Saturday, 21 June 2014

Wembley Central - things can only get better


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

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

By the mid 1930s the arrangements at Wembley were proving unsatisfactory and the LMS decided to rebuild the station. The opportunity was also taken to widen the road bridge by 40ft and raft over the north side to allow a row of shops to be built where previously there had just been a brick parapet. The existing station was entirely demolished and a new one built, set back about 100ft from the road . Between the station and the road a new building was erected along the widened bridge with entrances at the extremities to what was in effect an arcade; between the entrances the ground floor frontage was occupied by nine shops facing onto the street. The station was situated within the arcade, with four sets of steps (serving all six platforms) leading down from the southern face. The main ticket office and parcels office was at the east end but there was a secondary ticket office at the western end as well (nearest the busy dc lines). The rearrangement at street level required 100ft of the dc lines’ platforms to be cut back at their northern end and a corresponding 100ft extension at the south end. The works also required extensive alterations to platform awnings and platform buildings. The result was a huge improvement over what had been there before and provided prominent entrances to the high street in addition to substantial property income. The station was renamed Wembley Central in July 1948 as part of the Railway Executive's post-nationalization attempt to reduce duplicated or ambiguous station names.
View of Wembley station, looking north, in 1938. The new station building and arcade are just about visible, as is the deck for the shops on the north side of the High Street bridge.
Right hand entrance to Wembley, soon after completion. The entrance leads to an arcade with station access within.
Between 1963 and 1966 a new property scheme was embarked upon. This was quite lucrative for the newly formed British Railways Board but was a mixed blessing for station users. The scheme involved decking over virtually the whole of the platform area to enable shops and offices to be built above. The railway benefited from income from the ground lease to the tune of £35,000 annually whilst the £3m development costs were borne by the developer. These were substantial sums in those days. The ticket hall area off the 1930s arcade was rebuilt, but without additional facilities and there was really quite little else of benefit to passengers. The platforms were now, in effect, confined within three concrete boxes, and were dark and gloomy. The brutal unrelieved concrete finishes were deeply unattractive and oppressive, the more so on a sunny day when brilliant sunshine could be glimpsed at either end but not enjoyed. While the works were going on, a temporary station was available with an entrance in Station Grove. The resulting 2½-acre concrete deck, together with existing land on its fringe, provided a 4-acre site for new construction. The raft sat on more than 1000 piles sunk to between 60 and 80 feet, and was further complicated by the need for early completion so as not to interfere with the West Coast electrification scheme, then in hand. The entrance onto the High Street was unaffected.


The Wembley Central Development in 1965, looking north, buildings nearing completion. The station frontage on the High Street (top left) is now dwarfed by its surroundings. 
The unfortunate and noisy station cavern was later the subject of several attempts to alleviate the poor passenger environment. The first was in 1983 when the station received a £30,000 face lift. This, it needed. The area in general, and the station in particular, was beginning to look scruffy and the unpleasant platforms almost became threatening. The dc platform areas were tiled and certainly improved, but it did little to mitigate the unattractive environment (the harsh strip lighting tended to undo some of the benefits of the tiling). The passenger experience was not assisted by train service reductions which increased waiting times. Further modernization, in 2006, was more drastic. White enamelled sheet cladding was installed along the whole length of the dc platforms, with blue borders at top and bottom. This was accompanied with new lighting, installed within its own angled cladding, and arranged so that some of the light reflected off the walls; this somehow gives a more spacious and airy feel. Though I hate the decking, and in fine weather insist on waiting in the short open-air section, I will concede that the platforms are now far less uninviting that they were a few decades ago. The slow line platforms on the ac tracks have not been so well treated and one would definitely not venture there to enjoy the view.
This 1970s map shows the 1930s station arcade butting up against the new rafted development. The station ticket office is the unmarked white space to the arcade's south, in line with the western arcade entrance.
The ticket hall area became an extraordinary place. With staff reduced to a minimum one ended up with indifferent station facilities concentrated at the dc end and the stairways to the other platforms outside the barrier line and usually closed off (for the arcade was a public area). Virtually nothing ever used the fast line platforms (3 and 4) but the slow platforms (5 and 6) were used rather inconsistently by various services. Latterly the only regular service is Southern’s hourly service for which purpose the platforms were unlocked shortly before each train and closed off again afterwards, with great inconvenience (I passed through it recently one evening by Southern and noticed none of the lights had been switched on. At least 50 people were picking their way out using the train’s lights. I don’t know what happened after the train left). A small number of early and late London Midland trains also stop there.

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

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

The 'temporary' ticket hall - part of the 1960s structure with a vaguely weatherproof makeshift front. This ended up doing duty for about six years. (From the Wembley Matters blog - Brent Green Party).
Fortunately, with the economy picking up, work has restarted and the block within which the permanent station will be situated is structurally complete. Although the station entrance is still a building site it has already allowed a new internal corridor to be brought into use that connects all the platforms together within the barrier line. That itself is a triumph. There is a fair chance that the station will be completed roughly as originally envisaged, but only time will tell.


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





Sunday, 8 June 2014

Hammersmith & City Railway

After what has so far been an exhilaratingly busy 2014, I have finally stolen some moments to update the blog. One of the reasons for my distraction was the need to complete a book to a fixed deadline: the 13 June 2014. Many of you will realize this represents the 150th birthday of the Hammersmith & City Railway, opened in 1864.

My book was a London Underground commission. When I was first asked to look at the feasibility of a book I was concerned about what new one might say about what is, after all, under three miles of railway. I need not have feared.

It is an extraordinary thing, but actually it is a railway about which so little has ever been written that the field was wide open. It has (as far as I can see) never had a proper history written. There have been a couple of Railway Magazine articles that filled a gap, but so far as books are concerned the railway is only covered as an aside. Lee and Baker give it short shrift in their coverage of the Metropolitan, and although Alan Jackson (the nearest we will get to a dedicated Met historian) necessarily includes it in his book on the Metropolitan, the H&CR occupies surprisingly little space. McDermot's 3-volume history of the Great Western gives it little more than a page, and then only if one aggregates all the references to it.

I would not suggest my book is much more than a 'celebration' of the railway, though it is more about it in one place than has been attempted before. What I hope it does is to inspire others to take an interest in what is actually quite an interesting little railway. I am grateful for the huge assistance rendered by an LU manager (a former colleague) who was able to wheedle out much new material from TfL archives, far more than I could use and with yet more untouched.


