The long and confusing history that explains why Charing Cross and Embankment are so weird

The exterior Charing Cross station in 1983, when the underground station was still the terminus of the Jubilee line. Image: Ben Brooksbank

On this issue, as with so many others, the travelling public of London divides into two camps.

There are loads of us who, as tourists or new residents, have finished a journey to Charing Cross by changing from the District and Circle lines to the Northern or Bakerloo lines at Embankment only to realise it’s an obscenely short journey that’s best done above ground.

And then there are those who, staggering home from Heaven at some small hour or other, have been driven half mad by the length of the corridors at Charing Cross, where getting to the Bakerloo line platforms from the ticket hall seems to involve walking through several dimensions.

So why are these two stations so problematic? The answer, as with so much about the Tube, lies in its history.

The first underground railway to come through these two stations was the District Railway (now the District and Circle lines), which was extended from Westminster – its first eastern terminus to Blackfriars in 1870. It ran through the newly completed Victoria Embankment, and called at Charing Cross, The Temple and Blackfriars.

Except it wasn’t Charing Cross. It was what we today call Embankment. As it was easier to use the new Victoria Embankment than to tunnel directly under Charing Cross mainline station, the new underground’s interchange was a little to the south of the station – but serving Charing Cross was still very much its purpose, so the station was called Charing Cross all the same.

About 20 years later, the Baker Street & Waterloo Railway company put a bill to parliament asking for permission to build another underground railway. The new line would have stations at Baker Street, Oxford Circus, Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square, Embankment, and a terminus and depot at Waterloo. The bill passed in 1893, all sorts of extensions and route changes were proposed, rejected, accepted and ignored while funds were found, and construction began in 1898.


The Baker Street & Waterloo Railway opened on 10 March 1906. Trafalgar Square station was just north-west of Charing Cross mainline station; Embankment station was alongside the District Railway’s existing Charing Cross station, at this point 36 years old, just to confuse everybody. You could change between the two stations underground, but you were technically changing from Embankment station to Charing Cross station. Nice.

In the turn-of-the-century underground railway frenzy, another line was taking shape nearby. The Charing Cross, Euston & Hampstead Railway company was founded in 1891, and successfully put a bill to Parliament in 1893 to build a railway from Hampstead to Agar Street, by the Strand in front of Charing Cross mainline station (which, today, is just opposite that horrible single-storey Superdrug).

In 1902, the company proposed three new bills, applying for extensions in various directions. One of these was a short spur south of its approved Strand terminus to Victoria Embankment, to link up with the then-running District Railway station. Though the other two extensions were not approved, the Charing Cross, Euston and Hampstead Railway Act 1902 was passed, and construction started that July.

(As an important side note, a 1905 act gave the company permission to modify its route at Charing Cross, and tunnel directly under the front of the mainline station.)

David Lloyd George in 1907, the year he opened the Charing Cross, Euston and Hampstead Railway, here with Winston Churchill.

David Lloyd George, already an MP for 17 years by this point, opened the railway on 22 June 1907. Its southern terminus at what is today Charing Cross, and was then actually called Charing Cross, rather than at the Victoria Embankment, as had been allowed by the 1902 bill.

So at this point that we have one station with two names (Charing Cross and Embankment served by the ‘Bakerloo’ Railway and the District Railway at today’s Embankment station); another station with the same name as half of the other station (Charing Cross, served by the CCE&H Railway); and another station sitting on its own with a different name (Trafalgar Square, the Bakerloo Railway’s station one stop north of ‘Embankment’).

Confused yet? Here’s a tube map from 1908, which shows the slightly silly situation as it was.

The 1908 tube map. The London Tube Map Archive at Clarksbury is incredible. 

In 1910, the now-merged London Electric Railways company applied to restore the expired 1902 permission to extend what’s now the Charing Cross branch of the Northern line to the Embankment. A single tunnel would continue in a loop under the Thames, to a single platform allowing an interchange to the District Railway and the ‘Bakerloo’ railway. The permission was passed in 1911 and the extension opened on 6 April 1914. You can see the loop, which closed in 1925, on this map, where it’s marked as ‘Charing Cross loop’. It’s also the best map ever, so save the link for your records.

A schematic of the lines around Charing Cross and Embankment. Image: CartoMetro.

Following this extension, the deep-level platforms were called Charing Cross (Embankment) and the District Railway platforms were still called Charing Cross. In 1915, the whole station finally got one name.

It was Charing Cross.

This set off a whole chain of station renamings. The Bakerloo station to the north remained as Trafalgar Square, but the Charing Cross, Euston & Hampstead Railway station became Strand, and the Great Northern, Piccadilly and Brompton Railway (now the Piccadilly line) branch line terminus changed its name from Strand to Aldwych.

We have two very enjoyable cutaway diagrams from this point, which give you a sense of how what’s now Embankment station worked.

A cutaway of what is today Embankment station from 1914. Below ground on left, the single CCE&HR platform. Image: Charles Sharland via John R. Day.

A cutaway of what is today Embankment station, from Popular Science Magazine in 1921.

