The news that planning permission has been granted for the redevelopment of the Earls Court exhibition complex and neighbouring lands struck me as having huge implications for the area. The land involved is vast and essentially a new town will be created. Significantly, for those interested in London’s transport, much of this land is actually the freehold of Transport for London through its subsidiary, London Underground Ltd. The Underground’s interest goes back to the 1860s, but, despite this long acquaintance, it looks as though it will not benefit from this redevelopment as much as perhaps it ought to. A once-in-a-century opportunity is about to be lost.
The Underground’s involvement is partly an accident of history. Plans for a railway linking many of the main lines were thrown up in the air by parliament in 1863 and when the pieces settled it left plans for a Metropolitan District Railway an odd collection of the remnants of their earlier grand scheme and that of another projected railway. Thus it happened that a double track line was built from Addison Road to High Street Kensington, and another double track line from West Brompton to South Kensington (where it would meet the Metropolitan and continue to Westminster). There was no immediate inclination to build a station in the Earls Court area but the two lines from the west converged and ran parallel (as four tracks) for about half a mile before diverging near Cromwell Road, double junctions linked the two pairs of lines where they ran parallel. The District opened between South Kensington and Westminster in 1868 but at first none of the (expensive) 4-track section was used. A shuttle train eventually started running in April 1869 between Gloucester Road and West Brompton, superseded by through trains from August 1870. The northern tracks did not come into use until 1872 when the London & North Western Railway began a service to Mansion House via Addison Road, but the High Street Kensington arm did not see trains from this direction for some years more.
The 4-track section was heavily constrained by local geography. The whole of it was committed to deep cutting within brick walls but at the western end all four lines had to squeeze through the gap between Warwick Road (carried over by bridge) and Counters Creek, an ancient river that runs more or less under Warwick Road and had to pass underneath the railway. This necessarily forced the railway to adopt a particular level just here. The northern curve had then to drop rapidly, in open cutting, so that it could pass underneath the West London Extension Railway (the WLER, itself in shallow cutting) after which it rose to WLER level on its west side, eventually joining it by means of a junction. The southern curve had an easier time of it and passed through its own open cutting to WLER level at West Brompton station. Since the WLER travelled directly between Addison Road and West Brompton it will be seen that this created a kind of triangle, surrounded by railways, and the District Railway was obliged to purchase the whole of the land, none then built on. Once the lines were complete, the interior triangle of land was sold.
In 1871 Earls Court received a station (east of Earls Court Road bridge) and this meant substantial track alterations in the deep cutting, where four tracks were reduced to three to make room for platforms. The station was enlarged and moved to the west side of the Earls Court Road bridge in 1878, at which point it had four platforms, basically as we see them today. This brought the west end of the platforms quite close to the Warwick Road bridge.
Readers will know that in due course the West Brompton branch was extended to Putney in 1880, and later to Wimbledon. They will also know that extensions to Richmond, Hounslow and Ealing were made by a junction with the northern curve just west of the West London Extension Railway bridge. All this made Earls Court an increasingly busy place. Curious to say, the Ealing line became the main line, with most trains to London, while the Putney service was consigned to High Street Kensington, and was for many years known as the local service. Although there were four platforms at Earls Court, parallel working was only possible in the westbound direction. During the 1878 station alterations it was found expedient to carry the westbound line between High Street and Earls Court underneath all the other tracks at Cromwell Road to create the Underground’s first ‘flying’ junction. This was far sighted beyond belief, since there wasn’t then even a train service along this route! Nevertheless, when trains began running in 1880 it meant a High Street – Putney train could pass through Earls Court at the same time as (say) a City – Richmond train was being dealt with. The westbound ‘wall’ road at Earls Court station was referred to as the local road (for Putney) and the other one the main road.
Unhappily, the same convenience was impossible in the other direction. Immediately west of the station was a very complicated flat junction, made more difficult by the existence of connections to engine sidings and some very sharp radius curves, the whole of the arrangement subject to severe speed limits. At the other end, the two eastbound tracks converged for quarter of a mile to form a single line before diverging at Cromwell Road. This gave rise to two problems. First, parallel eastbound departures were impossible and second the Putney-High Street trains effectively had to cross on the flat the service from the other branches to the City. The eastbound ‘wall’ road was the eastbound main line and the other eastbound road the local line, easier to run into from the Putney direction. Clearly an arriving train from Putney would also delay an outgoing Ealing train, or vice versa, because of the flat junction.
