Our original plan was to write a piece on St Johns station. This would conclude with a short section on the work carried out over the Christmas holidays on the Tanners Hill Flydown. Like many plans produced by the London Reconnections Planning Committee this plan fell apart when events overtook us. Over the past few months Unravelled, LR’s “photographer-in-chief,” has been documenting the recent major railway engineering changes happening to the area just to the south of St Johns station, and this deserves an article on its own. On top of that Tom Burnham has generously provided some wonderful photos of previous work completed in the 1970s, which are helpful as background information. It therefore seems fitting to have an article just on the Tanners Hill Flydown. Part 1 will concentrate on the original work in the 1970s and feature Tom Burnham’s photos and part 2 will use some of Unravelled’s collection to illustrate the recent doubling of the track.

The Tanners Hill Tunnels

Tanner’s Hill is a location between New Cross and St Johns stations in South-East London. Beyond St Johns is Lewisham station. Until the 1970s Tanner’s Hill was synonymous in railway circles with three very short parallel tunnels between New Cross and St Johns stations. They are a mere 87 yards long and consist of a double track central bore flanked by two single track bores. Nowadays it is difficult to see the why the tunnels are there, because all there is above them is a small plot of land that is fenced off for nature conservation. The top of the crown of the main bore is probably only five or six feet below the surface at this point. This article is not about the tunnels though, but a relatively modern rising embankment which was was given the name of Tanner Hill Flydown – this is, in fact, a few hundred metres away from the hill in question.

The 1976 London Bridge Resignalling Scheme

In 1976 the Southern Region of British Railways brought into fruition a major plan to re-organise the lines between Lewisham and London Bridge, so that trains would already be sorted by destination/originating London terminal. At the same time a large area would be resignalled and London Bridge Panel signal box would come into existence.

The plan was well thought out, but it was clear there were one or two complications. One was that any train from platform 3 at Lewisham (from Blackheath) to Charing Cross was going to have to cross ‘on the flat’ to arrive at platform 6 at London Bridge. As this would happen every ten minutes in the high peak, it was going to be a considerable inconvenience and make the desired timetable unworkable. The solution was to take advantage of an existing flyover that crossed the main lines at St Johns and via a steeply banked descent join the southernmost line (up Charing Cross) without crossing any of the other tracks on the main line. The line would be bidirectional to enable the reverse process to happen in the down direction.

Confusingly “up” trains (to London) will go downhill on the flydown and down trains will climb uphill. In the down direction, the train movements would not be quite as optimal as the up direction because the up Charing Cross line would have to be crossed on the flat. It did, however, at least give the signalman an alternative path if for any reason a down Charing Cross train and was not already switched over to northernmost down line, which was the only route available to call at Lewisham station.

The newly-built flydown in 1975 as photographed from St Johns station passenger footbridge and looking towards Lewisham.

The steeply descending route described in the previous paragraph was officially designated “Tanners Hill Flydown”. It was probably given that name to avoid confusion, because there were so many other junctions and bridges in the area. In practice it has been much more of a “flydown” than a “flyup” since the signalmen (or the train planners) have subsequently shown a strong preference to use it in the downhill direction.

The abandoned sidings at St Johns

The picture above, taken in 1971, shows the site of the abandoned sidings at St Johns which would be built up to create the flydown. The little used island platform visible in the picture would be demolished, the footbridge would be replaced with a less substantial one that would provide the necessary clearance and the leftmost brick arch just visible behind it would need to be rebuilt for the same reason.

The building of the original flydown was a substantial piece of engineering in its own right. Fortunately there was railway land available to build the substantial embankment necessary, but to try and minimise the gradient it was necessary to rebuild a then unused arch. This took a road called St John’s Vale across the railway, and at this point the new flydown would still be a few feet higher than the mainline track. It was also felt necessary to build a substantial retaining wall. This was probably so that the track could join the main line as far west as possible, to minimise the gradient and maximise the turnout speed. Even so the maximum gradient is 1 in 45. Although this is easily managed by electric trains, it must be quite a challenge if a Lewisham-bound train is brought to a halt by a signal at the top of the flydown.

As can be imagined, the construction of this flydown in the early 1970’s caused considerable disruption to local residents. In those days a fairly cavalier approach was taken to construction when it came to inconveniencing local residents. The Code of Construction Practice was completely unheard of, as was agreed hours of working to limit inconvenience from noise. This cavalier approach at the time would cause problems later.

The picture below, taken in 1974, shows the substantial works necessary to provide a reasonable fast speed turnout to join the main lines. The entrance portals to Lucas Street (Tanners Hill) tunnels are in the distance. Note the crossover tracks that were present then. To a large extent the whole purpose of the flydown was to make elimination of this flat crossover possible.

