The Past, Present and Future of Metropolitan Line Services: Part 1

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We reported last month that the Croxley Rail Link (CRL) scheme had been given the go-ahead, with the Transport and Works Act Order reported to be approved by the Secretary of State for Transport. Since then the inspector’s report and confirmation letter have appeared on the DfT website. Neither the report nor the letter contain any surprises, or anything significant that was not known at the time the written evidence to the inquiry was published. In fact the only real surprise was quite why it took so long to publish it. After all, it was expected out in the spring and there was nothing contentious in it – nothing contentious in the sense of it cannot be handled using the normal well established procedures.

Now that we know that the scheme will go ahead, it seems a good time to look at past, current and future service provision on the Metropolitan Line. Because we are looking at the Metropolitan Line, not the Metropolitan Railway, we should logically start in 1933 which is when the London Passenger Transport Board (LPTB) was formed. From this date onwards, the line became part of London Transport, rather than an independent railway. In fact, we will cheat a little bit and actually start in mid-1936, so that we do not get distracted by the Brill tramway or the very occasional train from Aylesbury to Verney Junction.

Also, in order not to complicate the story too much, we ignore the services that now form the Hammersmith & City Line and the East London Line – both of which were once part of a more complex, far-reaching Metropolitan Railway.

The Metropolitan Line in 1936

Large Met Diagram

Early Metropolitan diagram. Thanks to Ed Webster for making this picture freely available.
You may wish to click (or tap!) on it to make it larger.

The above photo of a Metropolitan Line diagram can be found in a preserved Metropolitan Line carriage, currently based at the Bluebell Railway. It shows the extent of the Metropolitan Line at some point between 1936 and 1939.

Ignoring minor details, such as the renaming of stations, this diagram shows four fundamental differences between the line then and the Metropolitan Line of today. These are:

  • The line used to go out all the way to Aylesbury, which may only be four stops beyond Amersham but is a considerable distance further. It also takes the line way beyond what could be considered to be the London urban area.
  • The branch line to Stanmore. This was opened late in 1932, but was only part of the Metropolitan Railway for four months before coming under control of the LPTB.
  • The stations on the slow lines between Wembley Park and Finchley Road inclusive.
  • The now-closed sub-surface stations of Swiss Cottage, Marlborough Road and St Johns Wood between Finchley Road and Baker Street. The current Swiss Cottage and St Johns Wood stations are deep level replacement stations and not the originals.

The Underground Line That Is Different

Then, as now, the Metropolitan Line was a line quite unlike the others of the London Underground. Indeed in many ways it is more a conventional overground railway that metamorphoses into a proper Underground service when it joins the Circle Line at Baker Street. The service to outer-suburban Uxbridge is a fairly conventional Underground service in nature, but for the remaining destinations north of Baker Street the distances involved and places served mean that it has many features of main-line services. These include some semi-fast services not stopping at all stations, some trains terminating at Baker St (the London “terminus”) and leaf-fall timetables in the autumn. In the outer sections it is definitely not a “turn up and go” railway.

The Metropolitan is also unique for featuring main line (currently National Rail) trains running on London Underground track with London Underground signalling – something that does not happen elsewhere on the network. Currently these are Chiltern Railways trains that run from Marylebone as far as Aylesbury Vale Parkway and use London Underground tracks from Harrow-On-The-Hill to Amersham. Under current signalling arrangements these trains have to have a tripcock fitted.

In 1936 the interlopers running on the LPTB system would have been LNER steam trains that ran out to Marylebone. They could come from much further away than they do now – from places such as Sheffield – and such a practice continued to a lesser extent in British Railways days. In a fascinating article about Watford (Met) Station Mike Horne recalls the day that the “Master Cutler” ended up there.

Despite being in many ways a main line railway, the Metropolitan Line in the late 1930s suffered from being, for the most part, a two track system. Only Between Finchley Road (inclusive) and Harrow-on-the-Hill (exclusive) was the line four-tracked. The four-track section did not exist for the purpose of maximising capacity. It was there to allow a combination of fast and stopping services to be run.

Chesham – Not Your Typical London Underground Station

Chesham station in particular epitomises the fact that the northern end of the Metropolitan Line is very different from the rest of the system and is almost reminiscent of the former Ongar station. The station is situated at the end of a long single track branch. It is one of the least used Underground stations and it only has a half-hourly service – even in the peak period. Aside from the fact that it is lightly used, the branch is so long (3.89 miles) that even if one wanted to provide a more intensive service it just could not be done without major infrastructure improvement.

