Going overground

A shiny new London rail network, with no neglected routes or unmanned stations, is coming our way – or at least that’s the promise. Hugh Pearman inspects the branding of London Overground and gets a sneak preview of the future Tube map

This is an exciting moment. Innes Ferguson, Transport for London’s design director, slides a copy of the famous Underground map across the table. Except that this is a future version. It is headed ‘London Overground 2010’ and that is the difference – the orange outlines of a new girdle of surface railways have been woven into the design. But, we will be seeing evidence of the newly branded Overground rather sooner – from 11 November, when TfL takes over what is currently the Silverlink Metro franchise in north London.

If you know those routes, you will know that there is much to be done. They include the old North London Line running in an arc from Richmond in Surrey to Stratford in east London, plus the even more neglected Gospel Oak to Barking line, known without great affection as Gob. Services also run on the main line from Euston to Watford. As part of the Overground, these leftovers will merge with a larger system that will link to an extended East London Line – currently an isolated branch of the Underground network – plus Silverlink’s existing West London Line, running down through Shepherd’s Bush and Fulham to Clapham Junction. The final, south London link, again using existing tracks, will complete the circuit through Clapham and Peckham. This section has yet to get funding.

There are plenty of logistical problems – such as reconciling different electrical systems (Gob is not yet electrified at all). Still, this is London’s first new rail network since the Docklands Light Railway was conceived 25 years ago. It involves 20 of London’s 33 boroughs. A contractor and operating consortium, LOROL, experienced in the successful Chiltern and Hong Kong rail systems, has been appointed. The promise is of new trains, upgraded infrastructure and smarter stations with staff in attendance. So, what can we expect?

Ferguson – a Royal College of Art-trained product designer who has worked with architects Nigel Coates and Piers Gough – makes it clear that this will be a soft launch, a gradual roll-out. He is not just going to slap new paint all over old stations and trains. The Overground identity – including an orange and blue version of the familiar roundel – will only be fully introduced as each of a total of 60 stations is refurbished or built, and new rolling stock introduced. At first, you will just notice the absence of Silverlink branding, and a single new roundel, plus – from 9 November – the orange tramlines on the map. The East London Line will close on 22 December for rebuilding, and reopens in 2010. But, the Silverlink upgrade will be an intensive £1.4bn programme, with the line remaining in use. ‘We are hoping there will be a step change in the service,’ says Ferguson.

The new walk-through train interiors were conceptualised by Design Triangle, then taken on in-house by manufacturer Bombardier in conjunction with Ferguson’s team. Staff uniforms are by designer Anne Tyrrell, who previously worked on a range of uniforms for the Underground. Signage will be in the Underground style as developed by Henrion Ludlow & Schmidt, using the famous New Johnston typeface, evolved from the 1916 original by Colin Banks in 1980. Ferguson proudly points out that the vitreous enamel signage panels are §not only durable Victorian technology, but are still produced in Imperial dimensions because the proportions look right.

As for the principal brand colour – orange – this finds its way into everything. ‘It is a happy colour for us to use, has high visibility and can be applied consistently across all applications,’ says Ferguson. To avoid confusion, the various branches of the Overground system will not have subsidiary colours and line names in the way of the Tube – the idea is to have a destination-based system, like the DLR.

The best way to see Overground, says Ferguson, is as ‘Underground-Lite’, with graphics and furniture familiar from the existing system, but applied in a looser way. His other catchphrase is ‘Italian railway café culture’. It is still going to be a relatively cheap and cheerful system, but properly integrated at last into the London rail network, with a clear character of its own. And no more eerily deserted stations.

At the end of the meeting, Ferguson shows me another future map, dated 2025. As well as the Overground, it has got Crossrail on it, and the march of the DLR eastwards into the Thames Gateway. Remarkably, Harry Beck’s original Underground circuit diagram can absorb it all. And, by then, it will be only eight years away from its centenary.

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