Initially, we’d planned just a single post looking at Farringdon as part of our (increasingly badly titled) London Terminals series, but John Bull’s recent wander through the old ‘Widened Lines’ tunnels east of Farringdon gave a brief glimpse of an unexpectedly cavernous subterranean world. This prompted us to ask: just how much more is down there?
So we set about exploring, not least to find out what on earth JB was pointing his camera at. And the more we looked the more we uncovered – and the more we realised Farringdon needed to be treated as an area, encompassing Barbican, rather than just a station.
In this first part we plunge again into the labyrinthine depths (starting as JB did at Barbican) and investigate beneath Smithfield Market, emerging at Farringdon. In part 2 we’ll dig around Farringdon before heading down towards Snow Hill and Blackfriars.
All the while we’ll be asking ourselves how the rail infrastructure that remains could be better used, to provide much-needed rail capacity in the city core. Or, how can it be safeguarded, and whose responsibility it is to do that.
The current plan is for LUL to adopt the curtailed ex-Thameslink route to Moorgate to use as long stabling sidings, not least because its new S7 stock is too long for its existing sidings at Farringdon. Below, we revisit the option of a DLR extension from Bank to Farringdon, which may also be able to use some of the extensive rail alignments beneath Smithfield for stabling of stock. Indeed we feel the DLR Horizon 2020 Study for TfL significantly underestimated the benefits of this option. Given what we discover in our look around the tunnels, and the increasing likelihood of a Crossrail 2 route via Euston, it’s tempting to suggest that DLR extensions in the city are probably worthy of another look.
A melting pot
But first, let’s familiarise ourselves with the territory.
The Farringdon area was railway border territory with lines meeting from north and south, alongside the Metropolitan’s own lines, and with several companies vying for trade ― both passenger and freight. The map below, taken from a 1961 Railway Magazine article, shows when each section opened. The Railway Clearing House (RCH) map shows the varied ownership; the lines up through Blackfriars were originally London Chatham & Dover Railway (LCDR) before this merged with the South Eastern to become the South Eastern & Chatham shown on the map.
Smithfield Market goods opened in 1869, serviced by the GWR. The GNR opened its depot in 1874 and the Midland followed with its Whitecross depot in 1878. Not wanting to be left out, the Metropolitan opened its diminutive Vine St depot at Farringdon in 1909.
Thank you to our commentators for pointing out that the term ‘Widened Lines’ refers to the route now used by Thameslink from Kings Cross and St Pancras to Moorgate. Such was the demand early on that the Metropolitan found it needed to widen its line from Kings Cross to four tracks, opening the new route in 1868. At Kings Cross there were connections west to the Met (and from there to the GWR) and north to the GN and Midland, and from Farringdon and Barbican south to the LCDR, not forgetting that the LSWR also ran services to Ludgate Hill and stabled its trains at the Smithfield Sidings just north of Snow Hill station. The tunnels were also built to Broad Gauge for GWR trains, so to some extent the Widened Lines tunnels are also slightly wider than we would now consider necessary, which helps give the impression of space apparent in JB’s photos.
The tunnels west of Barbican
So, let’s start at the beginning of JB’s underground perambulation and track his footsteps.
The Crossrail diagram below identifies the buildings demolished for the Eastern Ticket Hall at Farringdon, which lies at the west end of Barbican station. The tunnels outlined west of the station give a hint of the space beneath, and can be matched up to the other plans below. “IMR” refers to an Interlocking Machine Room, housing signalling equipment which Crossrail has moved to a new location inside the tunnels.
The picture below is a view from Hayne St overlooking the west end of the Barbican ex-Thameslink Up platform to Moorgate, looking SW towards Smithfield Market and Lindsey Street. It is looking directly at the point at which JB took the first pic in his walk on the Widened Lines. This space was uncovered when the deck was removed as part of the Crossrail works (shown in the plan above), and the picture clearly shows the tunnel mouths that JB explored.
The marvellous Abandoned Tube Stations website has a series of photos showing Barbican in the late 70s, including the same spot gloomy under its concrete decking. There is also a view of the quirky signal box at the west end of Barbican station, also demolished as part of the Crossrail works.
