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In 1846, a new railway line opened between Stratford and Canning Town. A year later, it was extended to North Woolwich, a station on the north bank of the Thames connected by ferry to the south.

The North Woolwich Line (as it became known) would continue to exist in some fashion until 2006. Then, having been incorporated into the North London Line in the seventies, it was finally withdrawn from service, with the DLR’s Stratford extension taking over responsibility for passenger services in the area.

One of the most notable features of the North Woolwich stretch was the Silvertown tunnel. Built in 1878, this 600m cut-and-cover tunnel allowed the railway to be diverted under the newly-built Connaught passage which connected the Victoria and Albert docks.

This tunnel, which has lain dormant since the closure of the line, will soon be graced by rail traffic once more – this time for Crossrail where, as the Connaught Tunnel, it forms a key part of the project’s “renovate and reuse” approach to work. The tunnel will require extensive work, not least due to the need to increase the available height to accomodate overhead wiring, but structurally it remains sound and many of its current features will be preserved.

The tender for the tunnel work is now out, and Crossrail were kind enough to invite London Reconnections to accompany them on an inspection of the tunnel – a rare opportunity to see a dormant piece of London’s railway history before it is restored to action.

The photos and commentary below are the result of this site visit, which also included the opportunity to take a brief look at what remains of Silvertown station as well.

Due to the number of photos we felt warranted inclusion here this post is rather lengthy, for which we apologise in advance. The tunnel is also unlit, so our apologies as well for the quality of some of the photographs.

The Northern Approaches

The first photo below looks back from the beginnings of the Connaught Tunnel towards Custom House, showing the alignment of the former line. Heading towards the tunnel itself, the visually impressive arched buttresses remain in a good condition (further examples of these will be seen at the southern end as well). Crossrail confirmed that the current intention is to retain these rather than replace them with a more modern equivalent.

At track level, sporadic remains of the permanent way and other infrastructure can be found both without and within the tunnel. It is only the third rail that seems to have been systematically removed. None of the current rail is to be retained for obvious reasons, with it being replaced by new track on slab.

Into the Connaught Tunnel

Inside, much of the brickwork appears in relatively good condition. Again, various relics of the tunnel’s former life remain (such as signage). Drainage is currently a clear issue, with muddy pools frequently appearing between – and in some cases beneath – the rails. Indeed, towards the southern end the water flows beneath the rails as if it were a small stream.

Various Network Rail markings still decorate the walls. A single, short stretch of third rail also remains in the tunnel towards its northern end. Also visible is some bomb damage sustained during the Second World War. This is visible in the second photo below, which shows where the concrete patch meets the brickwork of the roof in the bomb-damaged section.

The central section of the tunnel was lowered in 1935 to allow the depth of the Connaught Passage above to be increased. It is easy to spot, for at this point, the tunnel splits into two smaller, lower sections each of which is lined with a Tube-style iron sectioning.

This section is one that will require major reworking as part of the Crossrail Project. As Gus Scott,Crossrail Central’s Project Manager for the Connaught Tunnel and Surface Railway (C315) was on hand to explain:

The plan is to use a mass soft core filling of the central twinn arch tunnels, followed by its reconstruction using binocular segments

Effectively this means that the work carried out in the thirties will be undone – the existing ironwork will be removed and the tunnel filled with concrete and rebored.

The Iron work is still impressive. About halfway down the ringed sections, a short passage links the two sections.

The tunnel features two identical circular air vents, which can be seen on the surface as brick structures either side of the Connaught passage (photos of these can be found in the “On the Surface” section below).

It appears that the tunnel was used quite extensively for storage, presumably during the construction of the DLR Stratford extension. Ballast bags, stacks of sleepers and the remains of other supplies can be found along the tunnel.

Heading South to Silvertown

As with the north side, the southern side features another set of magnificent arches which are to be retained. Track is still in place at various points, with uprooted rail and infrastructure scattered around.

The alignment out towards Silvertown is also heavily overgrown in places. This has, however, not stopped the occasional tagger penetrating the site.

Silvertown

The remains of Silvertown station, which opened in 1863 and was rebuilt in the seventies, can still be seen just down from the Connaught Tunnel site.

