The east London borough of Hackney is famous for two things: an almost unbearable concentration of hipsters, and the complete lack of tube stations anywhere within* its boundaries. Somewhere, out there in the great beyond, there's almost certainly a pseud-y theory connecting those two facts, but this is neither the time nor the place.
Hackney's lack of a tube station is, like so much else in the physical fabric of London, a historical accident: if things had played out slightly differently, at any one of several different points in time, it would have had a tube decades ago.
The first attempt to bring the underground to Hackney came in the great tube building boom of the early 20th century. The City & North East Suburban Railway, proposed by the American financier John Pierpont Morgan, would have run from Waltham Abbey to Monument via Walthamstow and Hackney.
Here, with a little help from CityMetric's ultra-high tech mapping department, is a map. Hackney is the bit in red:
This was actually just one of a network of three lines proposed by Morgan. Another would have run from Hammersmith via Cannon Street to Southgate; a third from Marble Arch to Clapham Junction.
None of this stuff got built thanks to the manoeuvres of a rival American financier, Charles Tyson Yerkes. Yerkes' own group was rather more successful in getting tubes built –the Bakerloo, the Piccadilly, and the West End branch of the Northern line are all his – but, as it turns out, the cuddly old capitalist managed to block as many as he built, so thanks for that Charles.
Anyway, long story short: Hackney didn't get its tube. Then, in the wake of two world wars, the growth of London’s tube network slowed substantially, and so it kept not getting it.
By the 1970s, people were finally starting to think this was a bit silly, and with what would become the Jubilee line tunnelling its way under the West End, the authorities started to think about what would come next. One option, proposed in the 1974 London Rail Study, was the Chelsea-Hackney line, which would have wiggled its way across town via Victoria, Waterloo, Holborn and Shoreditch.
By that time, though, the game had changed. Whereas the generation of Morgan and Yerkes had speculatively sent railways into open countryside on the assumption that suburban development would catch up with them, by the 1970s, the green belt meant that London’s physical extent was pretty much fixed. Ploughing new lines into existing residential suburbs was out; taking over existing branches was in.
So the 1974 proposals would have seen the line swallow up the Hainault branch of the Central line and the Wimbledon branch of the District. Here’s a map of the central London section:
That one (spoilers) didn't happen either: the plan had to battle for attention with a Jubilee Line extension and Crossrail, and didn’t fare well. But the idea of some form of Chelsea-Hackney line persisted, and various proposals for a “Chelney” route popped up over and over again over the next few decades.
In 1991, the following route was “safeguarded” – that is, any construction projects that would have got in its way were blocked:
Image: London Transport/public domain.
But that safeguarding didn’t do a whole lot of good in terms of building the thing either.
Nor, come to that, did the 1995 consultation London Underground conducted on the following routes. As well as the Central and District lines, this would have swallowed up chunks of the North London Railway (now the Overground).
Image: John Rowland, who did extensive work documenting all this stuff in the late 1990s, and who is largely responsible for my having turned mucking around with maps into a career in the first place.
Anyway – those didn't happen either, obviously, and Crossrail got off the ground first. And so, when the idea of an underground railway through Hackney inevitably reared its head yet again, it was now under the new smiling-hopefully-at-financiers moniker of “Crossrail 2”.
In 2008, a slightly different route was safeguarded, but this turned out to be a bit quixotic – partly because the world banking system had just imploded, but also because the national government soon decided that the new High Speed 2 railway would terminate at Euston, and a new underground railway which missed it by a mile wasn't likely to please anyone.
So, everyone went back to the drawing board once again.
In 2010, a freedom of information request would later reveal, Transport for London started looking into a whole panoply of possible routes. There was the “basically just a tube line” version:
The “regional railway” version:
And the “sod it, let's just go to Southend” one:
In 2013, a consortium including the London First pressure group and Labour peer Lord Adonis started pushing for its own version of Crossrail 2. This was basically just the regional railway version of the above, and we mention it here mostly because one-time New Statesman writer Alex Hern decided to see what it would look like on the tube map, and if you haven't worked it out by now, this whole post is just a colossal excuse to run a load of maps:
That consortium wasn't in any way official – but was clearly influential, because in October 2014 TfL launched its own consultation on a route which looked like this:
Then a few weeks back it thought again and produced this version, showing a few possible variations (Wood Green instead of Turnpike Lane; Balham instead of Tooting):
Which brings us up to the present day.
So. More than 100 years and umpteen maps later, London is still trying to get an underground railway beneath the streets of Hackney.
Something has changed since those earlier efforts, though. In the Morgan version of the plan – even in the proposals discussed in the 1970s or 1990s – the Chelney route was primarily a transport link, intended to speed up travel between the suburbs and the city centre.
Crossrail 2 is still that, of course, but it's something else, too. By improving transport links in the Lea Valley and elsewhere it'll also allow more housing development there – something that'll be vital as the city's population edges ever closer to 10m.
Will Hackney finally gets its tube? The stars seem to be aligned this time – City Hall, TfL and London's business interests are all keen for this to be the next major scheme to get spades in the ground. But we've been disappointed before. Ask us in another century.
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*Note for the pedantic: Old Street and Manor House stations both sit on the borough's boundary. It's also served by a plethora of London Overgound stations, but let's not over complicate this.