Underground Overground

Travelling free… I’ve just got back from riding on London Overground’s newly reopened East London Line.  It’s been running from Dalston Junction to New Cross and New Cross Gate for several weeks, but today (23 May 2010) the service was extended to Crystal Palace and West Croydon for the first time.  It has been a very long time since this line has seen through trains to and from South London, having operated for many years as a short self-contained branch line of the London Underground.

Now, after almost 200 years, Marc Brunel’s Thames Tunnel can finally accomplish its full potential.  Although a marvel of engineering in its day, this has always been a bit of a white elephant.  Originally proposed as a road tunnel in 1823, the project soon became known as the Great Bore, taking almost 20 years (and much public money) to complete.  And when it opened there was not enough money to pay for access ramps at either end, so it languished as a pedestrian tunnel for another 20 years before being converted to railway use.  And even then, although it was a valuable goods link for many years, its usefulness was always hampered by the awkwardness of access at the northern end.  And the line hasn’t really lived up to its potential for passenger services either, just shuttling back and forth between Whitechapel/Shoreditch and New Cross/ New Cross Gate.

Now, it is to be hoped, all that has changed.  The trains are clean, modern, spacious and frequent, and will improve access to many parts of South and East London.  Let us hope they attract the passengers to justify the investment.

I took a ride on the line this morning and found that London Overground were handing out free travelcards and souvenir tickets to mark the occasion.  But while the line has great potential, I noticed there are still a few bugs to be ironed out.  For example, the platform destination indicators were not working properly, showing trains that had already departed 15 minutes earlier. 

The access arrangements at Crystal Palace station leave much to be desired, with no lift or escalator from the platform to the ticket hall.  In order to get out of the station you have to climb up to ticket hall level, then you go halfway back down again on the other side of the tracks before climbing back up to the ticket hall again.  There are no less than 119 steps in all.   This whole arrangement is absolutely ridiculous and Network Rail should be ashamed of themselves for subjecting users of their station to this ordeal.

The train makes an audible on-board announcement as it approaches each station, another one when it stops, and a third as it leaves.  Although this may be useful for visitors and new riders, it is close to being Too Much Information for the regular passenger.  And for some reason the voice that announces Brockley station sounds like it is saying “Arkley,” which is on the other side of London and has no station.

The trains themselves are capable of quite a turn of speed but seemed to be operating at a very leisurely pace this morning, perhaps because the drivers were unfamiliar with the stopping places on the new route.  (My train was delayed 2 minutes on leaving Crystal Palace while the driver worked out how to operate the platform plunger to indicate that the train was ready to depart.)   Later on, it took 46 minutes for my train to trundle from West Croydon to Dalston Junction, but I am sure that if the trains could be worked more smartly, they could shave 10 minutes or more off this time.

The 4-carriage trains are open-plan so you can walk freely through the train from one end to the other.  This is nice but I was a little worried by the safety card which instructed passengers “in the event of a fire” to “walk calmly to the next carriage” where, of course, the smoke could freely follow them.  I hope and pray this never causes a problem in the underground tunnels of the Overground.