A Cunning Plan

How UK railways improve – by carefully developing what is already there, rather than building miles of new lines.

The West Coast Main Line has dedicated fast lines (shown in red on the map below) for most of the way from London to Crewe, but there is a gap in the Stafford area. Fifteen years ago, the plan was to build a Stafford bypass, taking fast trains past three flat junctions on tight curves, at Colwich, Stafford and Norton Bridge. This consisted of a flyover at Colwich junction, so all fast trains would head towards Stoke, then a new line north of Stafford for trains to switch back to the line to Crewe (shown in yellow). But the economics didn’t stack up.


Instead, what is currently being built is much simpler – a flyover at just one of the three junctions, Norton Bridge (shown in green). Doesn’t this just leave the other two problem junctions unresolved? No – and this is the cunning part.

While ideally the fast trains would have a pair of lines to themselves, this isn’t actually essential unless the railway is close to maximum capacity. You can get a decent capacity for high speed trains just by eliminating conflicting moves. The odd two-track bottleneck is quite tolerable, as long as there are no flat junctions.

This has already been used to good effect between Rugby and Nuneaton. The fast and slow lines are combined in the northbound direction for a few miles, because a motorway bridge was built too narrow. This also, very cleverly, avoided the need for a new flyover at Rugby.

The cunning part of the Norton Bridge project is that the four-track railway between Crewe and Stafford will be paired by route, with services for the Trent Valley using the fast lines, and services for Birmingham using the slow lines. The speed of the slow lines has been increased to 100mph, and there are no intermediate stations, so journey times will be unaffected. This creates a conflict-free path for northbound fast services, increasing capacity. It also means there can be fewer sets of points south of Stafford station, allowing the track to be canted (tilted) for higher speeds.

In terms of existing passenger services, the southbound Trent Valley stopper will use the main line from Norton Bridge to Colwich, stopping at Stafford. Northbound fast services to Stoke will divert via Stafford and Norton Bridge, allowing Colwich to be reconfigured for higher speeds.

Freight is a bit more complicated, but the main requirement for freight is capacity, not speed. To remove the conflict, freight can be diverted away from the Trent Valley, via Penkridge, Willenhall, Walsall, Sutton Park and Water Eaton to Nuneaton.

This is how the conventional railway increases its capacity and speed, by carefully organising slow traffic out of the way, and removing conflicts, leaving a clear route for fast traffic. In effect, the two-track section is turning red.

The next cunning plan will probably be to reconfigure Crewe. The slower services can be routed to use the freight underpasses, though they will need new platforms and signalling. This will allow the constrained junction north of the station to be moved to the south, where there is much more room. This doesn’t need to be a flying junction, because capacity isn’t as tight when most of the trains are stopping, but the speed for Manchester services can be increased to a lot more than the current 20mph.

Map data © OpenStreetMap contributors. Base map is here.

Integrated Transport

The railways should be given the role of coordinating Integrated Transport. Information about buses (and cycling and walking) needs to be considerably improved, so people can readily understand and begin to trust the quality of connecting services.

When I’m going to visit a new city, I look to find out how to get from the station to my destination – be that somebody’s offices, where I’m staying, a conference venue or the city centre. In a small city, I’ll probably just walk. If there’s obvious public transport – a tram or a metro, I’ll use that. It’s usually next to impossible to decipher the buses. If I’m travelling on my own and feeling adventurous, I might look up potential cycle routes. But failing that, I’ll probably resort to a taxi.

Basel All ServicesWhy is it that integrated transport is so good in some countries, but so hopeless in Britain? A large part of it is down to our lack of trams. Tram and metro systems are generally simpler to understand, because the cost of infrastructure limits their complexity, and most routes have a good frequency. There is a strong tradition of diagrammatic mapping that people are used to, and which works well. Because it’s a diagrammatic map, you do then have to go to the effort of finding your station/stop on a street map, but the diagrammatic map inspires confidence, and makes that worthwhile. Here’s an example from Basel (there’s an even simpler version which just has the coloured tram lines, and leaves out the buses).

LuxembourgBusMapBus maps are generally more complicated. The norm in the UK is to use a different colour for each route in the suburbs, in an attempt to mimic metro maps, but to give up in the city centre. Buses often run in complicated loops in the centre, and if you have one colour per bus route, you would end up with multiple parallel lines, and an unintelligible tangle. Mostly, this type of map never sees the light of day, but here’s an example from Luxembourg.

