Our 5th Year: A Cinderella Story

It's fair to say that the rail industry has been really interesting as of late. To celebrate the 5th year, we take a look at one of the biggest rail projects of the decade.

ThamesLink 700010 at London St. Pancras.

If I was to ask you what London rail project is to unveil later this year that has been in the works since the turn of the millennium, chances are you'd say Crossrail (or the Elizabeth line). But how many of you actually said the ThamesLink programme? But why does this project keep being side-stepped, particularly in reference to Crossrail when it's just as big, if not bigger?

Let's talk trains
Due to officially and gradually open later this year, the ThamesLink programme is a massive rail project to connect more towns and cities in the West Anglia and Bedfordshire, through the heart of London and to spawn out the other end in Kent and Sussex in a north to south format. There will be an array of regional commuter and metro trains involved, providing a first time direct link from Cambridge to Brighton and Maidstone, and Luton to Rainham (not our one, the one in Kent) via Bluewater, Dartford and Gravesend.

As a regular traveler on the ThamesLink and Great Northern rail routes, the difference over the last few years is black and white. Although whilst the companies have been constantly named and shamed for their poor reliability and other issues within that field, we have to remember the much more grim days of First Capital Connect. That said, I'm pretty sure that along with sister company Southern, that whole TSGN franchise is up there again for the worst train operating company (TOC) in the country award again by Which? for the 3rd year running.

The stations were often grotty and were slowly falling apart, not maintained well, dirty and lack of staff presence across the network. Now that's flipped around with the grey and pink being dashed out everywhere (and grey and blue, but not as much). But ThamesLink, maybe not Great Northern as much, has come quite a long way and I've always believed that credit does need to be given where its due.

So what is the final result of the ThamesLink programme?
On the internet, the exact answer to that has always been quite difficult to find, especially when it comes to finding out service frequencies and destinations as these keep changing over the years during several consultation periods.

ThamesLink 700018 at Streatham.
From what I've gathered, the services that have always stayed on each consultation period for ThamesLink:

  • The current Bedford to Brighton service via St Pancras, London Blackfriars, London Bridge and Gatwick Airport.
  • The Sevenoaks to London Blackfriars service, also dubbed 'The Cinderella line', will be extended to Kentish Town (or truncated from West Hampstead Thameslink, depends how you see it) for most of the day. It gets a much needed frequency increase to 4 trains per hour. The Orpington service will complement this as well.
  • The Luton to Sutton via Wimbledon 'Metro' service will be cut back to terminate at St. Alban's City. The current St. Alban's City to Sutton via Mitcham will continue to terminate here. 
With Great Northern, through the soon to be opened Canal tunnel from St. Pancras to Finsbury Park, it connects the ThamesLink line and the East Coast Main Line. This will allow trains every few minutes to run through here allowing the direct connection from the Anglia region to Sussex.

Great Northern:
  • The current Peterborough to London King's Cross service will be re-routed to London St. Pancras International, then continues via London Bridge and Redhill to terminate at Horsham.
  • The current Cambridge stopping and semi-fast services to London King's Cross will be re-routed to London St. Pancras International, then continues via London Bridge to either Brighton or Maidstone East*.
  • The King's Lynn to London King's Cross 'fast' services, that run non-stop from Cambridge will not run via the ThamesLink core. It will be one of the few, if only, remaining regular service at London King's Cross during the day**.
  • The Welwyn Garden City Metro service will, during the peak, be extended to Sevenoaks.
*First small print is that this had originally been planned to be two trains an hour to Brighton, and two trains an hour to Tattenham Corner. However, many stakeholders saw this as a waste of resources (the choice was random, even we have to say) and available paths, and decided to send the trains to the much bigger town (and as a destination too), Maidstone East. 

Interestingly, ThamesLink has taken a short-term decision to not run trains beyond Finsbury Park to Maidstone East on Sundays, where trains, as now, will run into London King's Cross at an hourly frequency instead. The Brighton variant of the service will continue to still run through the core.

**The second small print is that it was intended for the ThamesLink programme to make it all the way to King's Lynn. However, due to infrastructure issues, particularly relating to the platform lengths (a few stations on the line can only hold 4-cars) and power supply restrictions that would not be able to handle 8 or 12-car trains, it's put a dead end to what was a promising view for the Fen Line passengers. In the short run anyways, we can only hope.

As a result, the London King's Cross to King's Lynn train will continue to be operated by the class 387 'Electrostar' trains that have just been introduced last year.

