Diving Into The Fleet: A Look At London’s Lost Tube
A major river used by the Romans, the Fleet is the largest of London’s lost subterranean rivers. Flanked by great wharves, for centuries it was a gateway to the City. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, its purpose had changed completely. By then little more than a sewer, it had been bricked over and all but forgotten.
Lashed by the twin tides of London politics and finance, the Fleet Tube line has enjoyed a similar history. Seen for many years as a high-profile new addition to London’s Tube network along the line of Fleet Street, at some periods of its history its planned route changed almost every year. Eventually it would emerge, repurposed and renamed, as the Jubilee, with its Fleet origins all but forgotten.
In this article we explore the plans, built structures and remnants of that forgotten Fleet line and its path to becoming the Jubilee. We look at the many proposals and plans, the Fleet line works that were actually started, those abandoned, and explore the changes and the thinking that took place thanks to London’s changing political makeup right up until 1979, when the newly-christened Jubilee line finally opened.
The origins of an idea
Notwithstanding the plethora of plans from the 1930’s onwards for a line on a northwest to east or southeast corridor, the first concrete plan for a Tube along the Fleet Street alignment appeared 1965. In that year, London Transport (LT) and British Rail (BR) jointly produced “A Railway Plan for London.”
The report argued that an 8% decline in inner suburban mainline rail commuting to Central London would occur between 1966 and 1973. Beyond that, there would be growth in outer suburban London commuting through into the 1980s whilst inner mainline demand would continue to decline.
As far as the report was concerned, this forecast meant that there would be a net commuting gain, but that this would be focused on outer London and the Tube, which would become increasingly crowded at peak times.
A report unpublished
In effect the 1965 Railway Plan was a ‘Beeching for London’, suggesting a major reduction in British Rail (BR) inner suburban London services due to the decline of inner London main line commuting.
The then-new Labour government had a wafer-thin majority though, and post-Beeching a vocal anti-rail line closure campaign had sprung up. Memories of the North London Line being marked for closure were still fresh, and the publication of anything which had suggested cut-backs for this or other mainline London railways would have lit the fuse on a London-wide reaction.
Critically aware of the political dynamite it contained, the government effectively suppressed the report by never officially publishing, nor was it widely circulated even behind closed doors.
Though the report might, on the surface, seem like part of the then-prevalent trend to downplay the role of the railways, reading between the lines it is clear that in fact the opposite was true. Both LT and BR, its authors, were deeply unhappy about railways being side-lined in prevailing planning policies nationwide, and the report was actually a polite and pragmatic protest against this.
Indeed its recommendations were couched in more positive terms than the problems and trends it posited. It argued for a rationalisation of some existing BR lines and services certainly, but also (amongst other things) extensions of the Victoria Line to Brixton and the Piccadilly Line spur from Aldwych to Waterloo.
The Fleet emerges
The report also specifically recommended a new “Fleet Tube” to take over the Stanmore section of the Bakerloo line. This, it stated, should also relieve the Bakerloo in central London by then tunnelling to:
- Bond Street
- Trafalgar Square (now Charing Cross)
- Strand (Aldwych)
- Fleet Street
- Ludgate Circus (future City Thameslink station)
- Cannon Street
- Fenchurch Street
The choice of stations made sense. Each proposed stop, as with the Victoria Line then under construction, was aimed at providing interchange with as many other Tube and mainline rail lines as possible for maximum network connectivity and redundancy. Fenchurch Street was also the only London mainline railway terminal without a direct Underground interchange and it was thus seen as important to have the Fleet serve it.
A proposal accepted
These days, as with the birth of Crossrail and current efforts to bring Crossrail 2 to fruition, it is most often securing central government funding that is the major problem to overcome. This was not the case with the Fleet, which was in fact cautiously welcomed by the Treasury. They were prepared to commit a percentage of funding to the first stage of the project should it proceed. This they felt was justified on the back of the early Victoria line success, and because since the 1940’s the West End section of the Bakerloo (which had two busy suburban branches feeding it) had been the most overcrowded on the network – a situation the Fleet was specifically intended to alleviate.
Transport planning, however, always happens within a larger context of political policies and priorities, and the Fleet’s development was hindered not by central government obstinacy but by London’s own changing governance, and by a political obsession with the car.
The politics of London and the car
The 1960s and 1970s were to be a period of political upheaval in London. The 1963 London Government Act had created the Greater London Council, which was operational from January 1965. It was a much larger area than the former London County Council, which had become outdated due to its late Victorian era boundaries.
The GLC was meant to be a strategic body, so transport featured as one of its policy pillars. Yet the London Transport Board, a nationalised industry board, remained independent from the GLC from 1965 right through to the end of 1969. The British Railways Board also stayed independent, so this limited the range of transport controls and inputs that the new GLC could actually embrace.