Oxford Smart Zone MapThe best you can usually hope for in the UK is a central street map showing the stops, and a guide which lists the stops you can use for each destination. There might be another list that tells you how frequent each service is, but not how frequent they are in combination. You can work it out if you need to, but most people will have given up by then. Sometimes the city centre is just a mystery, like in Oxford.

paddingtonIf I’m visiting a city, I want to know whether there’s a frequent service from near at hand to roughly where I want to go. British bus maps are mostly useless for this purpose. The best in the UK are TfL’s spider maps, which are produced individually for each small area, and rely on the fact that most services are high-frequency and planned as a system. Even these maps resort to destination lists and stop codes, so take a bit of deciphering. Here’s an example for the area around Paddington.

An alternative approach is to treat buses like low-frequency transport, and provide a journey planner. This will give you a list of departures, but it doesn’t give you a feel for how good the service is. It might tell you there’s a journey every few minutes, but they might take different routes, or involve changing in different places. The great thing about a map is that you can see this straight away, not have to decipher it from a list.

BusMap_150_CentrePlusI’ve been developing a solution for my Oxford bus map, which is to use a small range of colours to show the routes that buses take in the centre. There are usually only a few distinct routes through the centre, which then spread out in the suburbs. I’ve limited the map to the routes taken by higher-frequency services, to keep it reasonably simple. Lower frequency branches in the suburbs are shown as dashed lines, to give a clear visual indication of where the quality drops. In this way, the central map blends seamlessly into the whole-city map, so it can be zoomable, and overlaid on a street map.

Why can’t we get good information already? Well mainly because the private bus operators are focused on selling services from the suburbs to the centre, not on providing a service that works for visitors. Some operators provide excellent information, others little more than a printout of a spreadsheet. The councils have responsibility for public transport in general, but are very patchy in the information they offer. Mostly they have subscribed to providing journey planners to discharge their basic responsibility, and left the private operators to provide further information.

This is why I think the responsibility for Integrated Transport needs to be formally given to the railway. The railway already takes on part of the responsibility, but it’s still rather patchy. The railway companies are the key beneficiaries of good integrated transport – they are the ones that get the income for the majority of the journey. So the railways are best placed to make a system that works well for visitors.

Integrated transport is mostly about information. In an ideal world, the bus companies would be improving their connecting services, and the local authorities would be improving conditions for cycling and walking. But for the moment, it is mostly a matter of providing the information, good and bad, and letting travellers choose accordingly. When we can easily see the good examples, there will be more incentive for improvements to be made.

In recent years, there’s been a lot of enthusiasm for providing bike parking and bike hire. In countries like the Netherlands, there are huge cycle parking facilities at stations, and the two modes definitely complement one-another: 40% of train trips in the Netherlands are combined with cycling. The railways certainly have an interest in providing cycle parking and cycle hire, because there is never going to be enough space for commuters to take their bikes on the train. So this is a significant part of the market, and it does need to be provided for. But unless the conditions for cycling in our cities improve dramatically, it’s hard to see cycling becoming a major choice for visitors.

I think the emphasis needs to shift to promoting walking and local public transport. The NationalRail website needs to be much clearer about providing onward travel information, starting with walking. There should be a link to a zoomable street map for each station, perhaps as an icon next to the arrival and departure station, as on the Swiss Railways site.

Reading Station PosterAt the moment there is a link about three levels down which takes you to a pdf of the station information poster. While it’s good that these posters have been produced, they are unwieldy and a long way from best practice. Outside London and the major cities, the posters are very basic (in London and the major cities, they use TfL or PTE maps, which are slightly better, but still limited). The maps don’t give you any feel for what the city is like – the cartography is minimalist, and the cycle and walking routes seem to be almost random. They don’t really tell you whether this is the sort of station where you walk straight out into the city centre, or whether cycling is fairly safe, let alone where buses run.

Reading OSMA proper zoomable street map would at least give you a feel for what the area around the station is like: are there major roads to cross, do you have to walk along a main road or cross at a major junction to get into the centre? Is there a pedestrianised area and shops close by, or is it industrial? Open Street Map already gives a good impression of this, though it could be improved (it doesn’t show pedestrian crossings, for instance).

In the same way, you could have a map focused on cycling – one that shows where the routes are (not just odd bits of cycle path), whether there’s any provision on main roads, and whether you can cycle in the pedestrianised area. There can also be links giving more information on cycle hire and how it works.

