What follows is an extract from the TNONQE archive from nearly two years ago. Which means that there is an outside chance you’ve seen it before. But! That only goes for a few of you, and there’s new information, so this felt like a good week to expand the original and take a look again.
For those of you who don’t live in London and do not wish to hear about it, I can only apologise and note that I don’t do this very often, and I promise I’ll get back to something less parochial next time.
In April 2021, with just a month to go before the least exciting London mayoral election in history, Labour incumbent Sadiq Khan unveiled his manifesto. Most of it was the usual mixture of the obvious (trying to get a long-term financial settlement for TfL), the worthy (a £50m green new deal for the capital!) and the clearly-there-in-the-hope-of-headlines (setting up a review into the decriminalisation of cannabis). But the thing that really excited me personally was this bit:
"TfL’s London Overground network has grown considerably over recent years, and to reflect this I’ll launch a programme to name individual routes, giving each its own identity."
This week, Callum Marius, the enterprising transport editor at My London News, noticed that TfL had set aside £4m in its 2023-4 budget to do just that.:
All of the routes bar one overlap at interchange stations around Zone 2, which can make way-finding complicated. In cities around the world such as Paris, Berlin and Madrid, equivalent networks are given individual route letters or numbers (such as J, S9 or C3a) to make this easier. The Mayor has previously signalled that the lines would be named, not lettered or numbered, to reflect the capital's diversity.
Being the sort of nerd who thinks rather a lot about these things, this has been an area of interest to me for a while. So, some questions.
How many lines are we talking about here?
The exact limits of some of these lines are obvious: the Euston-Watford Junction route is clearly one line. Ditto the Gospel Oak-Barking, and the Romford-Upminster.
But then it gets complicated. Should we count all the trains through the Thames Tunnel between Wapping and Rotherhithe as part of a single line, even though they split in four different directions after Surrey Quays? Are all trains on the Stratford-Camden-Willesden bit a single line, even though some continue round the old North London Line to Richmond while others divert onto the West London Line to Clapham?
What about the Lea Valley lines? Trains to Chingford have a different stopping pattern and only three stations (Liverpool Street, Bethnal Green, Hackney Downs) in common with those to Enfield or Cheshunt. So should that be two lines, or one, or three?
My own preference is that all trains through Wapping and those out of Stratford should be one line apiece, but that the difference in stopping patterns mean that Lea Valley routes should really be two, giving us seven in total. But I have a horrible feeling TfL are going to be soft on the latter question and bundle all the Lea Valley trains together. There’ll be riots in the streets, you mark my words.
How are we going to name them?
Any attempt to democratise the naming process risks giving us a series of delightful names of the “Trainy McTrainface” variety. But I don’t entirely trust the authorities to do this one properly either: since the state first took control of the tube network back in 1933, we’ve built or nearly built three new lines and named all three of the bloody things after the royal family (Victoria, Jubilee, Elizabeth).
My fear is that, if we leave this in the hands of TfL, they’ll end up finding a bunch of other royal-inflected names in an attempt to avoid controversy. Less upsettingly, but also less thrillingly, they might just use boring, geographical labels like “the Chingford line” and where’s the fun in that?
What are we going to name them?
A lot of the historic labels don’t really work any more. The East London line may work for the Dalston to New Cross bit, but that route continues into places that are very much not part of East London, and swallows up the South London Line for good measure. In the same way, the North London Line (Stratford-Richmond) has swallowed the West London Line (Willesden-Clapham junctions). The Goblin remains a great name for the Gospel Oak-Barking LINe [sic], but does mean “the Goblin Line” is a tautology.
When I asked Twitter what it thought about all this back in 2021, I got a series of responses, at least some of which weren’t entirely unhelpful. Some suggested Bakerloo-style portmanteaus, like Gospking and Highburdon. Others suggested naming them for lost rivers or famous Londoners. My erstwhile New Statesman colleague Stephen Bush made the uncharacteristically sincere suggestion of naming the Lea Valley lines after the black Victorian journalist and activist Celestine Edwards. My current co-author Tom Phillips suggested we treat this as a “unique opportunity to infuriate the maximum number of people in one go”, and proposed both the Morgan Line and the Thunberg Line.
On Thursday, I asked the internet for suggestions, by setting up a Google Sheet that anyone could edit.
