Hot, Sweaty and Crowded – trying the commute on the West London Line

Published on 5 November 2008 in , , , , , , , , , ,

Back in 2005, not long after the BBC’s New Media department moved from the wonderful delights of central London, to the torrid wastelands of White City, I undertook a several month long experiment on work commuting.

Instead of using three tube trains and travelling through the heart of central London, I took one tube, two trains and a shuttle bus instead – travelling through the busiest railway station in Europe, Clapham Junction.

Silverlink train to Richmond

The logic was that I could travel overground rather than under (great in hot summers) and more importantly, save around £500 a year on my travel costs.

Unfortunately it didn’t work. The trains were ridiculously overcrowded (seriously – the London Underground is positively quiet in comparison), it took longer, I often didn’t get a seat and when things went wrong, low service frequencies meant it took ages to get home.

So I spent the extra money and started going through Oxford Circus every day which is, surprisingly, far easier.

That was in October 2005, and in the following three years a lot has happened:

  • There are now more trains on the West London Line – four or five in peak time depending when you travel.
  • The uselessness that was Silverlink is no more. The West London Line is now controlled by London Overground although some trains are still run by Southern.
  • There’s a new railway station at Shepherd’s Bush thanks to a new shopping centre.
  • And there’s a new path between Shepherd’s Bush and Wood Lane (the road our offices are on) which should make the walk to the station easier.

With that in mind, and still with a desire to save £500 a year, I decided maybe it was time to give the journey a fresh chance – see how it had changed, and see if it would be a better option. I was spurred on by some preliminary train time calculations which also showed I should now be able to do the journey in five to ten minutes less than my normal commute.

The Journey

For comparison, the old and new journeys are shown below:

Stage 2005 Journey 2008 Journey
Station Destination Service Station Destination Service
1 Colliers Wood Balham Northern Line Colliers Wood Balham Northern Line
2 Balham Clapham Junction Southern Trains Balham Clapham Junction Southern Trains
3 Clapham Junction Kensington Olympia Silverlink or Southern Clapham Junction Shepherd’s Bush Silverlink or Southern
4 Kensington Olympa BBC White City Walk or BBC Shuttle Bus * Shepherd’s Bush BBC White City Walk
Approx journey time
  1 hour 10 minutes 55 minutes

* – the BBC runs a number of shuttle buses between offices, and for some reason, one to Kensington Olympia which was apparently paid for by having to pay less tube/train fares for people who are travelling between offices. With the opening of Shepherd’s Bush station, the Olympia shuttle is due to cease next month. The shuttle was well used, but only matched up with certain trains. I usually walked.

For comparison, my normal commute is around 1 hour five minutes, and sees me get the Northern Line to Stockwell, the Victoria Line to Oxford Circus and then the Central to White City. I usually get seats on at least two of the three trains, and get about 45 minutes of reading done.

Enough of the jabbering. What’s the story?

I decided, on a whim, to try the journey on Tuesday 4 November. And by a whim, I mean literally getting to Balham station on the Northern Line, and running off the train and up stairs to the mainline station.

I was running slightly late, and arrived on the platform just in time to miss a train, meaning I had to wait for the 0814 to Clapham. No problem, I thought. Should still leave me with six minutes to change at Clapham for the 0824 – all I had to do was change from platform 13 to platform 17. Easy. The train was busy, but only being on for four minutes meant it didn’t matter.

All was well until we got stuck outside Clapham, meaning by the time we pulled in I had about three minutes to make the change. Great. Time to peg it. And what a result. Get to platform 17 with 60 seconds remaining.

Now just one problem. The 0824 is packed. Rammed. Heaving. Every door was blocked whilst Southern’s station staff unhelpfully kept blowing whistles. Err. It would have been nice if you’d tried persuading people to move down a bit rather than deafening me with your Thunderor, thanks very much.

Having skipped past several doors, I took the decision that the only solution was just to squeeze on, and then do what clearly no one else had – politely ask people to move down a bit in the middle. Doing so meant that someone behind me also got on. Yay.

But what a journey. Hot, very crowded and uncomfortable. The fifteen minute trip was in cattle truck conditions until Kensington Olympia, and by that point my destination was a mere 2 minutes away. This wasn’t the 0824 I remember getting – where I’d usually get a seat. Mind you I was normally at Clapham a few minutes earlier.

