Almost Terminal: Marylebone’s Brush With Destruction

Looking at the frequent services operated today by Chiltern Railways, it seems hard to believe that the rail lines into Marylebone were once seriously considered for closure. Yet back in the mid-1980s under-utilization of the route led to proposals to convert the line into a dedicated bus route, with the site of Marylebone station being converted into a bus station, or sold off to raise an estimated £10 million. Today this proposal and others like it – such as a plan to convert much of what now forms London Overground north of the river into roads – are mostly forgotten. Yet for a time the possibility was very real, and London may have been left with a rail landscape very different from that which exists today.

Setting the scene

Proposals for converting railways into roads dated back several decades. Probably the most detailed argument in favour of the idea was put forward by Brigadier Thomas Ifan Lloyd, CBE, DSO, MC, in his 1957 booklet superbly titled Twilight of the Railways – What Roads They’ll Make! This set out, over some 80 pages, his argument that the line-by-line closure not just in London, but of the entire British railway system and its conversion into roads would lead to a far more efficient transport system for the country. Two years earlier Lloyd had addressed the Institute of Civil Engineers on the same topic, and the booklet is a development of this address. It is worth looking briefly at some of his points.

In 1957 Britain had no motorways. The M1 was still two years away from completion. There were, according to Lloyd, some 186,000 miles of road in the country, and around 20,000 miles of railway. Conversion of this into roads would thereby give an almost 11% increase in the length of road. The new roads would not be part of the existing road network (which he termed ‘service roads’ as they serviced the majority of the population); instead, they would form a segregated network of high-speed roads, with the following features:

  • Stopping and ‘dawdling’ would be forbidden.
  • There would be no junctions, other than left-hand entries and exits where the new roads passed near the existing roads, usually at the sites of former stations.
  • The road surfaces would conform to standards laid down by the Road Research Laboratory.
  • Pedestrians and animals would be prohibited.
  • Only thoroughly roadworthy vehicles with competent drivers would be allowed.

These factors, combined with the gentle curves and easy gradients of most railways would allow the average speed to be around 60 mph, as opposed to the 28 mph achieved on existing roads.

Thus far the Brigadier’s proposals sound remarkably like some of the requirements for the design and operation of motorways. However, he also considered the vehicles that were to be used. Many would be standard road vehicles, switching between the two networks at the places that stations had previously been, probably with staff checking that the vehicle and its driver were ‘roadworthy’ and ‘competent’. Some vehicles would be dedicated to the new network, and would have rather specialized features. With the gentle curves on the new roads, length would matter less, and high-capacity lorries over 60 feet long were foreseen (about the same size as today’s articulated lorries). The wheels would be placed in front of and behind the vehicle, allowing the main body to be carried low to the ground (providing greater stability), and the wheels to be much larger, with lower tyre pressures; steering would allow them to turn in their own length (presumably the wheels would act almost like castors). Long-distance coaches would be of a similar size. Bus stations and freight terminals would be constructed on the site of goods yards and sidings.

The Railway Conversion League

In the late 1950s the Railway Conversion League (RCL) was formed by Major Angus Dalgleish as a pressure group urging the creation of roads along the line of railways, again in London and beyond, through conversion of the permanent way as described by Lloyd. With the motto “Greater than the tread of mighty armies is an idea whose time has come”, the RCL published brochures into the 1970s and beyond, and cited examples from around the UK where railways, often closed by Dr Beeching, had been successfully converted. Dubious economic assumptions were made: the cost of the conversion work would fall as contractors gained much experience (despite considering the task to be a fairly straightforward job of laying tarmac), but no inflation was taken into account. A number of their publications (focusing on both London and beyond) can be found on the website of Transport Watch UK.

