Here’s why it’s actually good that London has so many rail terminals

Euston. Eugh. Image: Getty.

There are 14 railway terminals in London. That sounds like a lot, even by the standards of London’s 8 million strong population. For context, Beijing has just six terminals between its 21 million people. So if you decide where to live based on the obscure metric of “number of railway terminals per million people”, London is doing really, really well.

But it’s such a bother, isn’t it? Making the inconvenient, interchange-laden journey from Liverpool Street to London Bridge, for example, is the price we pay to travel cross-country; changing in Central London is the norm for many a journey, even though it’s expensive, inefficient, and adds to the footfall at stations that are already stereotypically congested.

In fact, as is so often the case, there’s actually a pretty sensible explanation for why London ended up with so many railway stations, even by European standards. As pioneers of the industrial revolution, Britain was the first country to build serious railway infrastructure. But in the hyper-entrepreneurial petit-bourgeois era of early industrialisation, there was no centralised transport system; like Aretha Franklin’s sisters, railway companies were doing it for themselves. (Sorry.)

Because London has been the overwhelming economic centre of England since they knocked up the Bayeux Tapestry, all railway services tended to radiate from it. But the great railway boom of the 1830s and ‘40s predated the arrival of the first underground railway, the Metropolitan Line, in 1863. And the difficulty and expense of demolishing existing suburbs meant that the new railways tended to terminate on the edge of the built up area. The result was separate stations, run by different companies, all around today’s city centre.

In any case, I’m inclined to believe that having all these railway terminals, strewn around London like a contorted hula hoop, is actually a good thing. It’s easy to demonise Birmingham, which is fast outgrowing its ugly duckling stereotype – but Birmingham New Street serves as a good example of the problem with terminals whose trains go straight through the city.

There, the trains run north to south, services reaching both London and Manchester, with easy connections to Moor Street and Snow Hill stations. The choice to run tracks through the station makes the area immediately around it – in other words, central Birmingham – less navigable. The interlocking railway infrastructure strangles the city.


If the same had happened in London, in the absence of a precarious, hyperbolically ambitious cut-and-cover scheme, we’d lose the precious, contiguous urban core that runs all the way from Paddington to Fenchurch Street.

There’s another benefit to all these terminals; it means fewer areas end up being cut in half. Urban policy wonks have spent the longest time discussing how arterial roads split communities, but we rarely stop to think about how a railway line could divide one area from another, too. Yes, they're much quieter than, say, the M1, but they're just as hard to cross – and dividing lines that are mildly problematic in King's Cross Central could've been overwhelming in areas in central London proper.

The suburban railways running through outer London are testament to this point. In Islington, the North London Line sharply divides the well-to-do N1 postcode from the more mixed area of N7, and the East Coast Main Line makes the Arsenal Stadium feel miles away even if you live just to the north on Tollington Road, simply because there’s no road crossing for a mile. Imagine if those divides existed in Central London, cutting you off from St Paul’s because you lived on the wrong side of the tracks.

The takeaway here might seem obvious: all this infrastructure would be much better off underground. Well yes, it would, and that’s what Thameslink and, hopefully, maybe, one day in the far flung future, Crossrail try to achieve, as do London’s subsurface Tube lines.

But it’s worth mentioning that when the Metropolitan and District railways were built, they lay on the urban fringe, which reduced disruption. Thameslink and Crossrail have been fare more costly (and indeed extremely delayed) because they’re now in the midst of a dense urban area. Also, if we wanted to connect, say, Liverpool Street and London Bridge underground, the tunnels would need to skirt around other underground lines. Shy of Brunel’s second coming, this is just too much to ask.

So, we should appreciate the ubiquity of railway terminals in London for what they’re worth. Their existence is testament to a tangential, tentative Victorian past where we stumbled through industrialisation, building great railway terminals as we went (and useless Cannon Street too).

Changing between railway terminals in London is a London experience in itself. At the risk of sounding sentimental, it’s an inconvenience with a history behind it. Unlike Crossrail delays. That stuff is beyond romanticising.

 
 
 
 

There isn’t a war on the motorist. We should start one

These bloody people. Image: Getty.

When should you use the horn on a car? It’s not, and anyone who has been on a road in the UK in living memory will be surprised to hear this, when you are inconvenienced by traffic flow. Nor is it when you are annoyed that you have been very slightly inconvenienced by another driver refusing to break the law in a manner that is objectively dangerous, but which you perceive to be to your advantage.

According to the Highway Code:

“A horn should only be used when warning someone of any danger due to another vehicle or any other kind of danger.”

Let’s be frank: neither you nor I nor anyone we have ever met has ever heard a horn used in such a manner. Even those of us who live in or near places where horns perpetually ring out due to the entitled sociopathy of most drivers. Especially those of us who live in or near such places.

Several roads I frequently find myself pushing a pram up and down in north London are two way traffic, but allow parking on both sides. This being London that means that, in practice, they’re single track road which cars can enter from both ends.

And this being London that means, in practice, that on multiple occasions every day, men – it is literally always men – glower at each other from behind the steering wheels of needlessly big cars, banging their horns in fury that circumstances have, usually through the fault of neither of them, meant they are facing each other on a de facto single track road and now one of them is going to have to reverse for a metre or so.

This, of course, is an unacceptable surrender as far as the drivers’ ego is concerned, and a stalemate seemingly as protracted as the cold war and certainly nosier usually emerges. Occasionally someone will climb out of their beloved vehicle and shout and their opponent in person, which at least has the advantages of being quieter.

I mentioned all this to a friend recently, who suggested that maybe use of car horns should be formally restricted in certain circumstances.

Ha ha ha. Hah.

The Highway Code goes on to say -

“It is illegal to use a horn on a moving vehicle on a restricted road, a road that has street lights and a 30 mph limit, between the times of 11:30 p.m. and 07:00 a.m.”

Is there any UK legal provision more absolutely and comprehensively ignored by those to whom it applies? It might as well not be there. And you can bet that every single person who flouts it considers themselves law abiding. Rather than the perpetual criminal that they in point of fact are.


In the 25 years since I learned to drive I have used a car horn exactly no times, despite having lived in London for more than 20 of them. This is because I have never had occasion to use it appropriately. Neither has anyone else, of course, they’ve just used it inappropriately. Repeatedly.

So here’s my proposal for massively improving all UK  suburban and urban environments at a stroke: ban horns in all new cars and introduce massive, punitive, crippling, life-destroying fines for people caught using them on their old one.

There has never been a war on motorists, despite the persecution fantasies of the kind of middle aged man who thinks owning a book by Jeremy Clarkson is a substitute for a personality. There should be. Let’s start one. Now.

Phase 2 will be mandatory life sentences for people who don’t understand that a green traffic light doesn’t automatically mean you have right of way just because you’re in a car.

Do write in with your suggestions for Phase 3.