The single-platform station is still largely intact, although the platform has been well and truly penetrated by vegetation. At some point, the track has also been pulled up and lengths of it now rest half on/half off the remains of the platform. Some associated infrastructure, such as signals and boxes, can still be seen poking out from the surrounding greenery.

On the Surface

Three clues to the tunnel’s existence remain on the surface. The identical tops to the tunnel’s vents can be seen either side of Connaught Passage. These are round, brick-built structures.

The Victorian pump house which has drained (or in recent years attempted to drain) the tunnel can also be seen. An octagonal brick structure, the current intention is that this also be retained (although some upgrade work may be necessary) during the Crossrail work if at all possible.

Overall, it will be interesting to see how Crossrail develop the site over the coming months, and how it fits into the works currently taking place at Custom House and elsewhere. We will look to revisit the site at a later date.

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There are 38 comments on this article
  1. Mark says:

    Great article.

    Does the author (or anyone else, for that matter), know why Crossrail is going to completely ignore London City Airport? Not only will there be no purpose-built station (such as at the site of the old Silvertown station), but the only interchange that Crossrail will offer with *direct* service to the airport will be up in Stratford, or, presumably, via a shuttle bus from Custom House?

    The airport currently has 3m passengers a year, has plans to boost this to 8m. Seems a bit short-sighted.

  2. Bods says:

    Fascinating post. I'd just like to ask one question – what do you mean by the tunnel being "dropped" in 1935? Obviously it was split in two but why was that? If anyone can explain I'd very much appreciate it!

  3. John Bull says:

    Sorry Bods – my fault. I've changed the wording there.

    Basically they dropped the tunnel height in the 30s because they wanted to increase the depth of the Connaught Passage that passes above.

    (And also, apparently, because ships were virtually scraping the tunnel roof!)

  4. Dazz285 says:

    Oh happy memories of days gone by when I used to drive my 313 through the tunnel at 20mph and looking at the brown/orange goo seaping out of the walls ;-)

  5. Anonymous says:

    I seem to remember it was the 1980s rather than the 1970s when the NNL took the route over – it was when Broad Street closed, and Ken was GLC leader.

    It may have had the slam-door trains, before the 313s.

  6. slugabed says:

    Anonymous:There was a service from Camden Road to North Woolwich (known as the Crosstown Linkline), using DMUs, from about 1979 though the "new" stations weren't opened until 1980.
    The line was electrified in 1985 and used the slam-door stock from the North London Line,and the service was diverted from Broad St,which closed the next year.

  7. Graham&Betty says:

    Very impressive infrastructure reuse. You Londoners & your engineers are excellent at reusing old railway infrastructure. Unlike here in North America, where we destroyed railway rights of way & viaducts for expressways…

  8. Graham&Betty says:

    Very impressive infrastructure reuse. You Londoners & your engineers are excellent at reusing old railway infrastructure. Unlike here in North America, where we destroyed railway rights of way & viaducts for expressways…

  9. Anonymous says:

    Do you know what the new speed limit will be after the Crossrail works?

  10. Mel Atkey says:

    Who will own this part of the infrastructure — Network Rail or TfL?

  11. Anonymous says:

    Regarding Mark's first point about City Airport, I think that having decided to re-use the Connaught tunnel and approaches (a good idea to save costs I guess) the gradients required to get down again under the Thames, and passing under the DLR's existing tunnels don't forget, don't allow for a station length on the level. I'm not sure but for proper heavy rail standards, it is probably only possible with another deep box station like Canary Wharf.

  12. Anonymous says:

    When will they get round to painting Silvertown station into London Overground colours.

  13. Andrew says:

    Fascinating. The arches are wonderful.

  14. john b says:

    @Mark, there'll be interchange at Custom House between Crossrail and direct DLR services to LCY. Not sure where the shuttle bus comes in?

    @anon, why would Silvertown be painted in LO colours? It's never been served by LO and never will be…

  15. Mel Atkey says:

    Not direct — wrong DLR branch.

  16. Glenn BGOLUG says:

    I first travelled to North Woolwich on a Cravens DMU in 1979. When it was added to the NLL SR 2EPB's worked the service, the old NLL 501's never did. I also did the branch on a BR(SR) organised "round London" special formed of 2x4TC sets and RMB buffet car with a Class 33 "Crompton".

