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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What other British cities can learn from the Tyne & Wear Metro

A Metro train at Monument. Image: Callum Cape/Wikipedia.

Ask any person on the street what they know about Newcastle, and they’ll list a few things. They’ll mention the accent; they’ll mention the football; they’ll mention brown ale and Sting and Greggs. They might even mention coal or shipbuilding, and then the conversation will inevitably turn political, and you’ll wish you hadn’t stopped to ask someone about Newcastle at all.

They won’t, however, mention the Tyne and Wear Metro, because they haven’t probably heard of it – which is a shame, because the Metro is one of the best things the north-east has to offer.

Two main issues plague suburban trains. One is frequency. Suburban rail networks often run on poor frequency; to take Birmingham for an example, most of its trains operate at 30-minute intervals.

The other is simplicity. Using Birmingham again, the entire system is built around New Street, leading to a very simple network. Actually, that’s not quite true: if you’re coming from Leamington Spa, Warwick, Stourbridge, Solihull or a host of other major minor (minor major?) towns, you don’t actually connect to New Street – no, you don’t even connect to the ENTIRE SYSTEM BUILT AROUND NEW STREET except at Smethwick Galton Bridge, miles away in the western suburbs, where the physical tracks don’t even connect – they pass over each other. Plus, what on earth is the blue line to Walsall doing?

An ageing map of the West Midlands rail network: click any of the images in this article to expand them. Image: Transport for the West Midlands/Centro.

But Newcastle has long been a hub of railway activity. Tragically, the north-east has fewer active railway lines than any other region of the UK. Less tragically, this is because Tyne and Wear has the Metro.


The Metro was formed in 1980 from a somewhat eccentric collection of railways, including freight-only lines, part of the old Tyneside Electrics route, underground tunnelling through the city centre, track-sharing on the National Rail route to Sunderland, and lines closed after the Beeching axe fell in the early 1960s.

From this random group of railway lines, the Metro has managed to produce a very simple network of two lines. Both take a somewhat circuitous route, the Yellow line especially, because it’s literally a circle for much of its route; but they get to most of the major population centres. And frequency is excellent – a basic 5 trains an hour, with 10 tph on the inner core, increasing at peak times (my local station sees 17 tph each way in the morning peak).

Fares are simple, too: there are only three zones, and they’re generally good value, whilst the Metro has been a national leader in pay-as-you-go technology (PAYG), with a tap-in, tap-out system. The Metro also shares many characteristics of European light rail systems – for example, it uses the metric system (although this will doubtless revert to miles and chains post-Brexit, whilst fares will be paid in shillings).

 

The Metro network. Image: Nexus.

Perhaps most importantly, the Metro has been the British pioneer for the Karlsruhe model, in which light rail trains share tracks with mainline services. This began in 2002 with the extension to Sunderland, and, with new bi-mode trains coming in the next ten years, the Metro could expand further around the northeast. The Sheffield Supertram also recently adopted this model with its expansion to Rotherham; other cities, like Manchester, are considering similar moves.

However, these cities aren’t considering what the Metro has done best – amalgamated local lines to allow people to get around a city easily. Most cities’ rail services are focused on those commuters who travel in from outside, instead of allowing travel within a city; there’s no coherent system of corridors allowing residents to travel within the limits of a city.

The Metro doesn’t only offer lessons to big cities. Oxford, for example, currently has dire public transport, focused on busy buses which share the same congested roads as private vehicles; the city currently has only two rail stations near the centre (red dots).

Image: Google.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. For a start, Oxford is a fairly lateral city, featuring lots of north-south movements, along broadly the same route the railway line follows. So, using some existing infrastructure and reinstating other parts, Oxford’s public transport could be drastically improved. With limited engineering work, new stations could be built on the current track (blue dots on the map below; with more extensive work, the Cowley branch could be reinstated, too (orange dots). Electrify this new six-station route and, hey presto, Oxford has a functioning metro system; the short length of the route also means that few trains would be necessary for a fequent service.

Image: Google.

Next up: Leeds. West Yorkshire is a densely populated area with a large number of railway lines. Perfect! I hear you cry. Imperfect! I cry in return. Waaaaaah! Cry the people of Leeds, who, after two cancelled rapid transit schemes, have had enough of imaginative public transport projects.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire:

Image: Google.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire’s railway network:

 ​

Image: West Yorkshire Metro.

The problem is that all of the lines go to major towns, places like Dewsbury, Halifax or Castleford, which need a mainline connection due to their size. Options for a metro service are limited.

But that’s not to say they’re non-existent. For example, the Leeds-Bradford Interchange line passes through densely populated areas; and anyway, Bradford Interchange is a terminus, so it’s poorly suited to service as a through station, as it’s currently being used.

Image: Google.

With several extra stops, this line could be converted to a higher frequency light rail operation. It would then enter an underground section just before Holbeck; trains from Halifax could now reach Leeds via the Dewsbury line. The underground section would pass underneath Leeds station, therefore freeing up capacity at the mainline station, potentially simplifying the track layout as well.

 

Image: Google.

Then you have the lines from Dewsbury and Wakefield, which nearly touch here:

Image: Google.

By building a chord, services from Morley northwards could run into Leeds via the Wakefield line, leaving the Dewsbury line north of Morley open for light rail operation, probably with an interchange at the aforementioned station.

Image: Google.

The Leeds-Micklefield section of the Leeds-York line could also be put into metro service, by building a chord west of Woodlesford over the River Aire and connecting at Neville Hill Depot (this would involve running services from York and Selby via Castleford instead):

The path of the proposed chord, in white. Image: Google.

With a section of underground track in Leeds city centre, and an underground line into the north-east of Leeds – an area completely unserved by rail transport at present – the overall map could look like this, with the pink and yellow dots representing different lines:

Et voila! Image: Google.

Leeds would then have a light-rail based public transport system, with potential for expansion using the Karlsruhe model. It wouldn’t even be too expensive, as it mainly uses existing infrastructure. (Okay, the northeastern tunnel would be pricey, but would deliver huge benefits for the area.)

Why aren’t more cities doing this? Local council leaders often talk about introducing “metro-style services” – but they avoid committing to real metro projects because they’re more expensive than piecemeal improvements to the local rail system, and they’re often more complex to deliver (with the lack of space in modern-day city centres, real metro systems need tunnels).

But metro systems can provide huge benefits to cities, with more stops, a joined-up network, and simpler fares. More cities should follow the example of the Tyne and Wear Metro.