The End of London’s ‘Elevated Electric’

A train service that runs between two city termini in the same city, without passing through the city itself, is a relatively unusual feature of the British railway network. Strange to say that between Victoria and London Bridge there are two such services (and at one time three). One operates via Wandsworth, Crystal Palace and Sydenham while the other runs via Denmark hill. This latter service runs at half-hour intervals, calls at just 7 intermediate stations, takes just 24 minutes and is popularly called the South London line.

The South London line has its origins in the mid 1860s when the London, Brighton & South Coast railway sponsored the connecting route, although a short section of it was built by the London, Chatham & Dover Railway (as a widening of its existing line). After an unpromising start the service became very popular and has endured until the present day. This is soon to change as the southern pair of tracks between Peckham and Wandsworth Road will from December largely be turned over to London Overground as part of their East London Line extension from Surrey Quays to Clapham Junction. Many stations will be served by Southern’s other services, but it will no longer be possible to travel between the two London termini via this route, ending this 145-year operation.

One of my interests in this particular service is that it once appeared on the Underground map. This was because the South London Line was chosen as the prototype section of electrified line by the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway when they were proposing widespread electrification of their system. The LBSCR chose an overhead live wire system using overhead single-phase alternating current traction at 6700 Volts, 25 cycles. After toying with a small scale trial along part of the route it was finally agreed that a more representative test would be achieved by electrifying the whole of the South London line. Five platforms were electrified at Victoria, and six at London Bridge, to afford flexibility. Eight trains were available for the electric service, which began operation on 1st December 1909. The railway soon coined the name ‘Elevated Electric’ for this service, perhaps echoing the distinctive ‘Underground’ brand and reflecting the fact this line this line was almost all on viaduct, as were to be a good proportion of its expected extensions. The railway contracted with the London Electric Supply Corporation for its electric current, generated at its Deptford power station and distributed at line voltage to a switch house at Queens Road Peckham for onward distribution. The Deptford power house was conveniently located and quite probably the only plant then large enough to offer a supply at reasonable cost.

It was about the time the electric service began that the Underground Group, desperate to generate traffic, was promoting its first generation of “Underground” maps—the ones first showing lines in distinctive colours. A number of variants of these showed other lines, that is to say lines less intimately connected with the Group’s marketing initiative where several companies agreed to use joint publicity, to enlarge through ticket arrangements and to adopt the name “Underground” as a common marketing tool. The Waterloo & City Railway (by then part of the London & South Western) and the South London Line appeared inconsistently, as the picture of a 1911-12 map above shows. The map almost became a ‘rapid transit’ map of London, but the South London soon disappeared (though it hardly competed with the “Underground” model).

Electrification of the South London Line proved the technical feasibility of large scale electrification and also proved what later came to be called the ‘sparks effect’. In 1902 traffic along this short route amounted to 8 million a year but this had halved by 1909, mainly due to tramway competition. In the first year of electrification nearly all of this lost traffic had recovered, and was still growing. Financially it looked like delivering a 10 per cent return on capital. As one might expect, this precipitated schemes for much more substantial electrification of the LBSCR; this was interrupted by the First World War, and was only completed in Southern Railway days, but was a substantial undertaking.

Once the Southern Railway took over it was obvious that two different electrification systems could not endure. The problem was examined at some length and the decision was eventually made to develop the third rail network and convert the central section to third rail operation. This was not entirely a surprise as the mileage of dc track was higher and there was the complication of inter-running with Underground trains to contend with. The first section to be abandoned was the Victoria to London Bridge section, via both the South London line and Crystal Palace routes, which took place from 17th June 1928 although the wires remained electrified for empty stock moves until most of the other routes had been converted; dc trains took over the various services. Some of the overhead and electrical structures lasted rather longer.

Many years ago there were two more stations on this route. Old Kent Road & Hatcham (to the east of Queens Road Peckham) closed on 1st January 1917 and East Brixton (west of Denmark Hill) on 5th January 1976. The East London Line link is not as new as one has been led to believe as it pretty much follows the route of the East London Railway between Deptford Road Junction and Old Kent Road junction. This opened in 1871 but had a short life; trains ran between Old Kent Road and Liverpool Street from 1871 and were extended back to Peckham Rye in 1877. The service ceased in 1911 as the steam trains interfered with the South London electric trains and the link fell into disuse (it was removed in 1913). Part of the route remained in railway service for longer, as the up line from New Cross Gate (up side) to Deptford Road junction ran alongside the line just described for about half its length and only went out of use in 1962, though track was not removed until 1966. If this old formation had not survived for as long as it did, in an area where until recently there was little redevelopment, then the final part of London’s orbital railway would have been hugely more difficult—there can be few examples of a railway route being reinstated after a century of disuse.

I recently travelled the route (for the first time), catching the 18.11 from Victoria. I discovered my train was to be 2-car set, compared with the far longer trains leaving from all the other platforms. On departure it was comfortably loaded – all seats were taken and there were a few standing. Amazingly, this position endured until the train arrived at London Bridge, though all the passengers but me had changed. At each station pretty much the same number of people got on as had alighted; my impression was that Wandsworth Road exchanged the fewest people and perhaps Battersea Park and Peckham Rye were busiest, though Denmark Hill probably saw the greatest number actually get out. Although the total load at any point could hardly have exceeded 120, this half hour service clearly provides useful local links. The long gap between Clapham High Street and Denmark Hill, passing over, but failing to stop at, Brixton Underground station seems to be an omission that needs fixing one day.

As an enthusiast for railway electrification I think that the role played by the South London line needs to be played up a bit while there is still time to pay our respect to it. It was the first main line railway electrification in London, if you exclude those bits of the main line networks electrified by or on behalf of the District Railway. Of course, today, it is just a small part of the unremarkable 3rd rail network, but that is by the by.

From 9 December 2012 the South London line will cease to be, so ending the service at the core of London’s ‘elevated electric’ network. From London Bridge some trains on other routes will continue to serve South Bermondsey, Queens Road Peckham and Peckham Rye. From Victoria some trains will continue to serve Battersea Park, Denmark Hill and Peckham Rye, but if one wants Wandsworth Road or Clapham High Street then a change at Clapham Junction to the new London Overground service is called for, more than doubling journey time (though there are more trains). The new Overground service will run from Clapham Junction to Dalston Junction calling at all the South London line stations from Wandsworth Road to Queens Road Peckham before peeling off to join the East London line at Surrey Quays.

About machorne

I have always lived in London and taken a great interest in its history and ongoing development. This extended into the history of its transport services, about which I have written a number of books - I have spent most of my working life working in the industry and observing changes from within, mostly to the good, but not always so. I continue to write, and have a website with half finished stuff in it so that it is at least available, if not complete. Several new books are in hand. I have many 'works in progress' and some of these can be found on my website; the we address is
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