The work to provide the turnout

The 1990s and Longer Platforms

Some stations and their surrounding areas seem to survive almost unaltered over periods exceeding a century. Others seem to fundamentally change every few years (or at least every decade or two). St Johns definitively falls in the latter category. In the late 1980s/early 1990s the South-East Division of Southern Region embarked on a major plan to make all its inner suburban stations able to accommodate 12-car trains. St Johns station proved to be a tricky problem. Extension at the country (Lewisham) end was out of the question due to a critical junction. The prefered solution of the railway management would likely have been to close the station. That, however, was not going to happen and thus the only alternative available in the days before Selective Door Operation was to demolish the bridge at the London end of the station and replace it with one that spanned all the main lines. This would then make it possible to extend the island platform under the bridge.

The image below shows the heavily graffitied metal single span built in 1992 to replace the former brick arches. This was taken in Easter 2012 from the extended London end of the platform which was extended to allow 12 car trains to call. Ironically no 12 car trains have ever called at St Johns and the metal span would have to be modified and and a new abutment built to enable the flydown to be doubled.

The metal single span, built in 1992

The metal bridge show above spanned the four main lines. The opening for the flydown, which replaced one of the original arches, was left alone. The result was rather ugly but functional and at the time appeared to be the cost-effective solution. In those days the Treasury had a strict rule preventing railways future-proofing construction without being about to produce a convincing business case for any future enhancement. The only relevant project that could conceivably be on the horizon was Thameslink 2000. This was in the early stages of planning, there was no certainty it would happen at all, let alone go through St Johns.

Thameslink 2000

By the early years of the 21st century Thameslink 2000 was being taken seriously and definite plans were taking shape. At the time a firm favourite for a Thameslink route was one of the lines to Dartford. By the time plans were laid before a public enquiry it had been decided that it would be necessary to double the Tanners Hill Flydown. It was never quite make clear why this would be necessary if Thameslink merely took over one of the Dartford via Lewisham routes. Was it to aid reliability or to enable an enhanced service to be offered?

It was here that the previous disruption came back to haunt the new project. Communities have long memories, and at the Thameslink Public Enquiry the residents of St John’s protested vehemently against the proposals. They described in detail the noise and disruption that they had been subjected to when the flydown was originally built and thought it unreasonable to expect them to go through that again. Network Rail tried to argue that the scale of the works would be nothing like as great this time around.

Originally the plan was for the work to be complete when Thameslink was due to be complete. This is when it would be needed. Subsequently, when planning for the reconstruction of London Bridge was carried out in more detail, it was thought highly desirable to carry out these works as soon as possible to assist in maintaining reliability during these works. Because of this, the work was brought forward so that it would precede any timetable change consequent on the works at London Bridge. As the works would need to take advantage of a Christmas period for the necessary extended working, this meant that the bulk of the work had to be carried out in Christmas 2012.

The great irony of this that it looks like Thameslink will not now go to Dartford. True, under current tentative plans it will service Ashford, but this would not leave the main line so the question has to be made “Why do we need to double the flydown?” The answer appears to be given, for the first time ever, in a document published by Network Rail in May 2012.

Double tracking of the Tanners Hill fly down is required due to the removal of the Spa Road Junction, and to provide double junctions at both Tanners Hill Junction and Lewisham Vale Junctions with the main lines.

This is not really a complete answer, but it implies that the enhanced flydown is necessary because the new dedicated Thameslink tracks will make it impossible to cross the main line on the flat between London Bridge (Charing Cross platforms) and Lewisham. The trouble is that the document includes a diagram which seems to suggest that this will  be possible although it is hard to be sure as the bitmap diagram is of poor quality.

This picture by taken from St John’s Vale bridge by Unravelled 35 years after the first picture shows how the flydown now blends in with its (not very attractive) surroundings. All is about to change as part 2 will show.

In part two we will look at the work that has been carried out since Easter 2012 culminating with a Christmas New Year blockade in order to achieve a double-tracked Tanners Hill Flydown.

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There are 42 comments on this article
  1. Chris says:

    “…have subsequently shown a strong preference to use it in the down direction”

    – might be clearer to describe it as “the downhill direction”, as down the hill is “up” in railway parlance, i.e. towards London.

  2. Steven Taylor says:

    Re the photo Abandoned sidings at St Johns`. Interesting picture as it not only showed the canopied island platform that was demolished, but an even older grass grown island platform that was taken out a long time ago – perhaps 80 years ago.

  3. stimarco says:

    I lived in that neck of the woods for over 10 years. That second photo really shows how much the station has changed.