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One of the Railway Conversion League’s many publications

What seems to have entirely passed by all of those who supported conversion was that roads require a wider formation than railways. A piece of land wide enough for a double-track railway can only accommodate a single-carriageway road, and a four-track railway formation is not wide enough to take a dual carriageway. The RCL described motorways as “a very costly method of providing road-space”, and considered two-lane single-carriageway roads to be perfectly adequate. They published figures showing that the number of passengers who could be transported on coaches along such a road was the same, if not more, than could have travelled by train on the railway; however, without hard shoulders or verges, a single breakdown or slower vehicle would have drastically reduced the capacity of the road. By 1970 the concept of having controlled access to the new roads, only permitted for approved vehicles and drivers, had been dropped. It is therefore strange to see that the League thought that their new roads of motorway speed but not standard would provide comparable safety.

In fairness to the RCL, the research and experience that allows us to know today that traffic tends to increase to use up available road capacity was not available in the 1960s and 1970s; the roads of Britain had not approached their limits, and motorway building was still adding substantial lengths of fresh tarmac each year. In hindsight, we can raise a smile at the thought that the converted railways would be high-speed, safe roads with moderate traffic, knowing instead that a single accident or even a motorist intent on driving 15 mph below the speed limit will rapidly spread a wave of congestion.

Into the 1980s

A number of disused railway alignments had been converted into roads before 1980, but although the RCL enjoyed highlighting these for the most part they were short and fairly local. The average length of the schemes listed in The Conversion of Railways into Roads in the United Kingdom was 2½ km. Highlights for them included the Coastal Road leading out of Southport (on the trackbed of the North Liverpool Extension line of the Cheshire Lines Committee railways), and Yeadon Way in Blackpool (along the approach to the fomer Blackpool Central station). Whilst certainly being beneficial to these two towns, they hardly formed the type of long-distance high-speed road suggested by Lloyd in 1957 nor provided compelling evidence for doing the same in London. The momentum for which the RCL campaigned was just not building.

Tarmacking the Great Central

What does not appear to have been recorded before is the detail of the proposal to convert the ex-Great Central railway line in the London area into a road. This appeared in The Economist in 1972, and was suggested as being an opportunity to perform an experiment into the process. However, serious consideration started when the National Bus Company (NBC) commissioned Professor Peter Hall, a transport expert at Reading University, to investigate whether Marylebone could be converted into a coach station with a dedicated coachway through the tunnels to the north. Hall could not really be considered to be an unbiased author, having co-authored a 1976 report advocating rail-road conversion, called Making Better Use of Railways. His report for the NBC, entitled Great Central Busway : a study of possible rail-to-busway conversion of the British Rail Marylebone lines was published in late 1983 and recommended that the coachway should connect to the A40 via a new link road about 1 km long at Northolt.

Hall estimated that around 250,000 coaches could use the new terminus each year, serving coach stops at the sites of the closed stations en route. If the station building at Marylebone was to be reused as the coach station then it could be opened in 1987 and costs could be kept to around £10.3 million. A greater return could be had, for a larger-up-front cost, if the station was demolished and redeveloped with coach facilities at ground level.

Elsewhere in London

Another report was being prepared in parallel with that of the NBC. Peter Parker, the Chairman of BR had commissioned Coopers & Lybrand Associates to investigate rail-roadway conversion in the London area. A Report on the potential for the conversion of some railway routes in London into roads was published in March 1984. It evaluated seven routes:

  • The West London Line from Latchmere Junction to Holland Park, and perhaps on to Willesden Junction
  • The Dudding Hill line from Cricklewood to Acton, and then the North London Line to Kew Bridge
  • The Hounslow Loop from Kew Bridge to Barnes
  • The North London Line from Willesden Junction to Hackney Wick
  • The South London Line from Clapham to Peckham
  • The LTS line from Fenchurch Street to Shoeburyness
  • The ‘Chiltern Line’ route

The first six routes were quickly discounted by the report’s authors. The West London Line and Dudding Hill lines were seen as alternatives, both of which carried sufficient volumes of railway traffic to be profitable and therefore make the cost of conversion less attractive. Nevertheless, the West London Line was felt to be more attractive for conversion.

