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For ten years, Surrey Canal Road has been a modern ghost station. An empty station box beneath on the East London Line the only hint of its near existence. As TfL submit planning permission to build it, we look at how it never came to pass and why its time has finally come.
In late 2008, TfL had a problem. Plans for Phase 2 of the East London Line Extension (ELLX2 to its friends) were advancing. This would see the East London Line extended from Surrey Quays to Clapham Junction, connecting it with the South London Line on the way. This was a vital part of TfL’s strategy to complete the circle and create the full, orbital London Overground network that exists today. Changes in the available funding packages, however, had caused an issue:
They didn’t have enough money to complete the project.
TfL turned to the DfT and asked for an alteration to the plans on which their funding had been based. £24m had been earmarked in these to provide a Victoria – Bellingham service from 2012 onwards (which would replace the expiring South London Line). TfL asked that this be allocated instead towards funding ELLX2.
The DfT agreed to TfL’s request, but with conditions. The first of those is the cause of a zonal oddity that remains to this day: The DfT requested that to boost income Shoreditch High Street Station, then under construction, be placed in Zone 1 not Zone 2.
The second condition would cause several years of wrangling, followed by ten years of limbo: The DfT asked that TfL re-examine the case for an Overground station at Surrey Canal Road.
The Surrey Canal Triangle
The Surrey Canal Triangle
The site of Surrey Canal Road station sits in Lewisham, but its potential impact stretches beyond just that Borough. This is because the potential for urban renewal in this particular area of South London has long been recognised. Since 2011 (remember this year. It’ll come up again) the area has been a key part of the Lewisham Core Strategy. It’s been on the Mayoral radar for development just as long, and is currently part of the Lewisham, Catford, and New Bermondsey Opportunity Area within the 2021 London Plan.
This potential for development had been one of the reasons why a station on the Surrey Canal Road had featured in early plans for the ELLX2 project. Indeed that it be investigated for development had been a condition of Lewisham Council’s backing of the project. By the time that ELLX2 plans had been firmed up, however, the conclusion on TfL’s part had been that the Benefit Cost Ratio (BCR) of building it was good, but not as good as various other stations on the line. This meant that when funding became tight for the project in general, Surrey Canal was the low hanging fruit that had to go.
Enter the DfT
The DfT’s request for TfL to reconsider this decision in 2009 put the cat among the pigeons. Not because of the request for TfL to consider building it again – this was, ultimately, a station that TfL had wanted to build – but because the DfT also included a sweetener: if the station was included in the ELLX2 plans after all, then the DfT would eat £7m of the cost of building it.
This offer, understandably, changed the maths of the situation. TfL still had no money to commit to the station itself, but it now began scoping what the full cost of building one might be. This was carried out with a certain amount of urgency, because there is one universal truth to railway construction: once work begins, the cost of changing your plans soars. And construction of the ELLX2 was very close to beginning.
The result of this extra work was the conclusion that it was now economically viable to build the station. But more than £7m would be required. In fact, TfL costed the station (including box work beneath the line) at £10m, excluding risk. That left a £3m initial funding gap, which TfL still couldn’t find the funds to cover, and the question of who would accept the project risk.
With no development in the area sufficiently advanced to contribute (either voluntarily or as part of a compulsory planning obligation), the list of potential additional backers was really down to just one: The London Borough of Lewisham. Lewisham council were keen to do so, but finding the money from their own budget took time.
Time remained critical. TfL wanted to complete ELLX2 in time for the 2012 Paralympics (although it would ultimately not complete until December 2012). That meant construction had to begin by autumn 2010. As a way to get the station funding package over the line, TfL made Lewisham an unusual offer: they would loan the Borough £3m, interest free, which would be used to cover the remaining cost of constructing Surrey Canal Road. This creative solution would take advantage of both authority’s strengths: TfL had the “cash in hand” to cover the construction, they just needed a guaranteed way to get that money back in order to balance future books and expenditure. The question of risk remained, but both parties were confident an agreement on that issue could be found.
In January 2010, Lewisham finally found a way to provide the loan payments that would be required to meet their end of the bargain. The solution was pretty innovative. Changes to the way Local Investment Plan funding was being allocated across London meant that the Borough was about to receive an unexpected boost to its allocation, which would rise from £2.4m, to £2.9m from 2011 onwards. As this funding was new and unallocated, Lewisham agreed that the increase would be paid straight to TfL until the transport authority had received either £3m, or the full cost of the station (including risk) – whichever was higher.
Just in time, a funding solution had been found. Surrey Canal Road station could go ahead.
Or so TfL and Lewisham thought.
Enter the DfT. Again.
The final arrangements between TfL and Lewisham were signed off in March 2010. TfL then turned to the DfT and requested that they officially be granted the £7m that the DfT had indicated that they would commit to building Surrey Canal Road station.
