London is in the midst of a boom not seen since Victorian times. Both population and employment are rising fast. Former industrial areas are being reclaimed, while the urban area is constrained by an historic “green belt” put in place since the late 1940’s. London’s population recently exceeded its earlier historic 1939 peak of 8.6 million and is currently forecast to increase by at least two million in the next 20 years. The city also depends on a wide commuter belt, which encompasses much of the southeast of England and wider, with most of these commuters and visitors travelling using public transport to access the central area of the city.
In addition to these trends, public transport use into and within the city continues to rise. Trends such as greater working at home and remotely, densification and cycling, as well as new digital centered travel modes, have not reduced the strong growth in the use of the classic public transport in the urban area — Underground (Metro/ Subway), local heavy rail, light rail, bus and river bus. London Underground had its busiest day ever with 4.8 million users in early December 2015. London bus demand has held steady at approximately six million journeys per day for the last few years, and the UK’s heavy-rail network carried approximately 1.7 billion journeys nationally in 2015. A majority of this demand is beginning, ending or within Greater London.
This is creating ongoing pressures on the historic transport infrastructure in London and the need to look to significant expansions in transport capacity. Various schemes are under construction, including Crossrail1, Thameslink, and capacity improvements to existing services such as the Underground Sub-surface lines, as well long-term plans for schemes such as Crossrail2, the Bakerloo Line extension across southeast London and High Speed2’s eventual reconstruction of Euston station. However, in the rest of this article I will concentrate on the capacity and facility improvements that are occurring at several of the main London rail terminals — almost simultaneously — to deliver the needs of the growing city. In particular, Victoria, Waterloo, King’s Cross St Pancras, London Bridge and Euston stations.
The Victorian rail network into central London was generally prevented in the 19th century from running rails across the existing core of the city. Thus, London ended up with a series of large railway stations around a several square mile inner core. Onwards travel was originally by coach, then bus and eventually Underground as well as significant pedestrian and taxi flows. Today, there remain approximately 10 central London mainline terminals — the busiest being Waterloo, Liverpool Street and Victoria.
Each of these stations is a mix of historic Victorian exuberance, decades of interventions to deal with changes in demand, the combination of the needs of originally private and competing rail companies that eventually came under the control of the state, often hurried reconstruction as a result of bombing during the Second World War, the insertion of Underground rail connections, and the evolving needs of retailing at very busy and lucrative locations.
The immediate challenge that London is facing is that these mainline rail terminals are almost universally struggling to cope with a surging demand for public transport into Central London. They are facing multiple key points of congestion, whether it is on the rail approaches, access to platforms, interchange within the station, and onwards transport access as well as meeting modern expectations about station facilities such as cafés, retailing and waiting areas. Note, that car parking is minimal at most central London public transport facilities.
These stations are managed by a government controlled corporation known as Network Rail, who has over the last few years had to invest billions of pounds in modernizing these stations in partnership with Transport for London (TfL) to enable London to continue to prosper. The ongoing disruption in service and access to these stations is significant and problematic for many commuters with repeated weekend closures of lines, temporary access flows, increased congestion while areas are rebuilt and disrupted customer environments due to the ongoing construction.
In summary, a few examples of the interventions include:
Victoria station is the major national rail hub in London for services from south central London and the areas south of London to the south coast of England. It is a slightly odd mixture of two adjacent Victorian rail stations with a total of 19 rail platforms. Victoria was originally constructed in a residential area to the southwest of the main business areas of the city. It is relatively close to Parliament and the key government departments, as well as an office based sub-center that has developed in the neighboring areas. Onwards travel from Victoria has always been key either within London or to the coastal ports. These issues have been recognized for many years and Victoria was one of the first central London stations to be remodeled to provide improved retailing in the 1980’s. This involved creating a deck over the station access in order to provide a shopping center area. The Victoria Underground line was built by the early 1970s mainly to provide much improved connectivity between Victoria station and the core of the West End business and shopping districts and to support the existing District line Underground services.
The growth in travel demand in London has led to a range of transport issues at Victoria station as demand has increased to approximately 85 million annual entries and exits. In particular, the access to the Victoria Line Underground platforms has been wholly inadequate for the level of demand on the line from south London as well as interchange from the national rail services. This has created severe congestion, queues, station closures due to crowding and frustrated passengers in every peak period. London Underground is in the process of a major multi-year construction program to rebuild access to the Underground station and significantly increase capacity to the already capacity enhanced Underground services. This is currently due for completion in 2018. Network Rail, local landowners and the local government borough are also making use of the resulting construction to comprehensively rebuild the office quarters, surface transport facilities and public realm around the station.
Waterloo is the UK’s busiest single rail station with in excess of 99 million customers (entries and exits) per year from southwest London, southern and southwestern England. For historical reasons, it was built on the south side of the Thames and most users require some form of onward public transport or a fairly significant walk to reach their final destination. The recent interventions at the station, following the construction of the Jubilee Underground line at the turn of the millennium and a rebuilt bus station, have centered on significantly improving and increasing the ability of the station concourse to deal with the large peak time crowds, as well as during delays. A new deck was inserted in the concourse to move some interchanging passengers away from the main hall in 2012. Further plans will remodel the approach junctions at the station to enable all local trains to be operated by 10 car units — up from the current eight cars. Also, the former Eurostar rail terminal, which is adjacent to the station and has sat empty for the last 10 years since services to the continent moved to St Pancras on the north side of the central area, is planned to be brought back into use for some peak services. In the longer term, the station is built on a vast series of brick arches that elevate it above the low lying surrounding land and an intervention would bring this under croft into use as a new circulating and waiting area as well as a location for enhanced retailing facilities.
