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.