The biggest challenge is to map the central bus services, but that’s not impossible, as I have shown. Some of the TfL and PTE maps are pretty good, though they are often focused on taking you off to the suburbs, rather than getting about the centre. And of course, every map is different. There needs to be a consistent zoomable map, showing clearly where services run in the centre.

In the UK, I think the starting point is to make the railways responsible for providing good consistent readily-accessible information. We have the technology; all we need is an informed customer.

Limiting Traffic

You can get a long way towards making a city a wonderful place to live and work, by limiting the level of traffic. If you limit traffic around the city centre, you don’t need much cycle infrastructure.

The guidebook wasn’t encouraging – “travellers are scarce enough to attract a few stares”, but it turns out that Piacenza (forty minutes south of Milan) was a revelation: it has a huge everyday cycling culture. It’s hard to tell, but I’d say a higher level of cycling than Oxford. It was much the same in Parma (twice the size and half an hour further south), but with the added bonus of trolleybuses.

Clearly, from the age of the bikes, and the cyclists, this cycling culture has been there for a while: but how have they stopped traffic from taking over? In the centre there are a few pedestrian-only streets, where cyclists are probably officially banned, not that that seems to stop them. Around that is one of the newfangled traffic-limited zones (ZTL), with access confined to residents and deliveries between 0800 and 1900.

Outside the ZTL, there were no formal restrictions, but traffic was only moderate (I’d estimate somewhere between 5000 and 10000 motor vehicles per day), and speeds were reasonable (30-40 km/h). There were some shared-use pavements, but most cycling was on the road (even the old ladies). Junctions were often mid-sized roundabouts (25-30m diameter, with an island) – these have apparently been installed over the last few years, in place of traffic lights, but cyclists seemed to be muddling through them without too much difficulty. Further out, the roads were wider, traffic faster, and cycling was less common.

One major difference with British cities is that residential density is much higher, with apartments being the norm, buildings close to the street, and almost no gardens. This goes a fair way to explaining why car use has not become dominant – a lot of trips will be very short. The availability of good alternatives to driving will have made it easier to impose restrictions in the centre. The enclosed feel to the streets will also have kept car speeds reasonable, even without formal speed limits.

So what lessons are there for Britain? This approach is more natural for denser cities, with the urban form and street form doing much of the work for you. But the structure of progressive tightening of restrictions and traffic speed towards the centre could be reproduced in Britain. Perhaps the two key measures are the restriction on commuter and visitor parking in the area around the centre, and the low speed and urban feel of the inner ring road. This is quite different to the dual-carriageway ring road, high-speed roundabouts, and multi-storey car parks that are the norm in Britain.

For Oxford the key lesson is the value in restricting commuter parking. This would limit traffic so that junctions like The Plain and Frideswide Square could be more cycle and pedestrian-friendly. Visitor parking has long been restricted by price, though there is still too much of it, too close in (especially Broad Street). But we have struggled to limit commuter parking. There are thousands of parking places on private land, with the University and Colleges being the main culprits. We probably can’t create Italian-style limited traffic zones, but we could use the threat of a punitive Workplace Parking Levy – say £1000/year – to get employers to reduce parking spaces. There are comprehensive public transport services into the city centre; hardly anyone really needs to drive.

Despite the difference in residential density, I think there’s a lot to be learned from places like Piacenza. They show how it is possible to restrict the car and provide for the alternatives without having to comprehensively rebuild every street. They show how things can evolve and improve. I’m always willing to go back and investigate some more…

Think Like A Pedestrian

For twenty years and more, cities like York and Oxford have had a transport hierarchy that puts pedestrians first. For those who manage not to be entirely obsessed with bikes or public transport, this idea that pedestrians have highest priority is pretty much accepted without question. But it isn’t clear what that means in practice.

Over the years, I’ve seen several attempts to write a Walking Strategy, mostly trying to fill the gap next to the Cycling Strategy. Sometimes the language is copied, with talk of Core Pedestrian Route Networks. I often hear people trying to promote walking, with lots of talk of healthy physical exercise. Some people even encourage you to bribe yourself, with glorified calorie counters earning mince pies or ice creams. All of this seems to rather miss the point.

I think the problem is trying to think of walking in isolation, in much the same way as providing for other modes has become stuck in silos. There really are things that can be done to promote walking – I’d highlight raised desire-line crossings of side roads and short-response pedestrian crossings – but they are only addressing walking in isolation.

