“The Railway in a Bathroom”: on the design of London’s Victoria line at 50

The platforms at Oxfird Circus, c1968. Image: TfL Corporate Archives/Nicole Badstuber.

In the middle of the afternoon of 1 September 1968, London’s Victoria Line opened its doors to its first passengers – quietly, and without a ceremony. It was London’s first new underground railway line in over 50 years: the last had been the Central Line, opened in 1907 at the tail-end of the city’s second boom in underground railway building.

Construction of the Victoria Line had started in 1962, and services on the line opened in phases: first from Walthamstow to Highbury in September 1968, to Warren Street in December 1968, to Victoria in 1969 and finally to Brixton in 1971. On 7 March 1969, Queen Elizabeth II formally opened the line from Walthamstow to Victoria.

The Victoria line was the first London Underground line to actually be completely underground. (Despite what the London Underground brand suggests, roughly 55 per cent of the network is overground.) The Victoria Line was also the first Underground line to be planned and built by government: older Underground lines had been planned and built by private companies. London Transport chief architect Kenneth Seymour designed the Victoria Line in-house alongside London Underground engineers, with design input from architect Sir Misha Black OBE and his consultancy Design Research Unit.

A 1960s tube map, showing the planned Victoria line. Image: TfL Corporate Archives/Nicole Badstuber. 

As the line was wholly underground, the Victoria Line look was limited to ticket halls and platforms. The only exception is Blackhorse Road, the only new above ground station building on the line. Shades of grey dominate the design: concrete flooring, grey ceramic tiles and brushed stainless steel.

At some stations the grey six inch square tiles are substituted for mildly warmer shades of cream. Overall, however, the look is “bathroom tiles, basically,” author Andrew Martin concludes in his book Underground Overground: a Passenger’s History of the Tube. The six inch square tiles lead Martin to dub the Victoria line “the railway in a bathroom”.

The highlights lie in the unique designs on tile panels in the platform seat recess. The design at each station was to be an image with local significance: a silhouette of Queen Victoria at Victoria station, a black horse at Blackhorse Road, and “a ton of bricks”, as a play on the name Brixton.


At other stations the link between the art work and station is less clear.  “The designers seem to have been hard-pressed to find any,” Martin remarks in his book. “The one at Warren Street shows a maze – a type of warren, you see. The one at Stockwell shows a swan, the name of a nearby pub, evidently. The one at Euston shows the Euston Arch, which had just been knocked down.” All the same, the art added a “touch of interest and humanity to the rather severe platforms” as a pamphlet introducing the Victoria line in 1969 read.

On its opening, the Observer called it ‘extraordinarily bleak’, and added that the Victoria line had all the charm of a 1960s’ tower block. The “lavatorial style” stations were lit by modern but clinical fluorescent tubes – something that had been praised in the 1950s plans as efficient and effective.

However, architect Sir Misha Black defended the Victoria line: “The stations may be criticised for appearing visually unexciting, but we consider that preferable to a transient popularity without lasting qualities.” The guiding principle was function, not form.

The new stations are bright, modern and designed for getting you to and away from the trains with the least possible fuss and delay,” a station pamphlet on the new Victoria Line dating from 1969 reads. The route was designed to link up the patchwork of Underground lines London had inherited to create a well-connected network. To achieve this, the Victoria line’s route was planned so that it would intersect with all other Underground lines: each station was planned to offer passengers interchange with either another London Underground or a national railway line.

The only exception is Pimlico, a late addition to the plans, made when the Crown Estate offered a site for the station (good bit of pub-quiz trivia, that). Bus stations were also located at stations such as Walthamstow and Blackhorse Road to ease inter-modal interchange

“Spacious stations designed for easy interchange and passenger movement between platform and street, based on research into passenger flow,” a station pamphlet from 1968 states “Escalators will lead direct to platform level wherever possible. Closed-circuit television equipment at stations to assist in controlling and speeding-up the movement of passengers at peak hours.”

A plan of the redesigned Oxford Circus station. Image: TfL Corporate Archives/Nicole Badstuber.

A key design feature to ease interchange and reduce passenger flow through the station was co-locating the northbound (or southbound) platforms of two lines. For example, at Oxford Circus the station was re-designed, so that the northbound Victoria and Bakerloo lines were adjacent to each other. This offers passengers a quick same-level interchange. The installation of escalators speeded up passenger flow through the stations.

The Victoria Line offers passengers a means by which to quickly cross the city. “Doze off for 20 minute and you’ll end up in Walthamstow,” a poster from the 1980s warns. The broadly spaced out stations allow trains to reach up to 50 miles an hour.

