The Insider: East London Line Uncovered

Brockley Central Senior was, in many ways, the inspiration for this website. Not only because he used to help run the Westcombe News for SE3's answer to BrocSoc, but also because he was an early adopter of the computer-as-wet-nurse lifestyle. We grew up resentful of the amount of time he spent with the BBC B microcomputer (at least until we learned how to play Elite), then the Amstrad, the Z88, the Agenda and all manner of other technologies that became redundant even before they were plugged in. Now, our children resent us for the amount of time we hog the laptop and he is blogging for us. The circle of life is complete.

Yesterday, he went behind the scenes with other bloggers, photographers and journalists to try and answer your questions about the new East London Lines. Here's what he came up with:

On a sunny March morning your BC correspondent and other members of the press gathered at New Cross Gate for their first taste of the new East London line, or rather that section of it that is allowed to carry trains for practice runs and press briefings.

We were going to get a view of the new operations centre and maintenance depot before taking to the rails. Along the way there would be, we hoped, an opportunity to get some answers to the questions that are uppermost in BC readers’ minds: how late will it run, can the trains run with more carriages, what will happen if Southern trains cause a snarl up on the new route south of New Cross, and why can’t we get a better station in Brockley?

First stop: the operations centre or OBC (Operations Building Complex). Complex it certainly was, and also well fortified against explosions and other threats to its ability to keep the trains running on time. Inside, we were taken through the complexities of managing a service that relies upon four companies to manage its trains. The Canadian company Bombardier supplies and maintains the trains themselves, TfL provides the infrastructure, London Overground Rail Operations Ltd. (LOROL) operates the trains, and Network Rail controls the signalling. To ensure that the four parts of the system are able to combine their operations reasonably smoothly, the operations room is a large open plan space where controllers from each company can speak directly to their counterpart in another organisation.

Trains coming off the old East London line route would have to feed into the Southern lines controlled by Network Rail. So what would happen if a train on the Southern line caused a delay to the London Overground train, or vice versa? There was, it seems, no simple answer. It would be up to the controllers to prioritise the services, and they would try to take into account the number of passengers affected by any delay. In other words, passengers on the East London line might well have to wait while NR controllers sorted out a problem that might be affecting hundreds of commuters on the busy line into London Bridge. Still, we were assured that they had a good plan to utilise the spare capacity on the southern section of the route and had timetables which, if adhered to, would keep everything running smoothly for Brockley commuters in a hurry. The biggest potential spanner in the works appeared to be the need for great precision in timing the transition south of New Cross, with 6 East London trains an hour having to feed into the Southern network at precisely the right intervals.

Next stop, the service depot, a large building to the north and east of the Operations Building. Here there are four sparkling new service bays with not an oil spot in sight. As the trains themselves are brand new you can only hope that these bays will not be seeing too much heavy action just yet. But here the carriages can be washed and cleaned as well as serviced, and there are enough sidings (17) to hold the fleet.

Noticing that the building was only large enough for 4 carriage trains, we asked what would happen if the trains were increased to 5 or 6 carriages? The answer was that there is no provision for this, and no – trains will stay at 4 carriages for the foreseeable future, though some stops further up the line are indeed capable of handling longer trains.

Now it was time to take the train north to Dalston, checking out some of the new or refurbished stations along the way. This section of the new line will open in April and trains are already shuttling backwards and forwards allowing more than 100 drivers to master the route and the control staff to practice monitoring and managing the rolling stock. When it’s open the new line will employ more than 250 people, including drivers, customer service staff, controllers and managers, and cleaning and support staff.

Inside the train all was bright, quiet and relaxed for our run. Hardly surprising, given the small numbers in our party. What would it be like when commuters pile on in the rush hour though? Well, although the trains are not particularly long, the carriages are very spacious, with bench seats and wide aisles. Travellers can easy walk the length of the train thanks to a trick borrowed from the beloved bendy bus that permits articulation of the carriage connections. So the carrying capacity is generous, which is not to say that they won’t get crowded at times.

Our first stop was the remodelled Shadwell station. BC readers may remember the gloomy and dangerous-feeling stop of yesteryear. That feeling has gone. Now it’s all tile and glass, with a bright office for the staff, up-to-date station equipment and new and enthusiastic staff. Outside, the surroundings are being given a makeover too, partly to ensure a better connection to the DLR line that runs above it into Bank and Tower Bridge (see picture).

Next, to Shoreditch, one of four new stations on the route. These have been designed by the architectural firm of West and Williams, and have some of the monumental feel of the Jublilee line stations, albeit on a smaller scale. We were informed that the tunnel-like structure around the line at Shoreditch will allow the creation of a future shopping/business complex for the area. At present this is obscured by the old railway arches that have listed status and whose relationship to the new line has not been without local controversy.

After Shoreditch, the line crosses Kingsland Road over a new bridge and heads north to Dalston, last stop until the Highbury and Islington section comes on stream next year.

All in all, a great day out for BC’s oldest junior reporter. The line will undoubtedly bring many new connections and commuting possibilities on much improved rolling stock and will be an asset to Brockley. The staff, many new to their posts, seemed full of enthusiasm for the new line’s potential and staff morale is currently very high, as far as we could judge. Whether their morale and that of its future passengers will stay that way is, of course, something that only time can decide.

And oh yes, the new trains will run till just after midnight. But an attractive and well planned Brockley Station might have to wait a while longer.

Also on the trip:

London Reconnections
Dave Hill