The wider issue is whether a street is the sort of place where people want to walk. Are there places to go? Are they within easy walking distance? Are there other people around? Is the traffic oppressive? Are people on bikes a threat? Are enough people being coerced out of their cars?

In recent years, I’ve seen more talk of place-making. This is the idea that improvements to the physical form of the street can turn them into attractive places where people want to linger. While these are often great, and look wonderful, you do wonder whether you are just being taken for a ride by fancy-paving salesmen. There are an awful lot of streets that are unlikely ever to get such a treatment, so again it doesn’t feel like a real solution. Plain old tarmac is just fine if you’ve got people: the trick is getting the people.

I think we need to break out of this idea of treating each mode in isolation, and promoting the ones we prefer. City streets are a single system, and you can’t treat one aspect in isolation. Instead, we need to refocus on disadvantaged user groups – such as pedestrians – and ask what they want to happen to the system as a whole.

So, for instance, pedestrians might want more-frequent bus services, with better connections – because actually they’d rather not walk everywhere. They might want good cycle facilities on the road, so that people on bikes don’t threaten them, and maybe they’ll try it for themselves one day. They might want the traffic to slow down, or be stopped from driving through the back streets. They might want lots of zebra crossings, so they can enjoy stopping the traffic, and not have to wait in the fumes or the heat or the rain. They might want the parking moved a bit further away, so drivers don’t hog all the space by the entrance. They might want there to be less traffic.

But pedestrians won’t want to stop the city functioning altogether. They’ll still want things delivered, still want disabled access, still want reasonable access by anybody really, just as long as the cars don’t take over.

I think it’s time we learned to think like pedestrians.

Railway Boundaries

Whether trains are run by public or private companies, most services will be specified by government and organised by geographical area. But where should the boundaries be?

There’s often a tendency to run the long-distance services separately, because they are less dependent on public subsidy. Arguably, long-distance and local services need a different style of management, and the conventional wisdom was that it would be hard for one company to do both. But having separate companies means additional interfaces, unresolved conflicts, bigger meetings, and meetings instead of phone calls. Alternatively, it might be better if companies were small and focused: they certainly seem to perform better, especially if they are self-contained.

Since privatisation, the boundaries between franchises have changed. Some franchises have been combined to make for a single large operator in a region – creating Greater Western and Anglia. A franchise for Wales was created, to match the political geography, and Central Trains was split up because it was sprawling, unfocused, and performing badly. The local services in the north east were combined with those in the north west, but Transpennine was separated out.

Organising services by region seems to be effective. There doesn’t seem to any real problem with combining local and long-distance services. Nobody seems to place any great value on franchises competing directly with each other. So for a lot of the country, the question is pretty much settled, from Anglia clockwise around London to Chiltern, plus Wales, Merseyrail and Scotland.

But the organisation of services in the rest of the country is unresolved. This comprises the services currently run by East Coast, Northern, Transpennine, East Midlands, West Coast, CrossCountry, and London Midland. The perennial problem is the local services, which require substantial subsidy. It makes sense to coordinate them with the mainline services, to maximise connecting revenue, but it also makes sense to focus on local journeys into the major cities, and follow a regional political agenda. Maybe one day the cities will restrict car traffic, reducing the subsidy required.

One key problem is Birmingham, where CrossCountry and London Midland are both significant operators. I would suggest transferring the West Midlands local services to CrossCountry, so that there is one main operator. The remaining London Midland services would then transfer to West Coast, so there’s one main operator for all the services into Euston.

In the North, despite a certain amount of political cooperation, the two sides of the Pennines are really quite separate. I think it makes more sense to combine the local services around Manchester with West Coast, and the local services in Yorkshire with East Coast.

You’d then end up with four franchises: West Coast based in Manchester, East Coast based in York, East Midlands based in Derby and CrossCountry based in Birmingham.

There are a number of options with Transpennine services. In some ways it makes sense running services for long distances. Passengers make all sorts of overlapping journeys, and through-running reduces the need for interchange. But it adds to operational complexity – trains have to be fuelled and cleaned away from their home depot, and there have to be small driver and conductor depots. And the further you run, the more chance of a delay. This isn’t a sensible way to operate low-margin low-frequency services.