Chesham is also a very untypical station on the Underground, being a single track terminus with a regular service throughout the day – something it shares only with Mill Hill East. It is however also one of the more pleasant stations to wait at for a train, with its preserved signal box, water tower and sunken garden located in a former platform. This is probably just as well, given its sparse service.

A Branch Too Many

Another particular feature that distinguishes the Metropolitan Line is its large number of branches (currently Amersham, Chesham, Uxbridge and Watford). Multiple branches are normally frowned upon in a metro system. In London though they are sometimes unavoidable for historical reasons. With the Metropolitan serving a rural-like population in some of its outer areas, and the need to have as great a catchment area as possible, it becomes more of a desirability than would otherwise be the case.

Until the formation of the LTPB, the Metropolitan Railway was a business with the objective of turning a profit. It therefore pushed out into the suburbs to maximise the number of passengers it could attract and for that reason it added yet another branch – to Stanmore, in 1932. Even the Metropolitan Railway, however, recognised that there was a limit to the number of branches you could add and soon developed plans to relieve the two-track sub-surface bottleneck between Finchley Road and Baker Street. The problems here were exacerbated by three closely spaced stations. In fact, by 1936 London Transport had already resorted to closing two of them in the morning peak period to maximise capacity on the line.

Stanmore1932Enlarged

Stanmore on opening day (December 9th 1932). Note the bunting. The train is formed of electric multiple unit stock but a set of points has been installed to enable an electric loco to “run round” the carriages – should that ever be necessary. The station name can just about be seen on a diamond which was a feature exclusive to the Metropolitan Railway until phased out by the LTPB.

The Metropolitan Railway had planned to solve the Finchley Road – Baker Street bottleneck by building a deep level tunnel of 15′ 6” internal diameter from Finchley Road station to Edgware Road station. Detailed plans were drawn but the only work that was carried out was the expansion of Edgware Road station from two platforms to four. When it became clear that the LPTB was about to take over the railway, the plans were abandoned.

The Metropolitan at Peak Capacity

In 1936 the Metropolitan Line timetable had an impressive 31 trains southbound running through Finchley Road in the morning peak hour. This was not actually a better service for passengers than one gets today, because although the trains were frequent they were also shorter. Moreover these 31 trains per hour (tph) included six trains originating from Stanmore and four trains (presumably stoppers) from Wembley Park. This service is now provided by the Jubilee Line, so a fairer comparison when comparing to the Metropolitan Line of today would be 21tph.

What was very different then was just how sparse the service was north of Rickmansworth. Just one of the 31 trains started from beyond Rickmansworth (Aylesbury in fact). So it seems that the Metropolitan Line north of Rickmansworth had just one train in the morning peak hour. Fortunately for travellers the overall service to London was, in fact, much better than that – there were two LNER trains, one from Aylesbury and one from Rickmansworth, that went to Marylebone.

When the Stanmore branch had opened four years earlier it initially attracted very little traffic. As a consequence it was initially served mostly by a shuttle to Wembley Park. The main reason for the lack of traffic was the outrageously expensive fares. In 1936 these were reduced in line with rival services and a massive increase in the number of users was recorded, leading to more through trains to and from Stanmore.

15 of those 31 trains per hour that went through Finchley Road continued to Aldgate and so presumably at least the bulk of the remainder terminated at Baker Street. It is possible one or two terminated at Moorgate or even, in those days, in the bay at Liverpool Street, but in both cases it would have been inconvenient due to the terminating platform being located to side of the running lines.

This level of service is even more impressive when one considers that the turn-around time at terminal platforms would have been eight minutes or less – and in some cases this would have been achieved by electric loco-hauled trains. Trains that ran throughout on electrified track – such as those to Watford and Uxbridge – were multiple unit stock, but trains originating from the un-electrified track north of Rickmansworth were hauled by an electric loco south of Rickmansworth.

The variety of services and configurations on the Metropolitan at the time mean that looking at photos from the time can become an interesting deductive exercise. The photo below, for example, shows a scene at Wembley Park in 1933. Note the unelectrified LNER tracks to the right of the picture. There is not another train in sight – something that would be unlikely today.

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Wembley Park in 1933

The electric loco is hauling just three carriages so, presumably, this is an off-peak service. We know we are looking south because of the position of the LNER tracks. As a further confirmation we can see the chimneys of Neasden Power Station in the distance. Since the train is loco hauled and not multiple unit we also know it is not destined for either Uxbridge or Stanmore. In fact the loco will go as far as Rickmansworth where either the train will terminate or a steam engine will be substituted for its onward journey – almost certainly to Aylesbury.

