Battersea and the Slow Death of a Giant


The above is inscribed on a commemorative stone laid at Battersea Power Station on 23 April 1931 during its construction by the London Power Company, which was rightly extremely proud of what it was building (the full wording is given at the end).

The company recognized that it was taking a bold step forward along the long road of electrical progress and development that great names such as Faraday had taken a hundred years before, and many others in the meantime. But it was all about the technology of supplying this electricity. The power station building was indeed a cathedral of power (a term finding favour with the arts and crafts brigade) but it was designed to look after and show off the technology and represent the tremendous impact that electricity was facilitating.

This association with the technology all seems to have been lost. The do-gooders that wanted to keep a building whose arrival other do-gooders heartily resisted at the time knew they were on to something and imagined it was all about the building. No, say I! It was about the technology. So what have our perhaps well-meaning lords and masters facilitated? A wreck of a building with most of the technology thrown away. Well done. That’s quite an achievement. With a slight sense of exasperation I set out the story below (posted exactly 225 years after Michael Faraday was born).

Battersea Power Station

Battersea Power Station last generated electric current in 1983 some 33 years ago. Since then the building has sat there, its heart torn out (by which I mean its generating equipment and roof are missing) and various groups of people have agonized over what to do with it. The building was listed (Grade II) by English Heritage in 1980, anticipating closure, so demolition was not going to be possible (or, at least, not easy). Listing status was raised to Grade II* in 2007. Electricity supply was nationalized in 1948 and the Central Electricity Generating Board latterly operated the station and had hoped to redevelop the site to generate funding for investment in plant elsewhere, but this avenue was firmly closed after listing. Since then the derelict station has sat there deteriorating gracefully in front of our eyes and the overall condition was described as ‘very bad’ by English Heritage as long back as 2009, but still it sat there, more a monument to the planning process than a monument to the electricity industry.


Battersea exterior in 2009, some years after closure and looking deceptively good. The interior, though is rotting fast. (Mattbuck via creative commons licence)

The power station is not what it superficially seems to be. ‘It’ is two technically quite separate power stations, the first, Battersea ‘A’, operational between 1933 and 1975 with the station not completed until 1935, and the ‘B’ station between 1944 and 1983 with completion only in 1955. The ‘A’ station is the western part of the structure and the design made provision for a correspondingly similar building to be built next to it, giving the impression of one uniform structure (which was at that point the largest brick-built building in Europe). The higher part of the building was the boiler house which was built with a temporary metal screen wall along its eastern side until the adjacent station was built (work on the adjacent boiler house starting in 1941 though some other work on the ‘B’ station began in 1937).


Battersea ‘A’ power station in 1933


Battersea, May 1946. Part of the ‘B’ station and one chimney already constructed and apparently under load. The ‘B’ station and the fourth chimney were not completed till 1955.

Plans were first put together in 1927 and the resulting structure is built around a very large steel frame the construction of which began in 1929, when it may be assumed that the technical arrangements were pretty much settled. The technical design and functional requirements were put together by London Power Company engineers and the architect James Theodore Halliday (of Manchester’s Halliday and Agate partnership), and the structural design was in the hands of C.S. Allott & Son. The power company’s chief engineer was Leonard Pearce, who had joined in 1926 after wide experience in electrical engineering elsewhere (he had been working for British Thomson-Houston before accepting the post of Superintending Engineer for the Central London Railway during its construction). It was he who led the designing of Battersea. It says something of his character that he shunned retirement and died whilst still in post in 1947, aged 74 (he was knighted in 1935).

Concerns about what the building would look like resulted in eminent architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott being brought in (in 1930) and he was given responsibility for improving the external appearance of the building and its brick cladding and chimneys. He is often referred to in popular sources as ‘the architect’ but his late involvement in a building already being erected makes this assertion very implausible and at the time he was described as the ‘external’ architect. Arguably getting a pleasing result from a building that might otherwise have looked dreadful to the hostile opinion-formers is probably a more challenging role than designing from new. The external style was replicated in the ‘B’ station though whether he was still involved then I have not ascertained. The famed internal finishes of the ‘A’ station were by Halliday and displayed faience and marble not unusual at that time (the later ‘B’ station had entirely different internal finishes representing the austerity of that time).

Scott is noted for his design of the chimneys on their decorated square brick bases. These are actually functional as they housed Pearce’s gas-washing equipment used to take the worst pollutants out of the flue gasses, a system throughout the world used only here and later at Bankside. According to The Times, it was decommissioned during WW2 as the government  wanted all the smoke it could get to help screen London from aerial attack. It was recommissioned after the war.

London Power Company

The station was built by the London Power Company (LPC), of which probably few people have heard in any context except Battersea. In the early days of London’s electricity supply electricity was generated, distributed and sold in small districts of London in accordance with electric lighting orders issued by the Board of Trade. The districts were at first parishes or groups of parishes but later the metropolitan boroughs into which the civil functions of parishes had evolved. The actual supplier might even be the local authority (as it was in Hampstead or Fulham, for example) but more usually was a private company. This multiplicity of systems and small stations meant supplies were very inefficient and therefore expensive. To reduce costs nine of these ‘all purpose’ companies got together and formed what in 1925 became the London Power Company to whom all their generating plant was transferred and from whom each could draw its own supply. The LPC was told to modernize, consolidate and if necessary replace the existing power stations to reduce electricity costs. Within a year the idea of building a very large station began to emerge and, after first looking at a site in Brentford, Battersea became a favoured location because land was available alongside the Thames (for coal supply and cooling water) and it was near the centre of where the power was needed.

At about the same time the government created a non profit-making public body called the Central Electricity Board, which was given the job of designing and building a national high-voltage electricity distribution grid. The idea was that the grid would buy the whole of the electricity output from the country’s prevailing most efficient power stations and sell it in bulk to any distribution authority wanting it. Over time it would cause large, efficient stations to be built and cause the closure of small and inefficient stations as buying in bulk from the grid would be cheaper, which is more or less what happened except that some distributors were already buying in bulk from neighbours because it was cheaper. The idea of a very large station such as Battersea fell neatly into this scheme.

After Closure

The power station remained coal fired throughout its life, though the ‘A’ station was adapted to use oil as an option, and the ‘B’ station used pulverized coal. By the 1970s the equipment was becoming life-expired and closure was the best option once the new 400kV London ring main had been completed (allowing power from the midlands to be distributed reliably across London). The CEGB had a problem now, since listing meant it could not be demolished. Accordingly it began casting around for proposals. An early one, in 1982, was to convert Battersea ‘A’ into a refuse-burning power station, installing ramps at the end of the ‘A’ turbine hall to allow lorries direct access. The disused boilers would have been replaced by three new refuse boilers using just one of the chimneys and new generating plant was needed as the old turbines were already being broken up in 1977. For some reason this did not find favour.

By the time the ‘B’ station closed, Wandsworth Council had already realized that what happened on this vast site would have wide planning implications and the council drew up a development brief. With assistance of Taylor Woodrow the CEGB sought workable proposals and launched a competition judged by Hugh Casson (which had to comply with the council’s brief). Seven short-listed entries were put on display during 1984, mostly regarded as not very interesting. On whittling down to two, one was the refuse-burning power station which scheme had reappeared and had the merit of being useful and a suitable use for the building. This, unfortunately did not comply with the council’s aspirations. The other was a proposal for an indoor industrial theme park put forward by a consortium led by Sir David Roche and including the operators of the Alton Towers theme park; the consortium claimed it was going to create ‘London’s Tivoli Gardens’ to the disbelief of those who had looked at the plans. The good and the great complained that this was about the least appropriate use to which this fine building could be put and raised the usual storm, which had no practical effect. The building was made available, apparently, without any restrictive covenants.

The Roche scheme received planning permission from Wandsworth but Sir David Roche actually withdrew and the site was sold to John Broome (of Alton Towers) in 1987 for £1.5 million, work starting the same year on the approved scheme, with modifications. The theme was to shift from ‘industrial’ towards a Las Vegas-style ‘palace of entertainment’. According to The Independent, at one stage, the plans included roller-coasters, waterfall, ice rink and an oceanarium big enough to be explored by mini-submarines.

