From Platform 0 to Platform 9¾: The strange world of British Rail mathematics

The infuriatingly mis-located Platform 9¾ at London King's Cross. Image: Getty.

Any fans of traditional counting systems unfortunate enough to find themselves travelling via King’s Cross will immediately develop a headache. There are 13 platforms – only one of which doesn’t exist and yet the highest platform number is 11.

The non-existent platform, Platform 9¾, is in the wrong place. As a tribute to the fictional magic platform created by the liar JK Rowling for her Harry Potter books, half a luggage trolley sticks out of the wall in the station concourse, which means 9¾  sits innumerately between platforms 8 and 9. It would have been physically impossible to put it on the wall between platforms 9 and 10, because there isn’t one: Rowling cocked up and was apparently thinking of the layout of Euston station. Not sure that would have looked quite as iconic on film.

That still leaves us with one real extra platform: platform 0. When this was added to the station, replacing a cab rank next to platform 1, it was decided that either renumbering, or having numbers in the wrong order, would both be too confusing, so they ran the numbers backwards to get to 0.

Platform Y was considered, because it runs alongside York Way. But having lettered and numbered platforms in the same station was also deemed too complex, despite the fact that, just across the road, St Pancras does exactly this: Thameslink services run from platforms A and B.

Platform 0, Stockport station. Image: Bob Harvey/

King’s Cross isn’t the only station to have a platform 0: others include Edinburgh Haymarket and Stockport. Cardiff Central has a platform 0 that it’s probably stuck with, as the existing numbering system was built into the fabric of the building: there are platform numbers in ceramic tiled panels that can’t be changed, because the whole structure is listed as one of the best remaining examples of a 1930s-era GWR station.

Even where renumbering is feasible it’s not as simple as changing the signs: there are also signalling issues and letters of complaint from a man who’s been catching the Peterborough train from platform 8 for the last 30 years to consider.

As if it wasn’t bad enough for stations to have “extra” platforms, some are missing platforms altogether. Portsmouth Harbour’s platform 2 was decommissioned during the refurbishment required to stop the whole station sinking in the mid-90s (presumably someone had shouted “get in the sea” at it). What remains of it is little more than long hole in the floor.

The mysteriously absent Platform 2 at Portsmouth Harbour. Image: Peter Holmes/

It’s actually pretty common not to renumber after platforms are removed or retired: Huddersfield is missing platforms 3 and 7 (though it has a 4A and a 4B), and Edinburgh Waverley is missing 5 and 6 (there’s also an unusual ‘clockwise’ numbering system that means platform 20 is next to platform 1). If your local train station is missing a platform, why not invent a myth about it being stolen by ghosts or being part of a plot to rig the Labour leadership election?

Some stations don’t have numbers at all, generally to avoid confusion with a nearby station  with a similar name. Waterloo East has letters to distinguish its platforms from Waterloo, New Cross has letters to distinguish it from New Cross Gate, and platforms A and B at St Pancras are in fact a holdover from the old King’s Cross Thameslink station they replaced.

At one point the North London Line (now part of the Overground) decided to eschew numbers and letters altogether, and some stations just had platforms labelled East & West. Worst of all, at Oxford platform 1 is between platforms 2 and 3. These anarchists don’t even deserve trains.

Oh, and don’t even start on what order the platforms run in. Most major train terminuses number the platforms from left to right, except for London King’s Cross and Euston which go the other way because they’re so flipping special. In many places trains to London depart from platform 1, except for all the places in which they don’t. It’s almost as if they were making the British railway system up as they went along, which is, more or less, exactly what happened.

Anyway, the main point is that if you renumber the platforms at King’s Cross, you hit two birds with one stone: not only a return to a sensible numbering system that starts with 1, but the station concourse would sit between platforms 9 and 10, putting platform 9¾ in more or less the right place. As Harry Potter would say: Bazinga!

Ed Jefferson works for the internet and tweets as @edjeff.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.


22 reasons the hyperloop and driverless cars don't mean we don't need HS2

Yeah, this is not real. Image: Hyperloop Transportation Technology.

I’m on holiday. Bloody hell, lads I’m literally on holiday. As I write I am on a high-speed train hurtling south through France to the Mediterranean. The last thing I should be doing right now is reading the dumb-ass tweets sent by an essentially irrelevant Tory MEP, let alone obsessing about them, let alone writing about the bloody things.

But it turns out 6.5 hours is quite long as train journeys go, and the fact I can take this journey at all is making me feel quite well disposed towards high-speed rail in general, and for heaven’s sake just look at it.

That Tweet links to Hannan’s Telegraph column, of which this is an excerpt:

Hyperloop may or may not turn out to be viable. Driverless cars almost certainly will: some of them are already in commercial use in the United States. So why is the Government still firehosing money at the rather Seventies idea of high-speed trains?

The short answer is that firehosing money is what governments do.

Well, no, that’s not the only reason is it? I can think of some others. For example:

1. Trains are faster than cars, driverless or otherwise.

2. High speed trains are faster still. Hence the name.

3. The biggest problem with cars as a form of mass transportation isn’t either pollution or the fact you have to do the driving yourself and so can’t do anything else at the same time (problems though those are). The biggest problem is that they’re an inefficient use of limited space. Trains not only move people faster, they take up less room while they do it. So driverless cars, marvellous though they may be, will not render the train redundant.

4. The hyperloop is still unproven, as Hannan himself admits, so the phrase “become a reality” seems just a teensy bit of a fib.

5. Honestly, nobody has ever travelled a single inch by hyperloop.

6. At the moment, like Donald Trump’s Twitter feed, it’s basically one big fever dream backed by an eccentric billionaire.

7. Frankly, I am pretty stunned to see one of Britain’s leading Brexiteers buying into a piece of fantastical utopian nonsense that would require detailed and complex planning to become a reality, but which is actually nothing more than a sketch on the back of a napkin.

8. (That last point was me doing a satire.)

9. Even if it happens one day, a hyperloop pod will carry a tiny fraction of the number of people a train can. So once again Hannan is defeated by his arch nemesis, the laws of space and time.

10. In other words, Hannan’s tweet translates roughly as, “Why is the government spending billions on this transport technology that actually exists, rather than alternatives which don’t, yet, and which won’t solve remotely the same problem anyway?”

11. High speed trains definitely exist. I’m on one now.

12. I really shouldn’t be thinking about either the hyperloop OR Daniel Hannan if I’m honest.

13. I wonder why the French are so much better at high speed trains than the British, and whether their comparative lack of whiny MEPs is a factor?

14. It feels somehow typical that even in a genuinely contentious argument (“Is HS2 really a good use of public money?”) when he has a genuinely good point to make (“The way the cost of major projects spirals during the planning stage is a significant public concern”), he still manages to come up with an argument so fantastically dim that bored transport nerds can spend long train journeys ripping it to shreds.

15. He could have gone with “let’s cancel HS2 and use a fraction of the saving to sort out the northern railway network”, but no.

16. Somehow I suspect he’s not really bothered about transport, he just wants to fight strawman about debt.

17. Also, of course we’re using debt to fund the first new national railway in a hundred years: what else are we going to do?

18. “Unbelievable that at a time when I need new shoes we are borrowing money to buy a house.”

19. Can I go back to my book now?

20. I said I was going to stop this, didn’t I.

21. This is a cry for help.

22. Please, somebody, stage an intervention.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.