This arrangement of the three stations and their names – Trafalgar Square, Strand, and Charing Cross  remained in place for most of the 20th century. You can see it in this extract from the underground map in 1920.

The 1920 tube map. Image: Clarksbury.

In 1926, the Charing Cross, Euston & Hampstead Railway closed its tunnel loop and opened a second platform at what’s now Embankment and an extension to Kennington. That’s how it appears in the first diagrammatic (rather than geographical) Harry Beck map from 1933.

The 1933 tube map. Image: Clarksbury.

It’s still there in this 1958 map.

The 1958 tube map. Image: Clarksbury.

And in this 1968 map, where you can see the outline of the upcoming Victoria line.

The 1968 tube map. Image: Clarksbury.

But everything (not actually everything) changes by the time you get to this 1977 map.

The 1977 tube map. Image: Clarksbury.

What was Charing Cross, with the Bakerloo, Northern, Circle and District lines, is now Embankment. And though the Bakerloo station ‘Trafalgar Square’ is still in situ, the Northern line artist formerly known as ‘Strand’ has vanished completely. What happened?

Enter stage right (or stage left if you’re from south of the river) the Fleet Line, which is what the Jubilee line was called before the Tories made a silly pledge in the 1977 Greater London Council elections to rename it in honour of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, and then went and won the things in a look-at-our-shiny-new-leader-Margaret-Thatcher jumbo swing of 14.5 per cent.

Construction on its first phase began in 1971, with a terminus planned at Charing Cross – although the tunnels continued for a short stretch to pave the way for the second, third, and fourth phases, to Fenchurch Street, Lewisham, and Hayes respectively.

Strand station, on the Northern line, was closed in 1973 to make way for the construction of the terminus platforms and passenger detritus – which included below-ground passages to connect the Bakerloo line platforms at Trafalgar Square and the Northern line Strand platforms.

A staircase at Embankment tube station. Image: Thomas Leuthard.

In August 1974, what was then Charing Cross station became Charing Cross Embankment, and when the Jubilee line opened and the Northern line station re-opened, the complex we now know as Charing Cross became Charing Cross. In August 1976, the southern station became Embankment. Hence what you can see on the 1977 tube map from earlier on.

So to understand the problem with Charing Cross, it makes sense to think of it as being a bit like Green Park. There, the Piccadilly and Jubilee line platforms are miles away from each other the corridor of death and the Victoria line platforms sit roughly in the middle.

The diagram below is a good guide. It shows the Northern line platforms at the back right, running roughly north to south, and the Jubilee lines in the foreground, running roughly west to east. The long corridor just behind them dribbles off the page in the bottom left hand corner, heading towards the Bakerloo line. That's a long corridor. 

A cross-section of Charing Cross, when the Jubilee line still ran there. Image: TfL

But when the Jubilee line was extended in 1999, the Charing Cross Jubilee platforms were closed, and we were left with a really long tunnel between two stations that were never intended to be joined up.

Meanwhile, one station south, we’ve ended up with three deep-level platforms very close together and easy to change between (the Bakerloo’s two platforms and the Northern line’s northbound platform) and one slightly less convenient (the Northern line’s 1926 addition, the southbound platform). Oh, and the station’s only there at all because the 1860s constructors of the District Line couldn’t be bothered to tunnel to Charing Cross mainline station itself, so went for the easier, nearby-ish option.


So, what are the take-home lessons?

One is that the early days of the underground were a gaggling mess of private companies scrabbling around without much thought for long-term strategy.

The other is that if you find yourself compelled to change from the Bakerloo line southbound to the Northern line northbound, you’re better off doing it at Embankment than Charing Cross.

Just so you know.

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

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What other British cities can learn from the Tyne & Wear Metro

A Metro train at Monument. Image: Callum Cape/Wikipedia.

Ask any person on the street what they know about Newcastle, and they’ll list a few things. They’ll mention the accent; they’ll mention the football; they’ll mention brown ale and Sting and Greggs. They might even mention coal or shipbuilding, and then the conversation will inevitably turn political, and you’ll wish you hadn’t stopped to ask someone about Newcastle at all.

They won’t, however, mention the Tyne and Wear Metro, because they haven’t probably heard of it – which is a shame, because the Metro is one of the best things the north-east has to offer.

Two main issues plague suburban trains. One is frequency. Suburban rail networks often run on poor frequency; to take Birmingham for an example, most of its trains operate at 30-minute intervals.

The other is simplicity. Using Birmingham again, the entire system is built around New Street, leading to a very simple network. Actually, that’s not quite true: if you’re coming from Leamington Spa, Warwick, Stourbridge, Solihull or a host of other major minor (minor major?) towns, you don’t actually connect to New Street – no, you don’t even connect to the ENTIRE SYSTEM BUILT AROUND NEW STREET except at Smethwick Galton Bridge, miles away in the western suburbs, where the physical tracks don’t even connect – they pass over each other. Plus, what on earth is the blue line to Walsall doing?

An ageing map of the West Midlands rail network: click any of the images in this article to expand them. Image: Transport for the West Midlands/Centro.

