This Is How All South London Could Get The Overground

Rachel Holdsworth
By Rachel Holdsworth Last edited 28 months ago
This Is How All South London Could Get The Overground
Photo by Liam Doyle from the Londonist Flickr pool

A morning in the Londonist office isn't complete without one of us messaging in to say our train's running late or we've been left behind because the train was full. Or it was the wrong kind of sunlight. Several of us, you see, rely on Southeastern and Southern trains. We look enviously at our Peckham-based colleagues who are able to slip onto the air-conditioned Overground and glide effortlessly into work.

There's been talk for years of giving Transport for London (TfL) control of some of south London's rail services and turning them into Overground lines. It's worked a well-documented miracle on services elsewhere: the Overground is one of the most popular rail operators in the country. But where lines in other parts of the capital are contained roughly within the city borders, south London's extend further out, and that's what's been putting the brakes on.

A new report from Centre for London has had enough of the quibbling, however, and looks at what could practically be done to — in the words of its title — Turn South London Orange. It'd cost money — more than Thameslink, less than Crossrail, they think. Signalling and control systems would need upgrading, some sections of track would need altering (e.g. replacing junctions with flyovers), platform management would need improving as well as better designed rolling stock. Engineering company Thales calculates that these upgrades could deliver up to six trains per hour during peak times, combining into Victoria or London Bridge for 14-18 trains per hour.

Stations would be nicer, and staffed from first to last trains. There's potential for 100-130% increase in capacity by 2050. Improving rail services attracts people to it — as has been seen with the Overground elsewhere — which could ease overcrowding on south London's minimal tube service and stuffed buses, as well as the actual trains. We could expect better accessibility. It sounds like paradise.

One major stumbling block is what happens about those aforementioned services that run beyond London's boundaries. Surrey and Kent councils have indicated they're fine with TfL taking over the services within London — the metro lines — as franchises expire, but not those that go beyond. The report says that such a scenario would limit the Overground's transforming powers; there'd be capacity limits at pinch points and different operating companies sharing lines would obviously not be able to benefit from one overarching train management system. One suggested way round this is to merge all services into one concession jointly run by TfL and the local county councils.

The only drawback we can think of to all this new Overground is that it will make the tube map even more incomprehensibly orange than it is already. It's a problem we reckon we could live with.

There are also likely benefits around job creation and opportunities for new housing. However, we think we speak for everyone in south London when we say they would be lovely extras but we just want the Overground. ASAP, please.

Last Updated 14 January 2016

Continued below.

Nicholas Hair

"However, we think we speak for everyone in south London when we say they would be lovely extras but we just want the Overground. ASAP, please."

Wrong. Passengers on the West Anglia and Lea Valley lines from Liverpool Street were begging for Abellio to come back when Overground took over, took on old trains from storage and they consistently failed. The reason Overground succeeded on the East London line and routes from Richmond, Clapham and Willesden to Stratford or Gospel Oak to Barking is that those routes were woefully neglected and any change would give increased passenger ridership. Indeed, all we need is for TfL to work with the DfT and not against it to provide a Passenger Transport Executive similar to in Leeds or Manchester to raise funds to get newer stock and to man ticket offices and stations for longer.

The problem with now willy-nilly handing over swathes of Southern and Southeastern routes to London Overground is that it won't make any difference. Until Thameslink is completed, London Bridge and Croydon will keep being a problem. The problems London has pail into insignificance when you look at the old, dangerously overcrowded trains in Leeds, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow to name a few; and as soon as there's a "wrong kind of sunlight" everyone assumes it's Southeastern's fault. It's actually not - it's a known defect with a system that affects operators from Anglia, Great Northern, Thameslink, Southern, Chiltern, Great Western and Underground to Southeastern with sunlight in safety-critical cameras and a Train Driver shouldn't compromise your safety or their freedom (Court, Manslaughter) for absolute punctuality. London Overground even got rid of Guards - a secondary safety layer.

So before you brashly suggest that South Londoners want Overground remember that it's impractical and won't fix a thing. Train service levels will be exactly the same as defined by the Department for Transport and the trains will be just as busy. Centre for London can speculate about infrastructure improvements for an amazing frequency of trains but, actually, a lot of what they will suggest will be what's coming up under Network Rail. I'll thank you to be far more objective and knowledgeable on before you try to speak on behalf of people on issues that are clearly more complex than you can realistically understand.

Stephen Colebourne

There are some interesting ideas in the report, although they remain at a very high level. For example, a tunnel under Herne Hill for fast trains and a tunnel to allow trains from Streatham Common to run via Streatham and Streaham Hill make a lot of sense. However there is a big undiscussed issue.