The conversion work involved removing the boilers in the central section, and the concrete roof, which was to have been replaced. The life-expired power station building was quickly discovered to be fragile and riddled with asbestos. Far more work was required than the funfair supremo expected and costs increased from £34 million to a projected £240 million, the money running out in 1989 leaving the building (including exposed structural steelwork) open to to the elements. As the theme park had become unaffordable, new planning permission was granted for a mixture of a hotel, shops and offices despite furious opposition, including opposition by English Heritage. Nevertheless no more work was done at Battersea and Broome sold Alton Towers shortly afterwards (it is said to recoup capital after so much had been spent at Battersea). More detail about what Battersea might have become may be found HERE

In 1992 Parkview International bought the site for £10 million and planning permission was granted in 1996 for a large mixed development with restoration of the power station building fabric, but this process dragged on for ten years and created some bitter enemies. Part of the problem was that for the staff and visitors expected there was no public transport, a factor made more problematical by other nearby developments (from which was born the Northern Line extension, but that is another story). Anyway this got very difficult and in 2006 Parkview sold the site and accompanying external land for £400m million to Messrs Richard Barratt and Johnny Ronan who scrapped existing plans. The external land amounted to 32 acres formerly South Lambeth railway goods depot and a nearby pumping station.

These two individuals hail from Ireland and did well developing property in Dublin before expanding rapidly through their company Treasury Holdings, the controlling interest behind Real Estate Opportunities which was fronting the Battersea activity. The pair had already acquired a reputation for which so many adjectives would fit, perhaps the most frequently used being flamboyant, litigious, controversial and difficult to work with. At any rate after four years, during which debts had risen to £500 million, this could not go on, especially as Treasury Holdings was adversely affected by the Irish property crash in 2009, cash was a problem and the Irish government had become involved in Treasury Holdings’ debts as part of its quest to prop up the Irish economy.

Despite a fully-developed scheme having been developed the company eventually collapsed in 2011 with massive debts. The scheme had been quite imaginative and proposed utilizing part of the site as a biomass power station but much of the space would have been shopping and the roofless part would be used as a park. The site would also have included an energy museum. Restoration of the now much-weathered building would alone have cost £150 million. This scheme went into administration at the end of 2011 when banks foreclosed.


This image shows that while externally the power station looks presentable, inside it is in a terrible state. This photo 2007 and it has got worse since. (The Guardian)

The administrators now put the whole site up for sale with lots of restrictions and it was purchased by a Malaysian consortium with a requirement that restoration of the power station building was a priority, work starting in 2013. Much of the previous masterplan was retained, allowing relatively quick progress. Unfortunately the building was, after 30 derelict years, now in a shocking state. This was not helped by fears that the chimney reinforcing had deteriorated so much that they would (or might) become unsafe and commitments had already been given to Wandsworth Council that the chimneys would be demolished and replaced by replicas (although later inspections suggested this was unnecessary, the commitments made were enforced).

Where we are now is that work is at last in full flow and the exterior of the building will be retained as a public monument, but monument to what? For me the interesting feature is the technology, and I have previously expressed an opinion about how this country, for some very odd reason, ignores the history of several of our great industries of which the electricity supply industry surely comes top of the list as the most crucial. So here we have seen a vast building, very famous and good looking, and owned by the power supply industry when it was decommissioned, desperately looking for a use. We later discover the country’s only dedicated electricity museum at Christchurch is closing and the material must in due course be dispersed. It is mere frustration that I observe the Christchurch exhibition material and its reserve stock could have produced a tiny and worthwhile technical museum in a tiny corner of Battersea!

Anyway, enough of that! The point I am making is that all the industrial history at Battersea was got rid of at the earliest opportunity whilst the actual building was listed in 1980 for retention, partly as a reaction to the unseemly demolition of the Firestone factory in west London whose owners anticipated listing and wanted to circumvent its costs. The listing of Battersea is therefore nothing much to do with the technological wonder the station was felt to be when it was built; the listing was to do with the architectural merit of the structure (actually mainly the cladding) and the association with Sir Giles Gilbert Scott.

This is all very well, but despite the rarity of attractive brick buildings this size there is, a few miles downstream, another one of Gilbert Scott’s brick power stations, of similar mass: this is Bankside power station, opened in 1952 and contemporary with Battersea ‘B’. The Bankside station ceased generation in 1981 but was not listed because it was at first felt ‘too new’ and subsequently because ‘it might constrain development’. The contrast with Battersea is interesting. Bankside, again, is a power station where Gilbert Scott appeared late in the process to improve the appearance of a building whose form had already been designed and against angry opposition. This time there was the added complication of nearby St Paul’s and the risk of obscuring some well-known views. Scott’s main contribution was to create a central tower and get rid of the standard chimneys (arguably making it more cathedral-like and looking less like a traditional power station). I think this is quite successful and perhaps represents the pinnacle of power station design in the middle of cities, for there were (I think) no more.

Criticism has been levelled about whether Michael Heseltine ought to have listed Battersea power station in the first place, since listing such a vast structure was always going to impose an extreme challenge to any developer, and probably a fatal challenge judging by events. The government might list, but it has absolutely no responsibility for funding the ongoing consequences. It is instructive that Bankside has been redeveloped successfully whilst the listing of Battersea clearly was an issue. However there are far too many differences between the sites to make it possible to draw firm conclusions. In the circumstances one can understand why listing took place (and some rather nice features remain) but it invites the obvious question about what is being listed and who will have pockets deep enough to preserve a building and make money. This is an issue that affects many listed building, not just power stations. The Historic England listing entry refers entirely to the architectural features of the building ‘envelope’ and is uninterested in the technical contribution. Apparently the building is still Europe’s largest brick building. Does this mean it should be kept? I have also seen it described as merely a very large shed (to keep the equipment dry). Harsh, but I do get the point. Actually, on seeing how many aircraft hangars are listed perhaps size is important.

Bankside was not only never listed but was (uniquely?) given a certificate of immunity from listing in 1993. The building remained with the CEGB until electricity privatization when it was allocated to Nuclear Electric (now part of EdF), probably because that company was remaining in government ownership for a while longer. Decommissioning work was soon undertaken involving removal of the machinery and a lot of asbestos. In 1994 it was announced the building would be sold, complete, to form Tate Modern, apart from a small part of the site still used as a substation. On the whole, this was a very simple journey and Tate Modern, by all accounts works rather well.

Whilst the unfortunate consequences of listing Battersea still arouse suspicion, the perhaps hasty actions of Wandsworth Council also invite scrutiny. The nature of the planning brief that constrained the ideas that came forward, and the inclination to promote unsuitable and highly controversial development, seem unwittingly to have pushed the council into a corner where it was more or less forced to accept vast and exceedingly risky proposals that were in conflict with its responsibilities with regard to safeguarding listed buildings, the more so because of the extraordinary size of a power station. There could be no solution to ‘saving’ the rapidly deteriorating building without something else to fund it. A very uncomfortable position to have walked into and a possibility that ought to have been foreseen and avoided. More convenient to blame the planning process perhaps (and the preservation and conservation aspects of our planning processes do need attention). Whilst I expect Wandsworth meant well, those looking at the plans for a theme park were not saying that at the time.


Battersea early September 2016. Massive new buildings (on right) now hide the station from the railway lines and now dwarf the station. Note three chimneys dismantled prior replicas being built. The lack of roof and some walls is evident.


Another great glass block will also be built on the east side. The scale of the enveloping development is absolutely colossal. I think the glass block might be sixteen storeys.

What Now

We are now in the midst of a development scheme that (to get the money to work) destroys the famous vista of the power station and its chimneys from most directions within a mile or so because of overpowering adjacent developments. The station has been mauled around by the loss of the concrete roof and stripping of equipment, notwithstanding the listing, and the roof and chimneys are in fact to be replicas. This does not seem to me to be a very satisfactory outcome. Nobody has done anything wrong (as far as I know), but somehow the agencies that are supposed to be on our side could, I think, have done better.

Brick-faced Bankside was built in two phases between 1948 and 1963 and admittedly is smaller than Battersea. It has retained a good vista from the Thames and lacks the clutter now appearing at Battersea. It is far too late to do anything now, but the question about whether we need both of these building perhaps ought to have been asked. The power of the Battersea design was its domination of the landscape but the new development (keeping the power station because it has to) rather dwarfs it. It may, in the minds of some, quite destroy it.

The old turbine hall is to become a 2000 person venue, we are told. The redevelopment envisages the generating halls being converted into multi-floored office spaces, however there will be a new power station on the site as the electricity demand is so high it is worth building a small combined heat and power plant in a large underground chamber underneath the new riverside gardens (power stations have to be hidden these days including, ironically, power stations built to provide power to a conserved power station). This chamber used to be one of the coal stores.

