Monday, 12 March 2018

How the West London Orbital Railway could transform Public Transport options for Barnet

Let me start with a little aside. I live in Mill Hill. My brother lives in Bristol. As a special treat for Mrs T on our wedding anniversary last year, we took a train direct from Mill Hill Broadway to Bristol, had lunch with my brother in the Bristol docks and got a train back. It was marvellous, we had a champagne breakfast going and a three course meal coming back. It was a great day. There was meant to be a steam engine pulling the train but it had broken down the day before, but to be honest, we weren't too bothered. The diesel engine got us to Bristol an hour earlier, so more time with my brother, although it was sad to see the disappointed children at trackside expecting the Hogwarts Express.  As you can see from this video, this was a fully fledged main line train. What has this got to do with the West London Orbital Railway? Read on....

As someone who has spent years getting a train from Mill Hill Broadway to the City, I've paid little attention to the junction at Cricklewood, where there is a branch line to the West. However, our annivesary train took this route. I was quite fascinated by it. This blog has long supported the campaign for what was the "Brent Cross Railway" proposal, which has morphed into the "West London Orbital railway". When you read "proposals", they mean little. When you actually travel over the tracks and realise that there is a perfectly good, operational railway, that can take fully fledged main line trains, it is quite bonkers that it isn't already in use for this purpose. All that is needed is a few platforms installing, a signalling upgrade and some Oyster card readers (well I know it's more complicated than that in reality, but compared to HS2, where you need to buy land, do geological surveys etc, have public enquiries, upset half the country, you know what I mean).

The route we took was to jump on at Mill Hill, Turn right at Cricklewood, follow the route to Acton and then take the Great Western Mainline towards Bristol. We went past Heathrow Airport on the way. When you realise that there is no easy way to get from Cricklewood to Acton & beyond, yet there is a fully fledged main line railway, you realise just how bad the UK is at transport planning. 

The good news is that this is changing. Barnet Council are now supporting the West London Orbital Railway. Council Leader Richard Cornelius is committed to supporting the project. The Leader of Barnet Council, Councillor Richard Cornelius said: “This is a genuinely exciting proposal and one that Barnet Council and its neighbouring west London boroughs have been championing for quite some time. There is a real need for improving rail connectivity between Barnet and west London boroughs. This will create jobs for local people and complement the exciting regeneration that is set to take place at Brent Cross Cricklewood." 

The proposed route is as follows. 

West London Orbital Railway Routs

The proposal was initiated in March 2017 when the West London Alliance group of local authorities commissioned a study to assess the feasibility of the line so that a decision could be taken as to whether it merited pursuing further. This study found that:

- The route is technically feasible.
- The scheme represents a high Value for Money, with a “Benefit-Cost Ratio” (BCR) of 2.2:1.
- “Peak” three-hour demand at 3,000 passengers anti-clockwise and 2,500 passengers clockwise in 2031. This suggests that the level of passenger demand may be able to sustain a regular four-trains-per-hour or more service along the line.
- The line would enable significant new development to be undertaken along its length, supporting the creation of new homes and jobs.
- It would drastically improve orbital travel times around West London compared with the equivalent journey by car. For example a journey from Barnet to Park Royal (enabling a change on to Cross Rail or HS2 services) would take approximately 12.5 minutes. A trip from Acton to Cricklewood/Brent Cross would take approximately 16.5 minutes. A journey along the whole line from Barnet to Hounslow would take approximately 39 minutes (times the same for reverse journeys).
- Eight trains per hour in each direction would be achievable given existing traffic along the length of the route.
- It would connect town centres and regeneration areas, including the 45,000 new homes and 86,000 new jobs that will be created at Old Oak Common, Wembley and Brent Cross regeneration areas, putting a greater number of jobs and homes within easy reach of one another and supporting intensification in growth areas.
- It would remove a significant number of cars from the road, reducing congestion and improving journey times, particularly along the A406, as the population of London approaches 10 million over the next 20 years.
- It would allow passengers in outer London to access new services on Crossrail and High Speed Two via an interchange at Old Oak Common – Victoria Road.
- Potential to unlock significant amount of new housing.
- It would help to reduce passenger demand for central London Stations such as Kings Cross and Paddington for orbital journeys that currently require travellers to go into central London before then travelling back out to reach their destination.
- In June 2017 Transport for London published the draft Mayor’s Transport Strategy, which stated that London government would work with the relevant boroughs to explore the feasibility of the proposed service, what would become the West London Orbital. In March 2018 the Major's Transport Strategy was published, which includes a proposal for this 'orbital' connection to Old Oak between Hounslow and Brent Cross.