    If memory serves, the overgrown (and clearly long-disused) platform was taken out of use in the 1920s, when what remained of the Greenwich Park branch was diverted into Lewisham, connecting it to Nunhead. I wasn’t aware that the Tanners Hill Flydown was so recent though; I always assumed it was built at the same time as the Nunhead chord.

    Interesting to see the original station building too. (Its site is now a car park, although traces of the foundations can be seen.) It’s strange that St. Johns lost its station building while the Lewisham Road station building (woefully misnamed and actually on Loampit Hill / Lewisham Way) is still standing today, and in active use at that.

  4. @Chris,

    I went to great trouble to make that clear but subsequently discovered that the relevant sentence was in part 2! I have moved it to part 1. Thanks for pointing that out.

    @Steven Taylor

    Yes, for me this picture is an absolute gem. I could write a whole article just on what is visible in this picture. I will be covering some of the other significant features visible in a future article.


    Lewisham Road station was not woefully misnamed and I will be covering that point in a future article too.

  5. Lofty says:

    There is a good map of the flydown at Carto Metro

    I asume the dotted line is the new second track

  6. Fowler 7F says:

    Have forwarded this article to a relative of mine who built the original Tanners Hill Flydown.

  7. The other Paul says:

    This is exactly the kind of article I read this blog for, thanks.

  8. timbeau says:

    Older maps show Lewisham Way (part of the present A20) to have been called Lewisham High Road.

    However, plain “Lewisham Road” (the present A2211) is closer to the former Blackheath Hill station than to Lewisham Road station.

    I’m not sure I understand why Stimarco thinks the closure of the southernmost platform at St Johns in the 1920s should have had any connection with the closure of the Greenwich Park branch, which effectively happened in 1917, although it was mothballed until 1929 when the connection to Lewisham (not St Johns) was put in. The two companies involved, SER and LCDR, although operating under a joint management committee from 1899, had been intense rivals (their respective chairmen, Watkin and Forbes, were also chairmen of the Met and District) and had virtually no interconnection, although a start had been made before WW1 with the Bickley curves, and the diversion of trains from the LCDR terminus at Ashford, and the SER terminus at Chatham, into the respective neighbouring through stations of the other company.
    The legacy of this is that, even now, and despite closure of the LCDR’s Gravesend West and Greenwich Park branches, and the SER’s Whitstable branch, most large traffic centres in SE London and Kent – Ashford, Beckenham, Bromley, Canterbury, Catford, Chatham, Dover, Lewisham, Maidstone, Margate, Orpington, Ramsgate, Sevenoaks – still have services to London by two separate routes, and often still from different stations – although in this brave new world of privatised competition (ha, ha) in each case South Eastern Trains now operates both routes.

  9. Steven Taylor says:

    Re the long disused Island Platform at St Johns. The usually realiable `Kentrail` site states that this platform was taken out of service in 1926. It gives a good history of the station.

  10. Tallaght 147 says:

    Been to site midday and was told that due to unforeseen problems the new section of bridge (two parts on site nearby) was not installed. Considerable problems were encountered, so I was told, due to the “age” of the foundations of the existing structure. A temporary footbridge has been installed for pedestrians. It is likely that it will be Easter before there is another lengthy shutdown. Local residents, according to BBC London yesterday, were unhappy because of the noise over the Christmas break with many having to endure hours of pneumatic drilling and generators. There are many close residences.

  11. swirlythingy says:

    I’m sure I can’t be the only person wondering when exactly this “future article” is likely to show up…

  12. stimarco says:

    “I’m not sure I understand why Stimarco thinks the closure of the southernmost platform at St Johns in the 1920s should have had any connection with the closure of the Greenwich Park branch, which effectively happened in 1917…”

    I’m aware of the Greenwich Park branch’s history as I lived near the Lewisham Road station on Loampit Hill for some years. I’m also intimately familiar with the SER and LCDR rivalry. I was born and raised in south-east London. I can still remember when Kent House station had both a porter, wooden destination boards, and a full set of buildings (on the ‘up’ island, at least.)

    I assumed the overgrown St. Johns platform in that photo was taken out of service as part of the building of the link to the Nunhead route. I’ve always been hazy on dates as my memory doesn’t ‘do’ numbers, but the Kentrail site appears to support my assumption, though I did get the actual years wrong.

    Re. “Lewisham Road” station: Lewisham Road is, as you point out, the A2211 and some distance away. Lewisham Way was indeed known as Lewisham High Road, but it has never been known as just “Lewisham Road”. At least, not on any of the older maps I’ve seen. Hence my comment.

