Thursday, 13 May 2010

Newest London railway runs through world's oldest tunnel

“We’re now standing above the oldest tunnel in the oldest metro system in the world,” says Robert Hulse, director of the Brunel Museum in Rotherhithe. “Do you hear the train now travelling under our feet?”


Hulse and a group of Californian tourists (see above photos) were standing on a false ceiling laid inside the vast Rotherhithe entrance shaft of engineer Marc Brunel’s Thames Tunnel. Built between 1823-1843, the tunnel runs 4.3m (14ft) beneath the river bed between Rotherhithe on the south bank and Wapping on the north.

The train rumbling beneath was a Class 378, one of an impressive new fleet of 20 undergoing testing before the newly extended East London Line Phase 1 opens for full public service on May 23. Transport for London begins running a 12-train per hour service from that day between Dalston Junction in Hackney and three south London terminals - New Cross, Crystal Palace and West Croydon. The new railway runs north-south through east and south-east London, improving access to London’s rail and tube network for residents of Islington, Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Southwark, Lewisham and Croydon. 

The ELL boasts faster, more direct services and cheaper fares. Thousands of people in residential neighbourhoods such as Brockley, Forest Hill, Sydenham and Croydon will be within 45 minutes of their City workplaces. TfL describe Shoreditch High Street station as a ‘new London terminus’ as it sits just a few minutes walk from Bank, Liverpool Street, Bishopsgate, Spitalfields and Brick Lane. Trains pass through the 'station’, but you can see what TfL mean with its 'terminus' accolade.

The ELL offers an interchange with the Jubilee Line at Canada Water, allowing commuters from south-east London to reach Canary Wharf, the Docklands, Stratford, Stratford City and the Olympic Park. From January 2011, the ELL will run north to Highbury & Islington where passengers can connect to the Victoria Line, North London Line and other mainline services heading north of Finsbury Park. 

East London Line Phase II, given the green light by Mayor Boris Johnson last year, will provide an extension from Surrey Quays over the South London Line to Clapham Junction via Peckham Rye and Wandsworth Road. This section is planned to open in 2012 before the Olympics running four trains per hour – and it's this section that will give London Overground’s map an orbital look. 

The East London Line is new in many respects – new trains, stations, depots and tracks, new passenger markets and the first line to exclusively use GSM-R radio communication between signallers and drivers. The ELL is also the first time that TfL, as an infrastructure owner, has presided over the construction, management and maintenance of a newly built railway. 

Hence, it’s poignant the ELL connects Wapping and Rotherhithe under the Thames by using Brunel’s 366m (400 yards) Thames Tunnel, believed to be the world’s first ever tunnel built beneath an expanse of water. Sadly, neither Marc Brunel nor his son, Isambard Kingdom, lived to see the day in December 1869 when their tunnel became one of the first to be used for a railway when the original East London Railway opened for public traffic.

Some things aren't new. London's beloved mayor, the Conservative Boris Johnson, and his Labour predecessor Ken Livingstone, arranged separate photo-shoots in April and May where they each claimed credit for the £1 billion project that includes Phase II and the Thames Tunnel's renovation. In fact, a lot of credit - literally - belongs to the European Investment Bank that underpinned the once struggling project with a £450m loan in 2005. But let's give Boris and Ken their due - they both backed the ELL to the hilt. 

However, if any individual deserves credit for driving the ELL forward, my vote goes to Ian Brown, TfL's experienced and enthusiastic London Rail director.Brown (see above photo) and his team confidently predict 33 million journeys will be made on the ELL in 2011 at the rate of 100,000 per day, rising to 120,000 per day and 40m annually by 2016.  

Whatever happens, I think Brunel would've been proud that Brown and his TfL colleagues have put the Thames Tunnel (illustrated below) to such good use for the benefit of Londoners.

Click on images to enlarge.

Paul Coleman, London, May 2010.

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