Another interesting addition is a brand new route from ThamesLink. As aforementioned, a new metro train service from Luton to Rainham in Kent calling at all stations (it runs fast Mill Hill Broadway to West Hampstead ThamesLink) every half-hour using brand new dual-voltage trains. This service would run through North, Central and South London before making its way out via Bluewater [Greenhithe], Gravesend, Gillingham (Kent, not Dorset - but you should have figured that out by now) before terminating at Rainham. 

This replaces the London Charing Cross to Gillingham semi-fast service currently operated by Southeastern using class 465 Networkers and also the Sutton loop trains north of St. Alban's City. 
Moorgate station, rather grim.

Did we mention it runs at night too?
ThamesLink is one of very few operating companies to run trains throughout the night. The only other ones I can think of whilst writing this is sister company Southern (who withdrew half of their services late last year anyways), Transpennine Express (does this really count when it's once every 3 or so hours?) and the newly introduced night London Overground which only runs weekends. Oh, and of course the Caledonian Sleeper franchise too.

Trains will continue to run hourly, with the option to pursue a half hourly service in the future, calling at all ThamesLink stations between Bedford and London Bridge, followed by East Croydon, Gatwick Airport and Three Bridges.

Give them credit, they were here before the night tube, 7 days a week too.

Improvements to stations
Bar the broken promise with King's Lynn and the Fen Line, all stations will see an improvement in reflection of the fact that their rail services are majorly improving. Some of the flagship work has taken place around the biggest stations in Central London, a headlining one being Network Rail's London Bridge station. Others include the relatively new (2007) London St. Pancras International, London Blackfriars (2012) and City ThamesLink (1990s - but it still looks the part nearly 25 years later). 

The platforms at London Blackfriars station
A futuristic look has been given to them, but when I say that, it's not like the dull metal display that you'd find on the Jubilee line extension. Maybe St. Pancras' is to an extent but otherwise it's a carefully thought, well-designed, light, airy and modern design that even has a reflective vibe surrounding this. I still argue to this day that the renovated London Blackfriars station has to be one of the best stations you can find in London. The shell is mostly made of glass, with the platforms hovering above the River Thames (possibly the only station in the country to do so) spanning the full width of the river. It allows for an undisputed view of London's biggest waterway, bridges and myriads of well identified office buildings and of course the South Bank. 

The grade listed station at Farringdon, together with the London Underground, has had its original engine shed roof from when the Metropolitan Railway first started restored to its former glory. Mass expansion, particularly of the platforms, has allowed for more capacity during the rush hour and when the programme fully opens up (blocking off access to the City Widened lines to Moorgate - that explains the abandoned platforms at Barbican and Moorgate). What's more important is that Farringdon has lately seen an overhaul on the London Underground side, but now the ThamesLink Programme and Elizabeth line are planned to interchange here. In over a year's time you can get a train to Heathrow, Gatwick and Luton Airports from here!

The new entrance at London Bridge.

Part of the station forecourt at London Bridge.

The new London Bridge station had in fact opened another entrance following the New Year's, being the final leg of the station renovation project. Whilst some platforms remain closed until May as no trains will operate from [them], it has adopted an airport style concourse. Yes, it's equipped with gates that have lit arrows and crosses above them to show what gate you can go through and can't. The new arcade as well is quite grand and has quickly caught the attention of enthusiasts and passengers alike, no doubt that Network Rail really took pride in this particular station - the 4th busiest in the whole country.

GONE: Repainted ThamesLink 319444 'City of St. Albans' at Farringdon.
A full fleet of new trains
To help maximise and modernise the extent of this revolutionsed rail network, the Department for Transport (DfT) commissioned for a fleet of 115 brand new dual-voltage electric trains to be ordered. Dual voltage, because the ThamesLink line is one of few unique railways in the UK where trains in passenger service have to switch between overhead lines and third rail to obtain their power at Farringdon.

German manufacturer Siemens had won the contract to do this, building two new depots at Three Bridges in Sussex (that's just south of Gatwick Airport) and Hornsey in North London to station this huge fleet out of. A promise was made to hire more people into the engineering aspect of this company expansion with apprenticeships making up a percentage of their work fleet. 

These new trains are essentially the rivals to the class 345 Aventra trains, were classified as the class 700 Desiro City. This 'variant' of the series - the more appropriate way to put it - was its debut in the United Kingdom based on the success of the much-loved Desiro trains that have been in service since the early 2000s. They come fitted in either 8 or 12 coach fixed formations, walk-through, fully air-conditioned, toilets, charging points and at-seat tables and a first class section. The trains were built in two batches, with the 700/0s being 8-cars and found on the Metro services via Sutton and to Sevenoaks and Orpington, and the new service to Rainham and Maidstone East. They are currently found during the day working the Bedford to Brighton route as well however this won't be the case as much when the programme is in full swing, as this line, alongside Cambridge to Brighton will use the 12-car trains. 