This went about as well as you’d have expected.
Really, really well.
Quite possibly the only actual idea that came out of this process was that the Stratford-Richmond bit could be the Regent’s Line, on the grounds it vaguely follows the path of the Regent’s Canal for parts of its length, which would fit with the habit of naming everything after the royals. Although my mate Mark did note that the Euston-Watford could be the “EuWat” line.
For what it’s worth, my own views on this one have been set for some time: Brunel for the east London bit (he built the tunnel), Olympic for the north London bit (joins Olympia to the Olympic Park), Forest for Chingford, Ermine for Enfield/Cheshunt (it follows the Roman Road of Ermine Street), Harlequin for the Watford one (an old name for it), and Goblin for the Gospel Oak-Barking (tautology be damned). The only difficult one is the Romford-Upminster, which is going to end up with something boring like the Emerson Park or Havering line, but needs must I suppose.
One thing on which I am certain is that we absolutely shouldn’t get corporate sponsorship involved. Such sponsorship is inherently short term, and the whole point of giving the lines separate brands is that it makes the network that bit easier to navigate: that is not a mission that’s going to be fulfilled by changing their names every five years, or having multiple different routes doing a stint as the Heineken Line. More than that, these new names will mark the city for generations: there isn’t enough money in the world to buy that.
What will this money be spent on anyway?
I’m sure you could find a branding agency that’d happily charge you a couple of million quid to come up with names roughly similar to those I suggested above, but there’s very little need for it. The cost, I suspect, is less about choosing the new names than about propagating them: redoing the map, changing signage and so on. Different line identities may well involve different colours, too (albeit presented differently to the Underground – hollow tramlines, or some such – because the human eye simply can’t distinguish that many colours at a glance). I don’t know how much it’ll cost to replace an entire network’s worth of orange signage, but I suspect it won’t be cheap.
One last question:
Did I do this?
Look, I don’t want to sound like an egomaniac here (though unfortunately I am one so that’s how it comes out), but: I’ve been banging the drum for this one for years.
Can it really be a coincidence that the mayor finally makes this pledge just days after tweeting one of my articles? Can it be that, after more years of writing dumb things about London than I care to remember – so many years and so many dumb things, that not infrequently these days I Google for the answer to some nerdy question or another, only to find an article I’d written but entirely forgotten about, and which, more often than not, doesn’t even bother to answer the bloody question – I have finally had some impact upon this city?
Well, probably not. But let me have this one, I’ve had a tough week.
This is an extract from the archive of The Newsletter of (Not Quite) Everything, a newsletter (obviously) sent every Wednesday around 4pm. In this week’s edition I asked: why does Boris Johnson think he can get away with such ridiculously unconvincing lies? I also wrote about the unnerving southern-ness of Canada; and wrote a frankly excessive 1,700 words regarding 10 thoughts I have about the first 10 months of the Elizabeth Line.
If you’re a free subscriber you’ll get occasional posts like this. But for just £4 a month or £40 a year, paying supporters get a full newsletter, including a bit on the news, some diverting links, an article on something from history/geography/language/whatever I’ve been obsessing about this week, and the map of the week, every Wednesday afternoon. And all for less than £1 a week! So why not-
While I love the idea of the Olympic Line, I doubt the all-powerful Olympic Organising Committee would allow that. The only reason the Olympic Park is allowed to retain the name is because it was specifically planned for ... even the "Olympic Stadium" had to be renamed after the 2012 Games...
Thanks for today’s letter re the London Underground, which I managed to read since I was practically brought up on it, living a large chunk of my life in the London suburbs (Hornchurch, Elm Park, Romford, Seven Kings, Harold Wood etc then Pinner and Rayners Lane - not all on the underground but a lifelong commuter to school, work, shopping and entertainment in London.
Sadly I didn’t see your piece about station names, but still remember ‘passing through’ most of them. My grandfather, Henry Horsup, was renowned for falling asleep regularly on the Circle Line on his way to work and spending half the day going round and round and round.
Someone is obviously going to have a grand job renaming stations, but I doubt the poor commuter will care, so long as he/she can get out at the right stop: I clearly remember being heaved into an already bulging carriage when I was eight months pregnant!
Ah, Happy Days!