    A past supervisor told me that the last DMU was always late as it would collect orders from the signalmen on the way to North Woolwich and deliver their suppers from a Chinese take-away on the way back to Stratford!

  17. Tim says:

    The Canning Town to Stratford International DLR extension will obviously re-use a lot of the old North Woolwich line … but it should have opened by now. They don't even seem to have started testing the track yet! Unusual for DLR projects to be delivered late. Anyone shed any light on this?

  18. Anonymous says:

    Re: Stratford Internation DLR branch, see http://www.rail-news.com
    Apparently testing is starting next month

  19. Anonymous says:

    I'm also surprised/puzzled by the lack of a Crossrail station at LCY. Given that the British Airways booking system actively sells "connecting flights" that have one flight coming into LHR and the next out of LCY, it might even get customers!

    As things stand, for Crossrail users heading for LCY it's going to be easier to change at Canary Wharf (short walk to Poplar DLR) or Stratford Regional. The Custom House suggestion is a faff – on the wrong branch of DLR.

    On the history theme. I remember some Jean-Michel Jarre concerts at the site that is now Excel. Would it have been 20 years ago? There were special trains for the event – I think they turned back in the tunnel instead of going as far as North Woolwich? Made up of multiple DMU, perhaps 3 x 2-car units. Anyone with a better recollection?

  20. Anonymous says:

    for City Airport, change at Woolwich.

  21. Chris M says:

    "Then, having been incorporated into the North London Line in the seventies, it was finally withdrawn from service, with the DLR's Stratford extension taking over responsibility for passenger services in the area."

    While the Stratford International extension of the DLR is reusing the NLL infrastructure north of Canning Town, it is the Jubilee Line and the DLR's Woolwich Arsenal extension that have taken over responsibility for passenger service on the section of NLL south of Stratford.

    Later on you say "It appears that the tunnel was used quite extensively for storage, presumably during the construction of the DLR Stratford extension." here you presumably mean the Stratford International extension – the DLR route to Stratford (via Bow) is part of the original system and goes nowhere near the Royal Docks.

  22. Anonymous says:

    And the Pedantary award goes to… The poster above. Bravo. Bravo.

  23. John Bull says:

    @Chris M – cheers Chris, will correct

  24. Anonymous says:

    Thanks. Very enjoyable run through the tunnel. It would have been interesting to know how they constructed it to go under the dock.

  25. John Bull says:

    @anonymous

    They didn't – they cheated and built it while the dock was being built!

    It was a cut-and-cover build, so built the same way as the early sub-surface lines.

    In a way, that's one of the things that makes it interesting – it was built in the same way as the sub-surface lines but the iron-lined section that was added later is in the style of the deep bore lines constructed later. It's an interesting mix.

  26. Valentine says:

    Just to say thanks for a great article – I'm not particularly knowledgeable but I found this fascinating stuff and great to see the history being archived too. One day, about seven years from now, I'll look out the window of a Crossrail train and see those arches shimmy above and have a little more of an understanding of what they're about than I would ever have done before.

    It's little things like that which as a born and bred Londoner make me feel more connected to, and appreciative of, this amazing city so thanks again.

  27. John Bull says:

    @Valentine, glad you liked it. We try to cover the "history" side of things as well as what's currently going on.

    If you haven't seen them already, you may also find these interesting (they're all tagged to
    history in the side bar):

    - The Old lift passage at Notting Hill Gate
    - The Man Who Painted London Red
    - Exploring the Kingsway Tram Tunnel
    - A Typeface For the Underground

  28. Mike C says:

    On the history theme. I remember some Jean-Michel Jarre concerts at the site that is now Excel. Would it have been 20 years ago? There were special trains for the event – I think they turned back in the tunnel instead of going as far as North Woolwich? Made up of multiple DMU, perhaps 3 x 2-car units. Anyone with a better recollection?
    ———————————-
    The concerts were in 1988, I have no recollection of the rolling stock used other than it was standard slam door 2 EPB style stock. I do recall the smell of pot in the carriage though!

  29. George Moore says:

    Connaught Road is an official station that is labelled as 'proposed' by Crossrail. If it is built, it would be a few years after the rest of the line. It would be between Custom House and Woolwich on Crossrail, and between Pontoon Dock and London City Airport on the DLR.

