In West London there’s a pair of tracks known as the Up Poplar and Down Poplar. They link the Great Western Main Line with the North London Line.

A train leaving the Great Western can use them to reach the West Coast Main Line heading north. It could reach the Midland Main Line to head north or south, or the West London Line towards Clapham Junction. Or they can continue on the North London Line towards Gospel Oak. From there, rails run towards Camden Road or Upper Holloway. The first takes the train through Stratford to the Great Eastern Main Line or towards the East Coast Main Line via Harringay. The second runs towards Barking and Tilbury.

Until 1981, the North London Line included Victoria Park Junction near Hackney which turned trains south to Poplar Docks. Containerisation sounded the death knell for Poplar and for London’s docks more generally. Docklands Light Railway now runs along the old freight route to Poplar while container traffic shifted freight handling activity out east to Felixstowe (beyond Ipswich on the GEML) and London Gateway beyond Barking.

This means that the lines across London remain busy with freight in the form of container trains. Yet they don’t serve London. They head to other parts of the country, including the national distribution centres clustered around Daventry. Where the contents of those containers return to London, it’s generally aboard lorries.

As Network Rail’s London Rail Freight Strategy (LRFS) notes: “Rail-connected intermodal terminals are a rarity in London, despite it being the largest population centre in the country.”

Through but not to London

That population has prompted better provision of passengers services within London. Over the last decade, London Overground has built on Transport for London’s successful linking of different cross-London lines into an orbital network.

Hence the LRFS says: “The London Rail Freight Strategyis intended to be not just a freight strategy, but a holistic plan to address the long-term capacity challenge on the London orbital routes, with an emphasis on the need for collective solutions to the collective constraints faced by both freight and passenger operations.”

It adds: “This is a long-term set of options, with a view to implementation across a thirty-year period. In light of a constrained funding environment, following the impact of the Covid-19 crisis on the rail industry and wider public finances, it should be noted that the larger schemes in particular are expected to proceed to detailed development only when affordability permits.”

Thus the strategy attempts to find how to accommodate future rail freight needs in London with demand for freight and passenger services expected to increase. Its answer is a package of five core improvements and a list of secondary schemes that would further increase freight capability. NR explains that it intends to put them forward to the Department for Transport’s ‘Rail Network Enhancements Pipeline’ (RNEP) as a portfolio with a single business case to justify them. It said in summer 2021 that this should be going to the DfT this autumn.

It’s not just containers

If London lack container terminals, the same cannot be said for aggregates. Small terminals are scattered through the capital. They are often basic affairs such as the two terminals near Stewarts Lane.

Yet NR argues that they are under threat because of their huge potential redevelopment value and wider pressure for more housing. At the same time, this demand for housing and redevelopment drives the need for more aggregates. NR explains: “The provision of suitable such terminals in sufficient number will be critical to the extent to which rail is able to meet future demand from the market.”

It proposes work across London to create a consistent operational standard for construction traffic based on 20-wagon trains. NR has an ambition for 26 wagons in a project known as ‘Target 26’. Its London freight strategy suggests a comprehensive review of land to find and safeguard any remaining sites with freight potential.

It said that this review was almost complete and that it expected to find smaller sites that might be suited to bulk handling or express logistics but was not ruling out intermodal terminal sites.

Express logistics is emerging as a market in the form of parcels and consumer traffic. This prompted Orion’s creation by the Rail Operations Group and its possible service between London Gateway and Liverpool Street station using converted passenger electric multiple units. Eversholt Rail is looking towards this market too with its conversion of a Class 321 for parcels traffic.

Easing restrictions

The strategy explores the general constraints limiting traffic increases. They include flat junctions, signalling capacity, traffic types and speeds and the lack of places to regulate trains (that is, holding them off running lines to await a clear path). For the latter, Acton Yard on the GWML and Wembley on the WCML are useful. However, there are fewer options on the South London Line and the eastern end of the North London Line.

