Remodelling London’s railway network
Network Rail is closing in on the completion of the £7bn government-sponsored Thameslink Programme, which will transform north-south travel through London and open up new opportunities for residents, commuters and visitors alike
The first day of 2018 held none of the traditional hangovers of New Year’s Day for those responsible for the successful implementation of the Thameslink Programme. It is a £7 billion government-funded scheme, with the £5bn infrastructure enhancement programme being delivered by Network Rail – the public company owning, operating and developing Britain’s railway, including 20,000 miles of track, 40,000 bridges, tunnels and viaducts, and thousands of signals, level crossings and stations.
It was on 1 January 2018 that the reintroduction of the cross-London Thameslink services through the iconic London Bridge station moved a step closer, when testing of the new, modern Class 700 trains began over the new infrastructure. The plans incorporate the resuming of regular Thameslink services at London Bridge station in May, once the drivers are trained and familiarised with the new section of the track and its signalling. When this happens, the passengers will experience more comfortable journeys on the new and more spacious Siemens trains, which will be longer and more energy-efficient, whilst offering enlarged luggage space, improved access for people with reduced mobility, and air conditioning.
The update set yet another milestone during the second stage of the programme, which focused on the rebuild of London Bridge Station, by increasing its capacity and reconfiguring its track layout. Just a day later, on 2 January, the station reopened, having been closed for major engineering works for ten days, and neared the completion of the £1 billion redevelopment after more than five years of work. The final touches will be added by the end of the year, as new shops, cafes and leisure facilities are expected to open, thus improving the overall passenger experience.
Simon Blanchflower, who is Thameslink’s major programme director, gives more details on the nature of the programme, its scale, the benefits it is going to bring to passengers, the challenges Network Rail has faced during refurbishment, and the lasting legacy the programme will leave to London and its residents and guests alike.
“The Thameslink Programme is about increasing the capacity of London’s north-south railway, and reducing overcrowding on other intra-London services, particularly the Northern Line. We want to open up and enhance new travel opportunities by linking places such as Peterborough, Cambridge and Bedford in the north with locations in Sussex and Kent, such as Littlehampton, Horsham, Brighton and Maidstone,” Simon explains.
He then offers a comprehensive account of the work that has been done so far: “Network Rail was contracted by the DfT to provide circa £5 billion worth of infrastructure enhancements and improvements, alongside the work that Siemens are doing, in terms of delivering 110 new trains. The work has been divided into two main stages, the first phase ended in 2012, and the second has been running from 2013 onwards. The first stage included the complete rebuild of Blackfriars Station across the Thames, and the opening of a new southern entrance, as well as work on Farringdon Station where two new ticket halls were constructed, one of which links into the new Crossrail station there.
“The second stage has aimed to increase the passenger-handling capacity of London Bridge station and the reconfiguration of the station’s track layout. Together with that, we have already finished the complete resignalling of the area and constructed a new dive-under at Bermondsey and a new viaduct to the west of the station, allowing the separation of the Charing Cross and Thameslink services,” Simon discusses.
The necessity to tackle overcrowding at London’s oldest station (London Bridge station was opened in 1836), and the requirement for high quality passenger facilities, triggered the commencement of the project. Simon elaborates on that: “London Bridge station was originally developed as two separate railway stations alongside each other – one for the southern railway and the other for the southeastern railway. The separated operation of the two caused severe overcrowding, exposing the substandard quality of the passenger handling facilities. We had to find a way to improve the overall capacity of the station and to provide dedicated lines for the Thameslink services to go through London Bridge station. Upon the completion of the project, there will be 24 trains per hour during the peak passing through the central London section between Blackfriars and St Pancras, as opposed to the eight we had before the programme started.”
It has been a gigantic task for Network Rail but the results have already been observed by passengers. Simon comments on the redevelopments London Bridge station has seen: “We effectively rebuilt the station in slices, starting with the southern side. We demolished a section of the station, rebuilt it, and designed a new street-level concourse that unifies the station like never before. The concourse is larger than the pitch at Wembley Stadium and serves all the 15 platforms, which has turned it into a spacious passenger-handling area, with new customer and staff facilities completed as part of the project. It is an added benefit for the station that we could make good use of the number of Victorian railway arches that existed before the reconstruction process, and turn them into retail space.”
One challenge that Network Rail had to deal with was how to keep passenger disruption to a minimum, as the station remained open for the five years of its redevelopment. “There have been some alterations to train services during that period just to allow us to get access to key areas of the station, but we aimed to keep it functioning as normally as we could. It brought some construction logistics issues and ultimately added further costs to the overall price, but it was one worth paying for, if we wanted to reduce the impact on the 50 million passengers that use the station every year. We knew it was going to be a trade-off between minimising passenger disruption, getting an economic cost for developing the station, and having sufficiently large construction areas that we could get into, in order to do the works we had to do. I think we were able to achieve a very good balance in the way that we delivered the works,” Simon states contentedly.
He outlines some of the logistical decisions that Network Rail took during the redevelopment process: “The constraints of the site on which we were operating made us quite creative. We had to focus on prefabrication and modularisation, so components were built offsite and then brought onsite for the final installation, because we did not have the physical space to do some of the construction activity. We also worked very closely with our supply chain to make sure we have the right flow of people. This allowed us to invest in the local community and to sponsor apprenticeships for people within it, as well as bring people who have been long-term unemployed back to work.”
Simon stresses that the real benefits of the redevelopment will materialise tangibly for the passengers in May this year, when a new timetable will be introduced, taking advantage of the infrastructure works Network Rail has completed. “It will be a real step-up in the servicesthrough the centre of London with up to 18 trains an hour through the main section between Blackfriars and St Pancras,” he reasons. “It will make a whole new range of travel opportunities available because we will be connecting up through what we call the canal tunnels, which run from St Pancras station and join in with the East Coast Mainline just north of King’s Cross. This means that services from Peterborough and Cambridge will be able to directly access St Pancras, Blackfriars, Farringdon, and stations to the south of London. The real benefit for customers is that they will no longer have to interchange at King’s Cross and St Pancras onto other services to get across the capital. These timetable changes will be built upon every six months, so the subsequent additional services to the centre of London can be expected in December this year, and then in May and December in 2019.
“It is a key thing to emphasise,” Simon clarifies, “that the Thameslink Programme has been driven only partly by the need for infrastructure change. It addresses the need for operational change, too, and to achieve this we are introducing the European Train Control System, which is an in-cab signalling system with Automatic Train Operation that will support the new service frequency. In addition to this, we are introducing Traffic Management – a service regulation tool, which will allow services that approach London to be regulated more effectively. Just after Christmas we introduced ‘platform humps’ to facilitate platform-level access for disabled users at central London stations, who will now be able to self-embark on the train, without having to rely on platform staff’s further assistance. All these add-ons contribute to providing a metro-type service to the centre of London,” he maintains.
At the end of our conversation, Simon expresses his praise and gratitude to all the stakeholders in the Thameslink Programme, for facilitating the smooth coordination of the project throughout its implementation: “It has been a collaborative approach that underpins a lot of the work we have done on the programme. We established excellent relationships with key members of our supply chain and a significant milestone for us was being able to get good alignment between them under a single programme. During the programme, we invested heavily in maintaining good relationships with a whole range of stakeholders, such as the DfT, the train operating companies, the local councils, local businesses, tenants’ associations and residents. Our view was that we should try to engage them as much as possible in the process, because of the major impact the programme could have on the whole area. We hope and believe we have mitigated these impacts as a result of the communications we have had with them.”