It’s better to split operations at natural thresholds, either places where there is little traffic, or where almost everybody changes trains anyway. Manchester provides a natural hub, so I think it is better to split services there, with East Coast providing the main services across the Pennines, and down to Nottingham. East Midlands would then concentrate on covering the east-west flows further south.

What people want from the railways is a well-managed public service. A proliferation of operators doesn’t help, and we should move to a situation where each region has one main operator, with Network Rail organised in the same way.

The map shows a possible split.

Map data © OpenStreetMap contributors. Base map is OpenStreetMap Transport layer.

Birmingham New Street

Birmingham New Street is the hub of the national rail network. It has long been a dark and confusing place, buried under a shopping centre, with dim lighting and lots of blank walls that all look the same. But a glance up at the departure board always gave me that “where shall we go today” feeling, and suddenly the world seemed a brighter place.

It was hard to recommend New Street as a place to change between trains, so the railway made a virtue of running through services. Which is a pity, because sitting in a train in the bowels of the station is hardly the best way to see Birmingham. In fact, unlike many cities, the station is in the heart of the city centre – in two minutes you could be on the main shopping street, or sunning yourself in Victoria Square.

This comprehensive pattern of through workings comes at a cost. It means that services are a bit irregular, don’t depart from consistent platforms, and are prone to delay. In fact, small delays are endemic. With some trains running head on, some reversing, and some terminating, they inevitably get in each other’s way. The reversals in the high-numbered platforms, in particular, have never really worked.

New Street is currently being rebuilt, with a huge atrium to let in the light. It will be a much more pleasant place to change. At platform level it will be brighter, though still pretty disorientating. But the main improvement is that there will be a large central concourse, big enough to let you get your bearings, rather than just follow the signs.

We should take this opportunity to simplify the pattern of services. Instead of alternating between head-on and reversing, the main CrossCountry services would all run head-on. This will allow departure platforms to be standardised, and substantially reduce delays. It will inevitably force a few people to change who did not have to before, but the overall effect should be substantially positive.

All services from Reading would run to Manchester, and all services from Bristol would run to Sheffield. This is mostly just a replatforming exercise, but it would mean the service to Reading leaving slightly later (as it often does anyway).

The great virtue of simplifying the service pattern is that it will demystify New Street. The staff will soon get used to the idea, and be able to tell you which platform you need without a second thought. But it will also make it a lot easier for everybody to understand. Rail travel shouldn’t be a great mystery. It should be as easy as ABC.

The platforms would be roughly as follows:

High Speed or not High Speed

High speed rail has its benefits, but we don’t have to build it all straight away: use high speed to enhance the existing rail system, not replace it.

Normally, it’s a good idea to separate fast and slow railway services. There are multiple intermediate stops on almost all corridors, so you need four tracks to run fast services. Approaching London, you ideally need six tracks, so the urban stopping service is separate. That’s the situation on the West Coast Main Line – six tracks to Watford, four tracks (mostly) to Crewe.

Around London, many of the main lines were four-tracked decades ago, in the days when there were far more freight trains. This typically extends beyond the limit of outer commuter services, allowing the fast trains a clear run. This is why there hasn’t been the pressure to build high-speed lines – we already have an extensive network of fast lines.

With the exception of Kent (where there had never been much four-tracking), the sensible option has been to increase linespeeds, build flyovers, and extend the four-track network. And so it might continue if it weren’t for Milton Keynes.

The two largest rail markets in Britain are London to Manchester and London to Birmingham. They are large enough to justify half-hourly non-stop services, but the infrastructure does not allow this. At the London end the line is getting close to capacity. We are getting to the point where either everything has to stop at Milton Keynes, or nothing.

Approaching Birmingham and Manchester, there are sections of two-track railway, and the fast services have to run between stoppers. To make this fit, the fast services have a couple of intermediate stops. These extra stops mean there are more services to Birmingham/Manchester, and that partly compensates for the loss of speed, but there isn’t much value running more than three trains an hour.

With Milton Keynes planned to expand, the simplest option is to stop everything at Milton Keynes, in much the same way as everything out of Paddington stops at Reading. This slows all the fast trains by about five minutes. So the high speed line isn’t really about solving a capacity problem, it’s more that the capacity problem reduces speed, making a high speed line more beneficial.

The engineers have identified a route for a new line, and have ended up proposing a tunnel almost all the way from central London to Amersham – about 40km. To justify the cost of this, the route to Birmingham and Manchester needs to be ultra-fast throughout, and the line needs to be full from the outset, with branches to anywhere big enough to fill a train. This intensity of service also requires a major expansion of Euston station, demolishing several blocks of social housing in the process.

