The fight to reopen Camberwell Railway

A resident-led campaign is seeking the reopening of Camberwell, a disused London railway station abandoned since WWI, to relieve some of the pressure on the overworked local public transport network. But what will it take to turn the historical remains into a modern transport hub for the capital?


Camberwell

At the heart of Southwark, just three miles away from central London, lies a relic from 1862. Before its initial opening, Camberwell station was marketed as ‘the second London railway’ by its backers, but just over half a century later it was forced to close its doors to passengers when wartime restraints and the introduction of the electric tram rendered it obsolete.

Now, a community campaign is fighting to reopen the station, which today serves in part as a converted mechanic's garage.

The idea was first sparked in 2014, when Transport for London (TfL) launched a consultation into extending the Bakerloo line either through to Camberwell, or along the Old Kent Road down to Lewisham. 

The consultation turned out to be one of the largest TfL has ever received, and out of the nearly 16,000 respondents who took part, 64% supported the Camberwell route. 

However, TfL decided to move forward with the Lewisham option, much to the disappointment of residents who point out that the local transport network is buckling under the pressure. In order to mitigate that decision, TfL then offered to explore the reopening of Camberwell Station. 

At present, Denmark Hill station is the only rail route into Camberwell, and alongside the heaving bus service, is struggling to serve the rising passenger numbers trying to access King’s College and Maudsley hospitals in the area.

Making the case for Camberwell

The residents of Southwark have been heavily involved in the campaign to reopen Camberwell, which today displays little else from its original design apart from one surviving island platform.

It all started with Sophy Tayler, founder of grass roots community organisation Priority Action for Camberwell Transport (PACT), who launched an online petition that to date has garnered 1,685 signatures.

“I think everyone's aware that the infrastructure for transport and the transport networks [in London] are at capacity,” says Robert Jamieson, community engagement officer at Community Southwark, an independent charity which supports social action in the borough.

“To give an example, Denmark Hill station serves the two world-class hospitals that we have in Camberwell, and in the last five years we've seen passenger journeys through that station nearly double: a 93% increase from just over 3.5 million in 2010-2011 to just over seven million in 2015-2016,” he adds.  

"The infrastructure for transport and the transport networks in London are at capacity."

The petition points out that trains are currently at full capacity during rush hour, with people often struggling to board, and argues that this lack of access is holding back the borough’s local economy and businesses.

The campaign has enjoyed political backing. Local MPs Helen Hayes, for Dulwich and West Norwood, and Harriet Harman, for Camberwell and Peckham, wrote a letter to transport secretary Chris Grayling, asking for a meeting to discuss future plans for the station.

While the timing of the UK General Election on 8 June forced the potential meeting to take the backseat for now, Jamieson says this will take priority after the election takes place.

Meanwhile, TfL is leading a review of the business case for the new station, due to be published by the end of June, which will analyse the expected level of demand, possible future development in the station’s catchment area, such as housing and employment, and associated timetable modelling.

“It’s important for us to see a positive outcome of the initial business case,” Jamieson says, as “this is going to have a big influence in terms of the direction of the campaign I believe.”

The factors at play: what does it take to reopen a station?

The campaign shines a light on the bureaucracy and red tape involved in London’s planning and transport system.

Although the project’s final cost hasn’t yet been established, figures between £40m and £50m have been banded around.

“Sourcing the funding for this kind of project is proving quite difficult,” says Jamieson. He adds, “The now failed Garden Bridge project already saw tens of millions of pounds of public funding without seeing anything built, so in terms of the benefits this would actually bring to Camberwell and London residents, we feel that the cost isn't too much.

“Also, if you consider extending the Bakerloo line down to Lewisham would cost anywhere up to £2bn, it seems a fairly small fee compared to some other infrastructure investments.”

Compiling a solid business case for the station takes a lot of negotiating between the local authorities, the council, TfL and Network Rail and factors such as access to the station, potential increases in pricing on tickets, or whether the timetable can accommodate another stop need to be carefully considered.

Hoping for a green light

In a report published in March, Network Rail lists some of the practical issues that come with renovating Camberwell station.

Firstly it says, the original station layout, which included platform faces on all four lines, a central island platform and single platforms on the outside lines, would “not meet modern compliance standards for platform widths”.

The report also states that “a new station must also conform to the latest accessibility requirements”, and should be able to accommodate eight-car platform lengths, with the possibility to be extended to 12-car platforms at a later date.

Similarly, a new feasibility study would have to establish whether there is sufficient spare capacity available for the demand generated by the new station.

“With the timing of the general election, we've been [delayed] slightly, and these kinds of negotiations are taking a backseat as we are working out who's going to be elected, who's going to be the Minister of Transport and for rail and so on,” Jamieson says, “so it might have delayed it slightly but local authorities are stretched, planning officers are stretched, and we expect some delay.”

The fact that this is a community-led initiative is key, he says, “otherwise it may be accused of being just another toy for local authority to generate more development and make more money for developers”.

Community Southwark is now planning a flashmob-style event on 1 July, in order to raise profile of the campaign.

“Our key date is when Southwark Council, along with TfL and Network Rail publish their provisional findings on whether there is a business case or not, and then we will have to reflect on that and work out what our next steps will be,” Jamieson adds, saying, “Obviously we're hoping for a green light so then we can really ramp up some pressure.

“The London population is exploding; it's set to rise another two million by 2050, which will only put more pressure on transport infrastructure, so this will hopefully alleviate some of that.”