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."........The Wombles Of Wimbledon Co...." oh never mind.
Well it was free for me.
Just what is this sudden appearance of a London Overground? Is it new? Is it even over ground? After all, The Underground doesn't even stay underground all the time, so by the same perverse logic, it's to be expected that anything called The Overground will probably go underground sometimes, which it does.
The Overground is a pulling together of a mish-mash of tributaries to the London rail network, some of it "requisitioned" from previous main-line services, like the North London Line (NLL) from Richmond to Stratford, and some it a re-birth of withdrawn Underground services like the East London Line (ELL) from Shoreditch to New Cross, passing under the Thames in Brunel's famous tunnel - the first underwater tunnel in the world, and still being useful! As with the Docklands Light Railway, a company called LOROL (London Overground Rail Operations Limited) is contracted to run these services on behalf of Transport for London.
The one thing the routes chosen for the 'corporate logo' treatment have in common is that they mainly tend to skirt round central London, rather than run in and out of it. If the use of the phrase 'corporate logo' sounds cynical, it isn't supposed to be. Rather than just 're-badging' the same tired old knackered rolling stock with a few vinyl stickers (a common trick), with only one notable exception, all the trains are new and dual-voltage electric*, sporting their new livery from day one. The exception I spoke of is the Gospel Oak to Barking shuttle service and even here, new matching diesels are to be introduced almost as I write.
(* leaving them free to use either the third rail predominant in central and south London, and the overhead wires strung along long sections of the North London Line.)
As the proud (if you can be proud and labelled an old git at the same time) holder of a Freedom Pass, valid in London on rail services as well as buses, and having a spare day when the sun shone all the time, I decided to ride as much of the Overground as time would permit.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS - THE TRAINS
Having got off a super-smooth-riding South West Trains suburban unit at Clapham Junction, I was pleasantly surprised to find that all the new electric Overground units are equally smooth-riding, being air-sprung. They are only three cars in length compared to the more usual configuration of four and even eight. However, they do seem to be very roomy, and there's no wasted space or constriction for the corridor connections. You can see right down the full length of the train and even stand in the end vestibules which are nearly full width. Of course, the reason why there seems to be a lot of floor space is because there's bugger-all seating, it being limited to lateral (back to windows) benches only, which is very reminiscent of current day Underground practice.
Some of these seats fold up when not in use to accommodate wheelchairs. 'Priority seating' for those 'less able to stand*' is finished in a different colour upholstery. Did I say 'upholstery? More like a cloth covering really are there's no discernable padding except that which 'you carry with you'.
Hand-rails are colour-coded to the line's corporate livery of orange
(*Does this include drunks I wonder?)
Being a sunny day, the air-conditioning was turned down to nipple-up-perking levels, and I found myself standing deliberately by a door-way to get some sun on my goose-pimpled arms! The number of girls with their arms crossed bore silent and stiff-lipped witness to this; in fact the whole thing was like looking at a Les Dawson impersonator's convention.
Information displays are good, showing final destination and next station alternately, combined with frequent digitised announcements, which given the number of stops on this line, mercifully do not keep reminding us to take our belongings with us, although helpfully, do tell us about possible interchange opportunities!
Being largely above ground, sometimes on embankments and viaducts, mobile phone reception is pretty good including being able to use the internet on a 3G phone. Of course, you do have to know when the next tunnel's coming.......
Acceleration is good and seamless for something built to 'main line' standards - best to hang on if not seated.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS - STATIONS
What an introduction to a brand-spanking new service Clapham Junction is - not! What a dead-and-alive hole. Fortunately my train to Willesden Junction obliged by pulling in, waiting 10 minutes and getting the hell out of there with me in it! Stations all along this route alternate from the downright dingy to the 'work in progress but going to look smart one day'. Somehow, re-branding the station just by giving it a new name sticker in orange doesn't convince in the same way that spending a few quid on wheelchair access and a new concourse does.
Arriving at Willesden Junction (High Level platforms) is a case in point. The island platform is currently being lengthened (for 6-car trains hopefully) and it has been titivated in general. However, if it wasn't for the weather, it could easily have been a nasty windy and wet spot to stand exposed 50 feet up to a north wind.
Changing trains here by waiting on the same platform for a Stratford train emanating from Richmond was easy enough and the trains are pretty frequent, say every 15 minutes off-peak. Displays are informative, showing as many 'next' trains as will fit on the list, bearing in mind that there are also downstairs platforms on the Euston-Watford branch as well as tube platforms.
I can't imagine anyone, other than claustrophobics, wanting to travel all the way from Richmond to Stratford 'overground' as the train stops with almost the same frequency as some buses, when you could hurtle up to Waterloo in about 15 minutes and catch the Jubilee Line from there. All Overground trains are 'all-stations' jobs.
All around the erstwhile North London Line (NLL), evidence of infrastructure improvement is obvious. Tracks are being re-instated to quadrupled status in places (the NLL carries a surprising amount of freight too), junctions that they were so keen to rip out donkey's years ago, like at Dalston are now being put back (very significant and I'll touch on future growth later) and as for Stratford, well, it's virtually unrecognisable from when I was there 5 years back.
Let me see now, there's the new International Station with its passing Eurostars and Kent Javelins all in excess of the 'ton', there's a terminus for the new NLL trains, and the Docklands Light Railway (DLR). The Jubilee Line ends here too, whilst the Central Line stops here as do suburban services from London to Southend and indeed most trains to East Anglia pass through as well. They're even building what appears to be yet another spur to the DLR right through the heart of the station. Then of course, there's the Olympic Stadium in the background.
