A Line to Nowhere

There is something a bit eerie about a railway line that was only partly built. Such is the case at the distinctly eerie Chessington South station which I have had cause to visit several times quite recently.

There hadn’t been much in the Chessington hinterland to attract railways in their first century of existence as fully integrated passenger-carrying systems. The good old Southern Railway (like the London underground railways) was very sensitive to the possibilities of house construction where there were decent transport facilities, the commuters created thereby committing themselves to paying for the railway through their season tickets to town, to which they and their families became absolutely committed. I must not call them commuters since the term had not been coined in this Country before the Second World War.


This had been a good-looking building but the explosion of gawdy signs, camera and aerials, and that machine thing, have succeeded in ruining the appearance of the place and making it all look a bit seedy.

The Southern determined that Tolworth, Chessington and the empty farmland to its south along the Leatherhead Road was prime Southern house-building land that could one day create a useful income. A plan was hatched for a new through line from Motspur Park to Leatherhead, to an extent paralleling the existing route via Epsom but serving areas too far away from the existing catchments, Parliamentary authority being obtained in 1930. When this ‘nice to have’ was expected to have been built I am not sure, the circumstances of what actually happened changed things.


1:2500 map. The single track south of the bridge over the unclassified road was not there long and seems to have been built to aid construction of embankment.

In the difficult times of the early-mid 1930s the government was still amenable to assisting useful public works that helped reduce unemployment and stimulated British business, but in all cases stopping short of providing liquid cash and with a disinclination to stimulate schemes that would happen anyway since this was regarded as mere subsidy (and a poor use of public money). London Transport and the main line railways established a workable mechanism to raise ‘cheap’ government-backed money and a number of schemes were examined, including London-Portsmouth electrification, which was quite expensive. However the programme as finally evolved confined these new works to the London Passenger Transport Area and the government indicated that it would consider a similar scheme for new railway works outside London. This set the scene for several quite well known improvements. In addition to London-Portsmouth there was to be included the Manchester-Sheffield-Wath electrification and the reconstruction of Euston station, for example. Making a start with the Motspur Park – Chessington – Leatherhead line would also receive assistance. The mechanism was to establish a public corporation (the Railway Finance Corporation) which could issue bonds that were backed by a government guarantee and against the proceeds of which the railways could draw down cash for approved schemes as required (paying the same rate of interest as the bonds required to be paid).

The Southern did not regard the new line as the highest priority and expected to construct it in stages, each stage stimulating ever further development south. Stations were planned at: Malden Manor (the name Old Malden was toyed with), Tolworth, Chessington Court, Chessington Grange, Malden Rushett and a final station serving the  area between West Ashstead and North Leatherhead and the whole of the line was to be 7¼ miles. We cannot be certain about the planned name for the southernmost station but Leatherhead Common would not have been inappropriate. Whilst the names Moor Lane (Chessington) and Garrison Lane (Chessington) were used to describe the two stations in Chessington in 1935 it is unlikely these were firm proposals. Indeed the first of these two was built at a site slightly further south and did not serve Moor Lane.

The line opened as far as Tolworth on 29 May 1938 and to Chessington South on 28 May 1939, the whole section being 3¾ miles long. The alteration in station names from Chessington Court to Chessington North, and Chessington Grange to Chessington South, happened quite shortly before opening; the new names are rather less romantic and less estate agent friendly perhaps, but were probably considered more helpful for those not familiar with the area. Planned cost for this section was just £440,000 but I do not have to hand actual costs, though they would not have been so very different. Some work was done further south and much of the land purchased and pegged out but the war put paid to major work being done and afterwards the settling of the green belt meant that housing development was impossible and there was no point in extending the line. Track continued as far as Chalky Lane, having transferred from cutting to embankment, and work was done on an embankment to the south as far as Chessington Wood, apparently by the Royal Engineers as an exercise. The provisional edition 1:25,000 Ordnance Survey maps shows this complete, with track and a bridge over Chalky Lane, but personal inspection suggests no bridge was finished and the existence of track south of Chalky Lane unlikely.