These regulating points need to accommodate container trains up to 775 metres long. For other freight, such as stone and aggregate trains, the maximum trailing load becomes the constraint rather than length. NR notes that London’s lines includes locations through which Class 66 locomotives can’t haul 2,600 tonne trailing loads. 

Coupled with this, there are locations with significant speed restrictions for trains with heavy axle weights. Other locations have gauge restrictions applicable to container trains. Finally, NR says that more electric freight could run if it electrifies several stretches of line.

Network Rail heads its list of improvements with a project to increase capacity at Camden Road Junction with a third platform and extra track. The new Platform 3 would serve eastbound London Overground services and most freight. Today’s Platform 2 would become a central turnback platform for peak services to and from Stratford. Transport for London modelling predicts the strongest long-term growth over this section.

Five miles west of Camden Road Junction via Gospel Oak lies Kensal Green Junction. NR wants to remodel it to improve capacity. From here westbound trains can use the City Lines to reach the WCML or run towards Willesden Junction High Level. Or they could reach the Great Western Main Line or Clapham Junction and the South London Line. Westbound City Lines trains must slow to 15mph while those running in the opposite direction must drop to 10mph. NR suggests remodelling to increase speeds and cut the time between conflicting moves from four minutes to three minutes.

Into South London

Reinstating what was Platform 1 at Clapham Junction provides more capacity for London Overground trains to and from the West London Line. It would be called Platform 0. Transport for London needs it for its ambition of six trains per hour on the West London Line. NR notes its primary beneficiary but adds that “the positive impact it would have on the capacity and performance of the WLL overall means that it is also very much in the interest of freight that Platform 0 be delivered”.

Without it, London Overground would have to use Platform 17 to increase frequencies. This is freight’s route towards the Brighton Main Line.

The fourth specifically cited improvement is to move the AC/DC changeover point on the West London Line. It currently site close to Milepost 51/4 near North Pole Junction. NR said it had two options with the first moving it one mile south to Shepherd’s Bush station. The second is to move it a further 3/4 miles south to Kensington Olympia. NR said this was the better option because it would let freight trains switch before reaching the rising gradient heading north.

The LRFS notes that moving the switching point to a station could save seven minutes per hour (the equivalent of an extra path). This is because GTR passenger services must stop to change voltage which is better done in a station.

The final core enhancement relates more generally to improving headways. NR’s strategy provides no specific examples but notes that ETCS signalling could improve headways.

The core and secondary enhancements all help create capacity and ease the flow of freight and passenger trains around London. However, NR cautioned that its implementation depended on securing funding from the Department for Transport. “We’ll be one among many such requests in a constrained funding environment so we’ll just have to wait and see,” a spokesman said.

London core freight enhancements

  • Camden Road Platform 3. Reinstatement of a third track and platform on the northern side of Camden Road station, using part of the former four-track formation.
  • Kensal Green Junction. Moving the junction slightly east with a crossing speed higher than today’s 10/15mph, to provide a 3-minute planning margin.
  • West London Line AC/DC changeover. Extending the AC electrification further south to Shepherd’s Bush station.
  • Clapham Junction Platform 0: Build a bay platform at the north side of Clapham Junction station for London Overground services.
  • North London, West London and Gospel Oak-Barking Line headways. Needed for deliver the London Rail Freight Strategy but likely to be delivered by wider enhancement projects.

Secondary improvements

  • Harlesden Junction doubling.
  • West London Line AC/DC changeover at Kensington Olympia.
  • Stratford regulating point extension.
  • Nunhead Junction improvement.
  • Longhedge Junction speed increases.
  • Gospel Oak speed increases.
  • East Coast Main Line South bi-directional capability.
  • Cross-London removal of heavy axle weight speed restrictions, including Gospel Oak-Barking.
  • North London W12 loading gauge enhancement.

A version of this article first appeared in RAIL Magazine in August 2021. See more at

By Philip Haigh

Freelance railway writer, former deputy editor at RAIL magazine - news, views and analysis of today's railway.