How many railway terminals does London have?

Liverpool Street: definitely a real, proper terminus. Image: Diliff/Wikipedia Commons.

Paris has seven mainline railway terminals still in operation. Manchester and Birmingham have two apiece, plus a few others which get through services. New York has the two that everyone’s heard of (Grand Central and Pennsylvania), but also two more in the outer boroughs, and a fifth across the Hudson in Hoboken, New Jersey.

And London has... well. It’s complicated.

A touch of Victoriana

Let’s start with the history part. At the point the railways started arriving, in the late 1830s, London was already the largest city in the world, with a population not much shy of 2m.

Greenwood’map of London in 1827, just 10 years before the railways began to arrive. Click to expand. Image: Public domain.

Knocking down people’s homes and commercial properties to build new railway lines was likely to be both expensive and unpopular – so by and large those building the new railways preferred not to do it. A few drove their new lines through the poorer suburbs to the east and south. But those coming into the north and west of the city, where the population was richer and more powerful, preferred to stop at the edge of the built up area.

That’s one reason London ended up with so many rail terminals: lines coming from different directions arrived at the city at different points. Just as important, though, was that the railways were funded and built by private companies – and each wanted their own terminal.

So it was that the Great Northern Railway opened its terminal on northern edge of the city in 1852, and named it Kings Cross (after a monument to King George IV that had stood in the area until 1845). Sixteen years later, the Midland Railway opened a whole new terminal literally across the road, and named it St Pancras (a historic name for the area). Both stations were well under half a mile from Euston, which the London & Birmingham Railway company had opened in 1837. (Euston Hall in Suffolk was the ancestral home of the local landowners, the Dukes of Grafton.)

The upshot of this is that London’s three main railways to the north were all built in the same 30 year period, and all ended up in the same bit of London. Yet they ended up with three different terminals. Private sector efficiency in action.

You can probably already get some sense already that London is going to end up with an unfeasibly high number of railway terminals.


The ends of the lines

How many, though, is harder to tot up than one might imagine. We’ve already counted three that absolutely, definitely count. Let’s dash through the others whose claims are equally firm:

Paddington – The terminus of the Great Western Railway, built in the city’s western suburbs in 1838.

Waterloo – Opened as Waterloo Bridge station by the London & South Western Railway in 1848. Plans to continue on to the City of London never came to fruition; we got the Waterloo & City line of the tube instead.

Victoria – A co-production between the London Brighton & South Coast Railway and the London, Chatham & Dover Railway, first opened in 1860, to bring trains closer to the West End.

Liverpool Street – Opened in 1874 by the Great Eastern Railway, replacing the nearby Bishopsgate station that it had served since 1840. Confusingly, while Liverpool Street station is on Bishopsgate, Bishopsgate station was not. London is stupid.

So: we’re up to seven. That’s the same number as Paris already, and we’ve only counted the big ones.

Except there are two more, which also definitely count, even if they are, relatively speaking, tiny:

Fenchurch Street – Opened in 1841 by the London & Blackwall Railway, as a way of getting trains between the City and the docks. (It was very much the DLR of its time.) In 1854, it was rebuilt by the London, Tilbury & Southend Railway, with services extended onwards to southern Essex.

Even today, though, it still has the smallest catchment area of the London rail terminals, with its tentacles stretching only as far as Shoeburyness, a mere 40 miles away. On some of the more expansive definitions of metropolitan London – that is, the commuter belt, rather than the built up area – none of its trains get outside the city’s footprint at all. This feels to me like a different role from something like Euston or Kings Cross, but maybe I’m overthinking this.

Marylebone had bigger ambitions. The last of the proper golden age rail terminals to be built, it opened in 1899 as the London terminus of the Great Central Main Line (GCML), which ran services as far as Nottingham, Sheffield and Manchester.

There was one tiny problem with this plan: there already were trains between the capital and Nottingham, Sheffield and Manchester. Consequently, the GCML never made any money, and of the eight planned platforms in its station – whose tube platforms were originally known, optimistically, as Grand Central – money was only found for four. Despite surviving Dr Beeching, the station was threatened with closure in 1984.

It’s since had a bit of a revival, thanks to (no, really) the care and investment that a private train operating company, Chiltern Railways, has poured into it since 1996. It now has six platforms, and recently opened a new route to Oxford.

Anyway. That’s nine. If you’ve been paying attention, though, you’ll know that I’ve missed a big one.

South of the river

London Bridge was actually London’s first rail terminal, opened in December 1836, by the London & Greenwich Railway. Over the next few decades, several other rail companies added to it, and new lines poured out of the place to the south and south east of London.

Two London Bridges: the South Eastern Station (left) and the temporary Brighton station c.1850 after the demolition of the Joint station. Image: Wikipedia.