On the picture above, the tunnel mouths are, from the left:
- Down Widened Lines, which is wide at this point because a track branched off to the left to enter the Great Western Smithfield Goods depot, shown in JB’s photo 1W: the concrete wall bedecked with graffiti
- Up Widened Lines
- Metropolitan sidings, which were accessed from the Up Widened and the Met lines off to the right
The layout is discernable in this extract from an 1896 OS map, which also shows the Metropolitan Line beneath Charterhouse Street, and how close all this is to the Farringdon sidings to the west:
The underground Met sidings occupied the large spaces alongside the Widened Lines that JB marvelled at in his subterranean tour (pictures 8SW, 9W, 12NW). There were two sidings according to Harsig’s diagrams below, which extended a little under 500’ into the tunnel.
The siding nearest the Met lines could take a 6-car train but the other could only take a 5-car, so it wasn’t used after they lengthened Circle Line trains to 6-cars and the sidings were removed in the 1970s. Recollections over at District Dave shed light on how they were latterly used:
I think it was No 1 duty at Baker St which used to fetch this train out in the mornings. We used to access the siding from Farringdon. You walked up the CWL [City Widened Lines] tunnel on the grounds that it was unlikely there would be any trains running. There was a repeater on the tunnel wall which you would glance at occasionally. We were told, “If it goes green, run!
The tunnel was very dark and spooky. The tunnel lights were so weak they didn’t make much difference. You could hear the rats scuttling around. The siding tunnel was accessed through an arch in the running tunnel wall. There was always rubbish around where the cleaners used to spill stuff from the train.
More intriguing were reports that the southern Met siding was used in the old Great Northern & City line days to enable loco-hauled stock to transfer between Drayton Park and Neasden Works, going via the Widened Lines to the Circle line and return. The route was Drayton Park to Finsbury Park to Kings Cross Main Line to Aldersgate (reverse) to Earls Court to Rayners Lane (reverse) and to Wembley Park and Neasden Works. The reason was that the GN&C stock was too large to pass through the tunnels between Baker Street and Finchley Road. Much as though we’d love to know more, expect ephemera like this to crop up sometime in an LR Christmas quiz.
Back to Crossrail, and the plans for the Eastern Ticket Hall give much more detail on the layout of the Widened Lines tunnels that JB explored. We’ve annotated the plan of the basement level below, which clearly shows the cramped office and stores up against the walls of the Met line tunnels, shown in JB’s photos 4S, 6E and 7E . What were they for, and when were they last used?
What also becomes apparent is the very large space to the south of the Widened Lines under Smithfield Market. This was the GW Smithfield Goods depot and the access from the east marked on the plan above is clearly visible in JB’s 1W photo: the concrete graffiti-laden wall. JB’s 10S photo was taken from a point marked on the plan above, standing where the northernmost Met siding would have been and looking across the other Met siding, the Widened Lines and to a bricked up arch, behind which would have been five tracks within the GW Smithfield depot. So at this point there are nine tracks beneath Smithfield, plus the two Met running tracks.
Smithfield Market is Grade II* listed and is therefore of national importance, and is still a working meat market open 4am to noon every weekday. The Crossrail works required particular attention to heritage detail and their report presents a good historical overview along with some interesting snippets about the extent of Crossrail works authorised.
The structures combine elaborate detailing with functional design as a wholesale market, and beneath the market buildings lay an extensive basement area enabling livestock to be brought to the market by rail, unloaded and taken straight to the market above for sale. The Smithfield Goods depot remained in use until the 1960s.
The basement plan below has a wealth of detail and should be compared with the Crossrail plan above. For this we are indebted to GWR Goods Services – Part 2A – Goods Depots and their Operation written by Tony Atkins and published by Wild Swan. This book covers a whole host of GW goods depots in the London area, including Smithfield, Paddington, Brentford, Chelsea, Poplar and South Lambeth, and is highly recommended to LR readers.
The plan does not show the Met running lines, which lie just to the north, but it shows that five tracks extended the length of the depot. Trains came in from the Barbican end, and departed west towards Farringdon crossing the Smithfield Curve on the flat, and this junction had its own subterranean signal box. Wagons were moved using turntables and capstans, and needed to be efficiently worked to maintain the throughput: 200,000 tons were handled annually in the first part of the 20th century, and in 1929 the depot employed 667 people, second only to Paddington Goods.
