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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So why is Peterborough growing so quickly?

Peterborough Cathedral. Image: Jules & Jenny/Flickr/creative commons.

The latest instalment of our series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities.  

The 2001 census put the population of Peterborough at 156,000. Some time before next spring, it’s projected to pass 200,000. That, for those keeping score, is an increase of about 28 per cent. Whether this makes it the fastest growing city in Britain or merely the second or the fourth – the vagueness of Britain’s boundaries means that different reports reach different conclusions – doesn’t really matter. This is a staggering rate of growth.

Oh, and since austerity kicked in, the city council has had its grant from central government cut by 80 percent.

Expansion on this scale and at this rate is the sort of thing that’d have a lot of councils in our NIMBY-ish political culture breaking out in hives; that seems to go double for Tory-run ones in Leave-voting areas. This lot, though, seem to be thriving on it. “I think the opportunity in Peterborough is fantastic,” says Dave Anderson, the city’s interim planning director. “We’re looking at growing to 235,000 by the mid-2030s.”

More striking still is that the Conservative council leader John Holdich agrees. “I’m a believer in ‘WIMBY’: what in my back yard?” he says. He’s responsible, he says, not just to his electorate, but “to our future kids, and grandkids” too – plus, at that rate of growth, a lot of incomers, too.

All this raises two questions. Why is Peterborough growing so quickly? And what can it do to prepare itself?

If you’re a little uncertain exactly where Peterborough is, don’t worry, you’re in good company. Until 1889, the “Soke of Peterborough” was an unlikely east-ward extrusion from Northamptonshire, far to its south west. Then it was a county in its own right; then part of the now-defunct Huntingdonshire. Today it’s in Cambridgeshire, with which it shares a metro mayor, the Conservative James Palmer. When I ask Holdich, who’s giving me a whistlestop tour of the city’s cathedral quarter, to explain all this, he just shrugs. “They keep moving us about.”

Sitting on the edge of the Fens, Peterborough is, officially, a part of the East of England region; but it’s just up the road from East Midlands cities including Leicester and Nottingham. I’d mentally pigeonholed it as a London-commuter town, albeit a far flung one; but when I actually looked it up, I was surprised to discover it was closer to Birmingham (70 miles) than London (75), and halfway up to Hull (81).


The more flattering interpretation of all this is that it’s on a bit of a crossroads: between capital and north, East Anglia and the Midlands. On the road network, that’s literally true – it’s where the A1 meets the A47, the main east-west road at this latitude – and railway lines extend in all directions, too.

All of which makes Peterborough a pretty nifty place to be if you’re, say, a large logistics firm.

This has clearly contributed to the city’s growth. “It has access to lots of land and cheaper labour than anywhere else in the Greater South East,” says Paul Swinney, director of policy at the Centre for Cities. “Those attributes appeal to land hungry, low-skilled business as opposed to higher-skilled more knowledge-based ones.”

That alone would point to a similar economy to a lot of northern cities – but there’s another thing driving Peterborough’s development. Despite being 70 miles from the capital, the East Coast Main Line means it’s well under an hour away by train.

In 1967, what’s more, the ancient cathedral city was designated a new town, to house London’s overspill population. The development corporation which owned the land and built the new town upon it, evolved into a development agency; today the same role is played by bodies like Opportunity Peterborough and the Peterborough Investment Partnership.

The city also offers relatively cheap housing: you can get a four-bed family home for not much over £200,000. That’s fuelled growth further as London-based workers scratch around for the increasingly tiny pool of places that are both commutable and affordable.

The housing affordability ratio shows average house prices as a multiple of average incomes. Peterborough is notably more affordable than Cambridge, London and the national average. Image: Centre for Cities data tool.

It’s made it attractive to service businesses, too. “London has probably played quite a big role in the city’s development,” says Swinney. “If you don’t want to move too far out, it’s probably one of the cheapest places to move to.”

The result of all this is that it has an unusually mixed economy. There’s light industry and logistics, in the office and warehouse parks that line the dual-carriageways (“parkways”) of the city. But there are also financial services and digital media companies moving in, bringing better paying jobs. In a country where most city economies are built on either high value services or land-hungry warehousing businesses, Peterborough has somehow managed to create a mixed economy.

Peterborough’s industrial profile: more services and less manufacturing, and more private and fewer public sector jobs, than the national average. Image: Centre for Cities.

At the moment, if people think of Peterborough at all, they’re likely to imagine a large town, rather than the fair-size regional city it’s on course to become. Its glorious 12th century cathedral – the hallmark of an ancient city, and at 44m still by far the highest spot on the horizon for miles around – is stunning. But it’s barely known to outsiders, and at least twice on my tour, the council’s communications officer proudly announces that the Telegraph named her patch as one of the best towns to live in within an hour of London, before adding, “even though we’re a city”. 

So part of the council’s current mission is to ensure that Peterborough has all the amenities people would expect from a settlement on this scale. “What the city needs to do is to adopt the mind-set of a slightly larger city,” says Anderson. Slightly smaller Swansea is developing a new music arena, of the sort Peterborough doesn’t have and needs. He frets, too, about retail spend “leaking” to Cambridge or Leicester. “Retail is now seen as a leisure activity: in the core of the city it’s important that offer is there.”

To that end, the early 1980s Queensgate shopping centre is being redeveloped, with John Lewis giving up a chunk of space to provide a new city centre cinema. (At present, the area only has road-side suburban multiplexes.) There’s major office, retail and housing development underway at North Westgate, as well as work to improve the walking route between the station and the commercial centre, in a similar manner to Coventry.

Fletton Quays. Image: Peterborough Investment Partnership.

Then there’s the city’s underused riverside. The council recently moved to new digs, in Fletton Quays, on the far bank of the River Nene from the centre. Across the river from the Embankment, the city centre’s largest green space, it’s a pretty lovely spot, of the sort where one might expect riverside pubs or restaurants with outdoor seating – but at the moment the space is largely empty. The Fletton Quays development will change all that, bringing more retail space and yes, new homes, too.

Jobs in Peterborough are unusually distributed around town: in many cities, most jobs are in the central business district. Image: Centre for Cities.

The big thing everyone agrees is missing, though, is a university. It already has the University Centre Peterborough, where degrees are provided by Anglia Ruskin University. The plan is for the site – a joint venture between ARU and Peterborough Regional College – to go its own way as an independent institution, the University of Peterborough, in autumn 2022. That should help provide the skills that the city needs to grow. A growing student population should also bring life and cash to the city centre. 

How big could Peterborough get? Could its enviable combination of good location and cheap housing and grand ambitions combine to make it the modern equivalent of Manchester or Liverpool – one of the great cities of the 21st century?

Well, probably not: “I think the optimum size for a city is probably about 250,000,” says Holdich. But that’s still a whole quarter bigger than now, and the council leader even discusses the possibility of refitting his dual-carriageway-based-city with some kind of light rail network to service that growing population. Peterborough’s not done growing yet.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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