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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Quiz: Can you name the UK city from a map of its public transport?

I'm so confused. Image: Chris Sharp.

Come on, this is an easy one.

 

 

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