The GLC was Conservative-led from 1965 to 1973 and was mesmerised by the projected doubling of car ownership in London from 1962 until 1984. As a result, its approach was to focus on investment to accommodate cars for suburban travel and to access London’s town centres right up to the edge of Central London, assisted by new radial roads and the Ringways motorways as a Primary Road Network. These ideas were submitted to the 1969-74 Greater London Development Plan (GLDP) inquiry with only token recognition of public transport as a priority mode for Central London commuting in the plan.
In total, the GLC planned to invest £1.1bn in roads and Ringways, and hoped to secure the bulk of funding for this from the Government. It was only in Phase 3 of the London Transportation Study (the ‘Movement in London’ report of 1969) that modelled options for improvements to public transport began to be taken seriously.
A backlash begins
The size of planned road spending and the unavoidable urban destruction along the length of the new roads, however, did not appeal to all within the Capital. Indeed it further encouraged the belief among many inner London communities and stakeholders that the private car was not appropriate for high density parts of London. They were not alone in this thinking. The 1963 Buchanan Report ‘Traffic in Towns’ had argued the same.
Eventually this counter-road reaction coalesced into groups such as Homes Before Roads and the Campaign Against the Lorry Menace (CALM), as well as vocal concerns from many civic societies and the more environmentally-aware elements of the national media.
All these tensions and the changing wider belief in the need to focus on public transport ultimately had an effect. Rather than follow the GLC’s line, the GLDP inquiry’s main transport outcomes were ultimately a much-reduced roads programme and increased priority for public transport. In parallel, London’s population levels had bottomed out by the mid 1970’s and started recovering, and the GLC had gained control of London Transport. Both gradually helped wean the GLC off its roads-first policies, and to adopt a pro-public transport/walking policy in inner and Central London.
Initial planning of the Fleet line
Unsurprisingly, given that the full Fleet line build out to New Cross and Lewisham was forecast in the late 1960’s to cost only £57m (approximately £900m in 2015), it had been clear throughout to London Transport that this Tube line would be more affordable to construct through inner southeast London than additional roads.
The shift in GLC thinking thus put its development firmly on the table and the council agreed to fund 25% of the Fleet line’s overall development, although the government remained committed to provide 75% for Stage 1 only – as it was the relief this stage provided to the Bakerloo that they felt represented the best value for money.
In this area, the Fleet was something of a pioneer – for it was one of the first instances in which the now-familiar process of evaluating a business case for a new line was used. This business case evaluated the benefit-cost ratio of the Fleet Line as only around 1.0, but it was understood at the time that relief of other Tube lines and other benefits were not monetised in this calculation. These benefits were recognized to be:
- Increased frequencies on the Bakerloo line north of Baker Street, by the Fleet Line taking over the Stanmore branch and simplifying the Bakerloo’s operations and increasing throughput.
- Relief of the Central and District Lines in Central London, as well as eventually the BR Southern Region’s south east division.
The transport models available at that time could not calculate the financial benefits of affected tube lines, so educated estimates were made.
A London Transport (LT) Fleet Line planning committee in 1969 also looked at a degree of integration with the then dominant car policies prevailing in the GLC. A 1,000 space car park was intended at Lewisham to pull in car commuters to the (later stages of the) Fleet line, linked to intended new road schemes including an A2 spur from Kidbrooke alongside the railway through Blackheath.
Parliamentary powers for Stage I of the Fleet line were granted in 1969 to Charing Cross, and the corresponding construction was approved in 1971 as Victoria Line construction was winding down, LT having successfully argued that keeping this line’s construction team together would save on costs.
Construction of the Fleet was to be split into stages to spread out the funding, as it had been on the Victoria Line:
- Stage I – Stanmore to Charing Cross
- Stage II – Charing Cross to Fenchurch Street
- Stage III – Fenchurch St to Lewisham, boring tunnels under the Thames; or
- Stage III and IV – Fenchurch Street to Thamesmead
The staged plan would also allow lessons learnt from earlier stages to be applied to later ones, spread out construction expenditures and, as there was considerable doubt over the final destination of the line, provide flexibility for route changes. Furthermore, work planned or already underway along the preliminary route was altered to allow for the new Tube, such as
the reconstruction of Cannon Street in 1968-70, at which provision was made to allow access for Stage II of the Fleet. Cannon Street Fleet Line station was to be double-ended, lying between the mainline railway station and Monument, providing an interchange to the Northern line via Bank station at the latter.
