Wednesday 19 April 2023

The strange tale of the West London Orbital Railway debacle

Last week, the Mayor of London has announced that the West London Orbital Railway has moved a step closer to being built and an article in the Evening Standard detailed progress that has been made to date. This blog has been following this scheme since it was first proposed, The first mention in this blog was in 2017, although John Cox had been promoting a far more ambitious scheme for nearly a decade before the plans were announced in around 2017. 

Unlike Crossrail or HS2, the West London Orbital line already exists. I have even travelled down much of the route, when I took a special train from Mill Hill Broadway to Bristol a few years back. The line is not open to regular passenger trains and there are no stations. It is largely used for freight and stock movements, but is perfectly functional.  The financial benefits of the scheme are extremely sound, the railway exists and as much of the work is based around resignalling and track upgrades, it will add a huge improvement to existing freight timetables, as well as making public transport around the crowded North Circular corridor far more practical. 

When it was first announced, I had a tea with the then Barnet Council leader, Richard Cornelius, who was a champion of the scheme. He expressed a firm desire to work with Mayor Sadiq Khan, stating that this sort of thing should be above politics and should be a top priority for TFL once Crossrail was done. Sadly, TFL has become a football, with the Tory government seeking a good excuse to put the boot into Khan. A coalition of West London Boroughs of all manner of politucal persuasions have championed the scheme, pushing forward feasability studies etc. The case is proven, but Mayor Khan is still talking about 'developing a firm business case'. It seems that now they are talking about services starting in the early 2030's. This is ridiculous. Such schemes, where the infrastructure exists should be fast tracked. They are not sexy, super high speed lines. They are just simple suburban services, that make thousands of people's commute to work better. By removing car journeys, people using cars and buses will also benefit. 

In truth, the fact that it has taken six years to get to the point where a robust business case can be prepared, to open an existiong line to passengers, is crazy. It demonstrates what a complete debacle infrastructure planning is in the UK. What is even more crazy, is that the Mayor, having spent the last few years berating us owners of diesel cars, introducing a ULEZ to make it even more expensive, is planning for the line to use old fashioned diesel units. Whilst I understand that this is cheaper than an electric line, why not use hydrogen or battery technology? some of the line is electrified and making the whole line electric would mean that freight from the Midlands to the West Country could do away with diesel. A friend with a knowledge of such things has suggested that there are former Thameslink trains, which have been fitted with diesel back up generators that could open a service tomorrow, albiet without most of the stations being completed, but a service from Hendon or West Hampstead to Acton and Old Oak Common and Acton could be opened almost immediately, with stations added along the route as needed. There is a precedent for this. When the Thameslink service was first opened in 1988, it was a rather ramshackle service, with far less trains and lower speeds through London than we see today. The final upgrades to make it the service we see today were completed 30 years later.  In the meantime, I used it on a nearly daily basis for work. It isn't perfect but transport in London never is and even one or two trains an hour travelling at 30mph max over clapped out old routes, would make a huge difference to many people who need to commute.

1 comment:

baarnett said...

One London Borough - Camden - is actively destroying rail capacity.

It wants to build a "Camden Highline" tourist attraction on the North London Line track-space.
Transport for London wants to relay the track for more London Overground trains.

Who will win?