To make things worse, Southern don’t exactly run good commuter trains on the route – the trains are more appropriate for semi-fast services rather than a busy commuter run. That means trains have few grab rails to hold on to.

Arriving at Shepherd’s Bush Overground, you hit a further snag in that whoever designed that station didn’t actually consider that people might want to use it. Everyone crowds through two doors – one automatic, which goes away from Shepherds Bush Green and appeared rarely used, whilst the other was a push door towards the Green, the Central Line station, the Bus Station and the giant shopping centre they call Westfield.

I mean. Come on. Who even puts doors on the entrance to a train station in the UK these days? What on earth were they thinking?

With that, it was time to walk to work. Not knowing the proper route, I took a journey up what I thought was the right way – past the loading bays and valet parking of Westfield. This promptly brought me out near Wood Lane, but on the wrong side of a roundabout with no pedestrian crossings. As it was, the road was deserted, but very wide. On finally making it across, having not been run over by lorries, I spotted what looked like the proper footpath on the other side, which seemed to be going in completely the wrong direction. Still it was quick, and I was on the home straight.

I arrived at work hot and sweaty, having read about 2 pages of my book, but ten minutes earlier than expected.

The return

The morning commute hadn’t instilled much confidence and I had intended to go home the normal way, but again on a whim, decided I’d try to catch the 1715 London Overground train from Shepherd’s Bush. Before the shopping centre opened, this train (when caught from Olympia) would usually be reasonably quiet, so I did have high hopes.

I hadn’t been particularly convinced that I’d gone the best route between the office and the station in the morning, and was sure there was a better way, so instead of trying to battle around the back of Westfield where I’d been in the morning, I walked a bit further along the road looking for a path which linked Wood Lane and the station.

And I walked and I walked. And found it. But first I had 40 stairs to climb as the path inexplicably was up hill – Shepherd’s Bush is flat but here I was about to do some serious aerobic exercise. To add to the insult I was running late having once again lost a poppy – my second in three days.

I ended up in the outside restaurant district of Westfield, and fighting my way through shoppers, ended up running. I was late and would miss my train if not careful.

This route was certainly slower than my morning trek, but hot and sweaty and tired, I got to the station with four minutes to spare.

Then the train was late. Okay only by a minute, but still.

It was also crowded. Seriously crowded. The platform was heaving with people jostling to get on the three car train. A man with a buggy seemed intent on forcing himself and child on by ramming into people if necessary. The next train was in 30 minutes. Hey, can’t wait…

I got a reasonable spot on the train but no seat – London Overground have removed quite a few seats from the trains to create more standee space, until they get some new and better designed trains, which have an extra carriage. Still, I got to read my book as we bounced our way to Clapham Junction.

Clapham Junction

Photo by Skuds. Released under a Creative Commons licence

At Clapham it was a nice walk from platform 2 to platform 15, where I found the next train to Balham wasn’t for another 10 minutes. Hmm. By chance I spotted a four car train to Balham on platform 17. Ironically this Southern Train had come from Kensington Olympia a few minutes after I’d passed through and was half empty – a sharp contrast to our highly overcrowded Overground train. Currently this Southern train doesn’t stop at Shepherd’s Bush but a timetable change will see it run through there at 1719 from December – which may make it more promising.

From Balham the journey was pretty much as expected – no seats anywhere, little reading and a lot of sweating. Not hugely calm. In the end, the journey took me roughly what it would have done on the Underground, and I’d got less reading done to boot.

At the end of the day…

In the end, commuting is a bit of a balancing act. Time spent commuting is very important, as is cost. But a biggy is comfort and experience. The latter two had been the main reason why I’d stopped using the West London Line in the first place, and whilst effort has gone in to make journeys better down that line, there’s a certain irony that on this particular day, things seemed to be even worse than they were before.

For now it seems that there’s little to beat the Underground via Oxford Circus for me. It may be slightly slower; it may be undergound; it may be a lot more expensive; and it may involve going through central London every day, but hey it’s still better. I get seats and there’s more trains when things go wrong. Something which the overground lines can’t yet claim…