1928 Railway Clearing House map showing Hammersmith & City Railway and its joint ownership. The arrangements around Paddington are complex, but a story for another day
The things that struck me about the Hammersmith & City that make this short little line interesting include the following.
  • The original railway promoters were a combination of consulting engineers, contractors and property developers. Each had their own financial aspirations that would be met by building the railway and comparatively little thought was given to the communities it would serve and the passengers it would carry. It is quite an interesting 'case study' in how private railway development functioned at the time. The motives of some of those involved were dubious though, curiously, one of the more obvious money-grabbers does not seem to have been very good at it and died impoverished. There is an entire history that could be written about this aspect of the line itself.
  • The way the railway was managed was unusual. It was common for a privately promoted line to engage another, more experienced, railway to run it. In this case the Great Western Railway was the obvious choice. What was slightly unusual was that after only three years the railway was effectively sold jointly to the GWR and the Metropolitan. Usually a joint railway is a separate legal entity (whoever the ultimate owners might be), but in this case it was 50:50 joint property and this presented some untypical management complications. A Joint Committee looked after day to day operations, but anything more seems to have been painful, with each railway having an entirely different operating philosophy.
  • The way the railway was managed was actually untenable, and the Metropolitan (for entirely practical reasons) was the more convenient hands-on manager, though not until quite late. Even in the twentieth century we note the GWR was doing the station reconstructions at Hammersmith and Ladbroke Grove and installing the entire electrification system (from which the line could not finally disengage until the 1980s).
  • The arrival of London Transport in 1933 was interesting. As so often we have seen, the LT corporate mind was easily baffled by partners with whom it was not ideologically in tune. LT found it hard to accept that the GWR owned half the interest in the line and might therefore have a legitimate opinion. The GWR was by no means negative, just different. Another area about which a whole book could be written - LT and its joint lines.
  • The GWR, in a half-hearted way, regarded the H&C as its own plaything. Even as late as 1947, its system map showed the Hammersmith branch as part of the GWR system, with no clue it was connected to the Underground. This illusion was fuelled by the existence of complex through booking arrangements with the whole of the GWR system, requiring vast stocks of card tickets to be maintained, even for seemingly improbable locations. Many of these facilities survived until the 1970s!
  • The H&C Railway built a station without consulting the GWR, which originally ran the line, and were genuinely astonished to find the operator didn't want to operate it as it was 'in the wrong place'; it was either dismantled or rotted away. This is surely very unusual (another unwanted station built in similar circumstances was eventually opened to become Westbourne Park).
The Great Western connection seems to confuse: many know it was somehow involved but not how. Perhaps this gives rise to the sprinkling of GW memorabilia around the station. The upper of the seats reproduced here is (I am told) a reproduction. I understand this style of seat to have been introduced early in the twentieth century so use of this style at Hammersmith is perhaps appropriate. It is plausible that this exact style of seat was employed during the 1906-8 reconstruction as they would probably have been supplied by the GWR, which rebuilt the station.

The lower style is definitely reproduction (and can be purchased from several suppliers for £300-£400 each). Unfortunately this GWR roundel device was not introduced until about 1934, long after the GWR was involved in fitting out H&CR stations and use of such a style here is far-fetched; it would be better at somewhere like Royal Oak. I applaud the use of pre-LT features where appropriate, but we should of course aim to get it right!

The line has left mysteries I have yet to clear up. For example Metropolitan shareholders were told in 1867 that they now had a half-interest in the Hammersmith & City and that the original H&C Railway had been wound up. Later evidence suggests that a company with that name continued to function with the object of distributing share dividends (and was wound up in 1949). I have not got to the bottom of this. There are operational mysteries too. When did the last GWR excursion trains from Paddington use the H&CR (as I think they did)? How were the liquid hydrogen trains operated and where did they come from (and, earlier on, were car-carrying trains actually run to or from Hammersmith)? When were parcels last accepted at stations (for conveyance by the GWR and perhaps British Railways)? Will we get certainty about why the order of the names 'Metropolitan' and 'Great Western' vary as they are presented on the trains? Will we ever find photos of the H&CR in its early days, particularly of Hammersmith? When was the last section of GWR conductor rail removed (and was any kept)? As you see, there is still lots to go at!

By the way, Hammersmith is now so busy that a new entrance is having to be made onto the forecourt. Plans show that the ironwork used on the existing entrance will be reproduced for use on the new one as well, and I look forward to seeing it. Perhaps sadly, the only place the entrance could go was where the barber's shop was located - this was a family business that had occupied the shop unit since 1911 when the ticket hall area was rearranged. It functioned for 102 years and I would think it a good contender for being the Underground's longest tenant ever. It would be interesting to know if there are any other businesses that have lasted that long. Its prices were quite modest too, and an original gas lamp survived till the end (though not in use). It closed in 2013.

Anyway, the Hammersmith & City book was one of several large projects that has kept me busy. I understand copies of the book will be available from the Museum after birthday celebrations, if anyone wants to know more. In the meantime, perhaps some unused research might make its way into a talk I have agreed to give in November!

All for now.

Friday, 7 February 2014

HISTORIC FEBRUARY - a monthly digest of historic dates relating to the London Underground

My database suggests that February 1864 was not month for memorable events. February 1914 was a more interesting month, though only slightly. On 9 February we find a significant change in the way the Metropolitan Railway organized its services at the west end of its inner London network. Before the Metropolitan electrified in 1906, many trains running along the north side of the Circle Line ran through to the East London Railway, terminating at New Cross. The East London was operated by a joint committee of five different railway companies who had differing ideas about how services should be developed and who were disinclined to pay for electrification. Although the Metropolitan retained an interest in the line, without electrification it was unable to maintain a through train service, which from December 1906 was diverted to Whitechapel.

Plummeting traffic levels along the East London finally induced the joint committee to electrify and through trains ran once more, from 31 March 1913. This service at first worked from New Cross to South Kensington, via the north side of the Circle. It is often forgotten that the Metropolitan owned the line all the way round the west side of the Circle via High Street Kensington to South Kensington (the District had a parallel tunnel between South Kensington and High Street Kensington). At South Kensington there was a bay platform, used by the New Cross trains, between the District and Metropolitan parts of the station, roughly on the line of the stairways to the Piccadilly Line that can be seen today.

The East London service was superimposed on the existing Circle (then called the Inner Circle) and Hammersmith – Whitechapel trains, but was evidently not found very convenient to operate. From 9 February 1914 the western terminus was switched to Hammersmith, improving frequencies on that branch and setting the service pattern for the next twenty years or so. At the New Cross end, trains alternately served the stations of the South Eastern Railway and the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway (from 1923 called New Cross Gate).

On 12 February 1914 Metropolitan Railway shareholders first met at the new general offices at Baker Street, described last month. This was not the most historic event to affect this interesting little railway, but it was an opportunity to show the shareholders where their money had been spent. Prior to that shareholders had gathered at hotels for their various meetings, the Cannon Street hotel had been a favourite. I mentioned last time that prior to moving into the general offices the Metropolitan had occupied several small offices in the Paddington area, usually in buildings it owned. I show, below, a couple of photos of their buildings, which still stand. A look at a large scale map indicates that the buildings were located very close to the railway and this is no accident. At the time when the railway was being  built the law was that if a railway needed to use its compulsory purchase powers to buy any part of a property it had to buy the whole of it. Based on the premise that property included the subsoil out to the middle of the road, old properties often included coal cellars beneath the pavement (and often part of the roadway). When the Metropolitan Railway came along, it can be seen that even though it was often built under the road it became necessary to buy rather a lot of property, much of which it then hung onto (it had acquired special powers to do this, while other railways were forced to dispose of surplus land). Using some of this portfolio for its own purposes was therefore very sensible.