After much digging I find a slightly begrudging note that the ‘A’ station control room (robbed of some equipment, vandalised and rusty) is to be ‘restored’ and presumably made available to the public somehow. This is a small victory but of course the control room was a very small part of this vast electrical machine and on its own lacks the context of a cavernous humming building with hundreds of people on site and heavy equipment ready to respond instantly (and noisily) to the operation of a switch. Impressive I am sure it will be, but an eye-catching collection of dials and switches of a type no-one growing up in this century will relate to will mean what, exactly? It won’t be on display because it is important, it will be on display because it happens to have survived. It isn’t as though there is no space for anything more meaningful too.

According to The Times in 1947, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott himself deprecated being called the designer and often said he was only responsible for the appearance of the exterior. In the same piece (Pearce’s obituary) Scott is also reputed to have said in drawing attention to the skill of Dr. Pearce (as he then was) and his associates ‘that in his opinion “ the interior and its wonderful engineering, with its terrifying machinery, hardly gets the notice it deserves” ’. If that is what Scott himself felt, it is a pity the architectural zealots do not respect his views.

I wish Battersea well now it has got through this pitiful and chaotic period, however well-intended the ineffectual actions of our masters have been so far. I just wish the bureaucrats who would have us believe they work for us could had shown more enthusiasm for incorporating at Battersea some kind of wider electrical engineering display as the setting would have been so appropriate. Does London really need more shops of the type that Londoner’s can’t afford? Does the country need a more fitting monument to the electrical technology that allows it to function at all. The Faraday stone perhaps got the tone right. I wonder if the developers are going to make a feature of it? I wonder if they know it is there?


For more information about the Chimney rebuild, see HERE
For some quite interesting pictures of the place, see HERE
A brief article about surviving control rooms, see HERE
The website of the developer and plans for the station HERE
Some interesting images here before rot set in, including interior of turbine hall HERE

The complete wording on the remembrance stone is:


Post Script

On 28 September 2016 Apple announced it would be moving into much of the office space in the former Boiler House and is leasing 500,000 square feet. This is good in as much as the present developer is more likely to make the site as a whole a success and to save the fabric of the generating station. I don’t think it changes anything above though. Was it worth saving and what about the technology?

Posted in Our Government, Power Supply System | Tagged , | 1 Comment

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 track south of the bridge over the unclassified road never existed

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



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 a bridge was completed here. A corresponding embankment on the north side is near where the track from Chessington South used to end.

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.


Posted in London Rail, Main Line Rail | Tagged | 1 Comment

Don’t Mention the R word

A holiday in Durham would be nice. Let’s go by train, so much more relaxing, was the suggestion. Now let me tell you a story.


The 1435 departure from Kings Cross on 6th September was as wholly unremarkable as any stress-free train journey should be. I had ascertained the train (1N21, an electric set) would have plenty of space. Suitable seats were found and a timely departure was followed by an entirely relaxing and uneventful journey as we sped through the English countryside. We arrived at Peterborough dead on time at 1515 or thereabouts.

At this point matters started to unravel. The guard came on and said that there might be a delay owing to overhead line trouble at Retford, a name now engraved on my memory. During the next hour we heard from the guard just four times, so far as I recall. Each time the facts were similarly brief but the tone became increasingly more serious and suggested that this was not going to be resolved quickly. There was no suggestion we should alight so we all sat there.

Round about 1600 a woman wearing a lanyard, but who didn’t seem to be train staff, came around handing everyone seat reservation labels and drawing attention to the delay-repay scheme information on the back. This is ATOC’s latest initiative (reacting to pressure) to suggest railways are caring (and quite right too) but actually at that particular moment what we wanted was information. I harbour no particular grudge against Peterborough but I was a long way from home and wanted to be in Durham and I and a large number of other people who had placed their faith in Virgin East Coast to shift them across the country were waiting for somebody to do something about moving them and the discussion about refunds was frankly for another day.

Getting a tad bored after an hour (when we should have been approaching York) we alighted to take stock, time about 1610. Nobody had asked us to get out, or suggested taking any action at all. The enquiry booth on the platform was busy, and the train staff were hovering at doors answering questions. A discussion with one of them made it quite clear that they had no further information to give other than the line being blocked, but it was ‘hoped’ a following HST train to Aberdeen would turn up soon and divert via Swinderby round the obstruction (I had no idea where Swinderby was, but it sounded like a plan). That train (1S24, 1600 ex Kings Cross) was due at 16.46 but because it was caught up in the queuing did not actually turn up until 1728. This was an HST (diesel) and at that stage only diesels could be diverted.

By now, of course, further northbound trains had arrived and weren’t going anywhere either. By 1620 the station was full of trains and people (neither going anywhere) and trains were backing up down the line, in some cases for over an hour and a half. Those passengers were literally trapped.

The Aberdeen train just referred to had left Kings Cross reasonably well loaded and, since it was now the only train on offer, when it eventually pulled in people from about five Virgin East Coast trains attempted to pour on and it was so full that even Corbyn wouldn’t have found a space to crouch down in. Moreover we had heavy luggage. For a long trip to Durham this simply wasn’t on. After more than two hours at Peterborough one’s spirits were beginning to flag.

What would have been useful in the absence of more initiative from the staff would have been a handy UK rail system map. I found something not very good on the inter-web and started to investigate further options. One problem was the train indicator. National Rail insist on showing trains in timetable order however late they are running so it was very difficult to pick out the ordering of forthcoming live trains from the great mass of ‘cancelled’ or ‘delayed’ trains showing. I suddenly noticed a Liverpool train was due and had just enough time to work out it went via Sheffield. Damn the consequences, you can get to York from Sheffield, I thought, and no electricity involved. Just caught it, found seats and had a very uncomfortable journey as there didn’t seem to be anywhere to put luggage and it wouldn’t go on the rack. Why do railways despise luggage quite so much (no answer expected)?

Amazingly this train more or less connected at Chesterfield with a Cross Country to Newcastle that happened to call at Durham. Peterborough to Durham via Chesterfield is a very long way indeed on these rather slow trains. A 1724 departure from Peterborough of 1R54 arrived Chesterfield at 1921 and connecting train (1E60) departed 1928, arriving Durham 2134 (my expected arrival time from London had been 1725). Fortunately both trains had trolleys and the second one had a pleasant red wine on board by which means I could partly console myself for the loss of four hours of my time.

Well, that could so easily have been the end of the story and had that been the end I would have sighed and kept it to myself. But it wasn’t, was it?


Returning on Friday 9th we arrived At Durham station in good time for 1Y32, the 1225 from Newcastle, again selected because it would (and did) have plenty of space. We arrived at York more or less on time at 1327, though in an unusual platform.

Now you can’t make this stuff up. No sooner than the train had stopped than the guard came on and indicated there would be a delay owing to some difficulty ahead at Retford. OK no cause for panic but the next thing that happened was an intermittent recorded message for the train crew indicating a passenger alarm had been operated (though there seemed to be no response to this, the crew I could see carrying on doing what they were doing). I mention this only because there was then a long message from the guard who was trying to talk over the alarm message so it wasn’t all terribly clear, but I did hear the words ‘wires down’. There was no suggestion about what we should do about it but I had already ascertained that in a few minutes there was a Manchester Airport train due out and decided not to hang around this time. Two seasoned first class and a handful of standards had a similar idea but everyone else stayed put awaiting instructions (this train was eventually terminated at York so they’d missed an opportunity).

My new train was a Transpennine Express, an operator we hadn’t thus far tested. It was a comfortable diesel unit (1P41) that did the journey to Manchester Piccadilly in about 1½ hours with a minimum number of stops. It could perfectly well have taken more people off the East Coast train. At Piccadilly we all trooped across to platform 6 and caught a very lightly loaded Virgin West Coast train to Euston, 1A48, which departed at 1535 and pulled into Euston at 1735, 5 early. This was more comfortable than East Coast, in my opinion, and the trains don’t bring the wires down, apparently.

Reviewing the decision, it was I think correct. The poor sods left of my ex-Newcastle train were evidently turned out at York and must have been put onto 1E14, the 1200 ex Edinburgh, an electric set. This arrived at York at 1454 (23 late) and finally reached Kings Cross at 1747, some 66 minutes late (and after I’d got to Euston via Manchester). What is more, it must have been heaving, another Corbyn special. There were certainly no London departures between 1306 (when an ex Aberdeen train departed but got held up and diverted as it arrived in London 2hrs late) and the 1454, a gap of just under two hours.