Chessington South (looking north) with terminal platform on right and never used platform on left. The overhead blue panel this side of canopy is a knock-out panel that would give access to the footbridge, when built. 



View of the derelict platform, in reasonably good condition given when it was built and the improbability of much maintenance.

The civil engineering works were greatly complicated by the nature of the undulating land and the unforgiving nature of the acidic and treacherous clay which required considerable under-track support and extensive drainage and special treatment of the higher embankments which required topping with dry material.


Looking south from Chessington South. This track is fully signalled for shunting moves and seems to be fully electrified


Looking south from the road bridge the tracks (still in commission) disappear into the undergrowth and onto embankment


Extensive use was made of concrete, a favoured material of the Southern. It was suggested in 1935 that the stations would have island platforms and it is likely that the overall style was expected to follow that of the recently-completed Wimbledon & Sutton Line. In fact the completed stations were of a distinctive modern type with side platforms that, unusually, employed cantilevered concrete canopies of the Chisarc design which were heavily reinforced but actually quite thin and light for the job required. These had porthole-like glazed openings in the soffits to allow a proportion of daylight through and the stations were amongst the earliest to employ fluorescent lights.


View from Chalky Lane looking at what is clearly an embankment leading from its south side. Careful examination fails to reveal any evidence that a permanent bridge was completed here. A corresponding embankment on the north side is near where the track from Chessington South used to end.


This aerial view from 1948 (looking east) shows Chalky Lane on the left and railway near top running left-right (reading away from Chessington South). Just visible is a light, temporary bridge with wooden trestle props over Chalky Lane and though not obvious at this size track can be made out over the bridge and running all the way along this embankment. This corresponds with the map shown above. (Britain from above EAW013206)

Chessington South was never designed as a terminal station and was constructed with two complete platforms in the same manner as the others, though modified for access from a station building at a higher level (all the other stations have the station building lower). It is clear that to get the station open as quickly as possible some unnecessary work was deferred, such as the footbridge to the ‘up’ platform which was not required until the line went further south. The line continued south to give access to a goods yard (there was another at Tolworth). By the way, all four stations were rather similar in appearance and presented to view a great deal of then-fashionable concrete; whilst the two northern stations had all-concrete ticket halls, for some reason the two Chessington stations were finished off with brick-built ticket halls.


Tolworth station has survived well and the concrete doesn’t seem to have spalled or degraded (unlike some Underground stations). The porthole lights have unfortunately long been painted over, which seems regrettable. Some mastermind at South West Trains has decided that each of these three near-identical stations will also be painted identically so unless one’s train window pulls up opposite one of the few signs you have no idea where you are! I think I would have painted them each slightly differently (or put more signs up).


It is a pity about the awful signage clutter (surely SWT doesn’t encourage this?) but the station has survived reasonably well. The  once-fine ticket hall interior is a bit grim now, but no more than other stations where staff and facilities have been pared down.


This is Malden Manor station as opened, a very similar station to Tolworth. It may be seen that these two stations originally had a parapet around the top of the flat roof, making space for the Southern Railway signage which presumably disappeared with the parapets. These stations were designed by Architect James Robb Scott and make a pleasing contrast with Charles Holden’s vast station boxes.

Unusually the goods yard at Tolworth is still in use having been adapted to fill trains with (I think) gravel, locally obtained and fed to the yard by a conveyor system. Each time I have been past I’ve seen a train lurking so business is presumably good. The sidings at Chessington South appear quite unusable but the signalling suggest they are still avilable in theory.

The track in the unused ‘up’ platform at Chessington South is still bullhead rail on wooden sleepers, the rails are still connected with 2-hole fishplates (why would anyone not want to use the more robust 4-hole versions?) that are known to have been used in 1938-9 and it looks  as though this is all the original track, now over 75-year old.

