From Platform 0 to Platform 9¾: The strange world of British Rail mathematics

The infuriatingly mis-located Platform 9¾ at London King's Cross. Image: Getty.

Any fans of traditional counting systems unfortunate enough to find themselves travelling via King’s Cross will immediately develop a headache. There are 13 platforms – only one of which doesn’t exist and yet the highest platform number is 11.

The non-existent platform, Platform 9¾, is in the wrong place. As a tribute to the fictional magic platform created by the liar JK Rowling for her Harry Potter books, half a luggage trolley sticks out of the wall in the station concourse, which means 9¾  sits innumerately between platforms 8 and 9. It would have been physically impossible to put it on the wall between platforms 9 and 10, because there isn’t one: Rowling cocked up and was apparently thinking of the layout of Euston station. Not sure that would have looked quite as iconic on film.

That still leaves us with one real extra platform: platform 0. When this was added to the station, replacing a cab rank next to platform 1, it was decided that either renumbering, or having numbers in the wrong order, would both be too confusing, so they ran the numbers backwards to get to 0.

Platform Y was considered, because it runs alongside York Way. But having lettered and numbered platforms in the same station was also deemed too complex, despite the fact that, just across the road, St Pancras does exactly this: Thameslink services run from platforms A and B.

Platform 0, Stockport station. Image: Bob Harvey/Geograph.org.uk.

King’s Cross isn’t the only station to have a platform 0: others include Edinburgh Haymarket and Stockport. Cardiff Central has a platform 0 that it’s probably stuck with, as the existing numbering system was built into the fabric of the building: there are platform numbers in ceramic tiled panels that can’t be changed, because the whole structure is listed as one of the best remaining examples of a 1930s-era GWR station.

Even where renumbering is feasible it’s not as simple as changing the signs: there are also signalling issues and letters of complaint from a man who’s been catching the Peterborough train from platform 8 for the last 30 years to consider.

As if it wasn’t bad enough for stations to have “extra” platforms, some are missing platforms altogether. Portsmouth Harbour’s platform 2 was decommissioned during the refurbishment required to stop the whole station sinking in the mid-90s (presumably someone had shouted “get in the sea” at it). What remains of it is little more than long hole in the floor.

The mysteriously absent Platform 2 at Portsmouth Harbour. Image: Peter Holmes/Geograph.org.uk.

It’s actually pretty common not to renumber after platforms are removed or retired: Huddersfield is missing platforms 3 and 7 (though it has a 4A and a 4B), and Edinburgh Waverley is missing 5 and 6 (there’s also an unusual ‘clockwise’ numbering system that means platform 20 is next to platform 1). If your local train station is missing a platform, why not invent a myth about it being stolen by ghosts or being part of a plot to rig the Labour leadership election?

Some stations don’t have numbers at all, generally to avoid confusion with a nearby station  with a similar name. Waterloo East has letters to distinguish its platforms from Waterloo, New Cross has letters to distinguish it from New Cross Gate, and platforms A and B at St Pancras are in fact a holdover from the old King’s Cross Thameslink station they replaced.


At one point the North London Line (now part of the Overground) decided to eschew numbers and letters altogether, and some stations just had platforms labelled East & West. Worst of all, at Oxford platform 1 is between platforms 2 and 3. These anarchists don’t even deserve trains.

Oh, and don’t even start on what order the platforms run in. Most major train terminuses number the platforms from left to right, except for London King’s Cross and Euston which go the other way because they’re so flipping special. In many places trains to London depart from platform 1, except for all the places in which they don’t. It’s almost as if they were making the British railway system up as they went along, which is, more or less, exactly what happened.

Anyway, the main point is that if you renumber the platforms at King’s Cross, you hit two birds with one stone: not only a return to a sensible numbering system that starts with 1, but the station concourse would sit between platforms 9 and 10, putting platform 9¾ in more or less the right place. As Harry Potter would say: Bazinga!

Ed Jefferson works for the internet and tweets as @edjeff.

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Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.