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The routes proposed in the Coopers & Lybrand report

The cost of replacing level crossings by bridges on the Hounslow Loop reduced the value of converting it into a road. The heavy commuter traffic would also mean that this road would be heavily trafficked from the start.

The North London Line route was dropped for two different reasons. West of Camden Road it would be too difficult to convert: Hampstead Heath Tunnel would have required significant and expensive work, the viaduct between Kentish Town West and Camden Road was too narrow and curved, and six overbridges between Willesden and Kilburn would have required reconstruction. East of Camden Road the loss of revenue from both passenger and freight trains rendered the proposal uneconomic.

The South London Line, threaded between houses on a viaduct, carried heavy commuter traffic on certain sections, and as such only the route between Clapham and Peckham was seen as convertible. The formation was too narrow to form a safe roadway, and was therefore rejected.

The proposed route from Fenchurch Street to Shoeburyness, which would be formed by converting the LTS railway, was rejected for similar reasons to the North London Line. West of Bow the route was not physically conducive to conversion, being on viaduct with some sharp curves. To the east, conversion would displace intensive passenger and freight services. The report suggested that the physical constraints were such that if converted it would only be suitable for buses. Transfer of the commuter traffic from trains to buses would not be profitable, and so this proposal was also thrown out.

The Chiltern Proposals

The Chiltern Line section considered four different parts of the line for conversion, in differing levels of detail.

The outermost section, from Aylesbury to Claydon Junction, was considered only briefly. The only benefits would be to provide improved access to a number of villages north of Aylesbury, and an alternative route into central Aylesbury in parallel with the A41. Conversion was not justified.

The single-track line from Princes Risborough to Aylesbury would provide a bypass to the towns along its route, but the cost of altering seven underbridges and the low traffic potential caused this section to be discounted.

The main line route from Northolt Junction to Princes Risborough had the width to make a good road in most places, but would have resulted in the closure of stations with good commuter traffic such as Gerrards Cross, Beaconsfield, and High Wycombe, and the provision of a replacement bus service. Freight services would need rerouting. The expectation would be that this closure would be in parallel with closure of the line to Marylebone and that the line north of Princes Risborough would be abandoned. If the route was to be a dedicated busway then a transit station would have been built at Denham, near the M25, presumably for passengers to transfer onto the bus services. However, the nail in the coffin for this conversion was that it was paralleled by both the M40 and A40 roads, and there was little demand for a third route in this corridor.

The only section that was given detailed analysis was that from Marylebone station to Northolt Junction. The road would have to be of restricted capacity because of the tunnels south of Canfield Place, and so would be either limited to cars, or become a busway for single-deck buses and coaches. Both would have a 6.7 m carriageway and would start with a road junction with the A312 at Northolt. Intermediate junctions would be provided with the A404 Harrow Road at Sudbury and the A406 North Circular Road at Neasden, and the southern end would connect with the A41 Park Road just south of the Regent’s Canal, at Alpha Close. The only restriction would be at West Hampstead, where the West End Lane bridge could not be widened and the road would have to be narrowed to a width of 5.9 m. The general speed limit for both types of road would be 40 mph (rather less than Brigadier Lloyd had hoped).
The changes required to railway services with the closure of Marylebone were threefold. Firstly, the consultants assumed that services north of Amersham would remain operated by BR diesel trains. Secondly, services from the High Wycombe branch would be diverted into Paddington via the route south of Northolt Junction. And finally, the stations at Wembley Stadium, Sudbury & Harrow Road, Sudbury Hill Harrow, and Northolt Park would be closed. The cost of a bus service linking these stations was factored into the proposal; the views of users of these stations was not.