Current position
The London Mayor's Transport Strategy (MTS), published on 28th February 2018 and ratified by the London Assembly on 8th March 2018, includes plans for a West London Orbital railway line under Proposal 88. The mayor’s proposal for the service highlights that utilising new and existing orbital connections in west London could also improve public transport connections in the city centre. It reads: “Most Londoners want to move around London – rather than in and out of the centre – every day, and the London Overground supports this type of travel. London Overground train service improvements are therefore needed to support new jobs and housing throughout inner London and parts of outer London.”

The Barnet Eye says
Whilst we welcome the proposal, there are several comments we have. Firstly, we give some praise to Richard Cornelius, Leader of Barnet Council. Richard is a fierce advocate of the scheme, reversing a decade or so of antipathy within the Barnet Conservatives to all things public transport. If, as seems likely, the Conservatives lose the Council elections in May, I do hope that this is recognised as Richards positive legacy. 

I have spoken at length with Richard about the scheme. My view is that whilst the scheme is a positive first step, the current route is highly unambitious and from a Barnet perspective is a real missed opportunity. As a very minimum, we'd like to see the route terminate Northbound at The RAF museum. This would also be a great option for commuters from the massive Colindale development and even the new council offices. This would not require major changes, just a short spur and a platform. Our preference would be to see the route continue to Mill Hill Broadway.  The Brent Cross Railway Scheme also suggested linking with the disused railway from Mill Hill East to Copthall. Whether this is practically achievable is something I am not qualified to comment on, but it would effectively join up the two sides of the Borough, so would be highly desirable. When I discussed this with Richard, he advised that only the most conservative (small "C") scheme was likely to get approval. 

The current plan seems to envisage either diesel or battery powered trains. Again this seems a missed opportunity. The Midland Mainline is being upgraded for electric traction as far as Corby and Kettering. The line is currently used for freight services. It would seem a no brainer to electrify the line. There is enough pollution in London already, without more dirty diesel. Running freight services through on Electric traction would be another quality of life benefit. 

Another possible route that extension that has not been discussed at all is on the south bound leg. Currently the service will terminate at West Hampstead. The Midland Main Line has a little used connection to the Gospel Oak to Barking line at Kentish Town. I would suggest that the possibilities for an off peak service to Barking (or beyond), providing interchange with the Eastern side of London. The options for orbital travel in London are atrocious. For example, the fastest off peak journey from Neasden to Upper Holloway is currently 48 minutes

The same journey would take less than 20 mins should the West London Rail link be extended. A the route is there and fully in place, it really seems perverse that some consideration isn't given to using it. I understand that the peak time routes are full, however off peak there should be capacity.  Such links open up employment opportunities, open up options for mobility and cut car journeys.

Another concern has been reported by the Brent Cross Coalition blog. This reports that the station for Brent Cross would not be easily accessible.

It seems a shame that the opportunity for a proper interchange is being missed. Being able to easily "hop platforms" is something that should clearly be built into the design.

One observation I have, which is reinforced by the diagram of the proposed track layout is that passengers requirements are usually at the very end of the list of priorities when transport schemes and upgrades are planned. This "poor relation platform" is just the latest example. When Kings Cross Thameslink station was closed and traffic moved to St Pancras International, the connection time to the London Underground was nearly trebled and made far more hassle for people with suitcases. When the new Thameslink trains were introduced, the seats designed were awful, hard and with no leg room. The carriages are sweatboxes in rush hour and temperatures regularly result in passengers becoming unwell. I have no idea why passenger stakeholders are not consulted at the design stage.

I have no doubt that The West London Orbital Railway will be a fantastic success, just as Thameslink has been since it started operating through the disused Snow Hill Tunnel in Farringdon back in the 1980's. I just hope that, unlike Thameslink, it doesn't take another 30 years to reach its full potential, as Thameslink will do next year.

1 comment:

baarnett said...

Excellent blog.