What also becomes clear is that the Met sidings we explored above originally served an island platform, used by the Met, with hoists up to the market above. The Met also had another goods platform opposite the signal box, in the triangle between the Widened Lines and the Snow Hill curve. Located on running lines, this can’t have been easy to work. Presumably the Met facilities closed when it opened its Vine Street depot at Farringdon, and the platforms were removed and the sidings were then used for stabling.
During the 1990s much of the basement area was altered to provide car parking and plant room facilities ― a mezzanine level was inserted, but a substantial proportion of the original jack arches and substructure remain. An intriguing twist is that the works authorised in the 2008 Crossrail Act include conversion of this car park into a worksite. If that also required the removal of the mezzanine level, then the authorisation is already in place to prepare the basement for a return to railway use. More on this later.
The Crossrail plan below shows the shape of the tunnels to the north, the Widened Lines alongside towards Farringdon and the erstwhile Smithfield Curve continuing south-west towards Snow Hill.
Also marked on the Crossrail plan above is Fabric, the night club located below ground between the Met and the Widened Lines. It occupies the renovated space of the Metropolitan Cold Stores at 77 Charterhouse St, and includes a large below-ground room renowned in the clubbing world. This author briefly pondered the wisdom of donning the dancing shoes and setting forth on a fact-finding mission, perhaps also to recce the venue for the LR Christmas party. But, confident that many LR readers are also avid clubbers, we hope that their inside knowledge will help fill in some of the gaps.
[Editor’s Note: I’m going to take a punt here and say I’m the only person in LR towers who has ever actually gone to Fabric – JB]
At 67-77 Charterhouse St, adjacent to Fabric, is an old market building, now the bar/restaurant ‘Smiths of Smithfield’. The rear of this building is in the middle of the photo below, behind the Met sidings at Farringdon, and the large wall suggests a substantial basement space.
Adding to the mystery, in 2000 a planning application for 67-77A Charterhouse St was lodged with City of London, for a “Change of use from disused rail tunnel to an extension of night club to provide cloakroom and storage”. Which bit of tunnel were they referring to?
Eagle-eyed readers will of course have spotted that this property is in London Borough of Islington, yet the planning application was with the City of London. Indeed the boundary runs along the middle of Charterhouse St, and this indicates that the basement space extends across the council border and up to the Widened Lines.
Intriguingly, does this mean there is essentially continuous basement space underneath Fabric and the adjacent building and therefore all the way to the retaining walls at Farringdon? If so, is there any potential for the three Met sidings just east of Farringdon to be extended through to the alignment of the underground Met sidings west of Barbican?
The Smithfield Curve
The Crossrail plan above clearly shows that the Smithfield Curve no longer exists underneath the Poultry Market, although the truncated stumps remain at the south and the east end. So, let’s try and nip another Blackfriars-Moorgate discussion in the bud: trains are no longer able to travel east from Snow Hill (City Thameslink). Rebuilding this curve would entail the demolition of the Grade II listed Poultry Market. It’s not going to happen.
The Smithfield Curve was opened in 1871 and London Chatham & Dover Railway (LCDR) trains ran up from Ludgate Circus around to Moorgate. Services were withdrawn in 1916 and the Curve finally closed in 1927. As this 1961 Railway Magazine (PDF) article describes, a severe fire in 1958 destroyed the old Poultry Market, and the photo below shows the Smithfield Curve uncovered during excavations for the new building. The tight curvature is clear which, as one of our commentators kindly pointed out, limited the use of the curve to non-bogie stock. Thus even if the Smithfield Curve still existed, modern coaching stock would not be able to use it.
JB’s photos show where the Smithfield Curve branched off from the Widened Lines beneath Grand Avenue in Smithfield Market: 14E looking east back towards Barbican, 16SW and 17NE. The picture above also shows the bricked up tunnel portal seen from the other side in JB’s photo 19SW. The arches to the left and right lay beneath East Poultry Avenue and were connected through to the railway tunnels/sidings behind, as shown in the Smithfield car park plan above.