ThamesLink 377510 in repainted neutral purple and sporting the
newer ThamesLink/ logo at Farringdon.
[These] replace the 30 year old class 319 trains that were withdrawn last summer from ThamesLink, which came in a 4-car formation. Enthusiasts find this particular class to be like marmite, either you love it or you hate it, so their farewell saw mixed reviews. It's not just the 319s they replace though, they also replace the class 377 'Electrostar' trains built by Bombardier as these move to Kent and work with Southeastern on their mainline routes as part of an enhancement programme. 

The first of the two depots to be opened was Three Bridges, and subsequently the first train was sent there and in early summer 2016, the first class 700 started service after a public exhibition to showcase the new design to the public was unveiled months earlier, 12-car 700108 ran a service from Brighton to London Bridge. Subsequently, after few teething issues, more quickly entered service and within about a year the whole ThamesLink fleet had been converted to class 700s including on the Metro services.

Passengers praise the trains for their more comfortable seats in comparison to the Aventra ones. The 700 is a train with more facilities doing the same distance as a typical Crossrail train on a Metro service. The passenger information system (PIS) has been noted for temporarily fuzzing out and being out of sync from time to time, however it tells you how busy the train is, live tube updates, the status of the toilets, safety notices and the calling pattern of the train. 

The displaced class 319s have now either gone to storage, or are being converted into class 769 Flex bi-mode trains for use up north on partially electrified lines (similar to the class 230 D train from our old D-stock). Some 319s are also getting a new lease of life as increasing more and more are coming to new operator London Northwestern Railway (West Midlands Trains) to enhance capacity on the southern stretch of the West Coast Main Line between Northampton and London Euston, particularly when a new, revised and higher frequency timetable is introduced this December.

Brand new 700031 at London St. Pancras.

ThamesLink to Horsham and Littlehampton
In the last timetable change during December 2017, ThamesLink took over, using class 700s, some of Southern's diagrams from London Bridge to Horsham via Redhill and to Littlehampton, a spur off the West Coastway line.

Two trains, via Redhill, runs approximately every 60-90 minutes all day Monday to Fridays between London Bridge and Horsham as ThamesLink. This allows for a smoother transition when this service becomes more high frequency and is extended to Peterborough via Finsbury Park. 

The service to Littlehampton runs just twice a weekday under the ThamesLink flag in each direction in the peak direction of travel. Majority of services, and all stations continue to be operated by Southern. 

Some trains are currently stored on the East Coastway as well down at Eastbourne, providing a useful berthing facility overnight.

The Northern City line to Moorgate
A separate line to the rest of the programme but happens to be getting its upgrade right now and does interwork its way into this, as it's operated by Great Northern. There are two lines right now, from Moorgate to Welwyn Garden City and Moorgate to Letchworth Garden City via Hertford North. Majority of trains terminate at Hertford North.

Great Northern 313123 at Finsbury Park bound for Moorgate.
However, due to the sheer intensity of the ThamesLink programme, track and capacity space is being utilised to its breaking point around the Stevenage area and a proposal set forward to relieve this issue is to cut the Letchworth services back to Watton-at-Stone and provide a reverse enabling facility (i.e. crossover). A bus would then run the rail replacement service until further notice between Watton-at-Stone and Stevenage where passengers can connect to rail transport once again. 

More capacity is being provided with an additional 30 Siemens Desiro City trains being ordered for the Moorgate services, all of them to a fixed six-car length and of similar design. However, they will be equipped with cab door exits in the event of an emergency in the Moorgate tunnels and will be standard class throughout. These will also be stationed at Hornsey. These variants are called the class 717s and will mainly be confined to this line replacing the class 313s, the oldest EMU mainline trains still in service. 

The ThamesLink, Northern City and Northern lines
An interesting conflict arose this week between ThamesLink, the press and Transport for London (TfL) for not showing or advertising the ThamesLink programme throughout the duration of the works, or displaying this on pocket tube maps. Several parties who had commented on the matter stated that it was 'secretly' in interest to protect their revenue, which had been falling over the last year, and did not want to lose London based competition to a rival company, even though ThamesLink is considered the second 'Northern line' essentially. It does go from Tooting to Mill Hill, though.

So far, this is the story of a Cinderella line. After billions of investment, and station upgrades, new trains and better connectivity, this one ugly duckling will be sure to turn heads when it rolls out later this year.

We would like to send a huge thanks to all our half a million and counting readers who have kept the blog alive for the last 5 years to this day! 

And now that you've read this post, why not visit the amazing London Buses: On The Go who also turned 5 today!