  13. Toby Jenkins says:

    A very interesting article. I grew up in Lewisham and I would regularly look at, and occasionally puzzle over why the fly down is there. Good to see that double tracking is merited, even if not for Dartford! Incidentally St Johns was the location of the Lewisham train cras in 1957.

  14. Fandroid says:

    My hazy memory tells me that there may have been a bridge collapse onto the railway around there during reconstruction works. Was that at St Johns during the 1992 bridge reconstruction?

  15. John says:

    Yes, sadly.

    IGS 260- Bridge Demolition

    “This is a known hazard to be considered when demolishing multi-span bridges containing arches. In the early 1990’s at St Johns in Kent, two workers were fatally injured following an uncontrolled collapse similar to this.”

  16. Ratty says:

    I took a train through St John’s for the first time just yesterday, and wondered what all the new work was for. Lo and behold it is all explained to me here today. Thank you, PofP.

  17. Richard Elliot says:

    As a resident of St Johns / Brockley I enjoyed learning about the history of the station, most of which was new to me.

    I’ve posted a link to this article on our local forum so that others can link through and read it:

  18. Mikie R. says:

    It must be wishful thinking but in my opinion it would be just logical to extend Overground to Abbey Wood after Crossrail comes there. That can be done via both extending the New Cross branch and creating a Nunhead extension of South London line to Lewisham; the line can go through Blackheath to Catford and all the way to Abbey Wood.

  19. mr_jrt says:

    @Mikie R
    I’ve proposed something similar before; namely a diversion of the New Cross branch to take over the line through Deptford. Ideally the line would go through Lewisham for interchange…but sadly there’s no way you’d fit any kind of extension from New Cross down to Lewisham without more tracks, and if there were any junction you didn’t want to be making busier, the junctions at Lewisham would be it.

    As for Nunhead…as I’ve said before, it’s a real shame the done-on-a-shoestring original DLR-tram was built in the 1980’s using the NLL rather than a properly-planned out bit of metro planning a-la London Overground (I know it was the state of the time in the 1980’s and it was DLR or nothing – I’m just saying that it would have been better off if heavy rail was “in fashion” back then as it is now). Then we could have had a rebuilt Poplar branch of the NLL from Victoria Park running through the Docklands and under the river in a tunnel to a rebuilt Greenwich Park branch, thence running on to Clapham Junction via Nunhead and the SLL. That would certainly have relieved some pressure off the congested ELL core, probably permitting more services over the SLL…(i.e. both the CJ via Denmark Hill and Wimbledon via East Dulwich options being easily possible with at least 4tph).

  20. MikeP says:

    @Tallaght 147 – ah, I thought things looked pretty incomplete this morning as we flew past – and seemed to be progressing slowly back last Friday en route to see Peppa Pig (!!!). That explains it.

  21. John Bull says:

    I’m sure I can’t be the only person wondering when exactly this “future article” is likely to show up…

    You’re safe – it’s me who is utterly abysmal at remembering to write follow ups – not Pedantic!

  22. Fandroid says:

    @John. Thanks for that. I now remember it a bit better. The point made about the risks in demolishing multi-arch bridges brings it all back. Looking back, it would seem the only safe ways to do that would be either to support all the arches from below and nibble away from above (effectively reversing the original construction), or to stand well back and blow the lot up ! Neither method would help maintain train services on the lines beneath. I suspect a contractor promised too much, a grateful BR then accepted the method without too much scrutiny, and the end result was two workers dead, and line closure anyway. I’ll see if I can dig out any contemporary references.

  23. Pedantic of Purley says:

    Unravelled has now uploaded this picture from around 1980 which shows how close to the railway boundary (the fencing) the retaining wall was.

  24. John Bull says:

    Blimey – don’t think you’d get away with that now!

  25. Fandroid says:

    Those were the days! Trains displayed headcodes then and the nerdish commuter could get hours of fun from demonstrating his inside knowledge to his less numeric companions.

  26. unravelled says:

    I was interested that the demolition machinery being brought on site on Boxing Day was remote controlled, presumably to keep the operators out of harms way this time. The track underneath seemed to be protected by a couple of metres of expanded polystyrene.

    I remember that after the roadway, and presumably waterproofing, had been removed for the 1992 rebuild we had a torrential thunderstorm in the area. I’ve often wondered how much that would have helped destabilise the arches, contributing to the collapse.

  27. unravelled says:

    I wonder whether it would be possible to cost effectively rejig the lines north of New Cross, and link the overground into the bidirectional platform line there, and so onwards to a suitable destination. Losing the currrent overground platform line should also allow development access to the linelocked old depot site.

