The SE Essex Action Group Alliance (SEEAGA) has prepared a Paper (see file to the right) proving what many of us already know, that the area’s commuter rail links – the Liverpool Street and Fenchurch Street lines - cannot possibly cope with the growth in population planned for the area.
This blog entry is a brief summary relevant to Southend Victoria to Liverpool Street branch line.
Connection between Green Belt & Commuter Infrastructure
What is usually forgotten is that there was originally a sixth purpose, to protect London’s commuter infrastructure from being overloaded by urban growth and so harming the capital’s economy.
Sir Frank Pick, head of London Underground, took over London Underground and perceived a strategic crisis for the capital’s transport system and hence its economy. He lent his voice to calls for a new Green Belt around the capital.
On taking over, London was expanding rapidly and the underground network was expanding rapidly to meet it, for instance there were two major extensions to the northern line (The Northern Heights) close to completion.
Pick recognised that a focus on lines and stations was a mistake, the real issue was (and is) capacity. How much capacity do we have, and how much can be realistically delivered in future? He understood that if these extensions were built, then the trains would be full before they reached the centre of the city and existing customers would be unable to get on the trains. The London Underground, and hence London itself, had a 12-15 mile maximum economic radius if it were to remain successful.
To illustrate his point, imagine there had been no Green Belt and London extended as far as Basildon and that the District Line had extended to support it. Extending the line would mean the trains were full by the time they reached Dagenham or Barking.
Pick’s response was ruthless; he cancelled these near compete extensions and their tunnels and trackbeds can still be clearly seen today.
Relevance Today – Projected increase in demand
Pick’s argument for Green Belt clearly applied to London and its Underground, but large increases in population and longer distance commuting now places regional commuter lines close to breaking point, with Southern Rail currently the grimmest example.
The Abellio Southend Victoria branch is at capacity already, with peak-time demand projected to grow 26% in 2013-23 and 67% in 2013-43. Worse still, this is based on housing growth targets for SE Essex which are just 60% of those currently proposed. There are also a number of reasons to think this is an underestimate.
Forget Crossrail, this simply replaces the current Shenfield slow services. Billericay and Wickford commuters will be no more likely to transfer to those services than Basildon commuters are to change at Upminster to get on the District Line.
The trains on the Southend Victoria Line can be no longer, but what about frequency?
We get 6 trains per hour (6tph) at peak times on our line, which isn’t very many. The reason for this low number is that we are just one of many branches – including high-speed intercity routes - on a busy and complex line serving East London, Essex and East Anglia.
Heading into London, these lines merge at Shenfield after which point there are an impressive 22 trains per hour, including our own 6 and this does not include the 15 Shenfield Slows (in future, Crossrail) which uses separate tracks. The congestion and complexity of services in the Shenfield-Liverpool Street stretch is the major limitation on services on every branch of the Great Eastern network.
However a string of large new towns are proposed for north Essex and it would be astonishing if the local Councils there aren’t lobbying the Department for Transport for their route to get these services.
So that’s it – IF we get these services we get an extra 22% capacity, 33% in the very long term if these become 12 car trains. 33% is the maximum improvement we can hope for, less, probably much less than half of our ultimate requirements.
How should Councils respond
This would be counter-productive to the economy of the region, as current and future London commuters would struggle to get to work.
Local Authorities should therefore develop Housing Targets which are lower than the objectively assessed needs. To do this they will need to cite valid reasons not to meet this ‘need’ and we recommend that Green Belt constraints as well as the limitations imposed by the commuter transport infrastructure are used.
Currently the Council are speaking about building a minimum of 15,260 new homes, though the way the plan is structured means this is likely to be exceeded by some thousands. The minimum we could build is roughly 8,000 (no Green Belt loss) though the needs of local people are somewhat higher at around 9,600.
Readers will have a range of views on the best possible housing target, but for the sake of our economy as well our environment, we must not build as many as are currently proposed.