24 August 2009

Thameslink upgrade - in Crossrail's shadow

Amidst the hoypoloi involved in the forthcoming Crossrail project, the largest peacetime railway infrastructure task ever undertaken, London is currently witnessing the transformation of its existing north-south railway, Thameslink in what is now the single-biggest enhancement programme on Network Rail's books.

First opened on 25 April 1988, the 140-mile railway line linked Bedford in the north with Brighton on the south coast. Thameslink effectively bridged the void across the Thames and thus Bedford services no longer terminated at Moorgate and Holborn Viaduct was no longer the start point for trains bound for the south coast. The long-distance Snow Hill tunnel (between Farringdon and Blackfriars) was re-opened, following its closure in the early 1970s, thus offering a link between the southern-most tip of the Midland Main Line and the northern-most point of the Brighton Main Line. Running services end-to-end took in 50 stations and offered many people direct trains to Gatwick Airport.

Class 317s and 319s are the mainstay of Thameslink services. Some were to be relieved from duty from March, but a delay by train manufacturer Bombardier in supplying new Class 377s meant these trains live on. All should disappear from 2015 when the Thameslink Project is complete.

By 1990, patronage had risen by a staggering 300%, making it the fastest-growing route in the country. This though caused the problem that has been the line's Achilles heel for the past decade: overcrowding.

Initially, eight-car Class 319s operated through the central London section at 8 per hour, with some additional services terminating in central London at either Blackfriars or Moorgate. A 'fundamental upgrade' was seen as the only way out of the problem. Complex cross-overs with other rail lines hindered this being a straightforward process and it wasn't really until 24 July 2007 when then Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly sealed the deal with a £5.5 billion upgrade package.

A Class 319 crosses Blackfriars Bridge; this is to be widened to the west (right) of the photos. Platforms will completely straddle the Thames by 2015.

This is being phased - first to be complete for the 2012 London Olympics, aiming to have 12-car trains operating 16 per hour through the central London section by 2011; and the second by 2015, which aims to increase trains to up to 24 per hour. All trains will operate using Level 2 European Train Control System.

Back in 1988, British Rail operated all the trains. In 1997 Govia won the Thameslink franchise but following the end of this nine-year deal, First was successful in winning Thameslink and the Great Northern franchise, amalgamating the two under the First Capital Connect name from 1 April 2006. However, no sooner had Govia won Thameslink at privatisation, the then named Department of Transport commissioned its Thameslink 2000 project, which sought to end the overcrowding problems by extending Thameslink to take in additional existing lines both north and south of the Thames. Effectively, nothing was done and by 1999 the cost of the Thameslink 2000 project stood at £800 million.

Seen here at Farringdon is a Class 319 in First Capital Connect's multi-colour Thameslink livery. This has been replaced with the corporate First livery now. Class 319s have operated Thameslink services since it was completed in 1988.

John Prescott tried to push matters forward, though wasn't as successful as he was with High Speed 1. Thameslink 2000 wouldn't now be completed until 2006! Ken Livingstone, London's first mayor, even tried his hardest to push the scheme through, saying in 2004 that Transport for London could handle Thameslink alone, being fully operational by 2012/3. London winning the 2012 Olympic Games is what ultimately spurred ministers on to sort something out, and Thameslink 2000 was re-named the Thameslink Project by Network Rail to avoid any embarrassment of its obvious overrun through procrastination.

But what exactly is being done in this new Thameslink Project? Well, from 2015 all stations north of St. Pancras to Peterborough, including the line to King's Lynn via Cambridge will come under the Thameslink name; so too will services from London Bridge to New Cross and Dartford or Ashford via Tonbridge via Orpington as well as lines off the Brighton Main Line to Horsham, Littlehampton, Eastbourne, East Grinstead and Guildford via Sutton. By 2015 Thameslink will encompass one hell of an area!

Initially delayed, 23 Class 377s are being delivered, though by 2011 an additional 1,300 coaches will enter services, enabling up to 24 trains per hour to pass through the central section, operating as 12-car units. London Bridge station is to be completely rebuilt, though in phases to enable the station to remain open; Blackfriars station has seen its bay platforms (for terminating services) closed while the abandoned bridge that once stood to the west of the existing Blackfriars Bridge (closed in 1985) will be re-built to act as an extension of the existing one. Platforms here will spill the full length of the bridges - the first examples to do so in London. Farringdon is to be re-modelled and have its platforms extended to enable it and 50 other Thameslink stations to handle 12-car trains and invitation to tenders have been sent out for additional trains to enable all Class 317s, 319s, 321s and 365s to be completely removed from operation, with the deal being signed in 2010.

The red pillars that supported a parallel bridge at Blackfriars until 1985 can still be seen. They're to be utilised so that once again they are able to carry trains across. The original bridge was removed after it became too week and the pillars were left in situ so that they didn't affect the new, existing bridge - just as well, really!

It's a mammoth task, though unlike Crossrail, signs that these improvements are being made are visible right now. It's an upgrade that arguably has been needed since 1990 and yet one that could possibly be the victim of its own success: doubling 'through' frequencies from 12tph to 24 by 2015, and extending the length of trains from 8 to 12-car sets is one thing; extending the Thameslink route to take in numerous other areas of large populations could immediately fill all this additional capacity being made available. Direct services such as Cambridge-Gatwick are on the cards; Peterborough-Ashford and Stevenage-Brighton could all be possible.

It takes us longer to build railways now than ever before, but for those who commute using Thameslink, the complexity of what is involved is almost as staggering as the whole Crossrail project. (GL)