How many railway terminals does London have?

Liverpool Street: definitely a real, proper terminus. Image: Diliff/Wikipedia Commons.

Paris has seven mainline railway terminals still in operation. Manchester and Birmingham have two apiece, plus a few others which get through services. New York has the two that everyone’s heard of (Grand Central and Pennsylvania), but also two more in the outer boroughs, and a fifth across the Hudson in Hoboken, New Jersey.

And London has... well. It’s complicated.

A touch of Victoriana

Let’s start with the history part. At the point the railways started arriving, in the late 1830s, London was already the largest city in the world, with a population not much shy of 2m.

Greenwood’map of London in 1827, just 10 years before the railways began to arrive. Click to expand. Image: Public domain.

Knocking down people’s homes and commercial properties to build new railway lines was likely to be both expensive and unpopular – so by and large those building the new railways preferred not to do it. A few drove their new lines through the poorer suburbs to the east and south. But those coming into the north and west of the city, where the population was richer and more powerful, preferred to stop at the edge of the built up area.

That’s one reason London ended up with so many rail terminals: lines coming from different directions arrived at the city at different points. Just as important, though, was that the railways were funded and built by private companies – and each wanted their own terminal.

So it was that the Great Northern Railway opened its terminal on northern edge of the city in 1852, and named it Kings Cross (after a monument to King George IV that had stood in the area until 1845). Sixteen years later, the Midland Railway opened a whole new terminal literally across the road, and named it St Pancras (a historic name for the area). Both stations were well under half a mile from Euston, which the London & Birmingham Railway company had opened in 1837. (Euston Hall in Suffolk was the ancestral home of the local landowners, the Dukes of Grafton.)

The upshot of this is that London’s three main railways to the north were all built in the same 30 year period, and all ended up in the same bit of London. Yet they ended up with three different terminals. Private sector efficiency in action.

You can probably already get some sense already that London is going to end up with an unfeasibly high number of railway terminals.


The ends of the lines

How many, though, is harder to tot up than one might imagine. We’ve already counted three that absolutely, definitely count. Let’s dash through the others whose claims are equally firm:

Paddington – The terminus of the Great Western Railway, built in the city’s western suburbs in 1838.

Waterloo – Opened as Waterloo Bridge station by the London & South Western Railway in 1848. Plans to continue on to the City of London never came to fruition; we got the Waterloo & City line of the tube instead.

Victoria – A co-production between the London Brighton & South Coast Railway and the London, Chatham & Dover Railway, first opened in 1860, to bring trains closer to the West End.

Liverpool Street – Opened in 1874 by the Great Eastern Railway, replacing the nearby Bishopsgate station that it had served since 1840. Confusingly, while Liverpool Street station is on Bishopsgate, Bishopsgate station was not. London is stupid.

So: we’re up to seven. That’s the same number as Paris already, and we’ve only counted the big ones.

Except there are two more, which also definitely count, even if they are, relatively speaking, tiny:

Fenchurch Street – Opened in 1841 by the London & Blackwall Railway, as a way of getting trains between the City and the docks. (It was very much the DLR of its time.) In 1854, it was rebuilt by the London, Tilbury & Southend Railway, with services extended onwards to southern Essex.

Even today, though, it still has the smallest catchment area of the London rail terminals, with its tentacles stretching only as far as Shoeburyness, a mere 40 miles away. On some of the more expansive definitions of metropolitan London – that is, the commuter belt, rather than the built up area – none of its trains get outside the city’s footprint at all. This feels to me like a different role from something like Euston or Kings Cross, but maybe I’m overthinking this.

Marylebone had bigger ambitions. The last of the proper golden age rail terminals to be built, it opened in 1899 as the London terminus of the Great Central Main Line (GCML), which ran services as far as Nottingham, Sheffield and Manchester.

There was one tiny problem with this plan: there already were trains between the capital and Nottingham, Sheffield and Manchester. Consequently, the GCML never made any money, and of the eight planned platforms in its station – originally known, optimistically, as Grand Central – money was only found for four. Despite surviving Dr Beeching, the station was threatened with closure in 1984.

It’s since had a bit of a revival, thanks to (no, really) the care and investment that a private train operating company, Chiltern Railways, has poured into it since 1996. It now has six platforms, and recently opened a new route to Oxford.

Anyway. That’s nine. If you’ve been paying attention, though, you’ll know that I’ve missed a big one.

