“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.

 
 
 
 

The mountain in North Wales that tried to stop the UK’s blackout

Elidir Fawr, the mountain in question. Image: Jem Collins.

Last Friday, the UK’s National Grid turned to mush. Not the official term perhaps, but an accurate one after nearly one million people were left without power across the country, with hundreds more stranded at train stations – or even on trains (which isn’t nearly as fun as it might immediately sound). 

Traffic lights stopped working, back-up power failed in hospitals, and business secretary Andrea Leadsom launched an investigation into exactly what happened. So far though, the long and short of it is that a gas-fired power station in Bedfordshire failed just before 5 o’clock, followed just two minutes later by Hornsea offshore wind farm. 

However, amid the resulting chaos and inevitable search to find someone to blame for the outage, a set of mountains (yes, mountains) in North Wales were working extremely hard to keep the lights on.

From the outside, Elidir Fawr, doesn’t scream power generation. Sitting across from the slightly better known Mount Snowdon, it actually seems quite passive. After all, it is a mountain, and the last slate quarry in the area closed in 1969.

At a push, you’d probably guess the buildings at the base of the mountain were something to do with the area’s industrial past, mostly thanks to the blasting scars on its side, as I did when I first walked past last Saturday. 

But, buried deep into Elidir Fawr is the ability to generate an astounding 1,728 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 2.5 million homes, more than the entire population of the Liverpool region. And the plant is capable of running for five hours.

Dubbed by locals at the ‘Electric Mountain’, Dinorwig Power Station, is made up of 16km of underground tunnels (complete with their own traffic light system), in an excavation which could easily house St Paul’s Cathedral.

Instead, it’s home to six reversible pumps/turbines which are capable of reaching full capacity in just 16 seconds. Which is probably best, as Londoners would miss the view.

‘A Back-Up Facility for The National Grid’

And, just as it often is, the Electric Mountain was called into action on Friday. A spokesperson for First Hydro Company, which owns the generators at Dinorwig, and the slightly smaller Ffestiniog, both in Snowdonia, confirmed that last Friday they’d been asked to start generating by the National Grid.

But just how does a mountain help to ease the effects of a blackout? Or as it’s more regularly used, when there’s a surge in demand for electricity – most commonly when we all pop the kettle on at half-time during the World Cup, scientifically known as TV pick-up.

The answer lies in the lakes at both the top and bottom of Elidir Fawr. Marchlyn Mawr, at the top of the mountain, houses an incredible 7 million tonnes of water, which can be fed down through the mountain to the lake at the bottom, Llyn Peris, generating electricity as it goes.


“Pumped storage technology enables dynamic response electricity production – ofering a critical back-up facility during periods of mismatched supply and demand on the national grid system,” First Hydro Company explains.

The tech works essentially the same way as conventional hydro power – or if you want to be retro, a spruced up waterwheel. When the plant releases water from the upper reservoir, as well as having gravity on their side (the lakes are half a kilometre apart vertically) the water shafts become smaller and smaller, further ramping up the pressure. 

This, in turn, spins the turbines which are linked to the generators, with valves regulating the water flow. Unlike traditional UK power stations, which can take hours to get to full capacity, at Dinorwig it’s a matter of 16 seconds from a cold start, or as little as five if the plant is on standby.

And, designed with the UK’s 50hz frequency in mind, the generator is also built to shut off quickly and avoid overloading the network. Despite the immense water pressure, the valves are able to close off the supply within just 20 seconds. 

At night, the same thing simply happens in reverse, as low-cost, surplus energy from the grid is used to pump the water back up to where it came from, ready for another day of hectic TV scheduling. Or blackouts, take your pick.

Completed in 1984, the power station was the product of a decade of work, and the largest civil engineering project commissioned at the time – and it remains one of Europe’s largest manmade caverns. Not that you’d know it from the outside. And really, if we’ve learned anything from this, it’s that looks can be deceiving, and that mountains can actually be really damn good at making electricity. 

Jem Collins is a digital journalist and editor whose work focuses on human rights, rural stories and careers. She’s the founder and editor of Journo Resources, and you can also find her tweeting @Jem_Collins.