London's Crossrail needs to rename almost all its stations

Canary Wharf: one of the many Crossrail stations that will have the wrong name. Image: Crossrail.

Crossrail. It’ll be great, right? A massive new railway, ferrying people from one side of London to the other in mere nanoseconds? It's gonna be brilliant, yeah?

Well, yeah, it'll be alright, probably. I mean it'll be pretty useful if you're trying to get from, say, Heathrow Airport to Docklands. Or Reading to the City. Or (this one for the connoisseurs) Romford to Slough.

But what about the station names, eh? What about the awful, awful, station names?

Okay, this might take some explaining. And I'm not going to lie to you: this piece goes on for far longer than you're expecting it to. So to whet your appetite, here’s a map of what the new Crossrail stations obviously should be called.

Image: Crossrail/CityMetric.

Appetite whetted? Ready to go?

Good. Buckle up. It's going to be a bumpy ride.

Acton Main Line

Let's start in the west.

Originally named simply Acton, this west London station has been called Acton Main Line since 1949. Unofficially, one suspects, it's been known as that for even longer: the phrase “main line” has the air of the authorities finally bowing to the inevitable.

The reason the station ended up with this ugly label is presumably that all the other possibilities were taken. Acton is unique in London in that other station names have already hoovered up all four points of the compass. There's an Acton Central, too, and an Acton Town. Once upon a time there was even an Acton Green, though that's called Chiswick Park these days.

Anyway. Acton Main Line will be silly, once the station is served only by Crossrail, and Acton Crossrail is just as ugly as the current name. Acton Horn Lane is probably the obvious alternative, but the station is also at one end of Friary Road, and Acton Friary is much prettier. So Acton Friary it is.

Paddington

The next stop you come to is Paddington, which is basically fine. I mean, it serves Paddington station, doesn't it? What else would you call it?

Of course, there is an argument that Paddington station is already a bit messed up. The Circle line serves it twice, at two different platforms – you can literally get a tube from one bit of Paddington to another bit of Paddington, should you have an hour to spare – but that's hardly Crossrail's fault, is it? So, yes, it's basically fine.

But then things start getting tricky.


Bond Street

There are a number of problems here. One is that naming stations after streets annoys me, for reasons I'll come to below.

Another is that there is no London Street called Bond Street. Honestly, there's a New Bond Street, off Oxford Street, which turns into Old Bond Street if you keep heading south; and there are two stations vaguely near them, only one of which is called Bond Street. And being the sort of OCD weirdo who writes stuff like this, that annoys me.

But the big problem with having a Crossrail station called Bond Street is that the new station will be much bigger than the old. Its eastern ticket hall will be in Hanover Square, which is basically next to Oxford Circus tube. Although it won't connect with that station, it'll still mean there'll be an entrance to Bond Street station next to Oxford Circus and that's really, really irritating.

The stations on Paris' RER network, which is one of the models for Crossrail, often connect more than one metro station. Some of them (like Châtelet–Les Halles) combine the names; others (Auber, for example) take an entirely different one.

The latter seems the obvious course, and Hanover is a nice name, so let's call it that.

Tottenham Court Road

Remember how I said naming stations after streets annoys me? Well, this is why.

A station is a point; a street is a line. By naming the former after the latter you end up with lunacy like Tottenham Court Road, a street 1km long with three stations on it, and where the eponymous tube station is right at one end of the road. There will almost certainly be people who've got off the tube at Tottenham Court Road station, convinced that they're nearly at their destination, only to find they're the better part of a mile away and they really should have stayed on until Warren Street.

Honestly. It's a miracle civilisation hasn't completely broken down, isn’t it?

Anyway. Crossrail seems as good an excuse as any to finally address this madness and rename Tottenham Court Road to something less misleading. St Giles, the archaic name for this area, is the obvious name to go with. Much prettier.

Farringdon

Bond Street Crossrail will come painfully close to connecting two tube stations, and then wuss out to prevent over-crowding. Farringdon Crossrail will actually do it, linking Farringdon in the west with Barbican in the east.

Being able to change trains at Barbican onto a station called Farringdon seems silly, and will look bloody horrible on the map:

Image: Crossrail/TfL.

So, on the Paris principle, why not call the new station something else? Let's go with Smithfield, after the neighbouring meat market which sort of sits between the two tube stations.

Liverpool Street

Same problem as Farringdon, only this one feels slightly worse because the two stations it connects, Liverpool Street and Moorgate, have completely different connecting lines.

The new platforms will sit under the site of the old Broad Street station, which is now the Broadgate office development. So might as well call it that, really. Broadgate it is.

Whitechapel

Whitechapel is fine. We have no complaints about Whitechapel.

Although since we're here it seems a good moment to note the mildly ridiculous fact that, at Whitechapel, the London Underground runs overground, and you have to walk down some stairs to reach the London Overground. Which runs underground.

It's like they're doing it deliberately.

Canary Wharf

Last stop, but this one's a doozy.

Canary Wharf is already a mess. There's a DLR station called Canary Wharf; but that's separate from the tube station which is also called Canary Wharf, and which is actually closer to Heron Quays on the DLR.

Image: Google.

The new Crossrail station is going to be where we've put that red circle. Which is miles away from both existing stations but quite close to West India Quay and Poplar.

The opening of Crossrail seems like the perfect moment to untangle this mess. And while the people who own the Canary Wharf Estate are probably not going to accept not getting their name on the rather expensive new station they've just had built in one of their docks, TfL could at least force them to accept a subheading: the Crossrail station would become Canary Wharf North Quay, the Jubilee one would become Canary Wharf Jubilee Park, and the DLR one in the middle becomes plain old Canada Square.

Otherwise you'll get people trying to change from Crossrail to the Jubilee line only to find there's a whole complex of skyscrapers in the way, and just wandering aimlessly around the underground shopping malls in a daze until they're thrown out by security guards because the whole area is actually a private estate. And then where will be we? Where will it end, eh? Eh? I ask you.

Anyway I'm going for a lie down.


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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.