The Past and Future of Finsbury Park

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Finsbury Park Station. Its very name has been known to elicit a shudder from the passengers condemned to use its narrow winding passageways, inadequate (and largely un-weatherproof) ticket offices, and grimy stairwells. That’s a lot of shudders for Finsbury Park is, by some measures, the fourth busiest station outside Zone One. For years, locals and interchanging commuters have been assured that the station would be overhauled, with the introduction of step-free access and other improved facilities. Due to lack of funding, however, these plans have been repeatedly deferred. The best that could be offered was a lick of paint and some new cladding to hide the previous mess of cables during work undertaken in 2010-11. Yet rumours have circulated for some time that a more significant redevelopment of the station could be around the corner, perhaps connected with the wider regeneration of the Finsbury Park area.

On 8 January 2013, TFL’s Projects and Planning Panel finally gave substance to these whispers with the publication of their latest Project Approvals List.

A Potted History

Most London interchange stations are the result of the gradual accruing of new lines over the decades, a process that has rarely resulted in the ideal experience for station users. Finsbury Park is a particularly striking example of this, in part due to that peculiarity of North London geography that led one local branch line to be dubbed ‘The Northern Heights’. The locality of the future station was historically known as Stroud Green (now only applied to the area north of Finsbury Park), long a marshy and disputed borderland between the parishes of Hornsey and Islington. It was crossed by the north-south Stroud Green Road, and, from the 1830s, the Seven Sisters toll-road linking Holloway and Tottenham.

When the Great Northern Railway (the modern East Coast Main Line) was driven though in the late 1840s the navvies dug out a wide cutting through the hills here, complete with the extensive drainage work that opened the area to future development. The Seven Sisters/Stroud Green crossroads, however, lies in a hollow between Highgate and Crouch Hill, and the railway had to be carried over these roads on bridges linked by a high embankment. In 1861, eleven years after the first Great Northern terminus arrived at Maiden Lane, the future Finsbury Park Station that opened atop the embankment was little more than a rural halt. It was named ‘Seven Sisters Road (Holloway)’.

Finsbury Park in 1872

Finsbury Park in 1872 (via Stanford’s 1872 map)

The station was soon surrounded by numerous goods and coal yards, and in 1867 a branch-line to Edgware was created, now the linear Parkland Walk. More significant for the station was the arrival of the Great Northern & City Railway in 1904, which ran in mainline-gauge tunnel from Moorgate to Finsbury Park. Negotiations to link this with the Great Northern failed, and the line ended in underground platforms beneath the embankment. In 1906 the Great Northern, Piccadilly and Brompton Railway connected Finsbury Park to Hammersmith. Prior to the Victoria Line being built the what was by then the Northern City line of the underground was cut back to Drayton Park. The running lines of the Piccadilly Line were rearranged and the station tunnels reused so that when the Victoria Line opened in 1968 there was same-level interchange between the Victoria and Piccadilly Lines. A decade later Moorgate services were reconnected to Finsbury Park via the originally-intended mainline link just south of the station.

The current complex four-level layout of the station was essentially complete by this point in history. The platforms continue to be accessed by long, narrow, and oft-flooded passages from the surrounding roads, on two levels, sometimes running in parallel, replete with difficult junctions and steep stairs to the platforms. These include two narrow spiral shafts between the underground platforms and national rail above, each containing double-helix spiral stairwells. Only one stairwell per shaft remains open, and over the years one of the linking passages has been closed for use as storage. The station complex has four entrances, one small 1970s ticket hall on Wells Terrace, and some National Rail ticket booths on Station Place. The latter received a makeover and a striking roof during 2005-6 to provide some shelter from the rain.

The Future

The difficult geography and consequent labyrinthine complexity of the station have made modernisation of Finsbury Park especially challenging. The narrow entrances result in Finsbury Park being the largest un-gated station in London (though a National Rail gate-line was installed in 2011), and there is no step-free access to either the underground or Network Rail.

The current ticket barriers

The current ticket barriers (photo by Nicobobinus)

In recent years a plan emerged to widen and reclad the Wells Terrace ticket hall, install gate-lines, reopen and extend the unused corridor, and install two lifts to the underground platforms. Funding for this did not materialise, and the plan was mothballed. The 8th January TFL report, however, appears to resurrect these plans in an amended form, with any “outstanding design issues dealt with”. Completion is expected by December 2014, so detailed plans will presumably emerge soon. It is likely that the existing free passage through the station from Seven Sisters Road to Wells Terrace will no longer be possible without an Oystercard or traditional ticket.

The original plans (apologies for image quality)

The original plans (apologies for image quality)

Tantalisingly, the report also refers to a planned Western Ticket Hall linked to the substantial City North redevelopment adjacent to (and partly above) the station.

The City North development

The City North development (via skyscrapercity)

The planning permission granted by the London Borough of Islington in 2010 includes passive provision for a new small ticket hall and a new exit into the development, thereby linking onto Fonthill Road via Goodwin Street. It can be hoped that this will bring some relief to the existing entrances while providing a boost to the down-at-heel streets west of the station. Work is expected to commence in April.

City North floorplan. The provision is in the green box

City North floorplan. We’ve highlighted the provision in the green box

In addition to the new lifts to the underground platforms, step free access is also planned to those of the National Rail lines above as part of the work to re-open a disused platform on the east side of the station (of which more below); it appears that only this new platform will be accessible from the new lift though – a far from ideal solution.

The Future of Services at Finsbury Park

There are currently two separate schemes that will significantly impact services at Finsbury Park by 2018.

First, the segregation of suburban services between Finsbury Park and Alexandra Palace will allow a near-doubling of the number of trains per hour on the Hertford Loop. These services primarily terminate at Moorgate at peak times and King’s Cross in the late evening and at weekends. The recently-deferred Thameslink franchise consultation raised the possibility of a post-segregation evening and weekend service to Moorgate; this is to be welcomed as it will be a boost to the under-utilised stations at Drayton Park and Essex Road, in addition to providing useful access to the night-life of Shoreditch via Old Street, relieving the Victoria line. The Hertford Loop is sometimes mentioned as a future candidate for acquisition by London Overground, a prospect reinforced by doubts as to the suitability of retaining it within the future Thameslink franchise.

More significantly, the East Coast Mainline will be connected to Thameslink. Work to fit-out the St Pancras tunnels is now underway. While final service patterns are yet to be set in stone, it appears likely that around eight Thameslink trains per hour will stop at Finsbury Park, with most existing Cambridge, Peterborough and Welwyn services funnelling through the core to destinations as yet uncertain in the south. Brighton, Maidstone East, Three Bridges, Caterham, Tattenham Corner, and Horsham are among the names in the mix. The recent reprieve of the Wimbledon loop means that Sutton can be added to this list.

Platforms have already been lengthened to accommodate the twelve-car Thameslink sets by extending over the Stroud Green Road with widened bridges, albeit with little accounting for aesthetics – the unsightly mismatch of platform barriers and passenger shelters makes the high-level station resemble a Jewsons storage yard.

Once again, the piecemeal growth of this awkwardly-situated station, coupled with squeezed budgets, has led to a compromise solution and a suboptimal passenger experience. The presence of the East Coast mainline above means that there are significant (read expensive) engineering difficulties inherent in any substantial plan to holistically redesign Finsbury Park station as a place of open circulation spaces or easy interchange twixt surface and sub-surface services. The planned improvements are certainly welcome (and not before time), but this subterranean hamster-run is likely to remain a cramped and wearying experience for the peak-time commuter for the foreseeable future.

Written by Arkady