Why are there so few tube lines in South London?

There's just not that much going on down there. Or, there wasn't in 1806. Image: Geographicus

It is a truth universally acknowledged that London south of the River Thames is a bit of a wasteland.

Sure, it’s come along a lot in the past five years or so, but it still basically divides into three camps: south west London, full of rich City workers who want big houses; south and south east London, full of hipsters so hip that East London is totally over (or they just got priced out too soon, you decide); and deep south London, where literally nothing exists.

Gone are the mythical days when taxis wouldn’t take you across the bridges, but there’s still a certain something about it. If a friend who lives in Walthamstow invites you over, you may think it’s a little way out but it’s not impossible. But if it’s at Gipsy Hill, roughly the same distance but south of the river, you ain’t going.

The fact is that for most of us, London is thought of in terms of the tube map. (If it doesn’t have a tube station, is it even a real place?) And the reality is that South London just doesn’t have that many tube stops: there are 250 stations on the north side of the river, and only 29 stations on the south side.

And there isn’t a single tube line that doesn’t keep most of its stations north of the river. On the south side the District dribbles for seven stops along two branches, the Victoria slides in for three before giving up, and the Jubilee dips in and out anxiously for six stops before deciding it’s better off up north. The DLR pokes its head in for five stops, while the Bakerloo chugs pathetically into Elephant & Castle before giving up.

Only the Northern line, ironically, makes any serious attempt to penetrate South London, but still only gets down to zone four. By contrast, the furthest stretches of the tube in North London go to definitely-not-made-up zone nine. So. Yeah. Not that impressive.

To show the point in stark visual format, there’s this very good map, which imagines the tube as it was in circa 2009 flipped to weight South London as North London currently is.

An imagined alternative. Click to expand. Image: ColourCountry.Net.

But having established that South London drew the short straw of tube life, the question is: why?

The bias of history

For a start, there’s the obvious fact that the cities that make up London are all north of the river. Londinium, the Roman settlement, was on the north bank of the Thames, and became today’s City of London. When the Anglo-Saxons first settled the area, they build their city, of Ludenwic, to the west, by today's Aldwych.The western minster of the Abbey – with its surrounding menagerie of royal palaces – that became the second city of Westminster is also on the north bank. 

South London was for centuries known only as the home of Southwark – literally, the south works, after the defensive works there  a land of prostitutes, boozing, and ‘cheap’ entertainment in the many theatres. (The area also became known as the Borough because it was, literally, the only borough outside the city proper.)

London in Shakespeare's time, showing the dodgy southern stuff. Image: SanderusMaps.

Anyway The serious business of London was a distinctly north-bank affair – and as the cities of London and Westminster grew gradually through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they did so north of the river. While tracts of land in Belgravia and Kensington were being built on the 1800s, places like Clapham and Stockwell were still diddy little villages.

Even today, without wanting to get into too much of a chicken/egg debate – because many tube stations were opened in tiny villages that soon became swarming suburbs – North London simply has more people in it. At least 5m live north of the river, but only around 3m live to the south.

There’s also a natural problem with south London.

You're grounded

Much of what now makes up the South Bank between Lambeth and London Bridge was wet, swampy ground: it's no accident that there's a road just behind Waterloo called Lower Marsh. Such land obviously highly difficult to build on, and unsuitable for urban expansion compared to the picturesque hills of North London.

What's more, while the initial rush of underground lines were built using the sub-surface cut-and-cover technique – dig up a road, shove some train tracks underneath it, and put the road back on top – there were geological reasons why deeper level tubes were easier to build north of the river.

Science map things that explain the problem. Image: ScienceDirect/

Whereas much of the foundation of North London is clay – almost perfect for tube tunnel building – south London largely sits on "Lambeth and Thanet Sand", a flimsier substance that was more challenging to tunnel through before the days of leviathan boring machines like the one responsible for Crossrail.  

Training up

It’s also worth remembering why the tube first came about. In the early, messy, privatised rush of individual railways charging into London, each company had its own London terminus: hence the mess of King’s Cross, Victoria, Paddington, Waterloo, London Bridge, and so on. All of them would happily have charged further into Central London to build some giant London Hauptbahnhof, but that would have firstly involved them getting on with each other, which they didn’t.

It would also have been highly illegal. In 1846, a Royal Commission prohibited the overland rail companies advancing any further than the rough circle the rail termini form around the very heart of London.

This meant that the roads between these termini became hugely choked up. Traffic swarmed between Paddington, Euston, St Pancras, King’s Cross, and the City of London – which before the world wars was still very much the only place business was done – and the Euston Road was at breaking point.

This is why Charles Pearson’s completely batty idea of putting steam trains underground from Paddington to Farringdon was given any credence at all, and the very first stretch of the Metropolitan Railway – as it was called – was built.

In other words, the original purpose of the tube to connect rail termini with the City. And given that most of the country is north of London, it makes sense that most of the big railway stations are in the north of London. And so, the first tube lines were in north London, too.


The upside

But there’s a certain extent to which South London can cry me a river – as for all they’ve missed out on the tube stakes, they’ve done very well in terms of bog-stand over-ground rail services. 

One side effect of the fact most of Britain is north of London was the location of the big mainline terminals; but another was where the early railway companies chose to invest. The Great Northern Railway could run trains as far as Sheffield and York; the London, Brighton & South Coast, though, had less distance to cover. And so, it ended up building an extensive suburban network instead. 

The result is that South London today has an awful lot of national rail stations. Southern operates services through 64 stations in zones 1-6 in south London; South West Trains operates in 44 stations, and Southeastern runs services through 54 stations. Shaving a few off for inevitable duplicates, that’s at least 150 national rail stations south of the river. Which is a lot. Indeed, this helpful TfL map shows you that the difference isn’t really all that stark.

So in a way, the problem isn’t that South London is completely bereft of transport: rather it's that the private over-ground companies, which have remained private, got there before the original private underground companies, which have become the modern-day London Underground under TfL.

Your chariot awaits, South Londoners. Image: Mattbuck.

So, basically, South London just needs to get over itself. 

But if they do get round to extending the Bakerloo line, that's fine too. 

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

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Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.


So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?


And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.