If it's new you're after, look no further than Dalston Junction on the newly re-opened ELL, currently an unsignposted walk from Dalston Kingsland on the NLL. This really is new, and had been in use for a few weeks, and even more amazingly, it seems I managed to travel all the way to West Croydon from here only days after the full end-to-end service had been running. I wondered why I was outnumbered by staff on the platforms, all milling around and fussing over me to make sure I knew where I was going.
This East London Line (ELL) carries on due south to the river, through a brand-new Shoreditch High St and revamped Wapping and Rotherhithe stations (previously Underground). Emerging on the south side of Brunel's fine tunnel, the line splits to terminate almost immediately at New Cross, having first passed through its Jubilee Line interchange at Canada Wharf. The other branch launches off into south London, passing through the likes of Brockley, Forest Hill and around the Sydenham area to terminate at either Crystal Palace or West Croydon, which is where my day on the Overground ended, walking through the streets of Croydon to find a tram going the right way, i.e. towards Wimbledon. The one way system used by the trams negates finding one outside West Croydon Station that isn't going south-east.
Oh yes, I did also ride the Gospel Oak-Barking line just for the hell of it too. Riding through London in what appears to be a provincial diesel Sprinter didn't somehow seem quite right.
Bits I missed? I didn't ride the Richmond to Willesden Junction section of the NLL, nor did I touch upon the Euston to Watford service, which is practically stand-alone, apart from a platform interchange at Willesden Junction.
After taking the Croydon Tramlink service to Wimbledon, it was a quick flit up the main line back to Clapham to finish off my circumnavigation of London involving lots of trains and about 500 yards of walking.
I spoke earlier of the pedestrian link (such as it is with no signage!) between Dalston Kingsland on the NLL, and Dalston Junction, northern terminus of the ELL. Work is already going to allow for northbound ELL trains to turn left and west onto the NLL, terminating at the four-track Highbury and Islington station but also allowing West Croydon to Clapham trains to run 270 degrees the long way around London if it was thought necessary, which is starting to look like a kind of 'Outer Circle' line. One stop short of West Croydon, they are also planning to re-instate direct access to Clapham Junction, and once this is done, the Outer Circle becomes a reality, or at least the track will exist. Whether anyone wants a high-density commuter train with hardly any and hard seating to become a long distance one is anyone's guess. It would certainly only be the fools like me doing it for the hell of it that would ride the entire 360 degrees! The major question is whether continuously circling trains would generate enough short distance passenger demand to keep the trains well-patronised. It works for the Circle Line, but that's somewhat nearer the centre of town. It could even become a 'victim of its own success' like the M25!
All of this is scheduled to happen in 2012. In view of minor irritations like Emergency Budgets, watch this space. At the end of all this, 30% of Londoners will be within a 15 minutes walk of an Overground Station but then in many cases they probably already were, it just didn't have the orange sticker over its original name - but heh, what do I care, I'm one of the 70%?
FARES, ROUTES AND JOURNEY TIMES
Now that ALL of London's stations have come on board with the Oyster card system, the last being those run by South West Trains, ticketing is very straightforward. The entire Overground rests within the London zones, most of it conveniently within zones 1-4 with the possible exception of the Watford line, Watford having the pure cheek not to be even in London!.
Euston -Watford. End to end timing is 52 minutes with a frequency of 20 approx. minutes (However, there are faster ways of going directly between the two)
Richmond - Stratford. End to end timing is a stonking great 62 minutes with a frequency of about 15 minutes.
Clapham - Willesden - Stratford. The shorter run takes about 25 minutes with an up and down frequency anywhere between 8 minutes and 30! Some Clapham-based trains carry on to Stratford, increasing the frequency of Willesden to Stratford trains to about 8 minutes once mixed in with what originates at Richmond.
Dalston Junction to West Croydon. End to end 53 minutes - just you try getting from north-east to south-west London in less! Running about every 10 minutes.
Nice new nipple-teasing trains with possibly over-zealous air-conditioning.
There's loads of floor space at the expense of seats, which are bum-numbing anyway.
Lots of useful transport interchanges along the route.
Same fare structure as the rest of London, with convenient Oyster card system.
There's a higher degree of wheelchair access with more to come.
Overground opens up new travel possibilities, with more to some.
The London Overground is the hidden gem of the London Transport system and is going to become more well known once the extensions for the Olympic village are in place. The London Overground mostly connects west with east London but also runs through to Clapham in the south. What makes it so invaluable is that it connects areas that do not have easy underground access most notably connecting Dalston/ Hackney with Camden through to Kensal Rise and Richmond.
Trains on the Overground run roughly every 10 minutes during peak hours and every 20 minutes outside of this. The regularity of this service is due to increase once the line extensions of complete incorporating the old underground East London Line but until then, as is frequency of trains is manageable except during rush hour times where it can get ludicrously overcrowded given this and the fact that the trains themselves are very short.
The cost of a journey is about £1.50 (although I imagine less with an Oyster card) and can take you from one end of London to the other which I think is pretty darn cheap given the distance you can travel.
Reliability is an issue on the line and I think is its one major downfall as it can leave you very frustrated as trains are often late or cancelled. This is particularly frustrating as you come to rely on the service and in some instances getting from A to B by other means can take over twice as long (Kensal Rise to Dalston Kingsland takes 25 minutes on the Overground but by bus/ tube/ bus would take over an hour).
With the Olympics due I hope the network can work on the reliability of this line and it can get faster and more reliable as promised. As is, although sometimes frustrating, it serves as a very good way of accessing certain parts of London, especially as it links up with the Underground network at a number of stations along its route.