The consultants estimated the costs for the two roads to be similar, with the busway being £15.7 million, and the road for cars just £200,000 more. The key point for BR was getting a return on the investment, and this was to be either through direct tolling of users, or the payment of ‘shadow tolls’ by the Department of Transport, whereby the DoT would pay BR based on measured road traffic. Shadow tolls had the advantage of not requiring toll booths or electronic equipment for tracking cars, and would be unlikely to deter motorists who would not see the payments, even though ultimately they would come from general taxation. Traffic estimates for the road with shadow tolls were 10,500 cars per day between Northolt and Sudbury, 19,800 onward to Neasden, and 15,900 on the final section to Marylebone. By charging the DoT between 3.5p and 6p per car-kilometre, BR would be paid £1.9 million to £3.92 million per annum, a rate of return of between 10% and 19.6%. By contrast, the income from direct tolls would be just £0.89 million, a return of 3.5%. If the road was constructed as a busway, it was estimated that it would need to carry 1,000 vehicles per day, and passengers would have to be charged a 25p-45p supplement to get the same level of return as the shadow tolls would provide on the car-only road.

Other factors at work

By the early 1980s the largely self-contained Chiltern network was run down. The Class 115 slam-door diesel trains and signalling systems were old and approaching the point at which replacement was becoming more necessary. Lack of funding within BR meant that the prospect of saving these costs, as well as getting a financial return for the Marylebone station site, was looking increasingly popular. The Great Central Hotel, opposite Marylebone was occupied by BR’s administrative offices. It would therefore be straightforward to transfer these to another BR property (Euston was most likely) and then sell the hotel with the station site, which would bring in an estimated £10 million.

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Marylebone September 1985, the 1825 to Aylesbury and the 1758 to High Wycombe visible. The platforms on the right, and the roof bay, were removed when the line was resignalled and modernised. Photo and caption courtesy Richard Allen.

As rumours and early hints of the plans began to appear, a fierce media and passenger campaign was soon being fought to keep Marylebone open. This was started by a report in the Bucks Free Press about the rumoured closure. A meeting of concerned commuters was held in Aylesbury Civic Centre in October 1983 (months before the report was published), and declared opposition to any plans to close the lines out of Marylebone. The objections continued via a selection of transport users’ groups and local newspapers throughout 1984. BR had formally announced its plans to close the station on 15 March, and in July the statutory closure consultation process started, with objections to be sent to the London Regional Passengers Committee (LRPC – the forerunner of London TravelWatch) who would determine whether closure would result in hardship. The timing was described as ‘underhand tactics’ in the press, being during the holiday period when many commuters might be away and thus less likely to write in with letters of objection. The complaints were such that BR was forced to extend the deadline for comments by six weeks.

On 24 October 1984 the MP for Chesham and Amersham, Sir Ian Gilmour, spoke at a well-attended meeting of protestors held at Beaconsfield Town Hall, arguing that BR had been secretive with its closure plans. Gordon Pettitt, BR’s Deputy Director of London and South East Services attended and heard the local feelings against closure. There was then a lull in hostilities until the public inquiry was scheduled to start in late February 1985. The Marylebone Travellers Association raised funds to pay for a barrister to present their case at the inquiry.

A turning tide

It was at this point that the case for closure began to unravel. BR postponed the public inquiry until May, admitting that it had some of its figures wrong. In May the inquiry was again postponed, this time on legal grounds, for a month. Further publicity for the lines out of Marylebone was being obtained through operation of steam specials and other railtours. Also in May 1985 the Chiltern Line name was adopted: perhaps BR was starting to think that the railway was not beyond saving. The June dates for the public inquiries also passed without anything starting, apparently because of pressure being placed on the LRPC by various public authorities and campaign groups. The LRPC had decided not to allow the objectors to cross-examine BR officials directly, which led to concerns that there was a cover-up taking place, and then to a legal challenge in the High Court by Brent Borough Council. The case was rejected, but was then taken to the Court of Appeal. In November 1985 the Court of Appeal dismissed the case, but Brent then sought permission to have the case heard in the House of Lords.