South of the river

London Bridge was actually London’s first rail terminal, opened in December 1836, by the London & Greenwich Railway. Over the next few decades, several other rail companies added to it, and new lines poured out of the place to the south and south east of London.

Two London Bridges: the South Eastern Station (left) and the temporary Brighton station c.1850 after the demolition of the Joint station. Image: Wikipedia.

So why have I held it back for so long? Because this is where the definition of “terminal” starts to get complicated. Sure, it opened as the end of the line. And for some services – mostly terminating in South London suburbia; a few heading further on, to the south coast – it still is. If Fenchurch Street is in, then London Bridge, which is much, much bigger, surely should be too.

But it isn’t just a terminal station. Many trains continue beyond, to either

Charing Cross – Opened as a West End terminal by the South Eastern Railway (SER) in 1864; or

Cannon Street – Opened by the same company as the City equivalent in 1866.

So while London Bridge is still a terminal station, the SER, at least, clearly didn’t see it as such.

All these count, I suppose: that means we’re now up to 12 terminal stations. Except divisions are starting to appear, between proper, grand terminals and relatively tiny stations which just happened to be the end of the line; and between those that are pure terminals and those which also include onward services. In important ways, Waterloo, Fenchurch Street and London Bridge feel like different kinds of thing

It gets worse.

I’ve already mentioned the London, Chatham & Dover, one of the companies that gave us Victoria. It also built what is today Blackfriars – then named St Paul’s – in 1886. (Confusingly, there was also a Blackfriars Bridge station, south of the river.)

Except the LC&D also continued the line beyond Blackfriars; to Ludgate Hill, then Holborn Viaduct, and then on to Snow Hill and Farringdon Street, where it connected up with other lines entirely. Most of this is today part of the cross-city Thameslink – the first two stations have been replaced by the double-entrance-d City Thameslink, which is of course the worst-named station in London. And some services terminate at Blackfriars but many other don’t.

So, is this Blackfriars a terminal? Yes. But also, sort of, no.

The final countdown

That’s 13. There is, sort of a 14th, except I’m not buying it. In fact, it was the experience of being on a train into the station in question, and realising I didn’t want to acknowledge it as a terminal, that made me write this blasted thing.

Suburban train services that come into north London on the East Coast Main Line diverge from it Finsbury Park. Instead of continuing onto Kings Cross with the big trains, they pootle down a little branch line through Drayton Park and disappear into a tunnel, ultimately terminating at Moorgate.

No way is this a proper rail terminal. Image: Chakorn1/Wikipedia Commons.

So, Moorgate is London’s 14th rail terminal, right? Well, sort of. The problem here is that Moorgate is only served by suburban rail services. More than that, while the line – the Northern City – was originally intended to be a way of getting big trains to from the north to the City (hence the name), that never really came off. When it opened in 1904, it was instead as part of the tube network, a state of affairs that persisted until 1975.

So, Moorgate is a rail terminal, in so far as a heavy rail line finishes there. But in functional terms – what services arrive there; what it actually looks like – it has more in common with the Bakerloo line platforms Elephant & Castle than it does with Euston.

What’s more, if we’re including Moorgate, there’s surely an argument for including Baker Street – which acts as a terminus for trains from Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire – too. Okay, Moorgate is served by a private TOC and Baker Street by Transport for London (as part of the Metropolitan line). But if the latter gets its way, that might one day change. At that point – is Moorgate still a rail terminal? And if so, why?

When I started this thing, something odd struck me. Normally, no matter how obscure the subject, you can find a page on Wikipedia to explain it. Nerds gonna nerd.

But – there is no Wikipedia page on London Rail termini, only a category page listing other pages. There is, however, this page on the London Station Group: if you have a ticket which takes you to “London Terminals”, these are the stations you’re allowed to end up at.

We counted 14 terminals above. So, you’d imagine this group would contain 14 stations, right?

Wrong. It contains 18. All those we counted above – yes, including Moorgate – but also City Thameslink, Old Street, Vauxhall and Waterloo East. None of which are even slightly terminal-y. That’s almost every mainline station in zone 1. (Note: An earlier version of this article said it was every one. I forgot Farringdon, and Elephant & Castle.) 

The dead

The London Station Group doesn’t include Broad Street (opened in 1865 as the terminus of the North London Railway). That’s because, while that used to be one of London’s busiest stations, it was, unfortunately, demolished in 1986. The site, west of Liverpool Street, is now occupied by the Broadgate office complex.