The DfT informed TfL that, unfortunately, their £7m commitment to the project had technically expired in March 2009. This wasn’t news to both TfL and Lewisham. What had become clear early on in negotiations, however, was that both authorities would require time to innovate their way to a solution for the funding gap. When the deal expired, TfL and Lewisham thus both sought assurances that it was worth them continuing to try and find a way to meet the extra cost. In response, the DfT had indicated that they recognised this would take time and that the money would be left unofficially on the table, as long as the result of the TfL and Lewisham negotiations saw the project overrun risk sit with those two authorities, with no obligations on the DfT. Indeed finding a way to do this had been a significant part of the delay.
The DfT’s stance, however, had now changed.
TfL and Lewisham’s request for the renewal of the £7m guarantee for station construction was initially greeted with the ministerial equivalent of radio silence. Then, subject to questioning and letters from the Greater London Authority (GLA), the DfT confirmed that whilst in principle they weren’t against meeting their previous commitment, they intended to run their own value-for-money assessment of the station first.
Exit the DfT
With the date of construction of ELLX2 looming ever closer, TfL, GLA and Lewisham all continued to push the DfT for a firm funding commitment. In September 2010, just as construction was finally beginning, the answer finally came.
In response to a letter from Caroline Pidgeon AM, the Transport Secretary Theresa Villiers gave the DfT’s answer:
Given the current financial constraints under which the Department is operating, the lack of certainty regarding the redevelopment of the area and the relatively weak business case for the scheme even with the development in place, I have concluded that we cannot provide the £7m support required to build [Surrey Canal Road] station.Theresa villiers, letter to caroline pidgeon am
Passive Provision is maintained
There was no time to find an alternate source of funding, but TfL and Lewisham were at least able to agree (and fund) one thing: passive provision was built into the bridge at Surrey Canal Road for a future station at that site. This is why, today, a large empty space exists beneath one side of the bridge, and why the support structure and pilings at that location are reinforced. Surrey Canal Road became a modern ghost station. Rather than being the ghost of station past, it was instead the ghost of a station yet to come.
Passive provision represented a frustrating failure for those who’d pushed hard to see the station come to pass, but it at least ensured their remained hope for a station at that location in future. It did this by ensuring that as much of the heavy infrastructure work required for a station build as possible was carried out as part of the ELLX2 project. This avoided, as much as possible, excessive costs for turning the site into a station in future through requirements for extensive line closures or structural reworking.
The space under Surrey Canal Bridge
Enter New Bermondsey
In 2011, it seemed that a use for that passive provisioning might come sooner than everyone expected, albeit with a rename. Lewisham Council had granted outline planning permission for developer Renewal’s proposed £850m housing and retail development on the Surrey Canal Triangle site. As part of this, the package of transport improvements mandated included contributory funding for Surrey Canal Road Station.
Renewal’s plans for the area would, however, prove to be drawn out and controversial. It wouldn’t be until 2014 that firm agreement on just how a station might manifest at the site seemed to firm up. These included a request from the developer (agreed to by TfL) that the station be named New Bermondsey instead, in reference to the development area that Renewal were looking to create.
As was proving to be a habit with the Surrey Canal Road site, however, these plans would stall and ultimately fall through.
Third time lucky?
This brings us, finally, to the situation today. Over time, the need for the station has increased rather than decreased, as reflected by the area’s importance in the 2021 London Plan. So it is no surprise, perhaps, that TfL have continued to look for funding opportunities for a station on the site from elsewhere.
And funding they have now finally secured – via the Government’s Housing Infrastructure Fund. With £10m (plus inflationary costs) committed from there, they have submitted a planning request to Lewisham for permission to finally build the station, now known simply as “Surrey Canal”.
That planning application is required because the previous planning permission for a station at the site didn’t include provision for structures more than 5m above track level. This is actually good news for both future passengers and readers of LR. For passengers, it’s because of the reason why that 5m rule will be broken: the plan includes provision for the station to receive full-sized lifts to both platforms (although whether these will be available at opening is unclear). It also includes covered platforms as guaranteed. For readers, it means we get a very early (but indicative) look at what the station layout will be and how it will operate. You can read the full planning application on the Lewisham planning website, but the key highlights are:
Indeed broadly, in design the station arguably resembles a much-modernised version of the Overground station at St James Street in Walthamstow, although one hopes (and assumes) that it will lack the eight inch gap between train and platform that can be found at points there.
Front elevation designs. Note the triple entrance and stainless steel sides
Platform roofs. note the ‘green walling’ and solar panel provision
PLATFORM LAYOUT. NOTE LIFT POSITIONS, SEATING PROVISION AND EMERGENCY STAIRS
Elevation and platform layout. note the ‘provision’ for lifts
InDICATIVE CGI PROJECTION OF THE STATION
The end of the beginning?
With funding finally secured, plans submitted and provisional dates of construction in the calendar, it seems that Lewisham will finally get the extra Overground station it wanted from the beginning. If so, this will be good news for those living in the area (and for those travelling to watch Millwall play).
Given the history of the site, however, it is perhaps worth not quite uncorking the champagne just yet. The story of Surrey Canal has been a complex one, and there may be more twists and turns lurking yet…
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