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London's 'Make-Do-and-Mend' Transit Revolution

London's 'Make-Do-and-Mend' Transit Revolution
Feargus O'Sullivan

This Saturday, London gets its first real orbital railway. This new line will ease pressure elsewhere and allow travelers to circumnavigate the city without passing through its congested core. Colored rust on the city’s transit map, the new line looks like a huge clockwork orange, closely connecting neighborhoods that were once strangers to each other and further helping the ongoing march eastwards of London’s city center. It’s all part of an ongoing radical overhaul of London’s public transport system, the scale and ambition of which the city (or any western European capital, for that matter) hasn’t seen since at least the 1980s. And it’s all arrived so quietly.


A graphic depicting where the new line will stop, courtesy of Britianist/Wikimedia Commons*

It’s not surprising that this revolution has gone largely unnoticed internationally. When a sparkling new metro line is unveiled, transit geeks across the world drool, myself included. By contrast, London’s new links (part of a growing network under the umbrella name London Overground) have arrived through creating new, tunnelled connections that bolt together old, underexploited tracks, a sort of make-do-and-mend network. This doesn’t make it any less effective, and the Overground is already helping to redraw the London map and, as one of the UK’s most reliable railways, it’s making the city that bit more liveable.

Until recently, substantial parts of London (notably the South and East) had limited subway access, relying instead on poorly integrated, less reliable commuter rail lines run by national train companies.  Some of these worked okay and some were terrible – the notoriously unreliable one near where I grew up used to be called the Cinderella Line, presumably because while you were waiting eternally for some grand carriage to arrive, all you saw on the line were mice. 

The Overground has taken these old lines and knitted them together with newly constructed underground trackways and new stations (mainly in the under-served South and East). A number of these stations also have subway connections, so this once separate network is now a fully integrated extension to the subway rather than a shoddy, second-tier alternative. 

The Overground’s rolling stock is also a huge improvement. While London’s subway trains are constrained by narrow tunnels, the Overground’s single carriage trains are wider and higher, with space for bikes outside rush hour and air conditioning. Personally, I love them – they’re clean, bright comfortable, reliable and modern but, with carrot colors throughout, somehow make me think of 1970s tramcars.  In fact, with a blanket obsession with orange across the network, the Overground is developing its own unofficial nickname – the Ginger Line.

This new network is already re-chanelling the flow of London transit. Nowadays, many London office jobs are in the redeveloped former docks in the East, while much of London’s nightlife has also moved to the area just north. The Overground makes getting to these areas while bypassing the historic center much easier. It’s also helping to create a new commuter drainage basin for Docklands jobs. South East London has pretty much the last pockets of affordable Victorian property in the city and they’re now within 30 minutes of financial centers like Canary Wharf. Now that Londoners are giving up on the city’s West as an exorbitant playpen for super-rich property speculators, the Overground’s improvements both reflect and facilitate the city’s shift in gravity eastwards.

This, however, is only the beginning. The Overground may look like small change with the opening in 2018 of Crossrail, a massive rail project currently pock-marking central London with holes. An East-West commuter line running through town in new tunnels, Crossrail will slash travel times for commuters, give subway passengers more space to breathe and finally make it possible to get to Heathrow fast without feeling ripped off. As it stands, London’s transport system is often cramped, temperamental and expensive. I’m happy to say that, despite too-high fares and some investment missteps, the city’s transport future looks rather better.

* An earlier version of this post mis-attributed this graphic.

All photos by Feargus O'Sulivan.

Feargus O'Sullivan covers Europe for The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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