A Network Rail report into how to manage capacity on the Essex Thameside region, operated by C2C has suggested that they may need to move Fenchurch Street station.
The Essex Thameside corridor is a key rail route into London on the north Thames estuary serving towns such as Southend-on-Sea, Basildon, Grays and Tilbury as well as large catchments in East London in areas such as Barking and Dagenham.
It’s also shared between passengers and rail freight, and both are expected to increase by a third by 2050. Although the report was largely written before the pandemic, it has to look decades into the future, and you cannot make long term decisions based on a short term impact caused by the surge in home working. That’s likely to fade over time, so more rail capacity will be needed.
Long term plans to invest in the Thames Gateway area are also likely to see population increases which will put more pressure on the railways.
Increasing rail capacity, with more or longer, or more and longer trains helps reduce overcrowding on the trains, but more people on trains means more capacity is needed at stations.
Three main bottlenecks are appearing, West Ham and Barking where people swap between lines, and the London terminus at Fenchurch Street.
Fenchurch Street station
Fenchurch Street station is squashed in between a number of office blocks, one of which sits above the railway tracks, and one directly above the station, making expansion difficult. Network Rail predicts though that without change, by 2025, the station could start to breach its capacity limits.
With two exits, down flights of stairs and escalators, there’s a risk that passengers from one train could still be trying to leave the platforms when the next train arrives. The report notes that the main entrance has enough capacity to cope, it’s the secondary entrance in the middle of the platform down to Coopers Row where the problems lay, as it’s tiny and can’t cope with demand.
There is a plan to improve the station, but that doesn’t deal with the Coopers Row exit problem.
At the moment, the maximum capacity at Fenchurch Street is 25 trains per hour, but proposed signalling upgrades will already nudge close to that limit, and will eventually surpass it. The station currently has four platforms, but its cramped location and that it was built on a viaduct makes expansion difficult.
Therefore, Network Rail has dug out a 2018 report into the situation, commissioned by C2C to look at whether the station could be moved.
The suggestion is that the station is moved 350 metres to the east – roughly where Tower Gateway station on the DLR is, and enlarged to six platforms.
That could require Tower Gateway to be closed, but that also happens to fit in with a long term plan that may see a replacement DLR station built next to Tower Hill tube station, allowing the DLR to run more trains to Bank where demand is higher.
Although it would be complicated to build a new terminus station at this location, the study found it was technically possible. The constraint, as usual, is money – and Network Rail says that any such proposal would need significant commercial investment.
The financial gains from demolishing the vacant railway line between the old and new terminus for development is less than it sounds as the area is already so heavily developed that its difficult to see where anything could be squeezed in. The front of Fenchurch station itself is listed, limiting the options there.
An option would be to acquire the giant roundabout that Tower Gateway station sits on, which, apart from the railway is occupied mainly by an old hotel, a car park and a 1980s office building and develop the whole site.
That also has the advantage of creating space for the construction phase, potentially reducing the cost and time taken for the station to be built.
At the moment though, nothing is likely to happen unless they can make the economic case for the move.
Other options being looked at are to improve the signalling, with the line between London Fenchurch Street and Upminster prioritised for delivery by 2025. That would allow C2C to run more trains closer together – running a tube-like service with trains every 2.5 minutes during the peak hours along this part of the line.
There is also an option to extend train lengths from 8-cars to 12-cars, although that requires two stations (Grays and Shoeburyness) to be upgraded, and the report warns that some of the gains from longer trains are offset by them running slower on average, reducing the ability to run more trains closer together.
C2C is however already planning to introduce some slightly longer trains, made up of six 10-car Bombardier Aventra trains, expected to be in service next year, ahead of the originally planned date of 2024. These trains will replace six of the 4-car Class 387 trains.
Longer trains rather than more frequent shorter trains also tend to disgorge more people in bigger bursts. There are capacity concerns about stations where large numbers of people switch between lines, mainly West Ham which has a very narrow staircase to cope with passenger numbers, and Barking which may see added issues when the London Overground extension opens late next year.
C2C has looked at options for replacing the stairs at West Ham with escalators, but the design of the C2C platforms are very narrow and tightly constrained making any significant upgrade quite difficult to fit in.
The more complex and costly option is for the signalling upgrades which allow more of the shorter trains to operate. This evens out the passenger flow at stations, and in terms of passenger comfort, people seem to prefer more frequent trains to fewer longer length trains. Less time waiting for a train to arrive results in shorter overall journey times, and a perception of a better service, even if the net gain in capacity is the same as running fewer longer length trains.
The full report is available here.