A long-running campaign to open up a freight railway in West London for passenger use could see a public consultation into the scheme open later this year.

If built, the West London Orbital (WLO) could link up Hounslow to Old Oak Common and up through Neasden and then to Brent Cross and/or West Hampstead.

The plan is to convert a little-used freight railway line that runs from just north of Cricklewood on the Thameslink line and loops around West London, ever so slightly just missing aligning with a number of stations on existing lines until it joins up with the London Overground at Acton. Then the line could take over some existing mainline tracks down towards Hounslow.

It would likely include new junctions at Neasden, Harlesden and new stations at Old Oak Common, and Lionel Road next to Brentford Community Stadium, on the site of the disused Kew station that closed in 1862.

(An argument could be made for merging Lionel Road and Kew Bridge station on a nearby triangle of land)

Although the WLO is included in TfL’s Financial Sustainability Plan published in January 2021, that’s part of a document seeking long term funding from the government – and indicates a timeline of the 2030s for the project, while the councils were hoping for the line to open in this decade, not the next one.

Work is still going ahead on project planning though, driven by the West London Economic Prosperity Board and local councils, and key findings were presented to the councils in late January, with a board meeting last month.

If built, the council’s report suggests that nearly 16,000 additional homes would be built along the line, generating just under £2.2 billion in additional value, mainly from housing near the stations. Unless the numbers are incomplete, that’s fewer than had been originally expected in early reports.

They also expect wider economic benefits caused by the new railway to be in the region of £16 million a year.

The issue is paying for the line, as TfL isn’t really in any position to help at the moment. However, work on finding funding options – being carried out by Grant Thornton and Mott Macdonald – is nearing completion.

The funding options they include are local developer contributions and local taxes. They’re also looking at national government funding via the National Home Building Fund, which funds transport upgrades to support new housing development, and the national rail enhancement programme.

A bid has also been made for funding from the Government’s Restoring Your Railway Fund, which supports the development of business cases for restoring closed lines — in this case the Dudding Hill line section of the WLO route for passenger use.

The total capital cost for the railway was calculated as £273 million in 2017/18 prices (actually £152m plus 80% contingency for unexpected problems), with annual running costs of £26 million, including the train leases.

TfL’s Director of City Planning has also confirmed that they are continuing work at their side towards opening the line, and has committed six-months worth of staff time to the planning process. TfL is still supportive of the project, if the money can be found to pay for it. The economic case is fairly strong, and the benefit/cost ratio of between 1.6-2.3 is positive.

Although the hoped for eight trains per hour service looks increasingly unaffordable due to the cost of necessary railway upgrades in the Acton area, they now think that most of the benefits can still be delivered at an affordable price by greater use of Old Oak Common as an interchange station.

One of the counter-arguments is that rail travel will be subdued for some years to come, although that’s no argument not to do something today so it’s in place for when passenger numbers do recover. However, there is an argument that with a likely long term reduction in some radial commuter traffic, the West London Orbital plans are better now due to their support for suburban rail links and housing developments.

At the moment, the pieces are starting to fall into place that will allow them to open their first public consultation, which could be towards the end of this year.

That triggers the long process of public hearings, planning applications and securing funding before anything can be built.

With a favourable wind, it may be possible to catch a passenger train over a railway line that last saw regular passenger services over a century ago.

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18 comments
  1. LBE97 says:

    I’m surprised 8 trains an hour has been considered for the line. 4 trains an hour I think will suffice, similar to the other national rail lines in London.

    • ianVisits says:

      How have you calculated that 4 TPH will be sufficient?

    • Julian says:

      4tph means that there will only be a half-hourly service to Hendon and West Hampstead, that is inadequate for London. London Overground runs c.8tph between Willesden Junction and Stratford at most times, and the extended East London Line has 8tph between Highbury & Islington and Sydenham with 4tph on each of the South London spurs.

    • JM says:

      I agree. Even as someone who uses the WLL regularly and would hugely benefit from the WL orbital, I think a train every 15 minutes is plenty- but I’ll leave it to the experts!

