So What is so Special About Sutton (and other exciting railway loop journeys)

It is a strange thing. I wanted to do a certain train journey and in spite of my understanding of how the service pattern worked I was advised I had to change trains. I ignored the ‘advice’, stuck to my belief and found I didn’t have to change at all. What is going on?

A Peculiarly Sutton Problem

I wanted to travel from St Pancras to Wimbledon Chase via Sutton. The National Rail website wasn’t very encouraging and sought to direct me via Wimbledon, offering me no alternative. Forcing the routing via Sutton produced a succession of trains all requiring a change of train at Sutton (with just a 1-minute connection time, much less than normally offered for interchanging).


Resort to a quickly downloaded Thameslink printed timetable produced a booklet where the tables all stopped at Sutton, whether by Wimbledon or Mitcham. This was really unhelpful, for if one wanted to go (say) from Carshalton to West Sutton (just two stations) one had to look at the ‘down’ table to reach Sutton then change to the ‘up’ table to carry on in the same direction to find a train for West Sutton. There was no indication in the tables that trains might not actually terminate at Sutton. If one had troubled to check the map at the front (and why would anyone?) then one might have spotted a note to the effect that when trains arrived at Sutton on one route they might continue on a different one, but even so the tables do not explain what happens.


On checking the national rail timetable one first discovers Table 52. Like the Thameslink timetable this shows trains via either Wimbledon or Mitcham simply terminating at Sutton with not a hint that they might go onwards. But wait! What are all the references in the station names column to a Table 179?  Why would I need to check a different table when this one seems complete?


All I can say is that if one does trouble to check Table 179 then one discovers it is devoted entirely to the Luton-Wimbledon-Sutton service group and, though simply duplicating most of the information in Table 52, it lays it out differently. This time the Wimbledon Chase to West Sutton section is duplicated, with one of the sections in reverse, as it were. By this means one can here (and only here) see at a glance how to make a journey from Carshalton to West Sutton! However, one still seems to have to change trains. For example the 12.33 from Carshalton arrives at Sutton at 12:36. In the next column there is a 12:37 train that arrives at West Sutton at 12.40.


Note the 1236 arrival and the apparently quite separate 1237 departure

Let us be clear. This is one and the same train. The whole service is laid out like this and all the apparent connections are also the same trains undertaking a single journey around the loop. No change is required. This seems to me unhelpful, if not downright peculiar.

Moreover this fiction is perpetuated on the trains with the announcements insisting the train only goes to Sutton and inviting you to change as it pulls in. So do the live departure boards and all the other paraphernalia fed from the same systems.

I later noticed at the bottom of the page of NR Table 52 a note (like the one on the Thameslink map) indicating that trains actually carried on, but I didn’t think this was conspicuous and it was cast in rather general terms that invited passengers to seek further guidance, which was not obvious. The network map (correctly) shows a complete loop via Wimbledon and Sutton but made no reference to the fact you would be kidded into thinking trains would for no obvious reason cease operation at Sutton. The information is inconsistent and not very helpful, I thought.

Why Would You Show Information In Such a Strange Way?

I concluded from all this that the railway timetable, and all the systems that are dependent on it, are not suited to handling loop services and for operational or technical convenience (but not passenger convenience) they must always have a terminus. Fair enough, but there ought, surely, to be a way of over-riding this when giving local information, for example by stating that a train then continues to so-and so in relevant timetable columns.Relying on passengers to cross-check what they are told is hopeless.

I wondered if the need to show a train actually terminating was driven by the fares process. I’m sure you are all familiar with the impenetrable Permitted Route system (most ‘anytime’ tickets are valid only via ‘permitted routes’). The system is so arcane I won’t attempt to represent it here beyond saying that (in general) a route is a permitted route if it is the shortest route according to the national rail timetable OR if the journey is undertaken on a through train. By arbitrarily deeming a train to ‘terminate’ en route (as it were) then the permitted route availability is thereby extinguished at that location too.

The Wimbledon-Sutton routes bifurcate at Streatham and the mid point of the loop journey is a quarter mile south of Sutton Common (at 7½ miles), towards West Sutton (coinciding with boundary of zones 4 and 5). Thus one can see that denying the ‘through train’ option might result in those travelling via Sutton to stations Sutton Common and beyond having to pay a higher fare. I think we might be onto something here. For example the Thameslink journey planner shows I can get a direct train from London to Sutton Common for £5.20, but if I chose to go via Sutton and change then the fare is £6.10. The journey specifically says change train, though the train to which directed is of course the same train carrying on in the same direction. I do not say this is the answer, but it seems the simplest explanation to fit the facts.

The Pernicious Permitted Route?

