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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The mountain in North Wales that tried to stop the UK’s blackout

Elidir Fawr, the mountain in question. Image: Jem Collins.

Last Friday, the UK’s National Grid turned to mush. Not the official term perhaps, but an accurate one after nearly one million people were left without power across the country, with hundreds more stranded at train stations – or even on trains (which isn’t nearly as fun as it might immediately sound). 

Traffic lights stopped working, back-up power failed in hospitals, and business secretary Andrea Leadsom launched an investigation into exactly what happened. So far though, the long and short of it is that a gas-fired power station in Bedfordshire failed just before 5 o’clock, followed just two minutes later by Hornsea offshore wind farm. 

However, amid the resulting chaos and inevitable search to find someone to blame for the outage, a set of mountains (yes, mountains) in North Wales were working extremely hard to keep the lights on.

From the outside, Elidir Fawr, doesn’t scream power generation. Sitting across from the slightly better known Mount Snowdon, it actually seems quite passive. After all, it is a mountain, and the last slate quarry in the area closed in 1969.

At a push, you’d probably guess the buildings at the base of the mountain were something to do with the area’s industrial past, mostly thanks to the blasting scars on its side, as I did when I first walked past last Saturday. 

But, buried deep into Elidir Fawr is the ability to generate an astounding 1,728 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 2.5 million homes, more than the entire population of the Liverpool region. And the plant is capable of running for five hours.

Dubbed by locals at the ‘Electric Mountain’, Dinorwig Power Station, is made up of 16km of underground tunnels (complete with their own traffic light system), in an excavation which could easily house St Paul’s Cathedral.

Instead, it’s home to six reversible pumps/turbines which are capable of reaching full capacity in just 16 seconds. Which is probably best, as Londoners would miss the view.

‘A Back-Up Facility for The National Grid’

And, just as it often is, the Electric Mountain was called into action on Friday. A spokesperson for First Hydro Company, which owns the generators at Dinorwig, and the slightly smaller Ffestiniog, both in Snowdonia, confirmed that last Friday they’d been asked to start generating by the National Grid.

But just how does a mountain help to ease the effects of a blackout? Or as it’s more regularly used, when there’s a surge in demand for electricity – most commonly when we all pop the kettle on at half-time during the World Cup, scientifically known as TV pick-up.

The answer lies in the lakes at both the top and bottom of Elidir Fawr. Marchlyn Mawr, at the top of the mountain, houses an incredible 7 million tonnes of water, which can be fed down through the mountain to the lake at the bottom, Llyn Peris, generating electricity as it goes.


“Pumped storage technology enables dynamic response electricity production – ofering a critical back-up facility during periods of mismatched supply and demand on the national grid system,” First Hydro Company explains.

The tech works essentially the same way as conventional hydro power – or if you want to be retro, a spruced up waterwheel. When the plant releases water from the upper reservoir, as well as having gravity on their side (the lakes are half a kilometre apart vertically) the water shafts become smaller and smaller, further ramping up the pressure. 

This, in turn, spins the turbines which are linked to the generators, with valves regulating the water flow. Unlike traditional UK power stations, which can take hours to get to full capacity, at Dinorwig it’s a matter of 16 seconds from a cold start, or as little as five if the plant is on standby.

And, designed with the UK’s 50hz frequency in mind, the generator is also built to shut off quickly and avoid overloading the network. Despite the immense water pressure, the valves are able to close off the supply within just 20 seconds. 

At night, the same thing simply happens in reverse, as low-cost, surplus energy from the grid is used to pump the water back up to where it came from, ready for another day of hectic TV scheduling. Or blackouts, take your pick.

Completed in 1984, the power station was the product of a decade of work, and the largest civil engineering project commissioned at the time – and it remains one of Europe’s largest manmade caverns. Not that you’d know it from the outside. And really, if we’ve learned anything from this, it’s that looks can be deceiving, and that mountains can actually be really damn good at making electricity. 

Jem Collins is a digital journalist and editor whose work focuses on human rights, rural stories and careers. She’s the founder and editor of Journo Resources, and you can also find her tweeting @Jem_Collins.