5-7 Craven Road, Paddington, the upper floors of which were used as Metropolitan Railway offices between 1872 and 1878. The railway runs at an angle beneath the building.
The building in foreground is 32 Westbourne Terrace, Metropolitan Railway offices 1869 - 1914. The building to its left (now the Royal Eagle Hotel) is at 26 Craven Road and appears to be linked to the main building. This served as offices from 1878 for the Estate, Accounts and Stationery departments. The railway runs immediately in front of the front walls, along Craven Road, probably under the cellars.
At Earls Court, track rearrangements in February 1914 improved the flexibility of services. I have mentioned Earls Court before, indeed, last month I included some diagrams. If you refer to them you will see that trains going east converged onto a single eastbound line as far as Cromwell Road, where the High Street service diverged. This was a huge constraint to services, but the later expedient of turning the siding into a through line was not then possible: the siding was needed to turn round the Willesden-Earls Court service operated by the London & North Western Railway. The improvement just referred to involved changing the locking so that passenger trains from eastbound local platform (the second one down) could at the signalman’s discretion use the rightmost crossover to reach the eastbound line. If an eastbound train from the other platform were passing, the local train could stand clear of the platform (across all the pointwork) leaving the platform behind it clear for another train to pull in. Such was the intensity of service in those days, this alteration was felt worthwhile (the Board of Trade was not entirely happy with this, but conceded the advantages).

February 1964 includes several dates that could be commemorated, though none of very much importance. On 3 February the difficulties of recruiting staff hit home on the Metropolitan Line when a reduced train service had to be introduced. The staff shortage (mainly staff retention) had many different causes, and took years to address. It started in the 1950s when it became difficult to recruit staff prepared to endure shiftwork, and led to recruitment overseas. During the 1960s things got progressively worse, not helped later by the need to recruit additional staff for the Victoria Line. All lines were affected by the shortage, but the Metropolitan more conspicuously so with its wider intervals and its operation to a public timetable. Things got very bad during 1963 when large numbers of trains were cancelled daily, leaving extremely long and unpredictable gaps. The 1964 emergency timetable was a tremendous disappointment for London Transport, following on from the introduction of gleaming new trains on the Metropolitan, and completion of 4-track works and electrification to Amersham.  Seven trains were withdrawn from the schedule during the morning peak, and five in the evening. The off peak fast service on the Amersham line (remember them?) was reduced to hourly and some Watford trains were diverted to Rickmansworth. Staffing remained so bad that it was still necessary to cancel trains ‘randomly’ as well. It was a very sorry time and took the edge off the huge investment in the new improved train service that had been promised. It is arguable, but with staffing difficulties and the long term trend in falling traffic, the Metropolitan never used all these new facilities to capacity.

Not much else happened that month. Mill Hill (The Hale) goods yard closed. Intermediate between Mill Hill East and Edgware, it was on the line that should have become part of the Northern Line in 1940, but diversion of effort into war work meant the electrification was never completed. The LNER (and later British Railways Eastern Region) carried on with freight trains that served the goods yards, but passenger services stopped on a temporary basis on 11 September 1939 and were never resumed. Through tickets were accepted on local buses for a while, retaining the fiction of a railway, but these eventually died away. Today, communications between the large suburban centres of Edgware and Finchley are very slow and indirect and, incredibly, there is no direct bus.

On what should have been a more positive note, on 17 February 1964 LT announced the rebuilding of the Northern Line ticket hall at Elephant & Castle. This unfortunately meant the destruction of the old City & South London station building and roof dome and the construction of a new station building around the existing shaft, the old building being partly in the way of the monstrous 1960s road widening scheme that ran between two giant roundabouts that came to typify this area. None of this benefited the locals, of course, and simply divided communities. Wholesale destruction of communities was followed up by an anonymous shopping centre and truly vast blocks of flats, later to found unpoliceable and the source of all kinds of unforeseen social difficulties and which, as I write this, are being torn down, and not before time. The mean new station building, opened in April 1965, was barely large enough, even at the time. Bristling with glass and chrome, so as to fit in with the social experiments taking place all around the area, it did not take all that long before it looked shabby either. The lifts were not replaced, requiring another lengthy closure in 1983 when two tiny lift cages were installed instead of the larger Otis cages. Happily, this wretched station building has already been torn down, being replaced in December 2003 by something less mean and more fit for purpose (requiring yet another long closure). Even now, the new station is recognized to be inadequate for the growing traffic and expected developments. What is actually needed is a proper new station and transport interchange here, and the pre-WW2 aspiration to have escalators and combine the separate Bakerloo and Northern Line ticket halls. A pre 1964 view may be seen HERE and HERE, and a post 1965 view HERE.

Sunday, 29 December 2013

HISTORIC JANUARY- a monthly digest of historic dates relating to the London Underground

January 2014



A hundred years ago this January a number of developments occurred on the Underground that might be mentioned.

The Metropolitan Railway moved into its huge new offices at Baker Street, for a start. Today, the Metropolitan seems inextricably linked with Baker Street but before 1914 it was just a modest junction station and the Metropolitan worked from offices dispersed across several locations in west London and had little presence at this station. To improve efficiency it was desired to bring all administration to one place, achieved in January 1914. As part of the station reconstruction, described last month, a new four storey office block was built on land along the eastern side of the station. This was on a site filled with older blocks of buildings, fronting Allsop Place, that the railway bought in stages over a decade or so. The new offices included two wings at the rear that projected over the rebuilt platforms, though only at ground and first storey level. In the north wing a lift was installed, allowing directors and senior officers direct access to platforms 1 and 2. The exterior frontage of this unnamed building is in remarkably good conditions but the interior has been so comprehensively modernized over the years that there are virtually no original features evident. The building should not be confused with Selbie House, an unconnected building next door, which so far as I can tell is the only survivor of some blocks together called Cornwall Mansions that came into Metropolitan hands at about the same time and were merely adapted for railway purposes; the other buildings were demolished. A comprehensive history of this fascinating site is called for at some time (perhaps when I’ve a moment).