The expensive parts of the high speed line are the new terminal stations and the tunnelling into the cities. The French typically don’t do either of these – they have concentrated on building new lines between cities. Now that we’ve identified just how expensive the full scheme would be, I think it’s time to consider an intermediate option that leaves the most expensive sections to later.

Starting from Euston, I’d suggest maximising the number of 260m platforms within the existing station, and expanding the concourse, but not increasing the footprint or trying to provide 400m platforms.

I’d then use the existing fast lines to at least Headstone Lane (between Harrow and Watford), and start the high-speed line from there. That halves the tunnelling, but allows the full scheme to be implemented at a later date.*

The high speed line would then run as proposed to Berkswell on the outskirts of Birmingham, before diverting onto the existing route to Birmingham International and New Street. Capacity approaching Birmingham would be increased by four-tracking from Berkswell to Adderley Park, and providing additional flyovers at Proof House (the junction just before New Street) to make it conflict-free. Platform capacity at New Street would be increased by running services through, rather than terminating. This doesn’t quite create a perfect high-speed route into Birmingham, but it spreads the capacity benefits more widely, allowing more local and more semi-fast services.

Services to Manchester would diverge from the high speed line south of Rugby, on a new link that would join the existing main line just north of Rugby. The existing line is mostly four-track and fast for 125 km, and does not need to be duplicated. Just before Stafford, there is a gap in the four-tracking which probably needs a 5 km new line, looping south of Shugborough. At Crewe, there will need to be a new flyover at the south end, and the freight underpass at the north end will need to be upgraded.

The existing route from Crewe to Manchester is fairly fast, albeit mostly two-track and with a couple of intermediate stops required. The proposed route with a long tunnel via the airport is hard to justify. A better bet would be building a branch a bit further north, alongside the M62 then joining the line to Manchester Victoria via Eccles. This would be fast, with no intermediate stops. There would probably need to be new platforms at Manchester Victoria, but there is plenty of space.

The line will be almost full with fast services to all the main West Coast destinations, but there will be some spare capacity. It will be hard to justify a high-speed branch to Leeds: the costs will be high and the cities are smaller. Instead I would suggest a short branch towards Derby, with high-speed services to Sheffield and Nottingham, using existing lines.

It seems more likely that improvements to Leeds will come from upgrades to the East Coast Main Line. The key bottleneck is south of Hitchin, where there are too many outer-suburban services on the main line. The solution may be to use the fast lines out of St Pancras to Bedford, and make a new line alongside the A421 to St Neots. This would provide enough capacity to run additional trains non-stop to Leeds.

Rather than build an all-new high speed line, I think a greater improvement can be made by selective new build and four-tracking more of what we already have. That way the benefits will be felt more widely, and the new capacity will be put to good use, rather than duplicating what we already have. In a small country, it’s the ability to run non-stop that makes the critical difference to speed.

The map shows the existing four-track railways (in orange), the existing and suggested high-speed lines (in red), and the new four-tracking on the approach to Birmingham (in green).

Map data © OpenStreetMap contributors. Base map is OpenStreetMap Transport layer.

* There are other possibilities, using existing major road corridors through the Chilterns. These are slightly slower, and deviate more from the full scheme, making it more expensive to implement the full scheme later. The minimum requirement is to leave the existing line before the first station north of Watford (Kings Langley).

Lower Fares / South London Overground

To really reduce fares, we need to make rail into an all-day transport service. South London is a key opportunity for transformation.

It’s become an annual tradition: when the inflation index is published for July, the campaigners start putting out press releases about what that means for rail fares in January. Eventually the government agrees to reduce it by a little. This makes the campaigners seem important, and the government seem generous, so everyone’s a winner. But it detracts from the underlying issues.

To get fares down properly, we need lots more people using the railway off-peak. The cost of running the service is mostly fixed, so the more people travel when there’s spare capacity, the lower the cost per journey. In due course, this will feed through to lower fares.

Longer-distance services into London roughly pay for themselves. This is where rail is strongest – running fast into the centre of London. It’s also where improvements to rail have the greatest effect, because getting to and from the station has (proportionately) least effect. Inevitably, railway management tends to focus on these services, rather ignoring the shorter-distance ones.

