A very recent addition to Transport for London, the London Overground isn’t a Bizarro-mirror-universe copy of the London Underground. However, it is very much what it says on the tin and where the Underground is a below-ground rail system, the Overground is more of a metropolitan train service. The Overground is what is known as a suburban rail network that carries residents of London’s suburbs into the city center. Also, unlike the London Underground, the Overground essentially goes straight into the city and back and did not move around much within the city limits in its earlier years, meaning riders needed to use other public transport to get to their final destinations.
The idea for the Overground originated in the 1970s with a concept called Ringrail. The original proposal called for a rail network that closely followed the old North London Line with stations at twenty-minute intervals. However, there wasn’t much interest from Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s government nor from National Rail, the latter of which had little interest in running railways that only served small local networks. Fortunately for North Londoners, the Greater London Council felt differently and sponsored two lines in 1979 and 1984.
These lines eventually gave way to the Silverlink in 1997, a metro railway service owned by National Express. Unfortunately, Silverlink did not do a great job managing the railway, and the line suffered from neglect over the ten-year period of the franchise. Commuters often complained of unkempt stations, overcrowded trains, and unreliable service, with trains often canceled before they were due to arrive. A London Assembly report actually called the Starlink service “shabby, unreliable, unsafe, and overcrowded.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Department for Transport announced in 2004 a review of the rail industry in the United Kingdom, and Transport for London proposed taking control of all rail services operating in and around London.
The Department for Transport took the proposal to heart. In 2006, the Department for Transport transferred the management of metro rail services to Transport for London. Shortly afterwards on September 5, TfL announced the rebranding of Silverlink as the London Overground. In 2007, TfL did not renew National Express’s franchise and instead awarded the franchise to a joint venture of Lainig Rail and MTR. TfL also broke up the previous North London Railway network and reintegrated it into the existing metro network, as well as updating the rolling stock trains. It also made sure to give the infrastructure a significant upgrade and refurbish the stations to improve the quality of the service. TfL also introduced Oyster to all 55 stations when the rebranded service launched.
In 2010, TfL gave the Overground its first major extension with the South London line. Transport for London moved the line over from the London Underground after the completion of Phase 1 of its extension, increasing the Overground’s reach down to West Croydon from its Dalston station. In 2012, the Overground became an orbital network with the line extended from Surrey Quays to Clapham Junction, finally tying what was once a fractured rail network together to improve service for commuters. In 2015, Liverpool Street to Enfield Town, Chesnut (via Seven Sisters), Chingford, and the Romford to Upminster service transferred from the East Anglia rail service and became part of the Overground.
What started as a simple commuter rail operating in the north and west London has grown into a sprawling and unified network. Today the Overground has 112 stations over six routes, appearing on the TfL map as an octopus with tentacles stretching out to cover London’s major suburbs. Over the course of one year, from 2016 to 2017, the Overground had 189 million passenger journeys, proving it’s an incredibly important part of London’s transportation infrastructure.