  28. Carl says:

    @Mikie R. & @mr_jrt

    You’re not alone. I’ve always thought that the Overground stopping at New Cross was a bit weird since at New Cross Gate it got extended to West Croydon and Crystal Palace. I’m guessing there’s financial and infrastructure issues behind it. Me personally I would extend it to (at least) Lewisham and take over St. Johns station – having no South Eastern trains stop at that station. If that did happen plus the idea of the Bakerloo line reaching Hayes then Lewisham would be one of the biggest interchanges in London. Wishful thinking though…

  29. Mack says:

    Dartford is very much on the cards according to a Sept 2012 report from Network Rail.

  30. mdb says:

    Before Overground took over the ELL the southern end always had New Cross and New Cross Gate branches. I don’t think they could have just closed the New Cross branch on a whim, there would have been lengthy closure proceedings etc (see Ghost Trains/Parliamentary buses!). Would West Croydon, Crystal Palace and now Clapham Junction all be able to take 16tph between them?

    (Sorry for thread drift!)

  31. Ben says:

    This video might be of interest to those of you interested in the 1976 rearrangement:

    ‘Operation London Bridge’ (BTF, 1976)

  32. Jim says:

    Great film, thanks Ben!

  33. Anonymous says:

    Great film. The lack of safety equipment for the manual workers contrasting with the sea of white coats for the signalling technicians says a lot about the times.

  34. MikeP says:

    Indeed a great film.

    However, I don’t think the white coats were to protect the technicians, but to protect the equipment (relays in particular) from dust and other contaminants. Sweat is particularly corrosive……

    Also impressive was hot asphalt being laid bare-chested with bare hands. Ouch !! Cables being handled without gloves.

    The acronym PPE (Personal Protective Equipment before I’m told off…) wasn’t anywhere near entering our language back then.

  35. Anonymous says:

    I realise that the white coats had a reason but actually thinking about it – that means that the wiring was more important than the people. I have to say I don’t remember ever seeing railway workers without orange jackets so that requirement must have come in in the late 70s. The asphalt laying was particularly eye watering.

  36. Fandroid says:

    The Health & Safety at Work Act came in in 1974. It’s currently fashionable for those who have never done nor intend to do any hazardous or health-threatening work to bang on about ‘elf & safety gone mad’, but it did bring in a systematic effort to reduce death, injury and ill-health for those whose work doesn’t involve heated, air-conditioned and well-lit offices.

    It took a while for it to become just about universal in construction, but the death and injury rate was originally so appalling that any manager with a conscience felt that they only wanted the accident stats to go in one direction (down). It wasn’t easy, because the workforce hated being told how to do things by those blokes visiting them from heated, air-conditioned etc etc.

  37. Jeanpierre says:

    The blokes from heated, air-conditioned and well-lit offices have to ensure their staff are adequately protected from injury and worse to avoid being sued by staff and their relatives!

    There have always been more injury and fatal accidents involving farmworkers than there have been to construction and civil engineering workers.

  38. Fandroid says:


    I did fail to mention that the managers realised that they faced prosecution under the H & S Act if they didn’t comply with it. (Being sued was not really a threat as insurance companies pay up in those cases)

  39. Pedantic of Purley says:

    And more than that. H&S is a rare case where you (a company or its representative) are presumed to be guilty unless you have the evidence to prove otherwise. This was done as it would be almost impossible otherwise to achieve successful prosecutions. It is also why it leads to a disproportional amount of paperwork.

    H & S is partially tainted by people using it as an excuse that is difficult to challenge for doing/not doing something. It is probably down to H & S legislation that led to the end of some appalling practices (by today’s standards) that took place on the railway above and below ground. It is also unlikely to be a coincidence that the number of rail workers deaths has plummeted since its introduction.

  40. timbeau says:

    “And more than that. H&S is a rare case where you (a company or its representative) are presumed to be guilty unless you have the evidence to prove otherwise”.

    Along with parking (where even if you win an appeal you’ve lost money because the council doesn’t have to pay costs, allowing it to get away with its incompetence scot-free), or being prevented from collecting a proof of purchase (a railway ticket) or having been mis-sold one not valid for the stated purpose.

  41. Anonymous says:

    Great piece explaining the Tanners Hill fly down work but there is no link from Part 1 to Part 2 (that I can see) nor any overall index of articles that includes Part 2. I had to use Google to find it!

    LR is an amazing resource but just needs better indexing. I see LR is in WordPress, must be a plug in that would do the job with judicious use of tags? Organising geographically might be an option, South, South East, North etc, or by operating area, Southern, South Eastern, Midland although these are subject to change.

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