This is a problem, because it is the short-distance services that require the subsidy. But it’s also an opportunity, because short-distance services are more likely to work for leisure journeys. All you need is a high-frequency service, easy access to and from the station, and something worth going to.

Putting this together, there’s a distinct virtue in short-distance services being managed separately from long-distance services, and integrated with connecting services in the centre. If you can combine that with improving the attractiveness of the city centre, all the better.

For a number of reasons, the short-distance services in south London have remained part of the national rail network, rather than being incorporated into the Underground. The network is more interconnected, so it couldn’t readily be linked into the Underground one line at a time, as was done in north London. Instead, the whole inner network needs to transferred in one go, with just a few fast lines left for the outer services.

That wasn’t feasible until a few years ago, but the advent of HS1, and Thameslink begin to make it possible. There will need to be some further alterations, but on nothing like the same scale. The outer services need sufficient capacity so they can largely avoid interacting with the inners. I’ve identified the key improvements that will be required:

New flyovers north and south of East Croydon. These allow fast services to run from Victoria and London Bridge through East Croydon without conflict, but with cross-platform interchange. This increases the capacity for outer services, allowing the inner services to terminate. The first flyover is at Windmill Bridge (just north of East Croydon), and will take the southbound Victoria fast line (blue) over the London Bridge fast lines (orange). This reduces the inner services to a single line for a short way, but this is sufficient.

The second flyover is at South Croydon, and will take the southbound Victoria fast line (blue) back over the London Bridge fast lines (orange).

A new bridge, and a rearrangement of lines at Chislehurst. This diverts the Kent mainline outer services (orange) away from the stopping services (green), so that they can take over the lines to Chatham and Maidstone. A new curve between the fast and slow lines allows the stopping services from Bromley South to run to Orpington without conflicting with the fast services.

Six-tracking of the section from St Johns to New Cross. This keeps the outer services (orange) separate from the Charing Cross and Cannon Street locals (green). The outer services can then run into Thameslink using the new flyover at Bermondsey. This requires the widening of the cutting under a local street, and rebuilding a number of bridges. There are a couple of tight spots, but it looks feasible.

With a few fairly simple changes, all the local lines out of Victoria, Charing Cross, Blackfriars, Cannon Street and London Bridge can be separated from the outer services, and integrated with the Underground. Off-peak service frequencies can be increased, making rail into a true all-day transport service. If this is combined with making central London into an attractive leisure destination, then more people will travel off-peak, spreading the costs, and (ultimately) reducing fares.

Original imagery courtesy of Google Maps.

Low Traffic City Centres

To become a truly great city, London needs to exclude most traffic from its central commercial districts.

A shopping trip to Stanfords in London set me thinking about what makes a city a truly great place to visit.

The heavy traffic, buses, taxis and crowded pavements all feel an inherent part of London’s character. But that very character is also something that makes the centre of London a place that many Londoners generally avoid. It is too noisy, too busy, too congested. London is one of the world’s great cities, and a huge number of people work in the centre, but it is not fulfilling its potential as a shopping, leisure and cultural destination. It is still too dominated by traffic.

Many cities have made their centres attractive by excluding through traffic and reducing parking. However, by looking at a large number of examples, a pattern emerges: the low-traffic area is approximately one kilometre across, and surrounded by a ring road. This is the size of the pre-industrial city, with the ring road taking the place of the city wall (or canal). Vienna, Munich, Amsterdam, Copenhagen all seem to follow this same basic pattern.

The problem is that central London is much bigger than this, being about 5km by 2km – and that’s excluding the part of the congestion charge zone that’s south of the river. If you try to draw a 1km grid on the west end, you end up with heavy traffic on Oxford (or Wigmore) Street, Piccadilly and Regent Street, which is exactly the unsatisfactory situation we already have.

Some of the Italian cities, notably Florence, have restricted traffic over a bigger area, roughly 2km x 2km. This has required a strict ban on private traffic during the day, with limited provision of zonal permits for residents and deliveries. Trying to impose a 2km grid on central London is a bit more realistic. It can mostly be done using the wide roads that the Victorians built: Embankment and Kingsway.

The congestion charge zone has been fairly effective, but the lack of control within the zone means that the main commercial areas still have too much traffic. We can do better than that.