Trains the other way were worse hit. The incident train appears to have been 1S15, an Edinburgh electric set which arrived Doncaster at nearly four hours late at 1702 and was withdrawn from service apparently because of damage to power collection equipment (I think ‘pantograph’ is meant). I feel for the poor people on that train. The first through northbound train was 1S16, an Inverness HST, which was also four hours late as it was stuck behind the incident train. That would have been quite full at Doncaster.

It is apparent that in this case the wires might not have been ‘down’ (as on Tuesday) but something was clearly amiss and damaged the pantograph. Not quite so serious but still pretty serious as  you don’t want more trains damaged (and several trains were damaged and had already caused cancellations).

Thursday (which I thought I’d investigate when after I’d got back on Friday)

Now then, would you be surprised to hear that I then checked the state of the train service on Thursday? I suspect not. Guess what. At about 0915 train 1S07, an Edinburgh electric set, came to grief at Retford where it was delayed 2 hours with consequential delays and cancellations in both directions. Cause – damage caused by overhead line problems (another pantograph jobby by the sound of it). Services chaotic for rest of day.


On Sunday, while I was contemplating whether I could be bothered to write all this down, I checked in again. With much diminished astonishment I found apologies for a major breakdown that morning, at Retford. For a start, engineering work had overrun so a number of southbound services were just cancelled; not difficult to work out what was being engineered though. Intriguingly the first southbound diesel, an HST became 67 minutes late south of Doncaster and must have been diverted away from Retford. The next train, also a diesel (Hull trains 1A92 due to call at Retford 1014) lost 35 minutes in Retford area, which can’t be a coincidence and must be connected with the engineering.

The excitement seems to have started with the first northbound train via Retford, 1S09, the 0900 Kings Cross to Edinburgh and an electric set. This left Newark 1 minute early and departed Retford 2 hours 4 minutes late, though remaining in service (perhaps another loco was found). Inevitably this caused much serious late running and cancellations for some hours. It appears this was another ‘train failure’ associated with power pick up and it isn’t clear if overhead line was damaged (though it must have been unwell anyway).

I do not know whether there were actual ‘failures’ on Wednesday but there was extensive late running (30-60 mins typical) in Retford area caused by something happening, presumably heavy speed restrictions and staff doing things on site. Saturday was better but still disruptive restrictions. As I write this at 2000 on Sunday services have more or less recovered.

The Problem

The long and short of all this is that an incident at midday on Tuesday 6th was still very much manifesting itself at midday on Sunday 5 days later. The exact location is actually about 5 miles north of Retford; according to the ever-vigilent Retford Times it is between Ranskill and Scrooby, at around milepost 145.

The Tuesday problem had been caused by train 1D16, 1335 Kings Cross to Leeds, which passed Retford at 1500 but got no further than Ranskill where somehow it tore down the overhead line immediately blocking both tracks. The photos below shows the broken wires. The train was recovered at about 1845 and carried on to Leeds, apparently in service and presumably now diesel-hauled as it must have been damaged. Fortunately it was possible to halt the train 10 minutes behind (a Hull Trains set) at Newark and get people off and then let the following Aberdeen train into the platform, but a few trains were stuck outside stations.


Image of wire damage (looking south) distributed by Virgin East Coast. The wires above train look correct but we must remember the train took at least half a mile to stop so the wires wrapped around the carriage are from much farther back.


A close up showing some of the wires shredded. The forces resulting from a 500 tonne train at over 100 mph are tremendous. Photo credited Jez Cope.

It seems from reports from site that the Friday incident took place while work was still in hand on the (dead) overhead lines with trains coasting through, the incident train somehow engaging with the overhead wire still being worked on. For an electric train the method requires all signals in the dead section to be green and the entry speed to be high enough for the train to get through the whole section without the risk of stopping. Obviously the pantograph should be down as there will be gaps or misalignments in the overhead line being worked on, but one unconfirmed report suggests a pantograph was up, thereby becoming seriously damaged. Another report suggests something was hanging down and struck the train. We will no doubt get the truth at some point. By the way, as part of the method of keeping trains moving some electric sets were dragged through using diesel locomotives, adding delay but better than cancelling.

Reflections and the Wider Issues

In any event, that issues like this could last so long and affect tens of thousands of people (including those on overcrowded diversionary routes) would seem to call for a very public explanation given jointly by Network Rail and Virgin East Coast. We just want the facts in sufficient detail to comprehend what was happening and why it went on for so long, together with a joint statement explaining what is being done to mitigate the chances of this happening again. This is not unreasonable in the circumstances

I won’t comment on the length of time taken to fix this as there are plenty of people asking that, but the fragility of the ECML overhead wires is well known and we can’t keep having this type of thing happening and it needs a long term fix. It isn’t just Virgin’s reputation at stake here, it does no favours to the wider industry.

What went well?

First, the staff on the alternative routes were superb (I tested East Midland, Cross Country and Transpennine). What I did notice was that they were not always fully up to date about goings on on East Coast but were content to accept passenger’s explanation about using services along what was clearly not a ‘permitted route’. I wondered if there might be a better way of keeping ‘diversionary’ railway staff better informed.

Second, the East Coast staff remained professional and cheerful and sought to give advice when asked.

Third, I got to and from Durham, eventually.

Fourth, I travelled on several bits of railway I’d never used before and enjoyed by first trip through the lengthy Standedge tunnel, which I hadn’t expected to be doing.

What went less well?

The thing that struck me most forcefully was how long it took to work out at Peterborough on the Tuesday that the train was going nowhere; this took over an hour and it was only shortly before I escaped that it was made clear that the train was ‘terminating’, though people didn’t rush to get off because they had seats and there was no clear alternative.

Now, I realize that train drivers are not qualified engineers. Even so, the driver of the failed train witnessed the bang and saw the wires wrapped round the carriages and should have been able to impart to control very quickly that this was a major incident and that nothing was going to move for hours rather than minutes. I would be astonished if the relevant ‘controls’ were unaware by 1530 that the line was going to be blocked for a very long time and that leaving people at stations sitting in trains that were going nowhere was not an option. Yet at Peterborough it was another hour before this awful truth dawned, and nobody was actually saying ‘no more trains today’ even though passengers were piecing this together from their smartphones, and sometimes knew more than the staff. As far as I can see the first intimation that the line was blocked for the rest of the day was a ‘tweet’ at 1702 at which point I am fairly certain the staff on the station had not had such a message (if they had they were not saying so and there was still no PA announcement). Whilst the staff were doing their best they were not getting basic information themselves and were trying to second guess the constantly changing train indicators. There was nobody in charge. This was very poor and added unnecessary delay to passengers who could have taken other options sooner. If my surmize that ‘control’ staff must have had a fair idea the line was blocked for many hours at 1530 then for it to take 1½ hours to get this message to passengers seems exceedingly poor. Had I known, I could even have gone back to London and via Euston still got to Durham earlier than I did!

The electronic information put out was pitiful, especially on the Virgin and National rail websites. The blanket message soon after it happened was that passengers would be subject to delays of up to an hour, which gradually crept up to two hours. Where did these numbers come from? They were always rubbish and bore no relation to anything. This was misleading and poor. When I first saw delays ‘up to an hour’ after sitting still for 45 mins I thought ‘oh good’, only 15 minutes to go. I think this whole process needs rethinking. It isn’t as though these major problems are unknown to East Coast. What on earth does its contingency plan look like?

I wondered if it was right to leave at least two trainloads of people sitting on a train occupying a platform for well over an hour when there were trains stranded outside the station. Peterborough station is a horrid place at the best of times but if the people on the berthed trains had been rerouted with greater vigour they could have been run out of the way to let the poor folk on the following trains have access to some wider choices.

It took hours to get replacement buses put on, but they were really only any good for local journeys.

The Wider View

Now then. There will be some of you who think maybe my opinions are unduly picky. Well I agree I am not one for the widespread self-congratulatory movement of the ‘aren’t we doing well’ type, though I know morale-building is important for the staff and railways in any case rarely get credit for successes. Nevertheless, the UK railway is making promises about its abilities, taking significant money off people and setting expectations that affect people’s lives and it is doing so under increasingly trying circumstances. It must therefore get even better and more reliable and deal ever more professionally with occasional failures so each catastrophe (as the Retford wires incident shows) must be converted into a major learning experience: only facing up to the shortcomings will achieve this. Have a look at the following chart which relates to Virgin East Coast performance, third item up. It isn’t just me!


