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Standing on Willesden Junction station waiting for a London Overground train, I noticed some railway work going on down below. I was intrigued and asked a man wearing Transport for London uniform what it was.
He didn’t know: he didn’t work on this station; it was not his job; he was actually there to ask questions himself, and — was I going on the next train? — because, if so, would I mind very much if I answered some?
And so for the next 16 minutes southbound to Imperial Wharf, I answered a customer satisfaction survey. There were dozens of questions, asking me to grade the signage, the seating, the staff and everything else about the Overground. Because he seemed like a nice young chap, I complied amiably until he asked for my postcode and telephone number, which seemed to be taking our relationship to a unreasonably intimate level.
But deep down I was livid. For years I have wanted someone to ask my opinion so I could let rip about the whole horrendously incompetent British railway system. Finally it was happening. But it was happening on Britain’s most startlingly successful train service, one for which it is hard to find a bad word. I might almost have marked everything as a 10 on my new buddy’s scale except that, well, you have to keep ’em on their toes, don’t you? The Overground is an amazing development. And it was all so simple. Why on earth did it take so long?
Britain is usually bad at Gallic-style grands projets. The costs mount; governments panic and cancel them; the disruption, the destruction and the capriciously cruel compensation system make them unpopular; and they take so long no one can remember who wanted them in the first place. The planned national high speed line, HS2 (with a cost of £50bn and rising), is a classic example. London’s £15bn Crossrail line, now under construction, was first mooted in 1941. The Overground, by comparison, was created out of old yogurt pots and bits of string. Most of the infrastructure was already there; it had just been forgotten.
Even when the national rail system was being slashed in the 1960s, London Underground was expanding. That is when the indispensable Victoria Line was built. However, Richard Beeching, who masterminded the cutbacks, was not much keener on urban railways than he was on rural branch lines. Even in London, routes not in heavy commuter use were allowed to close or decay.
A few zealots did dream of an outer ring to match the Circle line on the tube map, ignoring the overcrowded centre and uniting the periphery. Richard Pout, a railway enthusiast who died last year, was an early and tireless campaigner. Come the new century, the capital’s population began expanding again rather than contracting. Trains came back into fashion and London acquired mayors who could make things happen.
That part was crucial, says London’s former transport commissioner Sir Peter Hendy: “We had a champion. Otherwise we could never have had the political stability to deliver it.” The two men who have served as mayor, Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson — from opposing political standpoints — are both zestful Overground supporters.
The crucial link was a bizarre spur of the Underground in the East End which came to a dead end at Shoreditch, which might have been crowned Britain’s Dingiest Station if enough people had used it to notice. Its northward extension to meet the North London Line at Dalston opened in 2010 and marked the effective start of the new railway.
Shoreditch High Street station is now a massively used back door into the City. Along with the newly connected area of Hoxton to the north, it is the epitome of cool (except for the property prices, which are hot, hot, hot). The Overground has done far more to regenerate this part of London than the Olympics. The circle was completed via frantic Clapham Junction just three years ago. London now seems unimaginable without it.
Hendy and his number two, Ian Brown, must get the credit for one aspect: an un-British attention to detail. They did not skimp. The stations are inviting — clean, well-lit, well-staffed, well-signed and freshly painted. The schedule was coherent and trustworthy. The name and colour — orange or, some call it, ginger — are both obvious: the Tube map is running out of spare colours.
Iain Sinclair, in his idiosyncratic book London Overground, described the diagrammatic map of the new line as resembling “a flaccid rugby ball that some large person around Caledonian Road has sat on, very firmly, squeezing a nipple-bud out beyond Willesden Junction.” But that is already out-of-date. The transfer from the national network of three lines north of Liverpool Street has made it more like a map of the human blood vessels, with a bit of intestine thrown in.
Because it really is mostly overground and thus has that modern necessity of mobile phone coverage, there is none of the Tube’s very British silence. Almost everyone is doing something on their phone, often speaking very fast in a language that may be hard to identify but is certainly not English. But these are not tourists heading to the sights. These are the new Londoners, forging previously unthinkable commuting patterns. Pre-Overground, perhaps no one in history ever travelled from, say, Brondesbury Park to Anerley.
Hardly anyone talks to each other, nor even looks at the scenery. The seats all face inwards and there is not much to see, except when crossing the river or when the City’s new skyscrapers appear in the distance. The trains go through London’s unglamorous capillaries and intestines. There is no call to the dining car, no hint of romance. This is a purely functional railway.
In Britain, which has always had a tortured relationship with its trains, that is a relief. When British Rail was privatised 20 years ago, a new and botched franchise system was established that arguably offers the worst possible combination of public and private ownership. The Overground is publicly owned but let on a management contract to a consortium owned by Hong Kong transit and German railways. And it seems to work far better.
The railway expert Christian Wolmar is one of many enthusiasts. “It’s created businesses. It’s created jobs. It has brought a sense of cohesive community, a sense of belonging to the whole city. None of this would have happened with a motorway. And it didn’t cost £15bn or £20bn, it cost a billion or two. If you need an object lesson in how to do transport, London Overground is an unarguable test case.”