View of the general office building from Allsop Place. Selbie House to its left and the ugly block in the background is the rear of Chiltern Court. On extreme left is rear of Farley Court, built in 1950s on the bombed east wing of Chiltern Court. The army of dustbins that usually patrol the outside railing really do nothing to enhance the appearance of this interesting building. The decorative ornaments between second and third floors include locomotive buffer beams complete with chain link couplings. By the way, this view is no longer possible and was facilitated only by reconstruction of a building on the left. [Google Streetview]

On 4 January 1914 the Earls Court flying Junctions were opened west of the station. The need for these junctions arose from the rapid development of the Wimbledon branch train service and the ‘local’ service from High Street to Putney Bridge. As things were, there was a flat junction west of the platforms where the westbound Hammersmith service crossed the eastbound line from Putney on the flat. The pointwork here included some viciously sharp curves and trains had to pick their way across this lot at slow speed creating a major bottleneck. It is a curious thing that to the east of the station near Cromwell Road there had been a flying junction where westbound trains from High Street passed under the main District tracks and had been able to do so since 1879, even though the service was not particularly frequent. The works west of the station involved passing the westbound Hammersmith line beneath the eastbound Putney line, both of which were diverted onto entirely new alignments, moving the crossing points somewhat to the west. The new westbound line dropped rapidly at 1:30 beyond the Warwick Road bridge while the realigned eastbound line rose between West Brompton and the crossing point, then dropped at 1:40 before passing underneath the Warwick Road bridge. The alterations were necessarily carried out in stages between 21 December 1913 and were largely complete by 12 January 1914. The new eastbound line was entirely in open air while the westbound was in a brick tunnel (except where the tracks crossed by means of a new bridge, D91A).

At Earls Court station, the northernmost track (against the wall) was designated the ‘main’ road, and the other side of the island was the ‘local’ road, connected to the line from Putney. It might be wondered why the flyover was not arranged to take the Putney Line to the platform against the wall as many of the trains would have been going on to High Street. The reason is that it simply did not matter in those days because the eastbound lines converged east of the platforms for about half a mile so there was no advantage in undertaking the extra work to divert the eastbound Hammersmith track as well as the westbound. The disadvantage of not having made this extra little bit of investment did not manifest itself until 1966 when, by reconfiguring a siding, independent tracks were available all the way from Earls Court to the junction with the High Street line. Now, of course, the 1914 arrangement west of the station showed itself imperfect, as it meant trains from Putney for High Street got in the way of those from Hammersmith to Gloucester Road. This may not have mattered much when traffic levels were dropping, but in a world where traffic is increasing and looks like it will continue to do so, then delays created by historic track layouts become ever more irksome.

I mentioned in my Blog of 1 December 2012 that London was about to miss an opportunity to sort this out at low cost. The suggestion was that the Earls Court area redevelopment scheme will see the demolition of the exhibition hall built on the site over the existing tracks and afford a once-in-a-century opportunity to realign the flying junction so the westbound line from Putney crosses both Hammersmith lines and not just the one, as now. This isn’t going to happen – the business case is too weak, we are told. I don’t doubt that this is so, were LU to meet the full costs of the work and a relatively short term payback is factored in (maybe 40 years or less). I do think that had the idea been seized upon earlier it could have been part of a wider scheme that Section 106 funding would have paid for in its entirety (that is money paid over by developers who benefit from the planning benefits they obtain) and had that been done then the business case could surely only have been positive. I can do nothing but agree that new automatic signalling and an additional crossover will much-mitigate the conflicts here for some years. Ultimately, though, the present track layout requires eastbound services to cross each others paths on the level because the western flyover is wrongly configured, and there is no getting over that. The day will come when someone says, ‘I wish they’d altered the flyover when they had the chance’. The question is ‘when’, I feel, not ‘if’.



On 5 January 1915 the next stage of the Metropolitan Railway’s widening came into use, between Willesden Green and Neasden. As stated in last month’s blog, Willesden Green had been widened in December and the extra tracks stopped a little way north of the goods yard connections. They were now extended along the north side of the railway through Neasden, requiring comprehensive changes to the depot access north of the station. The old up (southbound) platform was transformed into an island, also serving the new down fast line, and a new up fast platform was installed on the north side. This was accessed from the ticket hall by a ferro-concrete bridge, a method of construction new to the Metropolitan and of which they were very proud. It is still there today.

Ferro-Concrete bridge over the new platforms at Neasden (now the southbound platforms)
This was followed on 11 January by extension of the widening through to Wembley Park. The extra tracks were this time on the south side of the line, between the old tracks and the Great Central line; as you might guess this was because the old tracks were too close to Neasden Works to install anything new. The position reverted just outside Wembley Park where the new tracks connected into the existing (southern) platforms and the old lines were diverted into what had been the two bay roads. This meant changes north of the station as the bay roads were now the ‘fast’ platforms requiring the tracks to be extended on the ‘straight’, as it were, to make a gentle connection with the old lines about a trains-length north of the station. The old lines, now ‘slow’, were realigned to meet the fast lines on the ‘curve’ as train speeds would be quite low. This arrangement carried on until changes in the late 1930s swept all this away. The station was otherwise unaltered by the 4-tracking.

The only other notable event in January 1914 was the introduction of landing control on the lifts at Piccadilly Circus. When the early tube lines were built they needed lifts to connect the station buildings with the platforms, deep below. The number of lifts required was a function of the traffic that was expected at busy times and the cycling time of the lift, which was proportional to the depth of the shaft. Those planning the Yerkes stations generally got the estimates about right, though s few lifts were moved around by way of ‘fine tuning’ and at a small number of locations the estimates were disastrously wrong, perhaps Oxford Circus being a good example. Piccadilly Circus had eight lifts, four for the Piccadilly and the balance for the Bakerloo, reflecting both high traffic prospects and substantial station depth. At the top level each bank of four were on opposite sides of the ticket hall and at the lower level there were no connections between them.

Each lift required its own member of staff, the liftman. This individual would open the entry gates by hand from within the lift, check the tickets (and collect them on the way out), close the gates, operate the lift to the other landing and let the people out through the exit gates which were air-operated using a lever at his control position. The exit gates had to be air operated because in a crowded lift he could not get across them very easily. This was not very efficient in requiring a lot of staff and making it very difficult to coordinate the despatch of lifts. There was no means of operating a lift from outside the car except in an emergency.

In 1913 the Underground Group aspired to control the despatch of lifts from the landings and not have any staff actually inside the cars, as revolutionary at that time as the idea is today of not having any staff inside the trains. To achieve this, a huge number of technical modifications were required to the equipment, together with the sanction of the Railway Inspectorate who would need to be satisfied the alterations were safe and reliable. This called for a prototype installation and lifts No 1 and 2 at Piccadilly Circus were selected. The additional equipment required included automatic accelerators and banks of relays that would start and stop the lift at the correct places depending on direction, together with landing control panels comprising lamps and push buttons. Perhaps surprising is that the entry gates were to remain hand-operated at top and bottom landings. The landing staff were warned of the arrival of a lift by an illuminated indicator; the exit gates did not open automatically. The lifts were operated in this fashion from the first week in January, during which time a member of staff rode in each lift to provide reassurance. By agreement with the railway inspectorate it was decided to run the lifts from the landings for three months to check all was OK. The experiment having proved entirety satisfactory, lifts 3 & 4 were converted in April. After a further period of reflection the lifts at Great Central were then altered, again using push button controls. The familiar dome controller many of us remember was not developed until later. In later years most lifts were converted to landing control (they could also be controlled from inside the lift if required). I think the last unconverted lifts were at Belsize Park, which I well remember; all four lifts remained in service until the end in unmodernized form.

