Wembley Central – things can only get better

Wembley Central station was opened by the London & Birmingham Railway in 1845, though it appears to have been a stopping place for one train a day (each way) since 1842. The station was located at a bleak spot along the Harrow Road. Though slightly closer to the tiny village of Wembley, it took its name from Sudbury, being renamed Sudbury & Wembley in 1882 and Wembley for Sudbury in 1910. These name changes reflect the growing importance of Wembley , which slowly expanded from its hilltop position along the Harrow Road, taking advantages of the improving railway service. The earliest station appears to have been built with a pair of platforms astride the twin tracks and extending both north and south of the bridge. Early maps suggest direct access to the platforms from the road bridge, with small station buildings on the platforms. A third track (with platform) was installed on the east side in 1858, this platform was wholly south of the bridge and backed onto the existing up platform. A fourth track on the east side, with its own side platform, had arrived in 1875 and is shown on by 1896 mapping. By this time the whole station had been reconstructed with all four platforms south of the bridge, and a station building on the bridge itself, on the south side and extending across the whole railway. Proper buildings and protective canopies were now provided on all platforms.

Wembley during the Edwardian era, looking north. The nature of the station on the bridge is evident. Fast lines (the original tracks) on left and what are now the slow lines in foreground.

Further reconstruction occurred around 1910-14 to accommodate the new electric lines built along the west side, on land taken mainly from the large back gardens of houses in Station Grove. The entire station building (though quite modern) was removed and replaced by a square building on a new plot to the east of the station; this was connected to all the platforms by a long footbridge running along the south face of the road bridge. The station building was slightly set back from the road and had a small ‘cab’ yard in front. I haven’t seen a photo of this, but it is likely to be similar to all the other ‘new lines’ stations of that period, but perhaps a little larger.

By the mid 1930s the arrangements at Wembley were proving unsatisfactory and the LMS decided to rebuild the station. The opportunity was also taken to widen the road bridge by 40ft and raft over the north side to allow a row of shops to be built where previously there had just been a brick parapet. The existing station was entirely demolished and a new one built, set back about 100ft from the road . Between the station and the road a new building was erected along the widened bridge with entrances at the extremities to what was in effect an arcade; between the entrances the ground floor frontage was occupied by nine shops facing onto the street. The station was situated within the arcade, with four sets of steps (serving all six platforms) leading down from the southern face. The main ticket office and parcels office was at the east end but there was a secondary ticket office at the western end as well (nearest the busy dc lines). The rearrangement at street level required 100ft of the dc lines’ platforms to be cut back at their northern end and a corresponding 100ft extension at the south end. The works also required extensive alterations to platform awnings and platform buildings. The result was a huge improvement over what had been there before and provided prominent entrances to the high street in addition to substantial property income. The station was renamed Wembley Central in July 1948 as part of the Railway Executive’s post-nationalization attempt to reduce duplicated or ambiguous station names.

View of Wembley station, looking north, in 1938. The new station building and arcade are just about visible, as is the deck for the shops on the north side of the High Street bridge.
Right hand entrance to Wembley, soon after completion. The entrance leads to an arcade with station access within.

Between 1963 and 1966 a new property scheme was embarked upon. This was quite lucrative for the newly formed British Railways Board but was a mixed blessing for station users. The scheme involved decking over virtually the whole of the platform area to enable shops and offices to be built above. The railway benefited from income from the ground lease to the tune of £35,000 annually whilst the £3m development costs were borne by the developer. These were substantial sums in those days. The ticket hall area off the 1930s arcade was rebuilt, but without additional facilities and there was really quite little else of benefit to passengers. The platforms were now, in effect, confined within three concrete boxes, and were dark and gloomy. The brutal unrelieved concrete finishes were deeply unattractive and oppressive, the more so on a sunny day when brilliant sunshine could be glimpsed at either end but not enjoyed. While the works were going on, a temporary station was available with an entrance in Station Grove. The resulting 2½-acre concrete deck, together with existing land on its fringe, provided a 4-acre site for new construction. The raft sat on more than 1000 piles sunk to between 60 and 80 feet, and was further complicated by the need for early completion so as not to interfere with the West Coast electrification scheme, then in hand. The entrance onto the High Street was unaffected.