Loco-hauled trains would generally terminate at Baker Street. The incoming loco would have to be detached and another electric loco attached to the other end to take the carriages back on their northwards journey. When the train left, the incoming loco would then position itself at the other (country) end ready to take the next rake of carriages out. The track layout at Baker Street in 1913 was clearly designed for such working and one presumes it remained in place as long as locomotives were used.

Until as recently as 1960 the third and fourth rail only extended as far as Rickmansworth. It was there the electric loco had to be exchanged for a steam one to continue the journey to Aylesbury. This changeover was, by most accounts, reliably done in under four minutes – though as noted above it would have happened much more infrequently than one was led to suppose.

When it came to running a frequent service, the one advantage – and it was probably a big one – that the Metropolitan Line had in the 1930s was that the carriages had slam door stock, which resulted in shorter dwell times than can be achieved with sliding-door stock. Although the multiple unit stock was replaced by sliding-door stock in the 1950s, the hauled coaches survived until the early 1960s when the entire Metropolitan fleet was replaced with the silver A60/A62 stock.

The Bakerloo Takes Over

The problem of capacity on the Metropolitan must have been one of the first major issues that the newly formed LPTB felt they had to tackle. The board had the advantage of being able to take a broader view than the former Metropolitan Railway and the obvious solution was to take advantage of some spare capacity on the Bakerloo Line and build a pair of running tunnels to connect the slow lines of the Metropolitan Line at Finchley Road with the Bakerloo Line at Baker Street. As mentioned above, the three existing intermediate stations on the this section, which were really too close together, would be replaced by two new ones on the Bakerloo Line.

The main components of the proposed scheme were the running tunnels, the two new stations, an extra southbound station platform at Baker Street, segregating and changing the ordering of the fast and slow lines between Finchley Road and Wembley Park and of course additional rolling stock and depot space for the Bakerloo Line.

The extra southbound platform at Baker Street was provided in order to minimise delays in the event that two southbound trains should arrive together. The extra depot space was achieved by demolishing the existing Metropolitan Line Neasden depot and rebuilding it as a depot for both the Metropolitan and Bakerloo lines.

Of course, once the Bakerloo had taken over the local lines of the Metropolitan and the Stanmore branch it was now possible to run more longer distance Metropolitan Line trains. It would appear that the bulk of these augmented the previously derisory service north of Rickmansworth, with a loco change at Rickmansworth becoming a much more frequent occurrence.

A Success – But Not A Total One

The scheme relieved overcrowding considerably on the Metropolitan Line, which was divested of the Stanmore branch and all the stations except Finchley Road between Wembley Park and Baker Street. With the suburban development of the 1930s it was becoming necessary to provide a considerably enhanced service to these stations.

In retrospect, especially after the war was over, it was recognised that there was a major downside to the creation of this new branch of the Bakerloo Line which went from under-utilisation to overcrowding. Terminating 30tph at the southern Bakerloo line terminus of Elephant & Castle was also a considerable problem. To put that into context, the Victoria Line did not achieve 30tph at Brixton until 2012 when modern ATO – and the entire fleet of 2009 stock with its better acceleration and braking – was introduced.

One other major effect of the Bakerloo taking over the Metropolitan slow lines and the Stanmore branch was that the Metropolitan Line became even more like a main line railway and less like an underground line, with its fast service from Wembley Park to Baker Street. Sometimes trains did not even stop at Finchley Road, but today this is recognised as a very useful interchange with the Jubilee Line (which itself took over the Stanmore branch of the Bakerloo Line in 1979).

Metropolitan Four Tracking to Moor Park

The Stanmore Branch was actually transferred to the Bakerloo Line in November 1939 after war had broken out. Work was so nearly complete it made sense to finish the job off. Unfortunately a follow-up plan to four-track the Line through Harrow-on-the-Hill and all the way to just beyond Rickmansworth did not escape the consequences of war or the austerity that followed. It was not completed until 1962. The expense of the planned four-tracking through Rickmansworth station was thought to be an extravagance and so was cut back to just beyond Moor Park, where the line to Watford diverges. As we shall see in part 2 it would have been quite useful if Rickmansworth had been four tracked.

MoorPark1944enlarged

Moor Park in 1944. Clearly it is in a rural setting. The station is rather rudimentary with limited lighting. The wooden platform extension in the foreground would be uneven underfoot and not tolerated today. At this stage the line is only double track, but it is electrified.