These bar charts represent the responses for Virgin East Coast in the Spring 2016 National Passenger Satisfaction survey. The score dropped quickly after Virgin took over in 2015 and seems to remain at that level.

By the way, the Spring 2016 Passenger Satisfaction Survey reports on page 7 that ‘the biggest decline in satisfaction was with how well the train company dealt with delays (-5 per cent) with 54 per cent satisfied.’ (this is across all TOCs but the worst performing were the inter-city ones and out of the inter-city TOCs it appears East Coast declined most in the last wave). It is accepted that this particular measure is influenced by the nature of the TOC being measured and good fortune in the incidents that have occurred but, for heavens sake, this is the 21st century and this measure should be improving. I therefore report what I saw with my own eyes in the hope it may be helpful.


Another graphic from the Spring 2016 NPS Survey illustrating the key satisfaction drivers. By far the largest driver of satisfaction is punctuality and reliability and by far largest driver of dissatisfaction is how train companies deal with delays, accounting for more than half in the scoring system. I think the charts, together, are evidence that in the most important areas the train operators score least well. This must change.

Obviously the best way to avoid unhappy and disorientated passengers is to eliminate failures in the first place, but if that is impossible (or very difficult, or very expensive) then we have to mitigate the impact on passengers when they occur. I am sure there are furious arguments even now about improving the reliability of ECML wiring. Actually trains, and the infrastructure trains run on, need to be even more reliable to handle the capacity problems the network faces.

When things do go wrong staff on site must benefit from thorough training and the existence of an effective contingency plan but most of all be empowered to do whatever has to be done locally to mitigate the effect on passengers (bearing in mind each person’s needs differs). An unfortunate by-product of making things more reliable is that staff get less experience in handling ‘failures’, including the passenger-facing elements, and that what training the staff do get can be forgotten or out of date. This needs constant attention. What staff need more than anything else, though, is fast and effective communication from above about likely duration of delay and what alternatives are viable (and when). As it was, my feeling was that the local station and staff were getting very little support, there was no plan and there didn’t seem to be anyone in charge. My own railway experience is with Metro-type operation where things would necessarily have been rather different, so perhaps my impressions are not correct.

Nobody said running a railway was easy… That’s why it is so much fun.

POSTSCRIPT. There was another wires down incident near Retford, this time on the up line, which seriously affected services on 19 September, extending into 20 September. I don’t understand why all this is just accepted without comment.

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Time to Sort Out Kensington?

Have a look at these two images.

HSK1  HighStKen

I suppose there must be plenty of people unable to sleep at night worrying about why the station name differs from the street sign and wondering which (if either) is correct. Well, maybe not. Actually I’m not sure anyone has even noticed. I thought it might be of some slight interest to set out what I know about this.

The east-west main road through Kensington, which dates back to Roman times and perhaps longer, was long known as Kensington Road, with the church more or less in the middle, at the corner of Church Street. However, a 400 (or so) yard length of the road centred on the church was simply known as the high street, and formally noted as ‘High Street’ by the Ordnance Survey whose interest in such things tended to fossilize naming.

The centre of activity of many communities were known as High Streets, though whether this was ever a conscious process is doubtful; much more likely it is just what people called the main area of trading. When the Metropolitan and District Railways launched their assault upon the good people of Kensington a station was to be built where the line crossed beneath this road, the station opening in 1868. The station was located at the extreme west end of the High Street portion, almost (but not quite) at the point where it resumed its course as Kensington Road.

What to call this station? Though at the centre of the community, the name ‘Kensington’ would not do: there were to be several of the companies’ stations in the parish and there was, in any case, already a station called Kensington – today’s Kensington (Olympia). Road names were a frequent source of suitable station names, but this road name was simply ‘High Street’. ‘Kensington Road’ (close by) would be ambiguous as there were two unconnected sections of it.

Having noted that there were lots of High Streets in London, perhaps dozens, it will be apparent that the opportunity for confusion was immense. Contextually ‘High Street’ would always mean the local one and if another was meant then it was necessary to state which parish was being discussed, thus High Street, Hampstead referred to in an earlier blog (noting that ‘Hampstead’ was added as a finding aid and did not appear on the name signs). This was also the mechanism used by the General Post Office (GPO) and other London-wide bodies which had to distinguish between one High Street and another. So this is what the Metropolitan and District did at their joint station. It was officially High Street (Kensington), though the latter might or might not be in brackets, or follow a comma, or where brevity was important (train destination boards and train indicators, for example) the ‘Kensington’ would be entirely omitted. This must have been very puzzling for tourists, perhaps noting that there was only one High Street on the Underground which rather implied it might have been High Street London.

In the years after electrification the railways, and London Transport, stabilized the name for publicity purposes and settled on High Street Kensington, and such it remains today, but more anon.

So how is it we see a street nameboard with something else on it? The answer comes back to the unsettlingly large number of High Streets there were in London, and many other examples where names were duplicated all the time. This was an awkward problem for the GPO, particularly when there was for many years after the penny post began no standardized way of addressing letters beyond an expectation that those posting them should at least indicate which road and general area was intended. The historian Charles Lee once explained to me his (to me) idiosyncratic form of postal address – he lived in Dukes Road (near Euston) and invariably added the words ‘Tavistock Square’, over 200 yards away. He pointed out that, historically, because of the name duplication and the fact some roads were so little known, it would be hard for sorters to identify them; senders were therefore encouraged to include the nearest well-known location in the address so letters had a fighting chance of being sent to the correct delivery office. London squares fitted the bill nicely and were frequently quoted as the location of a person or institution who in reality might reside up to quarter of a mile away. The GPO, aided and abetted by the Metropolitan Board of Works and London County Council, embarked on a merciless campaign to reduce the potential for confusion. This process included the introduction of ten (later reduced to eight) postal districts in 1857-8 and then extensive street renaming within the postal districts to reduce street name duplication, later extended to reduce duplication throughout London. The process is not quite complete, but London street names are today very little duplicated. The scale of this, by the way, was immense.

This brings us back to Kensington. Because there were so many ‘High Streets’ and it was inappropriate to lose the historical significance of these roads, the formula was adopted of adding the area name as a prefix, the whole becoming the new name. Thus the High Street in Kensington was renamed Kensington High Street in 1878 (and, as in my earlier blog, we have seen the High Street in Hampstead was to become Hampstead High Street). In Kensington’s case, parts of Kensington Road were later renamed so as to become part of the much-extended Kensington High Street we know today.

One might wonder if the Metropolitan and District Railways, or London Transport, ever considered whether they should rename the station to conform with the road, presumably after 140 years or so, the road’s name change has been spotted. There are precedents for this. Queens Road station was renamed Queensway in 1946, for example, following the road name being changed in 1938. Perhaps the war delayed things.

There again, there are other, very odd, examples of historical stubbornness. Latimer Road is perhaps the obvious example. The station was once entered from Latimer Road, but later (1884) altered to be entered from Bramley Road, but nobody appears to have felt it necessary to change the station name. After the awful and divisive Westway was driven through the area, Latimer Road became divided, the northern part retaining the name whilst the southern section (near the station) became Freston Road. This means that the entrance to Latimer Road station is now about half a mile by indirect road from the nearest part of this now-unremarkable street. There are better names that beckon (I like Notting Dale), but the present one is positively misleading. Chancery Lane is another station where a pre-war entrance move has made the present name rather curious. The original entrance was nearly opposite that road but the nearest relocated entrance is now about 180 yards away. Perhaps the disused suffix ‘Grays Inn’ would be more appropriate? Of course, Chancery Lane station is (more or less) situated in that brief length of road called ‘Holborn’, whilst the station called ‘Holborn’ is located in the section of road called High Holborn (nearly 700 yards from Holborn). This may be found to be misleading, and again the little used suffix ‘Kingsway’ may be more deserving.

Not misleading so much as a source of slight curiosity is that station called Bond Street. Built by the Central London Railway the building was located in Oxford Street just west of Davies Street which (being an important connecting road) had always been intended as the station name. When the station opened in 1900, though, it was called Bond Street. There is no street called Bond Street, and hasn’t been for getting on for 300 years, but I happily acknowledge that when Bond Street is stated it usually means the whole of the adjacent high-class shopping district and presumably the Central London was keen to be associated with that. It might be added here that the new Crossrail station entrance at Hanover Square will be much closer to New Bond Street than the existing one.