London Underground was also concerned by the plans now. Originally, the suggestion had been that London Transport had would put on extra services to Baker Street to replace the British Rail trains, something that London Underground had agreed to in principle back in 1983 when they had felt that the Metropolitan line could absorb the additional passengers. It was now 1985 though, and their new Travelcards and Capitalcards, allowing unlimited travel on the Underground and buses, were proving to be very successful. This was contributing to rising passenger numbers following many years of decline, and it was realized that Baker Street would no longer have the capacity to handle the displaced passengers from Marylebone. Put simply, passenger numbers at Baker Street had now increased by 15% since 1983 and if the passengers catching the BR trains into Marylebone from the Amersham route were transferred to the Metropolitan line as well, then London Underground faced the prospect of having to deal with overcrowded A Stock trains.

The wrangling over the future of the line rumbled on with the date for the public inquiry still remaining a mystery. It was subsequently revealed that this was because BR was also reconsidering its plans not just in the light of the passenger increases on the Metropolitan line but also because of the impact at Paddington main-line station. Under the original proposal, trains from the High Wycombe branch would be diverted here but it increasingly seemed like Paddington might now struggle to handle the passengers diverted from that line.

The reprieve

In April 1986 Brent Borough Council was refused leave to appeal its case to the House of Lords; however, on 30 April BR announced that Marylebone and the lines northwards were to be reprieved. Part of the station site was to be sold for property development, but money was to be invested in the Chiltern Line. Station refurbishment was now planned, and a new fleet of trains was being mooted.

The Network SouthEast brand was created by BR in June 1986, led by Chris Green. He was an innovative railway manager, and had lobbied hard within BR against the closure of the Chiltern Line (although his job had been to manage the closure when he moved to the BR London and South East management). He then persuaded the BR Board to use the Chiltern Line as a test-bed for new signalling and train protection systems – one of the advantages of the line being largely self-contained. Suddenly, a line that was being considered for closure was allocated £85 million in investment. Total Route Modernization was now the name of the game. Control of signalling across the line was managed from a new control centre at Marylebone as part of the £12 million spent on signalling, with full Automatic Train Protection provided. The 1960s trains were replaced in 1991 by a fleet of Class 165 Networker Turbos, comprising 89 carriages in 2- and 3-car sets, and these were maintained at a new £4 million depot at Aylesbury. The track was renewed. Marylebone had £1 million spent on its refurbishment, which included removal of the central cab road and its replacement by two new platforms; this allowed two existing platforms on the west of the station to be removed and the land sold for office development.

A satisfactory conclusion

Ultimately, the Marylebone to Northolt Junction section of line was the only piece from all those considered in the Coopers & Lybrand report to have a case for conversion, and it is fortunate that these proposals were not carried out. The difficulties in converting the line, the negotiations that would have been necessary to get shadow tolls paid (something that has come about today, but is probably only feasible with modern monitoring and computing equipment), but mostly the rise in passenger numbers in the mid-1980s all killed off the scheme, and today the Chiltern Line is one of the UK’s best-performing train operators. Following the completion of the Evergreen 2 programme, Marylebone has been upgraded to have six platforms – more than it ever had before – and has recently introduced its new ‘Mainline’ services, which are rivalling the West Coast main line trains to Birmingham. The fastest services take just 90 minutes, only six minutes longer than West Coast main-line Pendolinos, and fares are for the most part rather less expensive.

Had rail services been withdrawn more widely, as described above, it is probable that the section of line north of Amersham would have reverted to London Transport ownership. It is unlikely that LT would have retained a small fleet of diesel trains to shuttle between Aylesbury and Amersham, and indeed the management of BR’s London Midland Region suggested that the line be electrified. One option was for this to have been done ‘on the cheap’, by singling the line except at stations. No detailed plans ever appear to have been made though, as the closure proposal never progressed far enough.

Written by Abe