More recently we find that fifty years ago there are several events to comment upon. The Northern City Line then operated between Finsbury Park and Moorgate but construction of the Victoria Line meant enabling works were required at Highbury which required extensive engineer’s possessions. This was part of the scheme to divert the northbound Northern Line via a new platform, releasing the existing northbound platform for use by the southbound Victoria Line. From 11 May 1963, the entire train service was withdrawn at weekends and after 20:00 each evening, a bus service was operated instead, at 7-8 minute intervals. As work progressed the buses were found unsatisfactory and improved arrangements were put in force involving single-track shuttles. One operated between Finsbury Park and Essex Road (on the southbound line) and the other Essex Road and Moorgate (on the northbound line); the services connected at Essex Road and each ran at 16½-minute intervals. The break in the middle was necessary to operate at a reasonable frequency as single line operation along just one track would have meant intervals no better than half hourly.

On 5 January 1964 automatic ticket gates were introduced at Stamford Brook. This was the Underground’s first electronic ticket gate and was installed on the ‘way in’. Special tickets were issued using magnetic ink in the form of four parallel ‘bars’ in a block, each bar at right angles to the ticket edge; two blocks were printed, the second opposite the first such that as the ticket was ‘read’ by the gate the bars would be read successively as a pair. The bars represented a ‘ternary’ code where a bar on one side represented a zero, a bar on the other a ‘1’, and a bar on both sides a ‘2’. In this form they were loaded into the gate’s memory as the ticket was read. The machine interpreted the complete code (in this case 2,2,2,2) as a unique decimal number by taking the position of the ternary codes as diminishing powers of 3. With four positions the first ‘multiplier’ was 81 (three cubed), the second 27 (3 squared), the third 3 (three to the power of 1) and the fourth 1 (three to the power of 0). This adds up to 224 which was the station code allocated to Stamford Brook; the codes essentially started at ‘1’ and were allocated in alphabetical order. This was the first of a number of experimental gates installed, as a result of which magnetic ink was found unsuitable and a ferric oxide backing was identified as a better medium to carry the 31 code positions required to handle the Underground’s ticket varieties. In its refined form automatic gates were introduced on the Victoria Line when it opened in 1968-69 but it was found to be inflexible and not reliable enough and later partly removed. Only from the late 1980s was a rather different approach adopted that led to the ticket gating system still in use today. There is an article about how this all developed on my website HERE.
Ticket issued on the 8 January, four days after the gate was put into service
First experimental ticket gate at Stamford Brook. About as unattractive a design as one could achieve!








Sunday, 15 December 2013

Driverless trains and the Underground's deep tube programme

I have commented previously on the issues that surround the possibility of having 'driverless' trains on the Underground, and have seen no reason to depart from an earlier blog item and the subsequent article in Modern Railways (which can be found HERE). Of course, the suggestion that Underground trains might go 'driverless' any time soon was really a media misunderstanding of Mayor Johnson's sabre rattling, but it served to get the debate going.

I have much sympathy with the idea that with technology leaping forward, drivers as we know them cannot sensibly be perpetuated for ever and a day, for the reasons I have set out earlier. What I had no sympathy for was the nonsensical suggestion that we switch over to a system such as the Docklands Light Railway uses, with its train captains in the passenger compartments. Heaven knows who put that forward, but it surely cannot have been a transport professional (so we can probably guess who).

It seems that since this hoo-hah first erupted London Underground has spent considerable time reflecting on how to proceed and the answer seems to leap out as a consequence of using no more than sheer logic.

The first thing to consider is that we cannot avoid looking forward for about 40-45 years because that is how long trains last (I wouldn't care to comment about the signalling and control systems, but it will still be many years). The sub-surface lines and the Jubilee, Northern and Victoria Lines are either equipped with new trains and control systems or are in the process of being equipped, so for the time being they are out of the equation. That leaves the Bakerloo, Central and Piccadilly Lines (and arguably the Waterloo & City if it is to be dealt with as a separate entity). These lines are now part of what is called the 'Deep Tube Programme'.

Of these, the priority for treatment is the Piccadilly Line. Although the trains are slightly more recent than those of the Bakerloo, the line is under far greater stress and some of the signalling and control systems are older, or at least more fragile. In addition parts of the line are shared with Metropolitan and District services and it would be desirable to have higher performance, automatic trains on the Piccadilly services that must share those tracks. Following a Piccadilly upgrade, the order would probably be Bakerloo then Central. What happens on the Bakerloo, of course, is dependent on the future of the Euston-Watford line and the mix of services there, and the fact Network Rail is the infrastructure owner.

The logic process works like this. With 'DLR-style' automatic trains ruled out as quite impractical on a line such as the Piccadilly, the choice is between a completely automated railway (that may or may not be 'driverless') and one that functions like the Jubilee and Victoria Lines where the train operates automatically but the train operator operates the doors. London Underground has concluded that full automation in deep tubes cannot be attempted without all kinds of safety systems in place some of which will take quite a bit of development. It would certainly need platform edge doors. By their nature, platform edge doors must have the door spacing at the same intervals as the doors on the train, so all the doors coincide. This presents a problem during any stock changeover in the event that the doors spacings of the old and new stocks are not the same (and bear in mind the Piccadilly Line already runs three slightly different formations).

London Underground has concluded that new trains cannot be the same as the old ones. For a start they want the new ones to be longer than the 1973 stock to take advantage of the full platform length to help improve capacity. There is then the thorny issue of the large gaps between doorways and platforms at certain stations to consider, increasingly frowned on by safety authorities. Without major reconstruction that might not even be possible at certain locations, or may be quite unaffordable, the best solution seems to be to introduce shorter carriages that even without using any new form of technology will significantly reduce the gaps. The thinking is to provide a walk-through train comprising shorter cars sharing bogies with the car adjacent: - maybe nine cars on eight bogies or something of the sort. There is another reason for doing this in that it makes the finished train somewhat lighter (bogies are very heavy) and this is going to be crucial if energy usage is to be reduced. In turn, energy reduction is vital in reducing heat generation in an already warm environment where service frequencies will rise appreciably, and it is hoped will also create a situation where air-conditioning may be possible. Air conditioning not only puts heat into the tunnel that then has to be removed, but because of losses it itself generates additional heat; the ideal would be for new trains with air conditioning to generate no more heat than the present trains do now, though additional means of getting heat out of the tunnels may still be necessary.