Single fares on the main line are inevitably based on the zonal concept in zonal areas so fares from London to Wimbledon and Wimbledon Chase (Z3) are £4.30, to stations South Merton to Sutton Common (Z4) are £5.20 and to West Sutton and Sutton (Z5) are £6.10. These are the rates in the fares guide and on the Thameslink website and are what you need to pay if you travel via Wimbledon (or, to Sutton and West Sutton, by either route). Thameslink allows you to book the ‘wrong way’, via the mythical train change at Sutton, in which case the £6.10 applies (the website is very reluctant indeed to disclose this is possible at all, but do persist, though it will not let you get as far as Wimbledon Chase). I think this may be responsible for the breaking journey peculiarity.

Whilst on, I notice the National Rail Enquiries website offers different information. For stations Sutton Common to Morden South the choice of routes is offered (the Sutton one requiring a ‘change’) and alternative prices of £6.10 via Sutton or £5.20 via Wimbledon are offered. At neither South Merton nor Wimbledon Case is a choice offered, only the route via Wimbledon. If a via Sutton routing is forced, then the South Merton price is given as a whacking £9.10 (at variance with the Thameslink website price and national fares guide) and the Wimbledon Chase price rises to £9.70 (no Thameslink price volunteered). I have subsequently discovered that the ticket system cannot produce a non Permitted Route ticket but some websites will offer you two singles to make up such a journey though this is correspondingly expensive.

Both Sutton and Wimbledon are routing points for the purposes of the awful Permitted Route system and having attempted to get to grips with it I can see that a Sutton route is not permitted where the cheap day single price is greater than the route via Wimbledon (don’t ask!). Do you remember the days when tickets were issued on an ‘any reasonable route’ basis? Privatizatation introduced the restrictive and impenetrable permitted route system to facilitate cross-company accounting. Sod the passenger then! I’m still waiting for the courts to rule about the legality of this enforced routing in contract law – a reasonable person doing no more than a reasonable journey when the conditions are patently very complicated and rarely brought to the passenger’s attention at the time the bargain is made. Anyway, that is for another day.

Back to Sutton, do bear in mind that with trains running at 15-minute intervals alternately either way round the Wimbledon loop, in virtually all cases (except to Wimbledon Chase) it will be quicker to travel via Sutton, if that is the first train, than wait for a train via Wimbledon. Given the nature of the area and the pattern of train service I think we should do better than this ‘Sutton’s the end’ business. I’m not sure I believe these £9+ prices, and imagine the fun we’ll all have at the ticket office if trying to buy a ticket via the Sutton route! The issue does not arise in quite the same way with Travelcards as they operate zonally by different number of zones travelled through, which is clearer even if in circumstances like the Wimbledon-Sutton loop it may not seem fairer.

By the way, when I did actually undertake the journey, it was going round the loop that the only ticket check took place, perhaps suggesting a sensitivity about checking which way people were travelling?

An alternative, or perhaps a connected, theory for artificially terminating trains is the way train performance is calculated (and the associated system for paying refunds). A commuter train is deemed ‘late’ if it arrives at the final destination five minutes or more after its booked time. For this to be established in each direction I suppose that means there needs to be an agreed terminus. Mind you, this is an internal thing really, and shouldn’t be allowed to drive what is shown on the front of a train, thereby misleading the public.

Other Loop Services

What of other loop services? Surely this ‘terminating’ eccentricity must apply to all? The Hounslow loop trains (Waterloo-Barnes-Hounslow-Barnes-Waterloo in both directions) are labelled up as Whitton on the outward journey, whichever way they are routed.They are also scheduled as Whitton in the NR timetable (Table 149), but significantly there is a column note explaining the train then proceeds to Waterloo round the rest of the loop.

The Live Departures feature, on the other hand, describes outbound trains from Waterloo as ‘London Waterloo via Hounslow & Richmond (circular route)’. or the equivalent if the circuit is the other way. Furthermore, if checking the online national journey planner, if one selects (for example) a loop extremity journey such as Twickenham to Syon Lane then one is offered a through train and not a fictitious train change at Whitton. The national rail diagram shows the Hounslow loop is continuous so all is consistent apart from the arbitrary selection of Whitton to put on platform indicators and the front of trains. The fares either way around this loop appear to be the same, reinforcing my hypothesis that the Sutton banality might be fares related.

What about the Kingston loop? In this case the London network map does not show any through services between Strawberry Hill and Norbiton even though through trains run throughout the day. On the other hand the ATOC London Rail map shows the Kingston loop as continuous. This is not very helpful and the quite artificial rupture seems to be caused for the convenience of the schedule compiler who wishes to put the Richmond services in table 149 and the Wimbledon services in table 152 though both show the same trains along different parts of the same loop. If one wants to travel from Twickenham to Norbiton (surely a plausible journey) one has to consult two tables to discover the 1533 from Twickenham is shown only as far as Kingston (arr 1546), then table 152 to discover a 1537 ex Strawberry Hill train that departs Kingston at 1548 and arrives at Norbiton at 1550. It is of course the same train on one unbroken journey. The column notes indicate in general terms that it is a loop service but having it broken in this way is unhelpful. Why the Wimbledon loop has its own table (but no column notes) whilst this one has an at-a-glance table but does have column notes is anyone’s guess.