The Wembley Central Development in 1965, looking north, buildings nearing completion. The station frontage on the High Street (top left) is now dwarfed by its surroundings. 

The unfortunate and noisy station cavern was later the subject of several attempts to alleviate the poor passenger environment. The first was in 1983 when the station received a £30,000 face lift. This, it needed. The area in general, and the station in particular, was beginning to look scruffy and the unpleasant platforms almost became threatening. The dc platform areas were tiled and certainly improved, but it did little to mitigate the unattractive environment (the harsh strip lighting tended to undo some of the benefits of the tiling). The passenger experience was not assisted by train service reductions which increased waiting times. Further modernization, in 2006, was more drastic. White enamelled sheet cladding was installed along the whole length of the dc platforms, with blue borders at top and bottom. This was accompanied with new lighting, installed within its own angled cladding, and arranged so that some of the light reflected off the walls; this somehow gives a more spacious and airy feel. Though I hate the decking, and in fine weather insist on waiting in the short open-air section, I will concede that the platforms are now far less uninviting that they were a few decades ago. The slow line platforms on the ac tracks have not been so well treated and one would definitely not venture there to enjoy the view.

This 1970s map shows the 1930s station arcade butting up against the new rafted development. The station ticket office is the unmarked white space to the arcade’s south, in line with the western arcade entrance.

The ticket hall area became an extraordinary place. With staff reduced to a minimum one ended up with indifferent station facilities concentrated at the dc end and the stairways to the other platforms outside the barrier line and usually closed off (for the arcade was a public area). Virtually nothing ever used the fast line platforms (3 and 4) but the slow platforms (5 and 6) were used rather inconsistently by various services. Latterly the only regular service is Southern’s hourly service for which purpose the platforms were unlocked shortly before each train and closed off again afterwards, with great inconvenience (I passed through it recently one evening by Southern and noticed none of the lights had been switched on. At least 50 people were picking their way out using the train’s lights. I don’t know what happened after the train left). A small number of early and late London Midland trains also stop there.

The arrangements at Wembley were becoming farcical, especially as traffic was picking up again and the facilities were in so poor a state (ceilings and tiling were in very poor repair and there was water ingress). In addition, uncoordinated development had left the station facilities tucked away and not commanding attention. Around 2004/5 the station operator (then Silverlink) was keen to get developer funding to fund a new station, with support from Brent, Network Rail and TfL. Agreement was finally possible, planning permission was granted and demolition began in 2006. The idea was to get rid of the ‘moderne’ street frontage and arcade to produce a small square and for a property development scheme behind to produce new and much needed modern retail space, housing and offices. It was hoped this might help prime further regeneration of the rather tired surroundings. As part of this a new station building would be provided. Early to be demolished was the 1930s street frontage and part of the 1960s ticket hall, a temporary building frontage being erected. This led to the strange arrangement where access to platforms 5 and 6 emerged, unprotected, in the square, remote from the station (with the platforms being kept locked unless a train was due).

This was all very well on a temporary basis, but unfortunately (as I understand it) the money ran out and these ‘temporary’ arrangements became fixed—the worst of all worlds. It is in this state that London Underground became the station operator in 2007. The temporary station building looked awful and unfinished (it was described by a local political activist and fellow blogger as an ‘allotment shed’ but he later told the Kilburn Times he withdrew the remark as it was an insult to allotment sheds) and it was only just before the Olympics started that it received a hasty £2½ million makeover, including lifts to make the station fully accessible. Despite the orgy of London Underground sign-fixing that followed, there was little more that could be done at street level without the development proceeding.

The ‘temporary’ ticket hall – part of the 1960s structure with a vaguely weatherproof makeshift front. This ended up doing duty for about six years. (From the Wembley Matters blog – Brent Green Party).

Fortunately, with the economy picking up, work has restarted and the block within which the permanent station will be situated is structurally complete. Although the station entrance is still a building site it has already allowed a new internal corridor to be brought into use that connects all the platforms together within the barrier line. That itself is a triumph. There is a fair chance that the station will be completed roughly as originally envisaged, but only time will tell.

This is an artist’s impression of the final scheme as put forward
And this is where we are up to by June 2014 (The building is to be a Travelodge hotel, due to be complete ‘late Summer’ 2014)


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 http://www.metadyne.co.uk
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