But it would be interesting to see whether the alignment of the line from the GW Smithfield depot is still clear. As the Smithfield plan above makes clear, this was the departure line from the depot and crossed the Smithfield Curve on the flat. We’ll continue our exploration west to Farringdon and then south to Snow Hill in Part 2.
New uses for old tunnels ― LUL, DLR, and a question of safeguarding
This author recalls a conversation with a railwayman who, when surveying the area around Farringdon in the late 1970s, was astounded to discover the extent of railway lands there. Bit by bit these alignments are being nibbled away. Part of this could be the well-documented lack of strategic rail planning in London, with responsibility diffuse and contested between DfT, TfL, NR and the TOCs. Part could also be lack of knowledge of what is actually there, which is a gap we hope to address in these articles.
The current plan for the ex-Thameslink route from Farringdon to Moorgate is for LUL to adopt them, to provide invaluable stabling in the city, not least because the new S7 and S8 stock is too long for sidings such as those at Farringdon. The August 2011 edition of Underground News has details about the track and signalling changes on the sub-surface lines, of which this will be one component. There will be a long stabling siding leading off the Met lines where Farringdon Sidings are now, and the siding will be double track through Barbican station.
Is this efficient use of the space, however, given that stock will have to be stabled end-to-end? How much stabling is actually required? And could this be provided at Moorgate, where removal of the Thameslink platforms could yield four stabling roads, plus more in the tunnel immediately west?
Whatever, the discussion may be forced into the open as a result of a low-level spat between LUL and the City of London on who actually owns and has responsibility for the tunnels. Details are sketchy at the moment and JB is investigating further, but the issue appears to be over the lease for the land and the precise meaning of the term “an operational railway”. More details as we get them.
We’ve looked again at the options analysed in the DLR Horizon 2020 Study, prepared for TfL by Arup in 2005, which we previously reported on here. A DLR extension west from Bank is desirable because it helps even out traffic flows, and the Study examined several options, including to Barbican via Moorgate and the ex-Thameslink tunnels.
This option achieved a comfortable Benefit Cost Ratio (BCR) of 2.7:1. It was based, however, on a line to Barbican only and not to Farringdon. Therefore the benefits of linking with Thameslink could not be fully factored in. The authors of the study appear to be working with incomplete information, and have therefore come up with a sub-par scheme that underestimates the BCR :
Whilst this arrangement will give less attractive interchange with the City Thameslink services, the Crossrail works associated with their Western ticket hall at Farringdon would probably prevent extending DLR far enough to provide direct interchange with City Thameslink.” (p25)
As we can see from our explorations under Smithfield, the tunnels do appear to fit DLR purposes very well: they are large, the alignments are clear, and there will be space just east of Farringdon station for DLR platforms once the Crossrail works are complete. Platforms here would also offer very straightforward interchange with the new station, and a new station entrance could also be provided off Charterhouse Street.
Furthermore, the ex-GW depot in the basement under Smithfield Market may be able to provide stabling space, and the authorising works to remove the mezzanine deck in the car park may already be in place in the 2008 Crossrail Act. The alignment of the Met sidings between the Met and the ex-Thameslink tracks could also be re-used, and overall the tight curves and shorter siding lengths will not be a problem for DLR trains.
Granted, plans for a DLR extension to Euston gather pace as HS2 looms. But so does the business case for Crossrail 2 via Euston. Arguably Crossrail 2 is a higher priority, and this is likely to weaken the business case for a DLR extension to Euston. Indeed, the 2005 Study did not look at a Euston DLR extension, and therefore we don’t know how this stacks up against the other proposals. Certainly DLR to Farringdon would be far cheaper, and can be made cheaper still by relinquishing an interchange at Moorgate, instead going directly from Bank to Barbican. There is a strong case for revisiting the study and reassessing the BCR of each option and, in the meantime, safeguarding the alignments.
Indeed, safeguarding alignments is something that is rarely exercised by strategic rail planners, and is a theme we will return to. In Part 2 of this subterranean journey through this intriguing part of London, we emerge west from the tunnels into Farringdon before heading south to Snow Hill and Blackfriars, and we will see how the loss of rail alignments through Blackfriars, Snow Hill and Farringdon now presents a significant capacity constraint for Thameslink.