So, the new trains will be very different from the 1973 stock. That makes it impossible to install platform edge doors until the last of the old trains has gone. That means the new trains must have driving cabs, despite dark rumours being spread last year. It is of course true that cabs can be removed at some point in the future. What can be expected is that at least initially the new trains will be capable of running automatically with an operator controlling or supervising the doors. Whether the trains enter service in ATO mode or are driven manually is probably yet a decision to be made, but LU has enough experience either way. Only then, can platform edge doors be considered. I will not weary readers with the issue that those will raise, especially if anybody feels they are needed in the open air on tracks that are shared, but some challenging decisions will have to be made, and there are not yet answers to how such doors will function on highly curved platforms, though solutions can be conjectured.

With the best will in the world, from where we are now this looks like a 10-15 year programme during which time, no doubt, the other issues surrounding cabless and driverless trains in the deep tube will have been gone into. I would be surprised to see such a mode of operation in use on any of the deep tube this side of 2030.

Having said that, there are things that could be done. Automatic reversing in sidings or to and from depots, without staff on board, seems plausible. The Waterloo & City Line seems another possible candidate for experimentation, with just five trains. The issues are containable if things don't work out as expected, and the platforms are relatively straight. Could this be 'driverless' any quicker?

I do wonder for how much longer London will tolerate running trains in tunnels not even 12ft in diameter though. 5 years? Obviously not. 250 years? Surely. So when between now and 250 years is something to be done? And what? Reasons for doing something include safety (no side escape as required on modern lines), viciously sharp curves in places constraining train performance and perhaps train size, amongst other reasons. Also, people are getting bigger. The BBC reported that between 1875 and 1975 British men at age 21 have grown in average height from 5ft 5ins to 5ft 10ins. One can have the debate about the precision of the statistics, but that both the height and weight of men and woman has gone up significantly is certain ground, and that heights are still increasing is also certain. If I have done my sums right the doorway of (say) a 1972 stock train is only 6ft 1ins and a significant number of people even boarding today have to stoop (including some women!). The maximum height inside, in the very centre, is only about 6ft 8ins and these trains have no ceiling clutter, which might not be the case with newer trains with air conditioning. I would suggest that it is at least plausible that in 100 years it will be unrealistic to expect to operate trains for much longer with half the occupants stooping, or nursing a banged brow obtained on entering the carriage through a low doorway.

Nobody really wants to bother about what their successors will have to contend with in a hundred years, and I only do so here because the time to start thinking about it is now. At least there should be a strategy, and maybe passive provision amongst other works that have to be carried out. We should not forget it has been done in the past on the Northern and Central Lines, though not on the scale that would be wanted today. If it is a horrendous prospect now, it will get more difficult, not less, as time goes on. Still, it is a more interesting problem to have than the one of running the system down as traffic drifted away, which is what was going on when I joined the organization. How times have changed!



Tuesday, 3 December 2013

HISTORIC DECEMBER - a monthly digest of historic dates relating to the London Underground

December 1863

December 1863 saw the withdrawal of through Great Western Railway trains along the Metropolitan Railway, at least for a while. The Great Western, you will recall from an earlier blog, actually worked the Metropolitan when the line opened in January 1863, but owing to disagreements about several matters withdrew from the arrangement in August, leaving the Metropolitan to run the line itself, with locomotives and carriages hired in from other railways. However, once the Great Western ceased working the line the relationship improved. The GWR actually found the Metropolitan useful as a means of getting its own trains from the outer reaches of London to the centre (for even then Paddington was regarded as rather inconvenient).

An agreement was reached on 1 October 1863 when, subject to some trifling conditions, the Great Western was permitted to run ‘so many trains over the Metropolitan Railway as they might find convenient’. Whilst on the Metropolitan, they were also to carry local traffic and both railways committed to selling tickets for all stations at which the trains called, irrespective of who owned them. Through trains began working immediately, but for some reason the agreement was for just three months so on 31 December the through trains stopped. The service that began on 1 October was between Windsor and Farringdon Street, five trains a day. In fact the service began in the form of through carriages which had to be attached to, or detached from, existing trains terminating at the main line station, involving some shunting, which must have taken the edge off things. This may have contributed to the GWR letting the agreement lapse until something better was thought out. A new agreement was entered into on 29 April 1864 and through trains resumed from 2 May, seemingly dedicated trains this time.


December 1913

Perhaps the most significant of several events during December 1913 was the opening of the Bakerloo Line to Paddington – a seemingly modest extension from Edgware Road. As conceived, the Bakerloo finished at Baker Street. In 1900, after construction had started, the company recognized that Paddington was a much more satisfactory terminus and obtained the necessary powers to get there. The idea was for the Bakerloo to carry on from the Marylebone area beneath Bell Street and then in a westerly direction, in due course running beneath Harrow Road and Bishops Road to a station west of the GWR near Eastbourne Terrace (the tracks themselves finishing somewhere near Gloucester Terrace); interchange with the GWR station was to be achieved by means of a long subway. This left the line pointing south-west, apparently with the idea of further extension to Royal Oak – represented by a public house further along Bishops Road. But what then? Any further extension would be likely to bring it into conflict with other railways offering more direct routes. At any rate this created sufficient misgivings for the extension to be deferred until the rest of the Bakerloo line was more advanced.

Once the Americans had got hold of the Bakerloo they, too, wanted to get to Paddington but had been committed to starting the extension from Edgware Road as work was already in hand. Their plan was a westerly extension that was constrained to approach the main line station from the north and ended up pointing south-east. This would have provided excellent interchange, but left the line in a hopeless position for future extension; it was virtually pointing back at itself. So Edgware Road was eventually opened as a temporary terminus and Paddington went into abeyance, with too many other things for the railway to worry about.

In 1909 the Underground Group found that its interest in reaching Paddington was likely to be influenced by discussions with the London & North Western Railway about joint operation of electric trains to Watford. That is not central to this story beyond placing a demand on the Paddington extension to end up pointing roughly north. This was extremely difficult given that Edgware Road was already to the north of Paddington station. On the other hand, Paddington was best served at its southern end where all the station facilities were located. The only way these conflicts could be reconciled at reasonable cost was to begin the extension at the end of the platforms at Edgware Road and head south-west to a point immediately south of Praed Street (under the Circle Line station) and then turn north-west, by means of a vicious curve, to run along the eastern edge of the main line station. The platforms were built just to the north of the curve, and reversing sidings beyond, extending to a point under where the Hammersmith & City station is located today. Work began in June 1911 and the new station opened on 1st December 1913. The GWR contributed £18,000 towards the works and made wayleaves available in order to get the best interchange they could, as they would benefit from a direct link to London’s west end.  Indeed on the day of opening a whole new raft of through bookings were introduced from the GWR’s Windsor and Reading lines to or via the London Electric Railway, of which the Bakerloo was now a part.