Extending Electrification

When the time came to complete the electrification, started so many years earlier, it was recognised that electrifying all the way to Aylesbury on the four rail system was not very practical. In modern terminology, the ROI was very low – it would have been very expensive whilst only benefitting a relatively small number of people.

The distance from Amersham to Aylesbury is about the same as that from Harrow-on-the-Hill to Amersham, so the fact that Aylesbury is just four stops further down the line can be misleading. The technical reality was thus that it was a long way to go with an electrical system that was most appropriate for intensive urban operation in metal ringed tunnels, where there was a real benefit in keeping the voltage low despite the inefficiencies in power transmission that the system had. By way of contrast one only had to look to the east of London where Liverpool St – Shenfield had not only already been electrified with an overhead system, but had around this time already been upgraded to 25/6.25 kV.

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Amersham in 1944. There is almost nothing recognisable today that is in this photo. In fact the distinctive footbridge is about the only feature to link it to today’s station. Note that there were only two platforms and that there was no electric rail.

The decision was thus made to only electrify as far as Amersham and to hand over the track beyond Amersham for exclusive British Railways use. This would provide the stations between Amersham and Rickmansworth with a decent Metropolitan Line service for probably the first time ever. British Railways would then run a limited-stop DMU service between Aylesbury and Amersham and onward to Marylebone.

Looking back on the decision to electrify to Amersham, one wonders why it was felt necessary to do this rather than continue to have Rickmansworth as the outer limit. Service for stations beyond Rickmansworth could have been left to an improved British Railways DMU service from Aylesbury, or Amersham to Marylebone. It is difficult to know for certain, but it seems quite likely that this was partly as a result of the scheme being interrupted by the war. At the time of the original decision DMUs did not exist in any significant quantity and the only realistic options were steam or electric. Even when the first generation of DMUs did arrive they were prone to breakdowns and were fairly uncomfortable, so electrification would have been seen as a much more attractive alternative.

Service Frequencies from the 1960s to Present Day

Around 1960, prior to and immediately following electrification to Amersham, the number of Metropolitan trains per hour through Finchley Road had reduced slightly to 29tph. Although this was a very slight reduction in frequency, it would actually have represented an increase in capacity due to the longer trains. The need to slightly reduce the service can probably be explained by the fact that for the first time on some of the trains sliding doors were used instead of slam doors for each compartment, so dwell times would have been slightly longer.

An apparent further reduction in the peak period in 1962 from 29 to 27tph was also not a true reduction in service beyond Harrow-on-the-Hill, as the recently inaugurated DMU service from Aylesbury to Marylebone went up from two trains per hour to four. The reason given for transferring two train paths to what is now called Chiltern Railways is not clear, but it may have been due to increased demand beyond Amersham now that the stream trains had been superseded. It was presumably done with London Transport’s approval and it is notable that 27tph does seem to be roughly the highest frequency which London Underground nowadays feels comfortable with, at least without resorting to ATO.

What would appear to be puzzling is how the service managed to deteriorate over the years from 27tph (31tph to London including Marylebone) to the current offering of 22.5tph. The answer is probably simply lack of investment. Certainly towards the final days of ‘A’ stock the state of the trains and the track was so appalling that at one stage a blanket 50mph limit was imposed (it is currently 60 mph). There may also have been the issue that eventually trains were declared no longer fit for use as the stock aged, although there would have been a small respite from this when the East London Line (which also used ‘A’ stock) was closed.

The Immediate Past and Future

In part 2 we will look at recent changes including the ending of the Chesham shuttle, a controversial timetable change introduced in December 2011. We will also look at what effect (if any) the introduction of S8 stock has had so far on the timetable, and look forward to the proposed service to be introduced when the Croxley Rail Link is opened.


Much of the detail provided here for part 1 was unashamedly taken from “The Metropolitan Line” by Mike Horne and published by Capital Transport which is a recommended, information-packed, book for those wanting more details. His blog (also highly recommended), amongst other things, contains various articles on Marylebone, the Metropolitan and the Jubilee line north of Baker Street. The track layout of the Metropolitan Line in 1962, which is linked to as the “follow-up plan”, is part of this article.

The “a two track railway” link was taken from www.harsig.org which contains numerous signalling diagrams not only of the Metropolitan Line but of other London Underground lines also.

Our thanks go to the LT museum for allowing us to use their photos.

Written by Pedantic of Purley