So why have I held it back for so long? Because this is where the definition of “terminal” starts to get complicated. Sure, it opened as the end of the line. And for some services – mostly terminating in South London suburbia; a few heading further on, to the south coast – it still is. If Fenchurch Street is in, then London Bridge, which is much, much bigger, surely should be too.

But it isn’t just a terminal station. Many trains continue beyond, to either

Charing Cross – Opened as a West End terminal by the South Eastern Railway (SER) in 1864; or

Cannon Street – Opened by the same company as the City equivalent in 1866.

So while London Bridge is still a terminal station, the SER, at least, clearly didn’t see it as such.

All these count, I suppose: that means we’re now up to 12 terminal stations. Except divisions are starting to appear, between proper, grand terminals and relatively tiny stations which just happened to be the end of the line; and between those that are pure terminals and those which also include onward services. In important ways, Waterloo, Fenchurch Street and London Bridge feel like different kinds of thing

It gets worse.

I’ve already mentioned the London, Chatham & Dover, one of the companies that gave us Victoria. It also built what is today Blackfriars – then named St Paul’s – in 1886. (Confusingly, there was also a Blackfriars Bridge station, south of the river.)

Except the LC&D also continued the line beyond Blackfriars; to Ludgate Hill, then Holborn Viaduct, and then on to Snow Hill and Farringdon Street, where it connected up with other lines entirely. Most of this is today part of the cross-city Thameslink – the first two stations have been replaced by the double-entrance-d City Thameslink, which is of course the worst-named station in London. And some services terminate at Blackfriars but many other don’t.

So, is this Blackfriars a terminal? Yes. But also, sort of, no.

The final countdown

That’s 13. There is, sort of a 14th, except I’m not buying it. In fact, it was the experience of being on a train into the station in question, and realising I didn’t want to acknowledge it as a terminal, that made me write this blasted thing.

Suburban train services that come into north London on the East Coast Main Line diverge from it Finsbury Park. Instead of continuing onto Kings Cross with the big trains, they pootle down a little branch line through Drayton Park and disappear into a tunnel, ultimately terminating at Moorgate.

No way is this a proper rail terminal. Image: Chakorn1/Wikipedia Commons.

So, Moorgate is London’s 14th rail terminal, right? Well, sort of. The problem here is that Moorgate is only served by suburban rail services. More than that, while the line – the Northern City – was originally intended to be a way of getting big trains to from the north to the City (hence the name), that never really came off. When it opened in 1904, it was instead as part of the tube network, a state of affairs that persisted until 1975.

So, Moorgate is a rail terminal, in so far as a heavy rail line finishes there. But in functional terms – what services arrive there; what it actually looks like – it has more in common with the Bakerloo line platforms Elephant & Castle than it does with Euston.

What’s more, if we’re including Moorgate, there’s surely an argument for including Baker Street – which acts as a terminus for trains from Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire – too. Okay, Moorgate is served by a private TOC and Baker Street by Transport for London (as part of the Metropolitan line). But if the latter gets its way, that might one day change. At that point – is Moorgate still a rail terminal? And if so, why?

When I started this thing, something odd struck me. Normally, no matter how obscure the subject, you can find a page on Wikipedia to explain it. Nerds gonna nerd.

But – there is no Wikipedia page on London Rail termini, only a category page listing other pages. There is, however, this page on the London Station Group: if you have a ticket which takes you to “London Terminals”, these are the stations you’re allowed to end up at.

We counted 14 terminals above. So, you’d imagine this group would contain 14 stations, right?

Wrong. It contains 18. All those we counted above – yes, including Moorgate – but also City Thameslink, Old Street, Vauxhall and Waterloo East. None of which are even slightly terminal-y. That’s almost every mainline station in zone 1. (Note: An earlier version of this article said it was every one. I forgot Farringdon, and Elephant & Castle.) 

The dead

The London Station Group doesn’t include Broad Street (opened in 1865 as the terminus of the North London Railway). That’s because, while that used to be one of London’s busiest stations, it was, unfortunately, demolished in 1986. The site, west of Liverpool Street, is now occupied by the Broadgate office complex.

It also doesn’t include the Bricklayers Arms, which opened at the top of Old Kent Road in 1844 as the “West End” terminus of the London & Greenwich; this was a bit optimistic, since it is the better part of two miles from the West End. Anyway, it stopped receiving passenger services except on special occasions in 1852, though it survived as a goods depot until 1981.

There’s no reason why the station group would include two long-dead stations of course: I just couldn’t get them in anywhere else.

Nonetheless: to sum up, London has 14 rail terminals, even though they’re of radically different sizes, are served by radically different types of train services, and not all of them are only terminal stations. This at least gives us twice as many as Paris.

I did warn you it was complicated.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.