or so – an extension to Surrey Quays through Clapham, Camberwell and Peckham. Until then, a bit of improvisation is needed.

My original plan was to skip the hassle at Clapham Junction and take a Southern train to Balham. But I finally found a Victoria-London Bridge service, crucially calling at Crystal Palace, doing its own circuit around south London without fanfare.

Aptly for a day when Boris Johnson had opened another project Ken Livingstone had started, this train was covered in Ken-era “MAYOR OF LONDON” logos – promoting TfL’s investment in fitting CCTV into these Southern trains.

This being a “proper” train – comfier seats all facing backward or forward – more people seemed to be nodding off as we crept through Wandsworth Common, Balham and Streatham Hill. No revamps to be seen here, the stations gloomier and tattier – that’s life off the Overground. A posh mummy fed her posh child something which smelt repulsive. She alighted at West Norwood, and another mother-and-child combo sparked into life, as if they’d been intimidated by their neighbours earlier on the ride. Through West Norwood and Gipsy Hill, not much to see in the dark, and then back on Overground territory at Crystal Palace.. I held on one more stop to Sydenham – pronounced with three syllables by the train PA.

Sydenham sports new Overground signs and a little hut on one platform where some ticket barriers had been installed. Its past owners would have just left an open gate. Through Forest Hill, Honor Oak Park, also having the decorators in, and somewhere called “Arkley” – but surely the brand new signs showed “Brockley“? Have a listen…

Through New Cross Gate, and the bright lights of the Overground’s depot streaked past. We paused at the point where the planned line from Clapham Junction is meant to meet the current line, portable offices filled with staff ready to start work. After the old station at Surrey Quays, with its supporting pillars, I was finally back at Canada Water.

The whole journey had taken me two-and-three-quarter hours (plus half-an-hour’s pause at Shepherd’s Bush). Was it worth it? Probably not. It probably won’t even be that interesting if you do it entirely in daylight.

But I did learn that while trains going around central London and not through it are a good thing, they’re not going to be quick.

It’s a world away, though, from the damp old Tube line and the smelly North London Line trains the Overground has replaced, bringing a quality of service those of us stuck on services like Southeastern can only dream of, as well as many more passengers who feel safer using brightly-lit, staffed stations. Keeping up with that demand will be a challenge.

There’s also increased scrutiny – shiny TfL roundels attract attention in a way the dowdy “arrows of indecision” never can. Will the Overground end up a political football like the Underground? The hard graft in building the Overground is nearly over, but the really tough work is about to begin.

6 comments

  1. I could probably go on about this for some hours. I have been right round London on several occasions on spotters trains – no problems there, crossing up through Olympia. I am also very aware that up until the inter-war period there were ‘heavy rail’ trains doing all sorts of routes between north and south London. However – I can remember a friend telling me he was on the last train through the Snow Hill tunnel in the 1940s and then I remember walking through it in the 1980s when the gradual realisation was dawning that here was a big asset -totally unused.
    Also at some point – and I guess someone will remember the date -the GLC opened up the then closed line from North Woolwich – free travel for the first week. So – now its closed again. Around the same time they closed Broad Street Station and that whole and very useful line up to Dalston.
    As I said – I could go on about this at length – and say things I might regret. we keep closing things down and years later, reopen them and pretend its new. I have a book somewhere which prints an 1890s timetable of a service between Finsbury Park and Woolwich – when is that going to rememerge?

  2. Why not – you would have to demolish the Ibis Hotel and the police station. It would have been ideal for me to get to the job I had in the early ’80s.

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