But Newcastle has long been a hub of railway activity. Tragically, the north-east has fewer active railway lines than any other region of the UK. Less tragically, this is because Tyne and Wear has the Metro.


The Metro was formed in 1980 from a somewhat eccentric collection of railways, including freight-only lines, part of the old Tyneside Electrics route, underground tunnelling through the city centre, track-sharing on the National Rail route to Sunderland, and lines closed after the Beeching axe fell in the early 1960s.

From this random group of railway lines, the Metro has managed to produce a very simple network of two lines. Both take a somewhat circuitous route, the Yellow line especially, because it’s literally a circle for much of its route; but they get to most of the major population centres. And frequency is excellent – a basic 5 trains an hour, with 10 tph on the inner core, increasing at peak times (my local station sees 17 tph each way in the morning peak).

Fares are simple, too: there are only three zones, and they’re generally good value, whilst the Metro has been a national leader in pay-as-you-go technology (PAYG), with a tap-in, tap-out system. The Metro also shares many characteristics of European light rail systems – for example, it uses the metric system (although this will doubtless revert to miles and chains post-Brexit, whilst fares will be paid in shillings).

 

The Metro network. Image: Nexus.

Perhaps most importantly, the Metro has been the British pioneer for the Karlsruhe model, in which light rail trains share tracks with mainline services. This began in 2002 with the extension to Sunderland, and, with new bi-mode trains coming in the next ten years, the Metro could expand further around the northeast. The Sheffield Supertram also recently adopted this model with its expansion to Rotherham; other cities, like Manchester, are considering similar moves.

However, these cities aren’t considering what the Metro has done best – amalgamated local lines to allow people to get around a city easily. Most cities’ rail services are focused on those commuters who travel in from outside, instead of allowing travel within a city; there’s no coherent system of corridors allowing residents to travel within the limits of a city.

The Metro doesn’t only offer lessons to big cities. Oxford, for example, currently has dire public transport, focused on busy buses which share the same congested roads as private vehicles; the city currently has only two rail stations near the centre (red dots).

Image: Google.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. For a start, Oxford is a fairly lateral city, featuring lots of north-south movements, along broadly the same route the railway line follows. So, using some existing infrastructure and reinstating other parts, Oxford’s public transport could be drastically improved. With limited engineering work, new stations could be built on the current track (blue dots on the map below; with more extensive work, the Cowley branch could be reinstated, too (orange dots). Electrify this new six-station route and, hey presto, Oxford has a functioning metro system; the short length of the route also means that few trains would be necessary for a fequent service.

Image: Google.

Next up: Leeds. West Yorkshire is a densely populated area with a large number of railway lines. Perfect! I hear you cry. Imperfect! I cry in return. Waaaaaah! Cry the people of Leeds, who, after two cancelled rapid transit schemes, have had enough of imaginative public transport projects.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire:

Image: Google.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire’s railway network:

 ​

Image: West Yorkshire Metro.

The problem is that all of the lines go to major towns, places like Dewsbury, Halifax or Castleford, which need a mainline connection due to their size. Options for a metro service are limited.

But that’s not to say they’re non-existent. For example, the Leeds-Bradford Interchange line passes through densely populated areas; and anyway, Bradford Interchange is a terminus, so it’s poorly suited to service as a through station, as it’s currently being used.

Image: Google.

With several extra stops, this line could be converted to a higher frequency light rail operation. It would then enter an underground section just before Holbeck; trains from Halifax could now reach Leeds via the Dewsbury line. The underground section would pass underneath Leeds station, therefore freeing up capacity at the mainline station, potentially simplifying the track layout as well.

 

Image: Google.

Then you have the lines from Dewsbury and Wakefield, which nearly touch here:

Image: Google.

By building a chord, services from Morley northwards could run into Leeds via the Wakefield line, leaving the Dewsbury line north of Morley open for light rail operation, probably with an interchange at the aforementioned station.

Image: Google.

The Leeds-Micklefield section of the Leeds-York line could also be put into metro service, by building a chord west of Woodlesford over the River Aire and connecting at Neville Hill Depot (this would involve running services from York and Selby via Castleford instead):

The path of the proposed chord, in white. Image: Google.

With a section of underground track in Leeds city centre, and an underground line into the north-east of Leeds – an area completely unserved by rail transport at present – the overall map could look like this, with the pink and yellow dots representing different lines:

Et voila! Image: Google.

Leeds would then have a light-rail based public transport system, with potential for expansion using the Karlsruhe model. It wouldn’t even be too expensive, as it mainly uses existing infrastructure. (Okay, the northeastern tunnel would be pricey, but would deliver huge benefits for the area.)

Why aren’t more cities doing this? Local council leaders often talk about introducing “metro-style services” – but they avoid committing to real metro projects because they’re more expensive than piecemeal improvements to the local rail system, and they’re often more complex to deliver (with the lack of space in modern-day city centres, real metro systems need tunnels).

But metro systems can provide huge benefits to cities, with more stops, a joined-up network, and simpler fares. More cities should follow the example of the Tyne and Wear Metro.