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Transport / Mass transit

It’s time to give London Overground different line names

This piece was amended on 28 February 2020 to reflect, well, my evolving thinking about names.

So here’s a thing I’ve been thinking a lot of late: it’s time Transport for London stopped pretending the London Overground was one big thing and started giving its lines individual identities. Just as on the Underground, each route should have a colour and a name. It’d make the world better. Honestly.

In some ways, of course, this line of thinking is a sort of greed. I’ve always been in favour of TfL acknowledging the existence of more lines (my strong belief that the District and Northern lines should be two lines apiece, say), in large part because a metro network with 13 lines sounds cooler than one with 11. There’s a similar impulse at work in my sudden determination that the Overground should be many lines not one. London is big, and its transport network one of the best in the world. Stop talking LO down, TfL!

But that’s not the only reason I’m thinking this slightly mad thing: there is, believe it or not, an actual practical argument for it too. On several occasions of late I have needed to go from east London, where I live, to north London, where I want to be. There are a number of ways to do this, but not having a death wish I prefer to avoid the Central line at rush hour, so that limits my options. 

When I asked CityMapper for suggestions, the two fastest routes it offers are these:

Screenshot from CityMapper.

Now. You wouldn’t know it from that screenshot, but here CityMapper is suggesting I take three different lines. On one route, I could get the Overground from Shoreditch High Street to Highbury & Islington. On the other, I would instead head to Bethnal Green Overground station, get one train to Hackney and then change to another heading west. 

To find that out, though, I’d have to click through and frown at some maps and who has the time for that? If each of those lines had a different identity, which could be simply communicated through some combination of logo and colour, then my options would be obvious.

This sort of thing happens a lot. You know you can get the Overground at Whitechapel, and at Gospel Oak, but can you get there directly? No – but you’d need to know the map to get that. Because the different lines that serve those places use the same name and the same colour god it makes me so mad.

Anyway. Thanks to my irrefutable logic, you’re now convinced, I’m sure, I’m sure, of the case for breaking the Overground up. The next questions are – how many lines should it be? And what should we call them all?

A few years ago, in fact, TfL was considering doing, well, basically what I want it to: splitting the Overground into a handful of separate lines, and showing each of them on the tube map using different colour. To distinguish them from the Underground, and to make up for the fact the human eye can only distinguish about 15 different colours at a glance, each would have been shown using “hollow tram lines” – two thin coloured lines with a white space between them – rather than a solid block.

That never happened, obviously – TfL concluded that the status quo was better, although god knows why. (Rumour is that then mayor Boris Johnson preferred being able to point to a big and growing Overground network, rather than a handful of individual lines, some of which are crap.) And, from the glimpses of that map that have occasionally found their way onto the internet – I can’t find it anywhere now; if you can let me know and I’ll add it in – I’m also not convinced by the choices TfL made. 

For one thing, it treated all the Liverpool Street routes through Hackney as a single route, the Lea Valley Lines. To my mind, it’s obviously two – one to Chingford, and one via Seven Sisters which then splits at Edmonton Green – because they use different tracks, have only three stations in common before they split, and follow a different service pattern. (The Chingford trains don’t stop at Cambridge Heath or London Fields because of the aforementioned track thing.)

For another, TfL used really boring names. The East London Line and North London Line are established names, sure. But they’re also sort of colourless. Surely there are better names for them that that?

The full London Overground map. Click to expand. Image: TfL.

So here are my proposals for better names. Some of them I’m quite pleased with. Some of them I’m not. But this is what I’ve got at the moment:

The Brunel line – The extended East London line, from Highbury & Islington down to New Cross/Crystal Palace/West Croydon/Clapham Junction. Named after the Victorian engineer who designed the tunnel under the Thames it uses. 

The Olympia line – The old North & West London lines, from Stratford to Richmond and Clapham Junction, which serve both Kensington Olympia and the Olympic Park. (Here I originally had the Broadway line – a bit of a reach, based on the fact some of those lines used to run into Broad Street station, and it’s a cool name, and North London Line is misleading and too similar to Northern, but Olympia is better and means we don’t end up with two closely connected lines that both begin with the same letter.) 

The Goblin line – The Gospel Oak to Barking line is already known as such to pretty much everyone, and okay the Goblin line means including the “lin” bit twice but what the hell, it’s its name now.

The Harlequin line – Euston to Watford Junction. A name given to the line in the late 20th century, possibly on some kind of Bakerloo model (Harlesden, Queen’s Park), possibly after a shopping centre. Anyway, it’s a cool name and seems worth resurrecting.

The Forest line – London Liverpool Street to Chingford, which is in Waltham Forest and on the edge of Epping Forest.

The Ermine line – London Liverpool Street to Enfield Town/Cheshunt, which roughly follows the Roman road once known as Ermine Street. I toyed with Edmonton, and then settled on Tottenham on the grounds that it’s better known and the line serves several stations in it including the one for the football club’s stadium, but it doesn’t serve Tottenham Hale and someone on Twitter suggested Ermine which is obviously better.

The Emerson line – The Romford-Upminster shuttle only serves one other station, at Emerson Park, so this one is a boring no-brainer.

As I said above, some of these names are, well, not great – so please do email me better suggestions. No, we’re not just going to use letters or numbers, this is London for heaven’s sake.

Then, once we’re agreed amongst ourselves we march on TfL. We’ll win this one yet.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.
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