In 1911 the District was heartily fed up with the delays this arrangement was causing and decided to install a flying junction at the west end of the station as well. Here an accident of fate suddenly proved helpful. I have already mentioned the land inside the railway triangle had been sold, the year was 1876. The railway later had aspirations to build its own line between Addison Road and West Brompton and this meant buying land on the east side of the WLER, across the triangle, for which purpose they bought the whole lot back in 1883. They (wisely) decided not to pursue this link but owing to a quirk of their special act of parliament were not required to divest themselves of the property so acquired. In 1897, four years after their powers for building their new line were abandoned, the District was approached by a promoter who wanted to hold a Wild West show on the site, and we know that this was hugely successful and led to a succession of lucrative extravaganza, soon spilling over into other chunks of spare railway land nearby that were eventually interconnected by bridges.
The track layout at Earls Court, with tracks diverging sharply to the north and south, and the level constraint of Counters Creek and Warwick Road meaning that flyovers and flyunders could not be built to their east, made provision of a flying junction very difficult. Taking into account the dropping level of the tracks towards Hammersmith the only solution was to build the flyover right across the middle of the exhibition site. This could only be achieved by building a new westbound line to Ealing that headed more or less towards the middle of the site and dropped very sharply indeed before levelling out and turning north west after levelling out to meet the old route at the junction of the Addison Road line. A new eastbound line was built from West Brompton that also headed towards the middle of the exhibition ground on a rising gradient, crossing the other new line on a bridge and then turned east and dropped rapidly to get under the Warwick Road bridge where it met the eastbound line from Ealing. The work took place during winter when there were no exhibitions and the ground was then covered over so facilitate future exhibition business. The new tracks were brought into use during a succession of complex stage working during summer 1918. Today, if one is sitting in the right place on a train from West Brompton that pauses outside Earls Court, one can see District trains passing underneath, in otherwise dark tunnel, which enlivens the journey for a certain sort of person.
So, in 1918, we still have a site bounded by railways all in cutting, but where there were additional lines (the flyover) in the middle of the site that were under cover. However this meant that the tops of the trains were actually about 4ft above ground level at the point where the tracks crossed, requiring the ground level of the exhibition space to be raised. We all know that in the 1930s the present exhibition hall was built, covering over the surviving open air railway sections. The main floor of the building is elevated well above ground level and has to accommodating the flying junction with District trains, at one point only just beneath the floor.
It might be thought that the flying junction solved the District’s problems. Not so. It only solved one of the two problems. Although it would have been possible (though far more complicated) for the eastbound Putney line to cross both of the Ealing tracks it only crossed the westbound line and continued to deposit trains in the eastbound local platform. Eastbound trains could still not depart simultaneously owing to the single eastbound line beyond. This was fixed during the 1960s when a siding at the east end was done away with and a second eastbound line installed all the way to Cromwell Road, and this did allow simultaneous departures – But it didn’t help much. The reason was the High Street trains were in the right hand platform but turned left at Cromwell Road, while City trains were in the left hand platform and needed to turn right. Clearly this created a conflict, so delays continued. With rising traffic this is a really unhelpful arrangement and offers a real constraint to developing services, an issue only mitigated by the relative infrequency of trains to High Street or Edgware Road (not necessarily something to be proud of). The long term answer is to improve the flyover arrangement, but this is clearly impractical with all the railway lines confined within the piling of a working exhibition building. That is, until now.
Under the planning consent now granted the exhibition building will be entirely demolished and the whole site cleared to become part of the much larger development scheme (this site, remember, is already railway freehold). Provision has of course been made to protect the existing track layout and train services while all this is going on. As far as I can tell, no work has been done to exploit this once-in-a-century opportunity to remodel the track layout to carry the Putney line over the tracks from Ealing as well, to put the ex-Putney trains into the northern platform and the ex-Ealing trains into the other one, thereby entirely eliminating the conflicts as different services cross each other on the level. It seems to me that this would be comparatively inexpensive while the whole of the site is opened up and empty and it would secure additional future operating capacity for a few decades. Its what I would be trying to do, but I’m not holding my breath.
Of course the time to have had the debate would have been while the new planning consent was being sought and to get Section 106 developer funding to support such an alteration so that it didn’t cost the Underground anything, but I dare say it may now be too late.
The operating people at London Underground seem to have put their faith in restoration of an old crossover at the west end of Earls Court in order to improve flexibility. Yes it will, a bit, but nothing like as much as a flyover doing what it should have done in 1918. I suspect the issue is one of joined up thinking, or its absence. What a pity.
I wonder how many other once-in-a-century opportunities are being lost each year?