By splaying the platforms apart at Paddington it was possible the get the lower landing for the escalators between them; Paddington was only the second Underground station to be built from new with escalators, two Otis machines with a fixed stairway between. Unfortunately level access with the street was not possible at the top level. Today the cramped ticket hall and fact the station still has only two escalators makes the station very crowded in rush hours and it can be very difficult to clear the platforms. Crossrail works, we are assured, will provide the necessary relief.

The November blog covered the widening of the Metropolitan Railway between Finchley Road and Wembley Park. All that it is necessary to say here is that the next section opened on 17 December 1913 at Willesden Green. This station had opened on 24 November 1879 with just two platforms, one either side of each track. The ‘up’ platform, on the north side, was converted into an island in 1906 and formed a bay road for terminating trains, and there was another track beyond that acting as an engine run round and headshunt for the sidings, further west. The 1913 4-tracking scheme appropriated the bay road with the platform serving the new ‘down’ fast road (today’s southbound Jubilee Line) and the run round loop became new ‘up’ fast road with a platform crammed in against the wall of the roadway, giving rise to its rather irregular shape. This section of widened railway ran much of the way to Kilburn where heavy engineering meant work beyond was much slower. The new shelters and footbridge at Willesden Green were not finished until 1914.

On 31 December 1913 the Metropolitan Railway announced that the reconstruction of Baker Street station was complete. This was not entirely true as the design of the station anticipated the construction of a hotel above the station into which the station frontage would be a harmonious part. It was the harmonious part that was completed and left in a condition expecting other works to follow on, but they did not. Work on the upper building did not commence until the late 1920s and behind the hoardings the only thing that was expanding was the buddleia.

The Baker Street station that opened in 1863 had ticket offices at the western end of the platforms, one on either side of Marylebone Road. The entrance to the platforms was where the stairs are to the overbridge that was installed as part of this reconstruction (the bridge is actually dated 1911). When the Metropolitan & St Johns Wood Railway opened it had two platforms with an entirely separate entrance from the south ends of its platforms via a long passage into Marylebone Road. In due course a low level connection was installed to connect these platforms with the older ones at their east end. When it became clear that through trains from the St Johns Wood line to the City were inconvenient, later reconstructions reduced the two ‘through’ tracks to one with a platform each side. To the east were two bay roads, each served by a single platform.

After electrification, station reconstruction became essential as it was desirable to restore through running to the City (meaning rearranging all the St Johns Wood platforms) as well as consolidating and modernizing the station facilities, concentrating them on a large new ticket hall nearer the junction between the two railways. This was incredibly difficult work involving numerous phases of activity that resulted in the platform and ticket hall layout pretty much as we see it today. The first job was to convert the western platform (adjacent to the single track through line) into an island, creating today’s platform 1 (the other face becoming platform 2, more or less unchanged). This allowed the other platform face of the through road to be taken out of use (and the bay road behind it) allowing the new southbound through line to be laid in, and part of what is today platform 3 (which during this phase work must have been quite short). The really tricky bit was then to reverse the positions of the remaining bay platform (against the wall) and its track so that a new island platform was formed with the track for platform 4 against the wall.

While all this was going on the new ticket hall had to be constructed across the site, connections made into the Circle Line platforms and luggage lifts installed. At the north end of the 'St Johns Wood' station was a bridge, originally installed to link the Metropolitan Railway station into the back of the Bakerloo one in 1906. This had also to be reconstructed to suit the new platform arrangements and it is interesting that a plan of this showed that passing provision had already been made for it to lead down to no fewer than seven platforms, a scheme obviously not carried out. The bridge, in its reconstructed form is still there today, though the old Bakerloo ticket hall (next to the Metropolitan substation) is no longer there.


December 1963

In more recent times, on 13 December 1963 the last train of the Metropolitan Line’s A62 stock entered service (units 5228+5231). The loss of locomotive-hauled trains meant some track simplification was possible and the locomotive spur at Baker Street (next to the signal box) was removed, completion being effected from 16 December 1962, together with removal of all the shunting signals that locomotive changeovers required. The removal of the loco spur meant lifting a section of bridge rail which had been put in there, for some reason, probably in 1913. There is, incidentally, still a small amount of bridge rail left at Neasden depot which I believe was recovered from the Central Line where it was being removed at the same time Neasden was being built. I do hope someone has the wit to preserve a small section.

December 1963 was also the month that most of the demolition work took place on the old South Acton branch. The line closed in February 1959 but as is the way of these things the recovery or destruction of the assets actually costs money and is not to be rushed into. Leaving Acton Town, the line swept across an area formerly used as siding space until it reached what was later the entrance to Acton Works where it struck north and crossed Bollo Lane, proceeding beyond on embankment whence its level fell to approach, but not quite arrive at, the level of the North London Line at South Acton station. There were two bridges: Bollo Lane (just mentioned) and Palmerston Road. The former was a proper bridge with a road underneath it with traffic and pedestrians and that kind of thing. The other bridge was an apology of a structure which I don't think vehicles could actually negotiate, though there was nowhere they could go anyway. Two observations might be made. First it is very unusual for an entire railway embankment to be simply taken away, but that is what happened, and I'd like to know where it went. The second is that for some reason or other demolition of bridges is 'difficult'. The Bollo Lane bridge was suitable uncooperative and the structure came apart not quite as planned with a beam crashing into the road and smashing a water main. I recall someone who lived in the area telling me this happened on a Sunday and the road had been closed (at least to motor traffic). Nevertheless this shouldn't have happened.

I gather bridge collapses during 'planned' demolition are by no means unusual though. I was told by a friend (sadly no longer with us) that much the same had happened in (I think) 1953 when the Grove Road bridge was being demolished in Hammersmith and that someone was killed. Try as I might I have not been able to confirm this story but I would like to know more about it. Discarded railways are not supposed to seek revenge like this.

Do check this blog in days to come, by which time I might have found some photographs.

Monday, 25 November 2013

The Police Telephone Box - the ones that do not travel in time.

The recent orgy of TV and radio coverage about a certain wandering police box caused me to wonder how much was known about them, by which I mean the non wandering variety that were common when I was a lad and can still be seen in a few places. The answer, it would seem, is not very much.

Before looking at the police box we should first look at what problems the police were encountering to which the police box was the solution.

What is said here predominantly relates to towns, as policing in country areas presented slightly different challenges. The police as we know it today, it must be remembered, was conceived as a preventative force where an organized body of constables were out and about in sufficient numbers (a) to discourage the commission of crime, (b) to be on hand to discover crime quickly and pursue those suspected of committing it, and (c) to arrest those suspected of committing crime and bring them before a magistrate. In the age before either the telephone or mechanical transport were available, the uniform police attached to a police station were organized into shifts (called reliefs) and subdivided into sections (under a sergeant) and further subdivided into beats.