Other apparent oddities include dear old Lancaster Gate, whose attractive surface station exterior was destroyed in the 1960s in order to incorporate the site into part of a hotel. This station, in Bayswater Road, is nearly opposite the north end of the Serpentine, fed by the ancient River Westbourne, in consequence of which the station was to have been called Westbourne. It opened in 1900 as Lancaster Gate, although the nearest park gate (46yds) is Marlborough Gate (almost opposite) whilst only slightly further away to the east is Westbourne Gate (100yds). Lancaster Gate itself is some way to the west at 375 yds. Again it seem the Central London Railway was induced to select a new name by associating itself with a nearby estate. A small square surrounding Christ Church had been called Lancaster Gate but in 1865 the nearby streets called Upper Hyde Park Gardens and Lancaster Terrace were also recast as Lancaster Gate creating a large, posh estate of that name. This may not be apparent to those using the station to reach the park.

I suppose that the case could be made for the station name becoming by default the name of an area. Rayners Lane is an example of a station being named after a junction, itself named after a barely-relevant country track. When the housing arrived, for want of anything else after which to call the area, the whole lot became known Rayners Lane and it now appears on local street signs as one approaches the area (the railway floated Harrow Garden Suburb but the public did not take to that). There are many similar examples, not all involving street names. The attraction of using streets as names was applied when Walham Green (an area name of Long standing) was dropped by London Transport who renamed the station after the street outside, Fulham Broadway, in 1952. This has the merit of including the name Fulham, which I suppose was felt better known than Walham Green and will now remain so. The short stretch of Fulham Road almost outside the station had at some date prior to 1916 that I have not established with certainty become known as The Broadway, Walham Green and this, in turn, was formally renamed Fulham Broadway in 1936, the Underground feeling obliged to respond.

The opposite was done for Trinity Road on the Northern Line in 1950 when Tooting Bec replaced it. Trinity Road was apparently felt rather obscure and the manorial name Tooting Bec was revived (this was actually part of Streatham) though Upper Tooting would have been geographically as correct. It is hard to see why this renaming was felt urgent given other pressing examples.

So there we are – you can relax as the mystery of High Street Kensington is revealed and at the same time you are fully armed for the next pub quiz where questions like this often turn up. By the way, with pub quizzes in mind, until 2009 which Kensington station appeared in the Underground diagram index twice?


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Much ado about not very much – the Croxley Rail Link

When I worked at Watford (Met), then an impressively little-used station, I was brought into fairly close proximity with the Croxley Green branch, then just about still open but looking as though it wasn’t. Croxley Green station was on a main road but didn’t really serve anything very much, particularly given location of Croxley (Met). Anyone wanting Watford town would probably get a bus and for anywhere else rail travel involved an unattractive change of trains at Watford High Street. In consequence Croxley Green was even more impressively bereft of passengers and Chris Green painting all the lamposts red wasn’t the answer.

I had heard of the proposal to bolt these two not-really-very-useful-but expensive-to-run branches together and failed to understand why this would do more than produce one combined money-losing line. Who, I thought, would conceivably want to meander into London on the Metropolitan from Watford Junction, a journey of about 42 Minutes to Euston Square on a semi-fast train when one can get a main line train that will do the journey in 21-24 minutes? Much the same might be said of journeys to intermediate locations, for both Wembley and Harrow are served by both railways and again the service is faster by main line. A Watford-Northwood service might create a brief, and very slight, flurry of interest but buses would be as quick.

Of course, when I came to look into all this more closely I found that nobody was expecting much London-bound traffic to come this way. The whole scheme as it has finally emerged is promoted by Hertfordshire interests to promote local travel. The fragile business case is underpinned by the combined interests of Hertfordshire County Council and Watford and Three Rivers Councils (the Metropolitan Line from Moor Park to Watford being in Hertfordshire and outside the vested interests of Londoners).

Scheme History.

The earliest proposal I have myself encountered for linking these two railways dates back to 1934, less than 10 years after the Metropolitan and LNER station opened. It has been looked at periodically as a possible good idea. In recent times it had an airing in 1968 when the London Transport and British Rail Railway Planning Working Party looked at it. Though quite cheap by comparison with other railway improvement schemes the benefits would ‘at best, only be marginal’. At this time we must recall that London Transport’s statutory area included Watford.

The 1974 London Rail study concluded that the scheme should at least be looked at. This was now slightly more complicated in that Hertfordshire (with Watford) was now outside the London Transport area, which was confined to the area of the Greater London Council and outside which the existing Underground services were becoming an ‘issue’, never mind new ones. Nevertheless an assessment was made and was thought to cost £4.75 million allowing for sale of land at Watford (Metropolitan).

The proposal again was felt undesirable and it was noted that though Watford (Met) traffic was relatively low some 60% of existing users would have a longer walk to a replacement station and therefore have longer journeys. The overall financial case was negative, the benefits marginal and there were operational concerns about interworking at Watford Junction.

In 1976 a more interesting scheme was looked at where the whole of the Watford service would be rearranged to improve services to Rickmansworth (where the service needed boosting). The suggestion was a through service between Watford Junction and Chesham (as Rickmansworth was not suited to reversing trains). This also failed financial tests though. As later refined a 30 minute Watford Junction – Chesham (or Amersham) service was proposed with an intermediate service of trains operating Watford Junction to Rickmansworth only. This provided a 15 minute service Watford Junction to Rickmansworth (in addition to existing London service). In addition, the Watford (Met) service (probably thinned down) would also be diverted to Watford Junction, mainly to avoid extra track and signalling costs required to operate a new flat junction. This enlarged project did not fare well with other pressing commitments and went onto the back burner.

By 1990 (during a period when London Transport was under government control and not tied to Greater London) the matter was being looked at again, this time with encouragement from the local authorities. A basic scheme was costed at about £10 million assuming Watford (Met) could be sold for housing. If Watford (Met) was retained. The cost would be nearer £17½ million if Watford were retained, including an amount for extra operating costs.

It is on the basis of the above work that the present scheme emerged. London Underground was a little lukewarm as there were few significant benefits to be gained, but Hertfordshire reckoned on a local case being made and it is on this basis that the scheme very slowly moved forward.


The Transport & Works Act Order was made on 28th July 2013 in favour of Hertfordshire County Council but somehow the project quickly got out of control and by agreement with the Mayor for London delivery of the project was taken over by TfL.

It is still plausible that in due course local benefits from a Hertfordshire point of view could be enhanced by revisting the Watford Junction – Rickmansworth option (this does not seem to have featured in Hertfordshire thinking). One option that I have not had sight of is that of an improved link between Watford and Amersham and Aylesbury (or beyond). It would be interesting to see what demand there might be for people switching from car and no significant new infrastructure would be required. Chiltern might be interested, I wonder if they have looked at it?

The Scheme Now

I thought it might be quite interesting to undertake an inspection of the existing line to see what is left, and the findings are set out below.


The route starts at Croxley (Metropolitan) station. Significantly, this is located on the Rickmansworth Road and is passed by fairly frequent buses to Rickmansworth, Watford town centre and Watford Junction. A Met passenger actually wanting Watford would always have been well advised to consider alighting here and getting a bus rather than continuing to Watford (Met), especially since there is no longer any bus service at that station. The existing buses will presumably compete with the rail link, at least in part, and this will perhaps have unwanted consequences. The buses also serve Watford General hospital, an important traffic objective. Perhaps there is an issue here with differing London and Hertfordshire fare and ticketing systems, and lack of local control of bus services, that would have been cheaper than the rail link. The advantage of the rail link will be speed, of course. The existing buses are scheduled at about 24 minutes from Watford Junction to Croxley while the rail link will be about half that.


This is the view from Winton Approach, the first overbridge north of Croxley, looking north. The line crosses Baldwins Lane at the point where the figure 1 may be seen, but the branch onto the new connecting viaduct is closer than that, near where the figure 2 is seen (though this is hard to imagine). The point of deviation is defined as 128 metres north of this bridge.


This diagram shows the general arrangement. The Metropolitan line runs from bottom left to top right while the former Croxley Green route (hatched) starts lower centre and runs right. The Croxley Rail Link may be seen near centre of diagram branching off from the Metropolitan, passing to north-west of Baldwins Lane roundabout and joining old Croxley Green branch in bottom right hand corner, at a bridge across Ascot Road. Winton Approach (from where previous photo was taken) is at extreme bottom left corner.


These steps, and the lamps, still in Network SouthEast colours, are virtually all that is left of Croxley Green station where the platform was at the top of an embankment. The site does not form part of the new route. Much might be said about this place, but there is no point in repeating here information that is well presented on another website and I do recommend a look (it may be found HERE).


