Forget the timetable, it’s London’s stations that need a shake-up

Passengers disembark a train at King's Cross station in London, Nov. 7, 2014.
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Passengers disembark a train at King's Cross station in London, Nov. 7, 2014.

For weeks, some London commuters have been blasted by headlines warning of "the biggest timetable shake-up in rail history" ahead of rail company Govia Thameslink's new schedule.

From Sunday, passengers on Southern, Thameslink, Great Northern and the Gatwick Express routes had to reorganize their daily journey. And in the capital's workplaces this week, winners will be crowing while losers bleat.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I fall into the camp of moaners. Last week, my gentle trundle into City Thameslink involved an easy change at Denmark Hill in South London with lots of trains to choose from.

Now, between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m., the line from Denmark Hill in to CNBC Towers has gone from five direct services to a grand total of one. Judging by the Thameslink Twitter feed, I am not alone in losing out.

The Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union has almost matched the newspapers in negative hyperbole, suggesting the new timetable could have "disastrous consequences" and "will place massive additional strains on infrastructure."

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Govia Thameslink, Britain's largest rail franchise, has batted away the criticism. It claims the new timetable will allow for an extra 50,000 morning peak-time passengers to commute into London. It also says up to 80 more stations will enjoy direct services to central London stations by 2019.

Only time will tell if the changes prove beneficial, but it does raise questions over London's commuting future and just how many bodies can, or should, be shuffled in and out.

In 2016, the independent watchdog London Travel Watch issued a document exploring potential future transport projects. One idea was to develop London's outer rail hubs.

The paper argued that stations such as Ealing Broadway, Clapham Junction, Barking or Brixton could be developed further and made much more appealing for commercial development.

London commuters queuing for tube trains at Green Park Tube Station.
Getty Images | Tolga Akmen
London commuters queuing for tube trains at Green Park Tube Station.

Improving these interchanges would shorten journeys, stimulate local economies and help with regeneration, the paper argued. And, crucially, if there are more jobs on the outskirts of London then there might just be a bit more space for those still traveling to the inner city postcodes.

Stephen Joseph, executive director at the Campaign for Better Transport, said the average suburban rail station is currently "a bit miserable" and, with some exceptions, underused as an asset.

Joseph believes handing control over to Transport For London (TfL) — a state organization rather than a private company — would result in an attempt to push through much more development around rail stations for people to live and work. He cited the London Overground development at West Hampstead, with its new Marks & Spencer supermarket, as an example of what could be done.

One sticking point might be the frosty relationship between TfL's ultimate boss Sadiq Khan and Transport Secretary Chris Grayling. They are not thought to be on each other's Christmas list.

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