The station spacing also complements the, at times over-eager, spacing of stations on routes like the District line. This was a legacy of being built by private companies who were keen to draw in as many passengers as possible: the logic was that more stations would equal more passengers. By creating interchanges with all existing Underground lines, the Victoria line successfully created a network out of the patchwork of lines London had inherited. Spacious stations designed to ease interchange created a more connected network.

A warning from the 1980s. Image: TfL Corporate Archives/Nicole Badstuber.

The Victoria Line remains popular today despite the grey design palette and ‘bathroom style’. As it has since opening, the line provides a fast and frequent route with easy interchange. Indeed, as a London Transport press release after opening of the Victoria Line boasted, the Victoria Line would be able to “carry 25,000 passengers an hour in each direction – the equivalent of 11 motorway lanes”.

Since opening service frequency has increased from every two minutes to every 100 seconds – the most frequent rail service in the UK, and second most frequent in the world. Today, it is the most intensively used line on the network, carrying more than 13,000 passengers per mile. “At 3pm [on 1sSeptember 1968], the public gained access to London’s latest tube,” MAC Horne wrote in The Victoria Line: A Short History in 1988. “They liked it, and have flocked to it ever since.” This still rings true today.

Nicole Badstuber is a researcher at the Centre for Transport Studies, UCL.

 
 
 
 

Does it matter that TfL are renaming White Hart Lane station Tottenham Hotspur?

New White Hart Lane. Image: Getty.

Pretend for a moment that you’re travelling in the London of 1932. You’re taking the Piccadilly Line northbound and alight at Gillespie Road station. The name should be obvious: it’s inscribed in bespoke brown tiling on the platform.

But that 31 October, following an intense campaign by the eponymous football club, the London County Council changed the station’s name to Arsenal (Highbury Hill). The area’s growing association with the name “Arsenal” ended in a lengthy negotiation that changed maps, signs and train tickets alike. Football had acquired so much power that it changed the name of not just a Tube station but an entire suburb, even before the era of Wenger or the Emirates.

Now the spectre of name changes is on the horizon once again. As Tottenham Hotspur FC inches closer to completing its new stadium, the club is clamouring for a renamed Overground station. Despite the fact the new stadium is located on almost exactly the same site as the old just off White Hart Lane, and fans have long been calling the scaffolding-laden mess “New White Hart Lane”, the club’s executive director is adamant that the station’s existing name cannot stand. White Hart Lane station, on the Overground line leaving Liverpool Street, is set to be renamed “Tottenham Hotspur”, at a cost to the club of £14.7m.

Little has been made of the fact that this peculiar PR kerfuffle is tied to Spurs’ failure to convince Nike to sponsor the venue. Some sources have even claimed that the sponsorship is yet to be finalised because it is somehow contingent on the renaming of the Overground station; beyond the ridiculous Johnson-era vanity project that was the Emirates Air Line, it seems improbable that TfL will allow any more corporate-flavoured information pollution. There will be no “Nike Stadium” station on the way to Enfield, much as there is no “Emirates” on the way to Cockfosters, especially if public consultation gets a look in.

The scene of the crime. Image: TfL.

But there’s a problem with the new name, all the same. “White Hart Lane” already means “football stadium”, in the same way Loftus Road or Stamford Bridge do. Changing it to “Tottenham Hotspur” risks opening the floodgates to an “O2 North Greenwich” or a “Virgin Euston” at some point in future, names as banal as there are dystopian. The Greater London Authority has promised to spend the £14.7m fee on community programmes in the local area – but that’s not much money to set the precedent that a private company can mess about with the Tube map.


What’s more, as CityMetric has often observed, there are plenty of station names across London that could do with a tidy up. Picking one that’s perfect already and asking for £14.7m to change it is adding insult to injury. How much would it cost a community group if they asked to change the name of Goodge Street to Fitzrovia? Why does a vast corporate entity backed by international sponsors and thousands of season ticket holders get to set the standard?

Back in Arsenal’s day, changing names on the Tube must have been easy; changes could be accommodated gradually without bothering the every day traveller. But in our world of online information, maps and apps, name changes are rather more complicated.

The question is – if TfL can bring itself to balefully accept this particular proposition, why can’t it accept ours? Why sort out a single non-issue on the Tube Map when you can catch lots of real ones in one go? A day’s pandemonium might just be a price worth paying to fix the Bethnal Greens problem once and for all.