It is of note that almost the whole of the branch parallels a main road which carries a TfL Chessington-Leatherhead bus mostly at half hour frequencies, and the ones I have seen are certainly not heavily occupied (at least, not beyond the zoo). It is probably as well the southern section wasn’t built. The line, particularly north of Chessington North, seems reasonably well used though.


This view from June 1949 looks north-east. At (1) is Chessington North station, (2) Chessington South station, (3) Chessington South goods yard, and (4) buffer stops and the limit at which track is visible, the track to the south apparently having just been lifted. The block of temporary buildings between railway and main road are Ordnance Survey offices. Chalky Lane is a little to the right, out of shot. (Britain from Above EAW023696)  


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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3 Responses to A Line to Nowhere

  1. John King says:

    Excellent article but I now have evidence that there was a bridge over Chalky Lane. I too had thought that the 1:25000 OS map might have been incorrect but further research has produced an aerial photograph from the website Britain from Above. Photo EAW042773 shows in the top left corner a bridge over Chalky Lane. Although it is difficult to see it looks like a very lightweight bridge and certainly not like any of the overbridges on the rest of the line. The embankment certainly continues to the south so is this a temporary bridge built by the Royal Engineers in 1941-1942 as part of their training exercise? I also wondered if the REs had constructed a lightweight railway line to move spoil. A question I often ask is does an OS map lie? In this case probably not since the black buildings to the left of the track just south of the station were the OS offices which were bombed out of Southampton in 1940. The OS stayed there until the mid 1960s when they moved back to new offices in Southampton. Since this track was just behind their offices they were unlikely to get this wrong( but I do have other instances where unbuilt features have been shown on OS maps).
    South of Malden Rushett there are several footpaths which cross the line of the proposed railway . In several places you can still find SR chain link fencing. A fascinating what might have been.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Stephen Spark says:

    A very good summary of the Chessington branch story. The line is certainly an odd one, and travelling down to South in the twilight off-peak is an eerie experience – you’re quite likely to be the only passenger on the train. In many ways, it’s surprising the line hasn’t been singled south of Tolworth. The plan under Crossrail 2 to increase the service to four trains an hour throughout the day seems mad.

    The Southern can’t be blamed for building the line, as the construction of the Kingston Bypass had prompted a frenzy of house-building. Even before this there were plans to build housing at Byhurst Farm in Malden Rushett, the Crown Agents had a big estate between Oxshott and Leatherhead (ie just south-west of the proposed line) and speculators had bought up most of the fields available in the 30s, which meant the Southern had to spend a fortune getting land for its railway.

    So why wasn’t anything built beyond Chessington South? In short: drains. The get-rich-quick developers wanted to build thousands of mock-Tudor semis but weren’t prepared to spend a penny (excuse the pun) to upgrade the area’s inadequate sewerage system and the local treatment station. Developers and councils wrangled for years… and then war broke out and, as we know, the Green Belt put paid to further expansion of suburbia in this direction. In 1947 the LCC planned a massive satellite town at Malden Rushett (the reason for that weird bulge in the Greater London boundary), but Surrey CC and the local councils kicked back so hard that the plan was quickly snuffed out. Not for good, though; there have been other attempts, which probably explains why the part-built embankment was maintained into the 1960s. In the past few years, developers’ lobby group London First has also been casting acquisitive eyes on the fields and woods south of Chessington S.

    Indeed there was a bridge over Chalky Lane – this was confirmed yesterday by a local resident who remembered it well, and remembered its removal. It was only single track, as indicated by the aerial photo, and would have been for contractor’s trains tipping spoil (rubble from cleared slums and bombed buildings, plus chalk excavated when Basingstoke West Sidings were being built c1940). The story about the Royal Engineers may well be true, but I haven’t been able to find any documentary evidence for it. It is essentially from one source and has been repeated ever since, so it’s hard to make the story ‘stand up’. However, there is local anecdotal evidence indicating that Italian prisoners of war were used for some of the work; they were well liked locally, I’ve been told.