    • James Miller says:

      It’s four tph on two routes.

      West Hampstead Thameslink and Hounslow

      Brent Cross and Kew Bridge

  2. Melvyn says:

    Oh for the days of Ken Livingstone who would have found a way to get at least the Hounslow to South Acton section reopened with a temporary turnaround at edge of Old Oak Common and if need be using DMUs given the way he got the North London Line services diverted to Stratford via similar reopened lines .

    Given how long OOC will take then getting a service on Hounslow end of the route should be the priority thus reducing the cost and timescale of getting service going .

  3. Dave says:

    Presumably with 4 train an hour, all would continue to Hounslow rather than stopping at Kew Bridge. It would be interesting to know how the interchange would work. I assume this refers to interchange with the proposed station on the Willesden branch, however that has not been confirmed yet and would be some distance to the Victoria road station (although closer than the Elizabeth line).

    • Pete says:

      Four tph Hounslow to Brent Cross should be enough to start with. Also electrify the line for both the existing freight and the new passenger service. There are very few overbridges so hopefully not too expensive.

  4. Steamy says:

    Having to terminate some of the WLO 8tph at a joint station at Old Oak Common Lane with the North London Line would improve the chances of this London Overground station being built at all.

    An alternative is to extend down the ramp to the unused platform at Acton Main Line Crossrail station.

    In both cases, freight trains would have to be accommodated.

    Barnet council has just found £1.2-million to add passive provision for WLO platforms at its new Brent Cross West Thameslink station. It would have cost £10-million to have done the work later.

  5. WestLondoner says:

    What about the two level crossings at Bollo Lane? With 8tph on the WLO and 4tph on the existing overground (for now), opening and closing the gates in sync with that frequency would be untenable.

    • Dave says:

      To complicate matters a housing development has been built right between them (which seems very short sighted). Realistically I think one of the level crossings has to close, may be the eastern set.

    • Paul says:

      There’s also a level crossing at Acton Central, hard to see how that could operate with a 12tph service.

      I suspect the level crossings are a major element of the “Unaffordable … cost of necessary railway upgrades in the Acton area” referred to.

  6. Ramon Prasad says:

    Is the plan, which I thought had TfL approval for a Overground railway “box” with corner stations at Willesden Junction, Clapham Junction, Lewisham, Stratford, still an operational objective? There are already many “radial” routes. If so the “orbital” routes structure needs completion and repair. The line from Willesden Junction to Clapham Junction to West Croydon would re-inforce the West London line status as an orbital railway,and meet the East London line at their joint southern tip, making an “outer orbital” to complement the “inner orbital in S.London.

    Equally if the line referred to in the article could be continued to Gospel Oak, then the continuous line from Hounslow to Barking Riverside would constitute an “outer orbital” to complement the “inner orbital in N.London.

    With an inner and outer orbital railway on both sides of the river, London might begin to look like a city with a planned railway, instead of a confused jumble which it has always looked like to me.

    • Julian says:

      There isn’t the capacity on the North London Line to extend the GOBLIN service west of Gospel Oak.

  7. Fran Mack says:

    The problem is that in some ways it’s too late. The new Brent Cross West station is being built WITHOUT the configuration to platforms and the track layouts which are known to be needed to support the orbital. Retro fitting would be a nightmare. Access to the new station, if it ever opens, is also very tricky from the western side of the A5. Barnet, TfL and Argent have all refused to fund.

    • ianVisits says:

      The station is being built with provision to add the platform later if/when it’s needed and it’s not a nightmare as you claim to add it, as it’s being designed into the structure.

      More expensive that way yes, but not the doomladen comment you make.

  8. James Miller says:

    I am dubious, that with Khan as Mayor the WLO will ever get built, as it’s in North London.

    He has done little for the North and we have suffered most of the bus cuts.

    • Paul says:

      Is it any more likely to get built with Shaun Bailey as mayor, or indeed anyone else who’s running?

      I think the answer is not, and thus this is an unnecessarily politicised comment.

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