Overground and Goblin under stress

My visit to Barnet from a starting point in north west London caused me to think of a way that avoided the horrors of central London. Ah yes, the Overground. Finchley Road and Frognal to Upper Holloway would cut out the tedious run via Kings Cross, I thought. It would be quicker, too (but was very wrong).

I checked train times (online) from my phone, wishing National Train Enquiries hadn’t improved their system which now takes me longer to use, but found that returning to West Hampstead to interchange would be the better option, and the train appeared to connect at Gospel Oak.

West Hampstead (Overground) at about 17:00 was quite interesting; the station was pretty much at capacity. Network Rail’s one-size-fits-all approach to life means that the yellow warning line parallel to the platform edge is much further away from the edge that would be the case on the Underground (where I suggest trains travel at the same line speed as this part of the North London Line). As the platforms had at some time in their past been much narrowed to save maintenance costs, this meant that the strip between the fence and the warning line was limited, and it was pretty much full. In turn it meant that new people arriving and wanting to walk up the platform were compelled to walk between the yellow line and the edge, quite a wide area but making a bit of a nonsense of things. A platform attendant with a megaphone (I hadn’t seen one of those for years) was doing her bit to herd people back behind the line, to limited effect. This is hopeless. It is strikingly obvious that demand is pushing at the boundaries of what can be delivered along this line.

Adding more carriages will help overall, but unless service frequencies improve, some of the stations just will not be able to cope. West Hampstead and probably several others are going to need platforms widening to their as-constructed widths as a matter of urgency, sooner rather than later.

The number of people interchanging at West Hampstead is also now substantial. The Underground station can just about cope, but the wave of people being released from the trains taxes the Overground station (which had just one way in gate in use). The ticket hall is tiny and the steps narrow. The connecting pavements are narrow and cluttered and everyone is supposed to use the pedestrian crossing (but most cross where they can, weaving across slowly moving single lanes of traffic). I wonder for how much longer this, too, can be tolerated if traffic continues to grow. I think this is becoming a major interchange and needs to be treated as one, even if it isn’t cheap. I note, by the way, that the spare land to the north of the road bridge looks as though it is about to be developed. I’m not sure this will make improving interchange any easier as it would rule out a subway under the road (between Jubilee tracks) and bridge direct to North London platforms). 

The North London Line train was running late. It was only a minute late, but that was just enough to miss the ‘connection’ at Gospel Oak. The interchanging there was enormous. Another ‘Goblin’ train arrived quickly, and every seat was immediately taken by those getting off my train (and cursing the missed connection). Three more electric trains disgorged their loads before we finally set off, very full. I cannot put it more plainly. Gospel Oak is a rotten place to terminate the Barking trains and bears no relation to actual demand. Nor can decent interchange be provided, either in terms of timetabling during the peaks, or in physical terms between platforms 1 and 3, involving going down and up curiously lengthy stairways.

Much has been said of electrification. As my previous piece on this line stated, what is needed is (a) more trains, and (b) something done about the excessively slow line speeds caused by track condition. If electrification delivers those two things (neither is ‘electric’ in nature) then so much for the good; I am assuming it will, but someone might just want to check! But what then? Even with a ten minute service, and I’m not sure new service levels are known, the traffic will surely grow even more and nobody, surely, will accept that passengers changing trains by their hundreds at Gospel Oak is acceptable, at least in the peaks? Nor should anyone overlook the existing diesels being rather comfortable, with soft seats in groups of four, lined up with the windows. They may not be ideally suited for a service of any great intensity, but when the electric replacements arrive the diesels may be possibly be regarded with some fondness!

It is quite fun to monitor the ‘relief’ train laid on during the morning peak that now by-passes Gospel Oak and runs through to Willesden Junction (low level). It seems it is rather popular, and avoids the tedious stairs at Gospel Oak. Maybe this sends a message? Maybe this kind of service would be a good outcome from electrification? To me all this suggests that further restrictions will ultimately have to be made to the operation of freight trains during the height of the peaks, maybe at the cost of new off peak paths. Also the signalling along the busiest stretch of the North London Line cannot have contemplated such intensive services as are now clearly wanted, and improvements there are probably unavoidable too.

There is (or will shortly be) a lack of east-west capacity across north London, the pinch points being the various tunnels that constrain development. The northernmost is the two-track tunnel at Hampstead Heath, then we have the four tracks of the Midland main line. This is unfortunately arranged because the freight route from Willesden via Cricklewwod and Carlton Road would usefully avoid the North London Line but effectively require freights crossing the other lines on the level with Thameslink improvements making slots hard to find when needed. I cannot see any cheap options here. The southern route is the West Coast line with six tracks and the ability to carry freight from Willesden to Camden via Primrose Hill and with the benefit of flying junctions. It might free up paths for Gospel Oak – Barking services to extend westwards. It may not be practical to do this now, but one hopes that if HS2 proceeds then it would free up capacity for freight improvements to be made here (that is, I understand, one of the main objectives of HS2).

If you want to see this section of line operating in real time, I do commend looking HERE. It’s rather good!


About machorne

I have always lived in London and taken a great interest in its history and ongoing development. This extended into the history of its transport services, about which I have written a number of books - I have spent most of my working life working in the industry and observing changes from within, mostly to the good, but not always so. I continue to write, and have a website with half finished stuff in it so that it is at least available, if not complete. Several new books are in hand. I have many 'works in progress' and some of these can be found on my website; the we address is http://www.metadyne.co.uk
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One Response to Overground and Goblin under stress

  1. G. Tingey says:

    The “PixC-buster” now operates at over 200% capacity in the worst of the peak!



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