The Watford end of Croxley Green platforms stopped on the embankment at the right hand end of this photo and trains used to run straight onto this bridge, which crosses the River Gade and Grand Union Canal (the bridge carried two tracks, one acting as engine run-round and goods reception road). This bridge is not part of the rail link scheme and its future appears undetermined though it will be a maintenance liability for somebody). The embankment to the left of this image (out of shot) has been cut through to make a roadway, leaving the bridge quite detached.


On the extreme left is Baldwins Lane and the train is on the Metropolitan’s viaduct section that it is proposed will close to passengers. The new Rail Link viaduct will cross Baldwins Lane and Rickmansworth Road in front of this. This represents a revised routing as the 1970s proposal crossed Rickmansworth Road south of Baldwins Lane roundabout so as to make an end on junction with the existing Croxley Green platforms.


This is New Ascot Road, a kind of by-pass, which punctuated (and therefore closed) the railway. The embankment on the Watford side of the gap is visible above the blue car with a bridge across an older road beyond (the original Ascot Road). The Rail Link approaches the old route from this side and joins it more of less where the surviving bridge is located. A new station (to have been called Ascot Road but now possibly Cassiobury or some variation on it) will be built on the new link line immediately before it joins old route.


This is looking towards Ascot Road (just beyond where line curves to left in distance) from the Tolpits Lane bridge. The bull-head track is still complete but for some reason the conductor rail is displaced. It is apparent the formation is wide enough for a double track, though only one was ever laid.


Looking the other way from Tolpits Lane (looking east) may be found the decaying remains of Watford West station, and again the Network SouthEast lamp standards are the only things that seem to have survived in recogizable form. This is another station where an excellent illustrated historical overview is available, and may be found HERE.


The next bridge eastwards is Vicarage Road and the above view looks back towards the site of Watford West. It is a good moment to explain that when these photos were taken no work had started on the Rail Link but major vegetation clearance had been undertaken involving some large plant (hence the tyre tracks). A new station is to be erected on this side of this bridge, to be called Watford Hospital or possibly Vicarage Road (but see below).


On the east side of Vicarage Road bridge is the short-lived Watford Stadium station, paid for largely by The Football Trust and thought last to have been used in 1993. The entrance had been via a footpath at the far end. This station location is much closer to both the football club and the enormous hospital than the new station that is to be built (see above entry) which will be a tidy walk away. This seems unfortunate. Just beyond the end of this long platform where the line curves left had been the junction with the former Rickmansworth branch, which came in from the right.


This view (looking south-west) is from the Wiggenhall Road bridge before the Rickmansworth and Croxley Green lines bifurcate.


And finally, from the Watford side of the Wiggenhall Road bridge we see the old route where it joined the Euston-Watford line and where Rail Link will reinstate a junction.

Work is expected to start shortly and it should be complete by 2020.




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So What is so Special About Sutton (and other exciting railway loop journeys)

It is a strange thing. I wanted to do a certain train journey and in spite of my understanding of how the service pattern worked I was advised I had to change trains. I ignored the ‘advice’, stuck to my belief and found I didn’t have to change at all. What is going on?

A Peculiarly Sutton Problem

I wanted to travel from St Pancras to Wimbledon Chase via Sutton. The National Rail website wasn’t very encouraging and sought to direct me via Wimbledon, offering me no alternative. Forcing the routing via Sutton produced a succession of trains all requiring a change of train at Sutton (with just a 1-minute connection time, much less than normally offered for interchanging).


Resort to a quickly downloaded Thameslink printed timetable produced a booklet where the tables all stopped at Sutton, whether by Wimbledon or Mitcham. This was really unhelpful, for if one wanted to go (say) from Carshalton to West Sutton (just two stations) one had to look at the ‘down’ table to reach Sutton then change to the ‘up’ table to carry on in the same direction to find a train for West Sutton. There was no indication in the tables that trains might not actually terminate at Sutton. If one had troubled to check the map at the front (and why would anyone?) then one might have spotted a note to the effect that when trains arrived at Sutton on one route they might continue on a different one, but even so the tables do not explain what happens.


On checking the national rail timetable one first discovers Table 52. Like the Thameslink timetable this shows trains via either Wimbledon or Mitcham simply terminating at Sutton with not a hint that they might go onwards. But wait! What are all the references in the station names column to a Table 179?  Why would I need to check a different table when this one seems complete?


All I can say is that if one does trouble to check Table 179 then one discovers it is devoted entirely to the Luton-Wimbledon-Sutton service group and, though simply duplicating most of the information in Table 52, it lays it out differently. This time the Wimbledon Chase to West Sutton section is duplicated, with one of the sections in reverse, as it were. By this means one can here (and only here) see at a glance how to make a journey from Carshalton to West Sutton! However, one still seems to have to change trains. For example the 12.33 from Carshalton arrives at Sutton at 12:36. In the next column there is a 12:37 train that arrives at West Sutton at 12.40.


Note the 1236 arrival and the apparently quite separate 1237 departure

Let us be clear. This is one and the same train. The whole service is laid out like this and all the apparent connections are also the same trains undertaking a single journey around the loop. No change is required. This seems to me unhelpful, if not downright peculiar.

Moreover this fiction is perpetuated on the trains with the announcements insisting the train only goes to Sutton and inviting you to change as it pulls in. So do the live departure boards and all the other paraphernalia fed from the same systems.

I later noticed at the bottom of the page of NR Table 52 a note (like the one on the Thameslink map) indicating that trains actually carried on, but I didn’t think this was conspicuous and it was cast in rather general terms that invited passengers to seek further guidance, which was not obvious. The network map (correctly) shows a complete loop via Wimbledon and Sutton but made no reference to the fact you would be kidded into thinking trains would for no obvious reason cease operation at Sutton. The information is inconsistent and not very helpful, I thought.

Why Would You Show Information In Such a Strange Way?

I concluded from all this that the railway timetable, and all the systems that are dependent on it, are not suited to handling loop services and for operational or technical convenience (but not passenger convenience) they must always have a terminus. Fair enough, but there ought, surely, to be a way of over-riding this when giving local information, for example by stating that a train then continues to so-and so in relevant timetable columns.Relying on passengers to cross-check what they are told is hopeless.

I wondered if the need to show a train actually terminating was driven by the fares process. I’m sure you are all familiar with the impenetrable Permitted Route system (most ‘anytime’ tickets are valid only via ‘permitted routes’). The system is so arcane I won’t attempt to represent it here beyond saying that (in general) a route is a permitted route if it is the shortest route according to the national rail timetable OR if the journey is undertaken on a through train. By arbitrarily deeming a train to ‘terminate’ en route (as it were) then the permitted route availability is thereby extinguished at that location too.

The Wimbledon-Sutton routes bifurcate at Streatham and the mid point of the loop journey is a quarter mile south of Sutton Common (at 7½ miles), towards West Sutton (coinciding with boundary of zones 4 and 5). Thus one can see that denying the ‘through train’ option might result in those travelling via Sutton to stations Sutton Common and beyond having to pay a higher fare. I think we might be onto something here. For example the Thameslink journey planner shows I can get a direct train from London to Sutton Common for £5.20, but if I chose to go via Sutton and change then the fare is £6.10. The journey specifically says change train, though the train to which directed is of course the same train carrying on in the same direction. I do not say this is the answer, but it seems the simplest explanation to fit the facts.

The Pernicious Permitted Route?

Single fares on the main line are inevitably based on the zonal concept in zonal areas so fares from London to Wimbledon and Wimbledon Chase (Z3) are £4.30, to stations South Merton to Sutton Common (Z4) are £5.20 and to West Sutton and Sutton (Z5) are £6.10. These are the rates in the fares guide and on the Thameslink website and are what you need to pay if you travel via Wimbledon (or, to Sutton and West Sutton, by either route). Thameslink allows you to book the ‘wrong way’, via the mythical train change at Sutton, in which case the £6.10 applies (the website is very reluctant indeed to disclose this is possible at all, but do persist, though it will not let you get as far as Wimbledon Chase). I think this may be responsible for the breaking journey peculiarity.

Whilst on, I notice the National Rail Enquiries website offers different information. For stations Sutton Common to Morden South the choice of routes is offered (the Sutton one requiring a ‘change’) and alternative prices of £6.10 via Sutton or £5.20 via Wimbledon are offered. At neither South Merton nor Wimbledon Case is a choice offered, only the route via Wimbledon. If a via Sutton routing is forced, then the South Merton price is given as a whacking £9.10 (at variance with the Thameslink website price and national fares guide) and the Wimbledon Chase price rises to £9.70 (no Thameslink price volunteered). I have subsequently discovered that the ticket system cannot produce a non Permitted Route ticket but some websites will offer you two singles to make up such a journey though this is correspondingly expensive.