The document essentially suggests ways to enhance the South London network to get double the number of people to London Bridge and Victoria. But does not discuss how people then get to other locations in Central London. Can the tube cope at London Bridge and Victoria? Probably not (even with Crossrail 2).

As such, I think that while much of what is in the report needs to happen, it doesn't stop the need for an additional Crossrail from South London. (I've been arguing for a branch of Crossrail 2 to serve Balham and Streatham with the main route to WImbledon going via Earlsfield instead, known as the Swirl-Max plan. Such an approach essentially provides part of that additional Crossrail, emphasising once again that all of these changes are interlinked.)

Rikard Ottosson

I know there are very few that seem to care, but surely it should be worth it, at least for the people out in Sevenoaks, Maidstore and further Kent to relieve the congestion on the Southeastern Mainline over Grove Park and Orpington? Just handing bits of train to TfL won't solve that problem. Yes, Lewisham will be less horrible once they extend the tube there but the Hayes line will still gobble up useful capacity into London Bridge and onwards. There would have to be new tracks laid to solve the current congestion, surely. At least a mile or two. The changes of adding another 4000 people over an hour during the morning rush to a big terminus like London Bridge should be quite possible to cope with. Victoria is another matter as the tube is frequently backed up quite severely for capacity reasons while LBG seems to shut down because of faulty equipment and thus allow access through the other tube entrance.

Fred Smith

I would contest whether there is anything smooth about commuting via Peckham Rye station at peak times.

John Zebedee

How does more lines becoming The Overground, run by TfL, overcome Network Rail? They are the real problem with the likes of Southern and South Eastern have to put up with.

Melvyn Windebank

The government has recently announced the creation of Transport for the North which will take overall control of services and lines covered by Northern Rail and TPE . While a similar plan will see local services in the West Midlands transferred to Centro .

Basically London needs Chris Greens Network Southeast back with services within London controlled by the Mayor and TFL they need not necessarily become part of the Overground with franchises still running the trains but TFL would control infrastructure and stations in partnership with Network Rail .

As for south London its problems are historic and arise from simple fact that passengers in north London change railways while on the former Southern network trains change lines leading to wider head ways as stations have services to say London Bridge and Victoria or even Charing Cross and Victoria thus meaning 4 trains an hour can mean on,y, 1 or 2 per hour for some journeys !

One thing the next Mayor could do is add Thameslink central service between Kentish Town and Elephant and Castle with London Bridge added in 2018 and Great Northern service from Moorgate to Finsbury Park to the tube map . A simple way to reduce tube crowding and let passengers at Highbury and Islington know they can go straight to Moorgate instead of using Victoria Line and changing at Kings Cross to make same journey!

F G Sketch

Although this seems very sensible, it would only come in on time and on budget if Network Rail and companies associated with their current problems are specifically excluded in both planning and implementation.

Thomas Sutcliffe

I think the notion of incorporating some of South London's rail services is an excellent one, and have 'pressed' this article on to my London Transport themed website For a further London Overground related notion check out this post:

A. Di Sano

Ignoring the fact that the London Overground lines are far better than years ago, I would not say that's better when TfL would manage all lines in South London. I´m from Germany and 99% of all services are operated by Deutsche Bahn, that means that they can make everything with the passengers without the fear that they could choose someone else, because they have a monopoly. Monopolys are dangerous because the train operators can bring the fares up, make service worse and accept more delays, that's what happened to us in Germany. That's why multiple train operators should operate in South London: To allow competition and encourage the operators to make services better.


Seems to have some promise, but isn't this just as short-sighted (and disingenuous) as the so-called "South London Circular"? By that I mean it simply cobbles together and attempts to repurpose some existing antique architecture, without any real vision for the future.

Peter Sainsbury

Just moved into Shepperton and compared to where I used to live up north, the half hourly service is pretty good. That said the travel time to distance ratio into central London lags behind other areas. From what I've seen of Greater London so far, many of the Metro services are slower and less frequent than they could be because the fast trains coming in from further afield take priority at signals. A city with projects like crossrail taking place surely has the means and the funds to develop a segregated surface tube operating on its own network. To me the expansion of Overground across South London is a no brainer and would surely see a relatively quick return on its investment once all those extra residential zones find themselves on the tube map. Wil be watching this space very closely! :)

Brockney C HouseFM

The success of London Overground compared with the continued failures of the private operators prove, beyond any arguable doubt, that British Rail should and must be renationalised.

Here is an example - the North London line when it was run by Silverlink. What an absolute shambles of a service that was!

Here is another example - part of London's 'privatised' rail services are actually controlled by the French Government!

There is day-to-day evidence that Mrs Thatcher's privatisation policies were both a failure and a joke and they need to be removed. Immediately!