Mapped: “Crossrail 2”, and a century of failing to bring London’s tube network to Hackney

A mock up of how Crossrail 2 might appear on the tube map. Image: Alex Hern/New Statesman/TfL.

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:

Image: CityMetric/Google.


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:

Image: CityMetric/Google.


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.


Here’s why the Class 43 High-Speed Train is literally the best train ever

A BR Class 43. Image: Geof Shepphad/Wikimedia Commons.

The Class 43, or the  High-Speed Train (HST) as it is more commonly known, has been a ubiquitous sight on Britain's railways for over 40 years. All good things must come to an end however, and the HST is about to retire from the East Coast Main Line (although they will be staying for a little while longer on the Midland Mainline, in Scotland and on routes to Cornwall).

The HST also happens to still hold the record for the world’s fastest diesel train – a record unbeaten since 1987. But any train can be fast. What makes this one so special I felt the need to write a whole article about it?

Well, aside from being called Britain’s favourite locomotive, it’s also my favourite train. Here’s why.

It looks fantastic

Sleek, aerodynamic, instantly recognisable. Ask anyone to draw a picture of a train and chances are, it’s going to look vaguely identifiable as an HST.

The man responsible, Sir Kenneth Grange, was given a brief to design the livery of the new train. Not one to miss an opportunity however, Grange decided to redesign the whole power car and successfully persuaded British Rail to adopt the now iconic design.

It literally changed rail travel in Britain

The HST was initially intended as a stop-gap solution (just like the distinctly non-highs-speed Pacers that dominate the north). However, it instantly proved a hit with passengers

The last serious attempt at developing a high-speed intercity train had resulted in frequent breakdowns and passengers complaining of nausea – so by the 1970s, British Rail was almost universally hated and facing serious financial trouble.

From 1976, the HSTs began running on the Western Region routes from London Paddington. Towns such as Swindon and Didcot began to transform into commuter towns, as job opportunities in London became far more accessible.

Business travellers could now easily hop between cities in a single day in comfort. Plug sockets and large, armchair like seats turned the train into a comfortable office, travelling at 125mph. Former British Rail chairman Peter Parker proclaimed: “Within ten years, the number of passenger journeys on the Inter-City routes had increased by 30 per cent, proving that people react dramatically and positively to faster, more comfortable services.”

Train nerd tip: most train operators reconfigured the internal layout over the years to squeeze in more passengers. East Midlands Railway still operate HSTs with the original generous legroom (and the British Rail logo etched into the bathroom mirrors, which I have definitely not taken a selfie in).

It has distinctive branding

There’s no use having a great product if no-one knows about it. Thankfully, British Rail ran an extensive marketing campaign to promote “The Age of the Train”. Unfortunately, one particular strand happened to be fronted by Jimmy Saville, so it’s probably best we just say it was effective at the time and leave it there.

What is worth watching however, is a fantastic video featuring an HST, a “police train” and a scantily clad woman (yes, really). Slightly bizarre for sure, but definitely memorable.

Of course, the launch of the HST was also promoted with a series of eye-catching posters featuring bright colours and simple text. One such example heralded the arrival of “The Journey Shrinker”, now running between London and Edinburgh, which cut journey times by a full hour.

Now you may think I’m being nostalgic (I admit it, I am). But there is no sight quite as distinctive, nor sound quite as pleasing as the roar of a Valenta engine HST. Maybe it’s because I binge-watched Thomas the Tank Engine every day as a child, but I can’t help but feeling the modern Pendolinos, Azumas and Aventras lack personality.  

Of course, I hope to be proven wrong that there will be another train which is equally revolutionary as the HST. For now though, I’ll be making some more trips to the National Railway Museum in York to see the HST in all its glory.