Both Sutton and Wimbledon are routing points for the purposes of the awful Permitted Route system and having attempted to get to grips with it I can see that a Sutton route is not permitted where the cheap day single price is greater than the route via Wimbledon (don’t ask!). Do you remember the days when tickets were issued on an ‘any reasonable route’ basis? Privatizatation introduced the restrictive and impenetrable permitted route system to facilitate cross-company accounting. Sod the passenger then! I’m still waiting for the courts to rule about the legality of this enforced routing in contract law – a reasonable person doing no more than a reasonable journey when the conditions are patently very complicated and rarely brought to the passenger’s attention at the time the bargain is made. Anyway, that is for another day.

Back to Sutton, do bear in mind that with trains running at 15-minute intervals alternately either way round the Wimbledon loop, in virtually all cases (except to Wimbledon Chase) it will be quicker to travel via Sutton, if that is the first train, than wait for a train via Wimbledon. Given the nature of the area and the pattern of train service I think we should do better than this ‘Sutton’s the end’ business. I’m not sure I believe these £9+ prices, and imagine the fun we’ll all have at the ticket office if trying to buy a ticket via the Sutton route! The issue does not arise in quite the same way with Travelcards as they operate zonally by different number of zones travelled through, which is clearer even if in circumstances like the Wimbledon-Sutton loop it may not seem fairer.

By the way, when I did actually undertake the journey, it was going round the loop that the only ticket check took place, perhaps suggesting a sensitivity about checking which way people were travelling?

An alternative, or perhaps a connected, theory for artificially terminating trains is the way train performance is calculated (and the associated system for paying refunds). A commuter train is deemed ‘late’ if it arrives at the final destination five minutes or more after its booked time. For this to be established in each direction I suppose that means there needs to be an agreed terminus. Mind you, this is an internal thing really, and shouldn’t be allowed to drive what is shown on the front of a train, thereby misleading the public.

Other Loop Services

What of other loop services? Surely this ‘terminating’ eccentricity must apply to all? The Hounslow loop trains (Waterloo-Barnes-Hounslow-Barnes-Waterloo in both directions) are labelled up as Whitton on the outward journey, whichever way they are routed.They are also scheduled as Whitton in the NR timetable (Table 149), but significantly there is a column note explaining the train then proceeds to Waterloo round the rest of the loop.

The Live Departures feature, on the other hand, describes outbound trains from Waterloo as ‘London Waterloo via Hounslow & Richmond (circular route)’. or the equivalent if the circuit is the other way. Furthermore, if checking the online national journey planner, if one selects (for example) a loop extremity journey such as Twickenham to Syon Lane then one is offered a through train and not a fictitious train change at Whitton. The national rail diagram shows the Hounslow loop is continuous so all is consistent apart from the arbitrary selection of Whitton to put on platform indicators and the front of trains. The fares either way around this loop appear to be the same, reinforcing my hypothesis that the Sutton banality might be fares related.

What about the Kingston loop? In this case the London network map does not show any through services between Strawberry Hill and Norbiton even though through trains run throughout the day. On the other hand the ATOC London Rail map shows the Kingston loop as continuous. This is not very helpful and the quite artificial rupture seems to be caused for the convenience of the schedule compiler who wishes to put the Richmond services in table 149 and the Wimbledon services in table 152 though both show the same trains along different parts of the same loop. If one wants to travel from Twickenham to Norbiton (surely a plausible journey) one has to consult two tables to discover the 1533 from Twickenham is shown only as far as Kingston (arr 1546), then table 152 to discover a 1537 ex Strawberry Hill train that departs Kingston at 1548 and arrives at Norbiton at 1550. It is of course the same train on one unbroken journey. The column notes indicate in general terms that it is a loop service but having it broken in this way is unhelpful. Why the Wimbledon loop has its own table (but no column notes) whilst this one has an at-a-glance table but does have column notes is anyone’s guess.


Right. So no loop service here then.

The online journey planner condescends to show through trains when calling up journeys such as Raynes Park to Twickenham. Again, plausible journeys either way around the loop are route-indifferent (though one be much longer than the other) and we do not have the fictitious change of trains nonsense we have at Sutton.

On the whole I concluded that none of this was at all clear and that the passenger’s needs were not being factored into what was happening or how the information was presented. I have looked at three London loop services and all are treated differently. The two west London examples are explainable, but the Thameslink way of dealing with things by means of a fictitious train change at Sutton seems perverse and unhelpful and capable of rapid improvement.

I’ve made these notes out of genuine puzzlement from the point of view of some poor sod just trying to travel somewhere, but now I’m into loops I’d be interested to know of what happens at any other railway loops that readers might know about.



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Sir Albert’s First Holiday

One of the joys of doing research is the serendipitous process of discovery of things one didn’t know one wanted to know. I say joy, of course, but naturally some restraint is necessary as, so often, the stuff you didn’t know you wanted to know is a great deal more interesting than the stuff one was tediously searching for, perhaps for some time.

One such piece of information had exactly this effect. For a forthcoming book I was trying to establish the kind of things Sir Albert Stanley got involved with whilst he ran the Board of Trade (some readers will know Sir Albert better as Lord Ashfield, his title from 1920). It seems that we may have been fortunate he was in a position to undertake this task as a story told some years later in a particularly obscure newspaper explains.

Stanley did not like holidays and it was unusual during his early time with the Underground for him to be off for more than a day at a time. Whether or not he had misgivings we may never know, but it seems that he was definitely having more than one day off when he found himself in Germany on 1st August 1914, a Saturday, presumably not unduly concerned about world events. This was, apparently, his ever first ‘proper’ holiday. He was, for reasons we do not know, in Baden (which I think means the state of that name). Whilst he was in conversation with a German officer during the morning the officer warned him to ‘get out’ and go home that same afternoon, a message which Stanley was induced to take rather seriously.

Stanley first considered leaving by train but discovered that (already) he was not permitted to travel. With a friend, he then purchased two motor cars, costing the equivalent of £1500, and proceeded to get away by road. They were stopped in Freyberg, so the story goes, but this must surely be Freiberg which is at least in Baden. At any rate, the cars were confiscated.

In desperation Stanley and friend managed to get themselves on board what was described as a luggage train, though the train was also heavily occupied by soldiers (sadly we are not told whose). He managed to reach Holland in due course and succeeded in getting back to England on the evening of 3rd August, the eve of Britain declaring war on Germany.

Germany had in fact declared war against Russia on the evening of 1st August and invaded Luxembourg the following day, so troop movements and travel restrictions would have been very evident already. Although Germany was a great deal more relaxed about foreign travellers and residents on its soil than Britain was when war broke out (the British rather liked locking people up) there were restrictions and foreigners were at first subject to curfew and various other deprivations and it would have got increasingly more difficult to get away. Foreign nationals were eventually subject to internment, but more as a matter of principle as German nationals in Britain were interned and treated shamefully even for just having a Germanic-sounding name (such as Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, the family name of Britain’s monarch and diplomatically changed to Windsor in 1917!).

Indeed, the Underground’s chairman Sir Edgar Speyer, a music-loving philanthropist and pillar of respectability and about as British as one can get, was treated shamefully by the country as his reward for funding and later helping to rescue the Underground’s finances, and all because of his name. He was eventually hounded out and went to America. Even more shamefully he was later stripped of his British citizenship and branded a traitor. But the problem was that his name was not Jones (or Saxe-Coburg, or Battenberg, another example of a hasty rebranding).

Anyway, that is the tale for what it is worth of Sir Albert Stanley’s first holiday! Perhaps he thought all holidays were like this: perhaps that’s what had put him off. So Many questions are generated. Many Britains and certainly the Cabinet (which was meeting while Stanley was chatting to the German officer) had felt for days that war could break out and certainly knew several countries were mobilizing troops. An interesting place to choose for a holiday, one might think, but then Stanley was an interesting chap. Such a pity he is remembered only by the obsessives for the relatively unimportant fiddling about with signage he was associated with and not some of the truly crucial stuff he did. We do need a proper biography of the man.

One wonders how things would have panned out if he hadn’t been resourceful enough to get the luggage train.

I wonder if he spoke German.


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