One observation from the various continental cities is that they typically have very little explicit provision for bikes in the centre. There are often cycle tracks alongside the ring road, but they tend to form a secondary route, with the main cycle routes heading into the restricted zone. The priority for the ring road is to keep traffic out of the centre, not to provide a cycle superhighway. At the moment, London seems to be adopting the opposite policy – of giving the traffic free rein in the centre (for a fee), and trying to carve out cycle superhighways on the few roads that are wide enough. C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre.

I’ve drawn a map showing how London might be made into an attractive low-traffic destination. To give access to all areas, three key routes (in pink) would be retained as traffic streets. The rest would be access-only. The traffic would be suppressed by blocking all the other through routes, by pedestrianising the streets in light blue, including Oxford Street and Regent Street. These blue routes would remain bus corridors, but would be much less congested than at the moment. They also make a good set of commuter cycle routes. There would be a few cross routes for taxis, but all other traffic would have to go round.

Map data © OpenStreetMap contributors

Office Location

Commuting patterns are the result of where people live, where they work, and how they travel between the two. Workplaces may only take up a fraction of land, but their location is clearly critical to the transport system. Do we want offices to be concentrated in a few locations, spread about evenly, or something in-between?

The dominant economic force seems to be to concentrate offices in a few locations. Businesses like to be near customers and suppliers, and like the flexibility to grow and acquire staff and space that comes from being part of an agglomeration. Staff like the flexibility, and also direct access to shops, banks, and places to eat and drink. This is why offices have traditionally located in city centres. Above a certain size of city, there needs to be public transport, but this works reasonably well, given all-day demand, and priority over cars. But it can be difficult to get enough priority over cars.

The public transport priority problem is particularly acute where a city’s expansion has been restrained by a green belt. It is harder to make public transport from outside the city competitive, because the higher speeds in the countryside mean that urban priority has less impact. Railways can be competitive, if the distance is far enough (maybe 10 miles), but buses will need very clear priority to be competitive.

In recent decades, there has been a growth in business parks, where cheaper offices are offered on an out-of-town site, sometimes with some form of tax incentive. Almost all access is by car, and people drive from miles around. On a small scale this works well-enough, but as the business park expands, the road network becomes unable to cope, leading to chronic congestion (and demands for ever more capacity).

There have also been large-scale developments on suburban sites, particularly hospitals and universities. These also tend to be accessed by car, but the congestion effects are usually more immediate. In Oxford it has proved possible to impose parking restrictions at the large institutions. Many people live close enough to walk (or cycle), and many others can use public transport or Park & Ride. The restrictions are unpopular amongst the staff, but can be made to work.

The dominant tendency seems to be for employment locations to agglomerate. As such it makes sense to focus on city centres, and to make them work in public transport terms. Employment growth should also be focused on city centres, even if that means more people commuting from outside; at least then there is a fair chance that they will commute by public transport.

This does not mean that all jobs should be in the city centre. A reasonable concentration of jobs in smaller towns will give people access to local employment, and the number who drive in from outside will probably be tolerable. What should be avoided is creating concentrations of employment with a wide catchment, and not particularly drawing their workforce from adjacent settlements; that will overload the road network.

The data for Oxfordshire shows how Oxford dominates (even though Headington and Cowley have been separated out), but there are other significant centres of employment.

Oxford is distinguished by having an unusually low driving share, markedly lower than any other location. Headington is also noticeably low. The internal driving modal shares vary, dramatically, from 12% for Oxford to 60% for Didcot/Harwell/Milton. The external driving modal shares are almost uniformly high, with only Oxford and Headington differing from the norm.

I have calculated a self-sufficiency ratio – the percentage of a town’s employees who live locally. If you combine the three Oxford areas, their joint self-sufficiency is 48%. The most striking result is that all the other towns are as dependent or even more dependent on commuters from outside. People aren’t just commuting into Oxford, they are commuting in large numbers into every employment centre (and most of them are driving).

Does this create a problem? We know there are horrendous congestion problems around Oxford, so there needs to be further improvements to public transport. Where else is it a problem? The worst concentration is around Didcot/Harwell/Milton, both because it is large, but also because a lot of the traffic is concentrated on the A34. The other location with a particular problem is Kidlington, where the self-sufficiency ratio is very low. In both cases, major employment sites have been developed outside the town, rather than organically.

The solution for both Didcot and Kidlington is to actively seek to integrate the employment sites into the towns, with excellent walking and cycling provision, new housing conveniently placed for the employment site, and new public transport links. In the case of Kidlington, it would probably be better if some of the employment land was converted to housing.