London Bridge Station
London Bridge station, on the south bank of the Thames near the financial heart of the City of London, is part of a complex combination of rail terminals that include through rail services to Cannon Street, Waterloo East and Charing Cross stations as well as services that continue through central London to the north via Blackfriars and St Pancras stations.
London Bridge was one of the earliest London terminals dating to the 1830’s and had grown through a series of expansions over the last hundred years. It was always a complex and confusing place. The real estate around the station is now deemed to be particularly valuable and is rapidly being redeveloped. This is typified by the construction of The Shard — which is the tallest building in the European Union — and is built on part of the station.
Network Rail is comprehensively rebuilding London Bridge station by amongst other things building a new station concourse within the brick arches under the existing station. This is a highly impactful and exciting, yet operationally very problematic project for the city and will be covered by a future article.
Euston was one of the earliest central London terminals. It is still remembered for famous elements of its early architecture which were shockingly demolished in the 1960’s under the banner of “modernism.” The story is akin to the recollections of Pennsylvania Station in New York City. The resulting replacement of Euston station is an oddly sterile modernist experience that is in fact far too small for the resulting “modern” demand and is difficult to expand. The station is the terminus of the “West Coast mainline” — the main long distance rail route to north western England and Scotland as well as linking the other largest conurbations in the country — Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, etc., to the capital. While there is a relatively busy local demand on the route within London and into the nearby counties, this long distance demand is leading to a fundamental rethink of the role of the station.
Current plans will see a new high-speed rail line (HS2) built between Euston station and the northwest of England on a new route. This will require a new rail terminal to be built adjacent to the existing Euston. This new long distance rail demand will overwhelm the existing bus services and three deep level Underground stations that serve the Euston. Thus, Transport for London, is consulting on building a longer-term new rail line (Crossrail2) that would provide an additional local rail service as well as enable a complete rebuild of the existing Underground rail station. In fact, TfL intend to connect, below grade for pedestrians, Euston with the nearby Kings Cross St Pancras rail stations (about 1.5 km away).
In the interim, Network Rail have progressed a number of interventions to make the station more workable for the increasing demand. These include the insertion of customer deck in the station waiting area — following the success of this model at Waterloo, as well as moving and expanding the retail offer into the former exterior courtyard of the station and in effect making this outside area an integral part of the station concourse.
King’s Cross St Pancras
St Pancras station has a special place in London and the UK. The station was built relatively late in the Victorian era and was designed to be a show piece of architecture by its then private railway owner — The Midland Railway. The resulting station is a stunning architectural display. Having spent much of the current era being underutilized and neglected, the station was chosen as a replacement for the high-speed rail terminal for services to the continent via the Channel tunnel in the 1990s. This publically funded investment then lead to a new show piece station and comprehensive redevelopment. The adjacent former railway yards north of the station were also reclaimed for a vast new business, residential and educational quarter in London — this commercial development is currently ongoing. St Pancras, as a result, is not just a station terminal in London, but has been turned into an architectural statement and retail and entertainment destination. It acts as model of what other stations more globally can achieve and a benchmark for Network Rail’s ambitions. It is also a very efficient local, regional, national and international transport interchange for London.
St Pancras sits beside King’s Cross Station, which is the terminal for the “East Coast mainline” railway to northeast England and Scotland. While not as busy with local commuters as some of the other mainline terminals, there is a very busy longer distance market. The station had been put back into full service after World War II via a series of hastily constructed interventions that over time provided a very poor and confusing customer environment. In addition, the station is a busy Underground and bus interchange and more Underground lines serve King’s Cross than any other mainline terminal. As part of the re-construction of St Pancras station and adjacent former rail lands, King’s Cross has also been comprehensively re-imagined and redeveloped for the 21st century. Spaces in the station were reorganized to provide much better concourses, a large public square has been created in front of the station that proudly displays the grand early Victorian design, the retail offer has been updated, and the complex of Underground platforms fully refurbished and expanded.
Major interventions are also underway within central London at Paddington and Liverpool Street Stations as well as others in order to grow capacity, but there isn’t space to summarize these issues in this article.
The examples outlined in this article are only a few of the interventions that are occurring in London to support a surging population and economy. What is critical is that the government has realized, and the public supports, significant and immediate public spending to ensure that the transport, and particularly the public transport system, is able to cope with this growth. These billions of pounds of investment include new rail lines, enhanced services, more frequent buses, as well as a thorough rebuild of the main rail gateways to London to make them fit for the 21st century.
Giles K. Bailey is a director at Stratageeb Ltd., a London based consultancy assisting businesses think about their strategic vision and innovation. Previously, he had spent nine years as head, strategy, at Transport for London. He has worked in the UK and Canada over the last 24 years in transport, marketing, digital, transport planning and consulting.