    The station will connect to the the Terminal Building.

    I heard somewhere that most trains that stop at Custom House would not always stop at Connaught Road, and vice versa, to speed up the services.

    If the rest of the line is due to be open in 2017/2018, then you can expect, if passenger demand necessitates it, for this station to be open by 2022/2023. Only when the DLR can't cope by itself will Crossrail build the extra station.

    I am also told that enabling works for the station will take place during the main construction, in order to not disrupt service when the station is finally built.

  30. George Moore says:

    Connaught Road is an official station that is labelled as 'proposed' by Crossrail. If it is built, it would be a few years after the rest of the line. It would be between Custom House and Woolwich on Crossrail, and between Pontoon Dock and London City Airport on the DLR.

    The station will connect to the the Terminal Building.

    I heard somewhere that most trains that stop at Custom House would not always stop at Connaught Road, and vice versa, to speed up the services.

    If the rest of the line is due to be open in 2017/2018, then you can expect, if passenger demand necessitates it, for this station to be open by 2022/2023. Only when the DLR can't cope by itself will Crossrail build the extra station.

    I am also told that enabling works for the station will take place during the main construction, in order to not disrupt service when the station is finally built.

  31. George Moore says:

    Connaught Road is an official station that is labelled as 'proposed' by Crossrail. If it is built, it would be a few years after the rest of the line. It would be between Custom House and Woolwich on Crossrail, and between Pontoon Dock and London City Airport on the DLR.

    The station will connect to the the Terminal Building.

    I heard somewhere that most trains that stop at Custom House would not always stop at Connaught Road, and vice versa, to speed up the services.

    If the rest of the line is due to be open in 2017/2018, then you can expect, if passenger demand necessitates it, for this station to be open by 2022/2023. Only when the DLR can't cope by itself will Crossrail build the extra station.

    I am also told that enabling works for the station will take place during the main construction, in order to not disrupt service when the station is finally built.

  32. Anonymous says:

    Was there a combined road and rail bridge swing above the tunnel?

    I visited the docks in the 1970s and travelled over a swing bridge.

  33. John Oliver says:

    late 1970s as I recall, the SR Double Deck emus were in the scrapyard just west of Silvertown station, on the original route, by then called The Silvertown Tramway. Because of their height I assumed they'd been brought in by road, but occasional scrap trains were still coming through on the non-electrified western line through the tunnel. I saw them behind an 08. In great contrast the late Queen Mother "opened" the much missed Railway Museum in a special pulled behind 4472 Flying Scotsman.

  34. George Moore says:

    If you want to know all there is to know about the history of the tunnel and surrounding area in terms of transport, I recommend buying 'NORTH LONDON LINE' from Video 125 at http://www.video125.com or at the London Transport Museum. It should cost £19.99 and it was filmed in 2006, just a few months before the closure of the North Woolwich branch/line.

  35. SDX says:

    Great article, thank you!

    Three comments/questions:
    1. Drainage should not be an issue as the bottom part of the tunnel shall be digged out to manage the proper height for overhead electrification.
    2. Are the two sigle track tunnels in the middle section wide enough for Crossrail stock ? Probably they are as the tunnel had been run in by standard railway stock until recently.
    3. Delaying the opening of the airport connection until DLR is oevrcrowed seems reasonable in economic terms, but does not take into account the fact that an early opening would provide the airline passengers with more options…

  36. Jas says:

    Excellent, excellent article. On the theme of historical pieces – is there any hint of the final part of the three part series you were doing on Euston Arch?

  37. T.O. says:

    I was a police officer at Plaistow in the 60s and remember steam through the tunnel.
    I also knew one of the signalmen at Thames Wharf Jcn, Norman Underwood, and while in the box during the 1963 freeze we walked through the tunnel at 02-00am in the morning to investigate flooding. there was a float with a repeater in the box to indicate flooding. I have so many memories of this piece of railway, I could write a book, but now at 73 I don’t have the time. Send me an Email if you wish, I can tell you a whole load more, eg, station staff, PW staff, Signalmen, etc

  38. Anonymous says:

    I still remember as a young fireman at Stratford covering duties on the North Woolich Palace Gates turns. It was the dying days of steam traction and we used to use a variety of rundown N7s J15s and L1s to cover the turns.

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