It also doesn’t include the Bricklayers Arms, which opened at the top of Old Kent Road in 1844 as the “West End” terminus of the London & Greenwich; this was a bit optimistic, since it is the better part of two miles from the West End. Anyway, it stopped receiving passenger services except on special occasions in 1852, though it survived as a goods depot until 1981.

There’s no reason why the station group would include two long-dead stations of course: I just couldn’t get them in anywhere else.

Nonetheless: to sum up, London has 14 rail terminals, even though they’re of radically different sizes, are served by radically different types of train services, and not all of them are only terminal stations. This at least gives us twice as many as Paris.

I did warn you it was complicated.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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On Walter Benjamin, and the “Arcades Project”

Passage Verdue, Paris. Image: LPLT/Wikimedia Commons.

In 1940 a small group of refugees were turned away at the French-Spanish border. Having fled the Nazi invasion of France, they hoped to find safety in Spain. One of their number, a German-Jewish philosopher and writer, intended to have travelled onwards to America, where he would certainly be safe. So distraught was he by the refusal he met at the border that he took his own life.

The writer in question was Walter Benjamin, the prominent critical theorist who has contributed so much to our understanding of urban society, and he died with a manuscript close at hand. When asked previously if the briefcase of notes was really necessary to a man fleeing for his life he had replied, “I cannot risk losing it. It must be saved. It is more important than I am.”

The work that Benjamin died protecting was the Arcades Project. It was to be his magnus opus, intended by the author to illuminate the contradictions of modern city life. But it was never finished.

To Benjamin, the subject of the work, the arcades of Paris, were relics of a past social order, where consumerism ruled. The arcades were a precursor to the modern mall, lined with all sorts of shops, cafes and other establishments where visitors could buy into the good life. The area between these two lines of businesses was covered with glass and metal roofs, much like a conservatory: it gave visitors the high street feel in an intimate, sheltered and well-lit setting. You can still find examples of such places in modern London in the Burlington and Piccadilly arcades, both off Piccadilly.

Such arcades proved hugely popular, spreading across Europe’s capitals as the 19th century progressed. By Benjamin’s time, though, his type of shopping area was losing custom to the fancy department stores, and in Paris many of them had been obliterated in Haussmann’s city reforms of the 1850s and ‘60s. Whereas Parisians could once visit 300 arcades, now only 30 remain.

Through his research Benjamin started to see the arcades as representative of a pivotal moment in social history: the point when society became focused on consumption over production. Buying the latest fad product was just an opium, he thought, dulling senses to the true nature of the world. By bringing light to this, he hoped to wake people up from the consumerism of the 19th Century and bring forth some kind of socialist utopia.


He also warned that this shiny veneer of progress was hiding the true state of things. Instead, he revered crusty old cities like contemporary Marseilles and Moscow, where social life was more honest. In this way, Benjamin contributed to the intellectual movement focused on stripping away the excess of revivalism, standing alongside architects such as Le Corbusier. 

Through his newspaper essays throughout the first half of the 20th Century, Benjamin also became one of the first thinkers to focus on urban isolation. His suggestion that we can be most alone when among such a dense mass of other people is something many in modern cities would sympathise with. His work wasn’t all doom and gloom, however, as he saw cities as our salvation, too: laboratories from where society’s problems can be worked out.

It was 2000 before an English translation of the unfinished the Arcades Project was published, but by then the work had already had a significant impact. Just as he stood on the shoulders of giants such as Baudelaire and the Surrealists, modern thinkers have drawn on his work. Benjamin's concerns about common architectural forms can be seen to inspire modern architects such as Laurie Hawkinson, Steven Holl, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.

The city of Paris itself was as much a part of the Arcade Project’s inspiration for Benjamin as was his intellectual predecessors. In his letters he repeats that it felt “more like home” than Berlin, and his days were spent marvelling at how the old and the modern exist together on the Parisian streets.

How groundbreaking the Arcades Project really was is hard to say. The fact it wasn’t finished certainly scuppered Benjamin’s plans to wake society up from its consumerist slumber, but that doesn’t make the work inconsequential. His fairytale of steel and glass is as much about the relationship between its author and Paris as it is a theoretical work. By putting the city as the main subject in human’s social history he laid the groundwork for future generations of thinkers.

Benjamin was lost to the tragic tide of the 20th century history, and his death marked the end of the project which could have changed the way we think of the urban landscape. Even if you shy away from the grandiose or don’t buy into his promises of socialist utopia, reading the work can still offer some eclectic factoids about 19th century France. At any rate, it must be acknowledged that the man gave his life to the betterment of society and the cities in which we live.