New Cross – the Cinderella of London Overground

I took a trip on my bike last week to north London. Up from the Woolwich Ferry, through the docks, up the Greenway to the Olympic Park, through Victoria Park and Hackney, along the canal and up to Highbury, where I stood in the middle of the old Arsenal Stadium, gawping at the redevelopment as the sun set. Somehow, I could still see Thierry Henry backheeling the ball past Dean Kiely as I stood under the Clock End, looking at the flats that surrounded me. The Highbury ghosts glowed as brightly as the flat screen TVs out of each window. I shuddered, and moved on. Time to go home.

I cheated and took the bike on the train. Canonbury to Kidbrooke via the all-new extended East London line – not glamorous, but it did the job. But it got me thinking. Why was the East London line extended from New Cross Gate, but not New Cross? In fact, the New Cross route is the Cinderella service of the shiny new Overground. Trains only run to and from Dalston Junction, so if you travel from Highbury or Canonbury you have to change trains and face a five or 10-minute wait.

It seems such a waste to have kept the line running only to New Cross. An Overground link to Lewisham would be tremendously useful, and from there there’s a host of places it could run. But it dawned on me as I got to Kidbrooke that there was a big housing development here – and one crappy station with a rubbish service that Southeastern, with its newly-extended contract, is unlikely to improve. Will Kidbrooke Village‘s new residents really tolerate a miserable two trains per hour in the evenings? As I pedalled out via the still-dismal bus interchange, the question hit me. Why on earth isn’t the London Overground going to Kidbrooke?

There are obstacles in the way of this – you’d have to build new junctions at New Cross, and the tangle of train tracks around Lewisham station (which contains a “temporary” bridge erected after the 1957 crash) would have to be sorted out. Yet this shouldn’t be a reason not to do something here – surely all south-east London’s train services would benefit from fixing the junction at Lewisham, where capacity is limited because trains clatter across each other’s paths. In fact, it’s that limited capacity which saw Blackheath lose some of its trains to central London, to free up space for extra trains from Orpington.

If this can be fixed, then you could have Overground trains running through St Johns and Lewisham through to Blackheath, the new homes at Kidbrooke, and to give a much-needed boost to transport in Eltham too. Further on, an Overground connection would help Bexleyheath feel less remote. It’s not as if Kidbrooke Village developer Berkeley Homes isn’t keen on investing in local transport – it’s paying for initial work on the Woolwich Crossrail station – so surely it and Barratt Homes, which is building new homes at Lewisham, could be tapped up for cash for these improvements which will add extra value to their developments.

I’m thinking aloud here, because I’d like to know what you think. But it does strike me as strange that nobody lobbied for such an extension to the Overground when it was being built – and that nobody’s lobbying for it now.

12 comments

  1. It’s down to the track from New Cross to Lewisham; there is just no capacity there, which is the issue. Even if the odd train path could be made available by re-signalling or some such solution, it would make more sense to provide more Southeastern trains, as these would carry more people. A tunnel or widening to provide additional tracks would be prohibitively expensive.

    Best thing is ensure that the New Cross service is always retained to provide an interchange with Southeastern suburban lines; interestingly this was the only ELL station not taken over from by TfL, and with much busier trains coming up from New Cross Gate you have to wonder if starting trains empty from New Cross will always trump diverting them to busier Croydon or elsewhere (e.g. Clapham Junction).

    I am not advocating that, by the way – I think New Cross should stay, and indeed get more trains. 2 tph at some times of day, such as late evening, makes some SE London journeys painfully long for the distance covered, especially if changing to/from a Bexleyheath or Sidcup line train which is also running a 2 tph service.

    Note that New Cross enjoyed a 12 minute service until late at night under LUL, with this dropping only very marginally very late at night. Now it is a half-hourly service after about 10pm, stopping half an hour earlier than it did before, it is not quite the improvement previously touted. A 30 minute headway isn’t the promised “turn-up-and-go frequencies all day every day” to me, and nor is it to TfL who have elsewhere previously defined ‘turn-up-and-go’ as 6 tph in inner London and 4 tph in outer London.

  2. The crapness of New Cross as an interchange bugs me – as you say, the evening service is far too infrequent and, like most of Southeastern after dark, it’s a grim pit of a station.

    I took the East London Line north on Saturday night and was surprised to see the southbound service start to wind down at 10pm (!) – hopefully it’ll improve when the timetables change in May.

  3. Everyone so far seems more or less right.

    The LO service couldn’t go to Lewisham because the capacity constraints would either mean axing peak Southeastern services for 4-car LO services that didn’t go to the City, or running an irregular LO timetable that was only any use off-peak (which is a guaranteed way to annoy everyone). The presence of the DLR is also a factor.

    The reason why the LO scheme didn’t involve modernising Lewisham is roughly the same reason why Crossrail isn’t supposed to go to Reading – the last thing you want when you’re trying to get an expensive new project approved is to have the vast extra expense of sorting out some a knackered hotchpotch of old infrastructure.

    But the fact that nobody’s *now* campaigning to sort out Lewisham and get the LO there is more surprising. Maybe this should become some kind of campaign…?

  4. I have suggested that the next big project after Crossrail should be a brand new deep tube line connecting North-East and South-East London via Docklands, eg from Tottenham Hale to Sidcup could be called the Sidenham line and inaugurated by King William & Queen Kate on their silver wedding day.

    However at present TfL seem to be more interested in a Chelsea/Hackney link.

  5. I’ve actually never understood why the Jubilee Line or DLR was never extended up to Tottenham Hale, actually – could have been fairly easily done (up through Lea Bridge). Woolwich to Tottenham in one easy journey – well, someone might find it useful…

    Thanks all for your answers/thoughts, by the way.

  6. DLR or Jubilee to Tottenham Hale were considered but involve either taking over the Lea Valley line, which Network Rail oppose as it’s a useful connection, or duplicating it at high cost. Now I’m not convinced that the line is indispensible but NR need to be absolutely certain a line has no use for them to give it up and the Stratford to Lea Valley line is too useful for that. Duplicating it isn’t worthwhile given demand, and compared to the minor cost of running extra trains on the existing lines.

    It is an underused line though; I would like to see more trains on it (for example, last midweek train from Tottenham to Stratford runs a few minutes before football fans can get there after a midweek game!) and would like to see the Hall Farm Curve reinstated to allow Chingford to Stratford trains. This is a cheap way of providing a much needed link into Stratford from the Walthamstow direction.

  7. New Cross didn’t get a fair deal from the ELL extension.

    London Overground wind down the service to every 30 minutes after 10pm (although the service from New Cross Gate is every 15 minutes) and the service doesn’t start early on Sunday mornings.

    Another argument for not extending the ELL towards SE London is the DLR extension to Lewisham also takes some customers from SouthEastern into Canary Wharf without the need for the ELL to take them to Canada Water for the Jubilee.

  8. Having a publicly owned rail service on brand new trains on brand new tracks and entirely isolated from the neighbouring tracks and signalling is brilliant for New Cross itself — makes for excellent reliability and punctuality. Extend it onto the SouthEastern tracks and the ELL trains would keep getting stuck behind your old broken down trains or fall victim to your engineering works and signal failures.

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