Right. So no loop service here then.

The online journey planner condescends to show through trains when calling up journeys such as Raynes Park to Twickenham. Again, plausible journeys either way around the loop are route-indifferent (though one be much longer than the other) and we do not have the fictitious change of trains nonsense we have at Sutton.

On the whole I concluded that none of this was at all clear and that the passenger’s needs were not being factored into what was happening or how the information was presented. I have looked at three London loop services and all are treated differently. The two west London examples are explainable, but the Thameslink way of dealing with things by means of a fictitious train change at Sutton seems perverse and unhelpful and capable of rapid improvement.

I’ve made these notes out of genuine puzzlement from the point of view of some poor sod just trying to travel somewhere, but now I’m into loops I’d be interested to know of what happens at any other railway loops that readers might know about.



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
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3 Responses to So What is so Special About Sutton (and other exciting railway loop journeys)

  1. James Bunting says:

    Thank you for a most interesting and thought provoking piece. For a number of years I have been a volunteer sub-editor for various National Rail Timetable tables, including Table 52. I have been endeavoring to add some clarity to a number of loop services in Kent (in particular those found in Tables 207 and 212) so that the table provides useful information to the user. I am still awaiting the opportunity to discuss the issues with the Publications Team. There is, for example, a reluctance to allow more than minimal information against a letter code at the top of each column, and certainly not have more than one. My suggestions for more informative text have so far been turned down. Whether this is a production problem or editorial decision I have yet to discover.

    If, in Table 52, the southbound train is overtaken by another one on its way to Blackfriars, thus requiring the use of more than two columns, then indicating that uses up the code for each column, the one in the first column to show destination and in the second one to show origin. This is why the box indicating a general state of affairs for the Sutton Loop was introduced.

    “Let us be clear. This is one and the same train. The whole service is laid out like this and all the apparent connections are also the same trains undertaking a single journey around the loop. No change is required. This seems to me unhelpful, if not downright peculiar.” – “This is one and the same train.” – Yes, indeed it is, but at the same time it is not. The 1233 Carshalton to Sutton is 2O49 from St Albans City to Sutton whilst the 1236 Sutton to West Sutton is 2O50 from Sutton to Luton, two separate services. This is how they are shown in the Working Timetable (WTT) and, I have been told by the team, the WTT overrides whatever one might wish for in a public timetable and, it would seem, affects ticket sales also.

    To give an example, despite the fact that it has not been possible to make seat reservations from London to stations in Kent for many years someone has activated a code showing that they are available on certain trains. When the draft timetable was sent out I reported this. It is quite likely that no member of the public would want to reserve a seat on a mid evening train from Victoria to Rochester. However, the fact that the symbol was there annoyed me as it was wrong. I was told, however, that unless it was corrected in the WTT it stayed in the public version. This has obviously now linked through to the Tariff as demonstrated by a journey that my wife recently made from Bromley South to Coventry. Because the system requires a seat reservation to validate the fare, and the nominal connecting train was one on which the WTT has the code, the system will automatically produce one, the result being that I now have a seat reservation ticket from Victoria to Bromley South in my collection.

    Computer systems struggle with loops, and travel planners get very confused about them, not just trains but also for buses. For the computer a switch is either on or off, and a loop is neither. Perhaps one day someone will wake up in the middle of the night with a flash of inspiration as to how to solve this problem. In the meantime there needs to be a recognition that the problem exists and a serious attempt made to produce something meaningful. One can but live in hope.


  2. Andrew S says:

    In (partial) defence of permitted routes, if Wimbledon Chase were allowed via Sutton at the cheaper price, then some people would claim that they should be able to get off at Sutton on the cheaper ticket; a similar claim at Shenfield for tickets from Brentwood into London resulted in AGA removing the helpful “London via Shenfield” ticket and telling anyone wanting to double-back using the fast trains that they would have to pay the full Shenfield price. Oyster of course avoids any such problems, as you can go whichever way you like and will be charged the same as it’s the end-to-end journey that counts.


  3. Tony B-E says:

    The Oslo metro has a ring line, which operates under the numbers 4 and 6. Line 4 runs from the south-east, through the main city tunnel, to Storo station. Here it becomes line 6, continuing round the circuit, back through the city tunnel, and then departing for the south-west. The lines have separate colours as well as numbers. On the map, the colours are faded together a short distance either side of Storo; on board, the electronic displays just change the line number without any announcement of the fact. The train calls at Storo and continues as it does at any other station.

    In Basel, lines 15 and 16 on the tram network terminate end-to-end at Bruderholz. Rather than reversing the trams here, they just change number and continue; in effect there is one long line with different numbers for each end. Not a circuit, but a similarly odd situation.


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