Each beat was arranged to occupy the majority of a shift and consisted of a route which might take (say) an hour to perambulate. There were a number of beats attached to each police station such that between them they covered the entire ground. Although every single minor road or alley might not necessarily be walked, all would have been in sight at some point, and a beat would never have been far away. By this means the police soon became familiar with an area and could immediately spot something suspicious; in addition the public either knew when and where a policeman was to be found quickly, or could simply shout for one as there would have been a good chance there would have been one fairly close. Beats were closely timed, but policeman were not expected to walk quickly as that made it difficult to pay attention to surroundings, did not leave time to help members of the public (for example to give directions) or to check something that looked odd. The sergeant was supposed to visit every man in his section during the shift, which meant having a good idea where all the officers would be along their beats at any time. This beat system was certainly adopted by the Metropolitan Police on its formation in 1829, and in a form not all that much modified carried on until the late 1950s when patrol cars began to insinuate themselves into the system, with gradual loss of contact with ordinary members of the public that give rise to some concerns today, but that is another story.

The problem faced by the bobby on the beat was that if something irregular was spotted it could take a long time to get it reported. Something very urgent would cause an officer to blow his whistle (using a particular code) when nearby officers from other beats would rush to assist; for this to work, police whistles were of a very particular type that exuded a very characteristic sound that could not be mistaken. Before telephones were invented the officers would either have to deal with the matter entirely on their own or one of them (or a deputed member of the public) would have to run to the police station to get assistance, perhaps from 'reserve' officers located there. This took time. In addition, once an officer was out and about it was very difficult to get hold of him, and tied up another officer in doing so. It was also difficult for a member of the public to get hold of a policemen quickly if one were not actually in sight.

To improve on all this, the police box (strictly police telephone box) was devised. The first examples appeared in Glasgow as far back as 1891. In England, the earliest examples seem to have been in Sunderland (1923) and Newcastle (1925). Perhaps rather surprisingly the earliest Glasgow boxes were also fitted with a signal light arranged (with great ingenuity) to be illuminated by gas when the station required to contact an officer on the beat. Later Glasgow boxes, introduced by Chief Constable Sillitoe from 1930, were similar to London ones, but the doors had three panels rather than four.


Met Police instructions describing the system. This is the ninth issue and moves me to see if I can see a copy of the first.
The Metropolitan Police began to install telephone boxes in 1929, to a design by Gilbert Mackenzie Trench, surveyor to the Receiver for the Metropolitan Police District. The box is essentially of concrete construction, with wooden doors; there were detailed design changes during their period of introduction and by 1938 some 685 were in use within the MPD, all painted blue. Glasgow followed the Metropolitan design and installed 325, originally painted red (but later blue). Edinburgh was another user of police boxes, of an entirely different design, and a recent visit there suggests that many are still in place, some out of repair and at least one used as a coffee bar. A few remain in Glasgow, after pressure was brought to retain some on heritage grounds when the bulk were scrapped.


A surviving Edinburgh police box.
The Metropolitan Police boxes were used by officers on the beat who were expected to call the station from one at predetermined times as part of their beat patrol (spending no more than two minutes in doing so). The instructions note that to prevent criminals becoming overly familiar with the movements of the beat officer the beat schedules were selected daily from a set of four, each of which was timed differently. The boxes were equipped with a desk and stool, and an electric heater. They could be used as a place to take refreshment if the beat was remote from a police station and officers were expected to use them as a location within which they could write reports about incidents that needed to be written up; some divisional superintendents had a particular aversion to seeing beat officers in a police station during their duty without a very good reason (and, in a few cases, for any reason at all). Police boxes could also be used to keep a prisoner out of the way while a vehicle was summoned to collect them both. It was very much part of the system that motor transport was part of all this, and each police station was allocated two motor cars and a van. An additional inspector was provided on each subdivision, and he was supposed to be out and about all the time, often in one of the cars, and was required to keep in touch with the stations using the box telephones. For some reason they were supposed to be internally illuminated at night, despite pleading the need for economy in the use of electricity.


Metropolitan Police Box showing officer using the telephone from the outside
If the light were seen flashing, then any officer was expected to go to the box immediately and call up the station to see what was wanted. All boxes had a common key which became part of the officer's appointments and had to be shown before starting duty. Special constables were not issued a personal key, but were given one to use during their shift. Each box contained a first aid outfit and a fire extinguisher (and the outside of the box sported a St John's Ambulance badge). Arrangements were made for the boxes to be cleaned regularly.

In London the placing of police patrols in cars, coupled with the introduction of pocket radios, meant that the boxes were no longer so useful and removal began in 1969, being completed in 1981.

The BBC regarded the police box as a well recognized piece of street furniture when it was selected for use in the Dr Who programme, but strange to say it was only in 2002 when the ire of the police was created. It seems that permission had originally been sought from and granted by the police when the BBC originally wanted to use the design (for they used a wooden or fibreglass copy not a real one), and there the matter might have rested. However, in 1996 the BBC found themselves using the design on commercial and promotional material and felt it prudent to register the design as a trademark. At this, the police baulked, and challenged the application on a number of grounds, but essentially arguing that the design was a trademark of the Metropolitan Police, albeit an unregistered one. Detailed and abstruse arguments were put forward on each side but the examiner, after referring to a number of precedents, concluded that it was unrealistic for the Metropolitan Police to argue that this particular piece of street furniture could be regarded as a police trademark and that the BBC's commercial use of it to support a fanciful television programme was most unlikely to clash with anything the police were using it for, and the risk of any confusion or abstraction of 'trade' was not tenable. The objection was therefore dismissed. (There had been plenty of opportunity since 1929 for the police to register it as a trademark and commercially exploit the idea for toys and so on, but they had not.). 

The Metropolitan Police do still use a police box which at first sight looks like an 'ordinary' one, and this is located outside Earls Court Underground station. It was installed in April 1996 as part of an exercise to improve local security. This one is made of wood, based on police designs and was constructed by London Underground carpenters at their Lillie Bridge works as a contribution to the scheme. It was opened by the mayoress of Kensington and the local borough police commander and has an emergency telephone to enable the public to call the police, while inside it has CCTV monitors so that someone on the spot can watch the local area. Some police forces also used police pillars where it was not possible to install a box. These had a telephone and a calling lamp. Several survive in the City of London (by no means necessarily in use), and the Metropolitan Police still have one at Piccadilly Circus. The City ones were a paler blue. 

The Tardis, incidentally, was based on the Met Police Mk II design. However, how many of you have noticed that this prop was not only never a correct representation but also varied considerably between the various series of the programme. Yes someone has done a study, and you can find it HERE.

There is a website that seeks to collate photographs of Metropolitan Police telephone boxes in their original surroundings, and it can be found HERE.

Excellent drawing of the Metropolitan Police box and some information about its history can be found HERE.

There is a Flickr stream devoted to surviving police boxes (of which there seem to be a lot) and can be found HERE.

A useful illustrated history of the Glasgow system can be found HERE. It also contains more general information about other police box systems.

Happy hunting.






About Me

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