    Why concrete? Well, the Southern felt that it avoided the need for painting, hence would cut maintenance costs. Plus it projected a more modern image – this was a line built for all-electric traction (apart from steam-hauled trains to the two ‘model coal depots’ at Tolworth and Chessington South. The big road bridges are all steel, but simply encased in concrete – whether this really increased strength as was claimed at the time I don’t know.

    The Chisarc canopies are the line’s star architectural turn, an elegant solution that (a) avoided support pillars, (b) enhanced the modern image, (c) increased natural light to the back wall where the advertisements were placed, (d) acted as a testbed for innovative construction techniques, and (e) theoretically didn’t need painting. Ironically, in view of what was to happen a few months after the Tolworth-Chessington South section was opened, the consulting engineers and licence holders were German. Chisarc (the name given by T A Chisholm of British licensee Architectural Services Ltd) was a reinforced concrete shell construction system, mainly used for spanning large spaces such as swimming pools, market halls and aircraft hangars. I’m not aware that any other railway platform canopies were built this way in the UK, though the system was used in an LMS goods shed, apparently. The first two stations have a heavier, more ponderous appearance, because the cantilever ribs are on the underside of the canopy; at the two Chessington stations they are on the outside (you can see this clearly if you walk up the new step-free path at South, opened in June 2019).

    The change from rendered finish to plain brickwork for the station buildings was made after a conversation between the chief engineer George Ellson and the general manager, so unfortunately the reason for it is unknown. However, my strong suspicion is that it was to reduce cost, and perhaps also to speed up completion. Malden Manor and Tolworth buildings are finished in a German patent render called ‘Brizolite’, which was introduced to the UK by none other than Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus school of architecture. Again, I lack information, but these two stations may well be the only ones in Britain given this specific treatment, making their current rather sad appearance especially unfortunate.

    The goods yards were novel in that they were designed from the outset to serve a wider area. South’s yard, operated by Charrington’s, was re-equipped as a ‘coal concentration depot’ in 1963, allowing several small station goods yards elsewhere to be closed. It shut down in 1988, but the sidings are, it seems, still in place under the magic forest of alder and birch! When I explored yesterday (20 Jan 2020), a maintenance gang was attending to the points on the south side of Garrison Road bridge, so there’s clearly still felt to be a need for a working run-round loop here, even though it’s rarely used. Tolworth, as you point out, is very busy with aggregates traffic, sourced from Cliffe. Brett Marine sends several trains a week to the Day’s depot here, amounting to 130,000 tonnes a year.

    Hard to know what the line’s long-term future looks like. One senses it’s living on borrowed time, perhaps still waiting for the green light to cover the countryside to the south in concrete and tarmac. CR2, which has its roots in the Greater London Plan of the 1940s, may prove to be as much of a chimera as the Chessington-Leatherhead railway; its vast cost and outdated route (hey TfL folks, we need to get to Docklands and Heathrow these days, not Tottenham Court Road!) make me doubt it will ever happen its currently conceived form. There have been plans for some kind of Kingston-Chessington tram, and at one time there was a plan to make it part of the Northern Line (which definitely doesn’t need any more passengers), while there have been numerous abortive plans to extend it along the embankment to serve Chessington Zoo/World of Adventures. indeed, in the 1940s/50s the zoo seriously considered running a narrow gauge railway from the unused up platform at South into the zoo, but sadly that never happened either.

    Still, I rather like the branch’s faintly melancholy air and that faded optimism from another age. It’s also a treat to walk through the unspoiled countryside to Malden Rushett and Ashtead Common. It’s unspoiled, because 80 years of uncertainty has meant that no one has seen fit to invest much money into modernising the agriculture and turning the area into a barren agro-industrial area devoid of wildlife. Let’s enjoy it all while we can.


  3. Rosalind says:

    As a child in the 1950s living in Sussex Gardens on the edge of Chessington, I would lie awake at night sometimes and hear faint noises of trains from that area. I used to imagine they were ghost trains because I didn’t know about the goods yard you describe, I remember making up stories about the phantom trains, with a delicious thrill of horror.


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