In the above map, note at the centre of Ludgate Circus the “Fleet Bridge, site of” annotation which refers to the bridge over New Canal (Fleet River) built by Christopher Wren in 1680. Also note the Snow Hill (now Thameslink) tunnel tracks just east of the Circus, with City Thameslink station since built at the south east quadrant. In the 1760s New Canal was filled in and arched over from Fleet Street to the Thames to become New Bridge Street.
The Fleet line would then proceed into southeast London in later stages to take over BR’s Hayes Line. Interestingly, this Hayes Line has since been mooted to become an extension of the Bakerloo Line (aka the Haykerloo), as described in LR article Death, Taxes and Lewisham: Extending the Bakerloo.
Construction gets underway
Unfortunately by the late 1960s the backlog and neglect of transport investment since the 1940s required immediate funding of new Tube trains and buses, as well as completing the Victoria line and its new Automatic Train Operation system, so little was left for the Fleet line. Beeching’s 1965 Railway Plan for London proposals were actually implemented in a less drastic form in South London than North London, so there was also less of a ‘knock-on’ urgent pressure for new Tubes in South London.
Even as the original scheme (via New Cross to Lewisham) went through the stages of design, parliamentary approval, government funding authorisation and initial construction, its objectives continued to be tweaked in response to changing demands. Indeed during the process the potential need for a rapid transit line to serve the Docklands redevelopment area also emerged, for which various Fleet line route options were considered. Nonetheless it was hoped that all four phases of Fleet line construction would be completed by 1980.
Preparatory works, and New Cross (Gate) and Lewisham
As of 1971, the Secretary of State was tasked with investigating improvements to the Docklands. This led to Stage III of the original Fleet line being given Royal Assent to extend to New Cross. The line would then continue towards Lewisham and possibly take over a commuter rail line. The Fleet line Stage III plan was changed towards Wapping to take over the East London Line’s Thames Tunnel, which would save the cost of boring a new tunnel under the Thames. The East London Line (ELL) would then have been cut back to a Shoreditch – Wapping shuttle, or just closed.
As the ELL then had only 10 million passengers per year, only slightly more than the 9 million passengers carried by the two station Waterloo & City line, and did not enter central London, sacrificing it for a busier Fleet line made sense. No mention seems to have been made as to whether extending Wapping and Rotherhithe stations for full-length (Fleet) tube trains was considered or just closing them.
What is certainly true is that an alternate alignment was studied for a new tunnel under the Thames dedicated to the Fleet, which could handle more capacity and did not require platform lengthening on the ELL – where short platforms are still problematic on today’s London Overground.
Some preparatory work on stages II and III was also authorised at the time:
- Overrun tunnels beyond Charing Cross under the Strand to about 100 metres short of Aldwych, which was to be the first station of Stage 2.
- A passage at Holborn Viaduct (since replaced by City Thameslink).
- A short station box under Cannon Street station forecourt to allow access to the future Fleet line.
- The deep piled foundations of Bush Lane House near Cannon Street station. These were designed in a complex advanced structure to make room for the Fleet line going through.
- Geological drilling to determine the extent of difficult soil conditions in south London.
- Station land was purchased at Lewisham.
Stage I begins
Construction started on the first stage of the Fleet in 1971 with a cross-platform interchange between the Bakerloo and Fleet lines constructed at Baker Street, a passenger convenience adopted from the Victoria line.
At Baker Street the Stanmore branch of the Bakerloo line was joined to a new 4km tunnelled segment to Bond Street, Green Park, and Charing Cross, with lasers used to align the tunnelling machines. These were run past the final station to dig overrun tunnels under the Strand almost to Aldwych station in anticipation of the go-ahead for Stage II. The Charing Cross Fleet line station was constructed between the Bakerloo line’s Trafalgar Square station platforms and the Northern line’s Strand station platforms, to merge the three stations into one complex for better passenger interchange. This work was complicated by the need to underpin the 300 ton Eleanor Cross which was atop the ticket hall extension. The existing Charing Cross station just to the south on the District and Circle lines was then renamed Embankment.
There are excellent photos of the abandoned Charing Cross station on the Abandoned Stations site.
Aldwych station’s unused platform and passageways were used in 1974 to create a full size mock up to design the new Fleet tube Bond Street station.
Experimental Tunnelling in South London
South London’s soggy, water logged soil had always been a barrier to Tube tunnelling, resulting in only one Tube line being tunnelled extensively south of the Thames (the Northern).
In February 1972, to prove a Tube could be dug along the newly approved tunnel alignment south of the Thames to New Cross, LT built a short stretch of experimental tunnel. The goal was to discover how the recently invented Bentonite Shield would work in the water-logged soil without using compressed air. This tunnel section just north of New Cross station, facing northwest, was intended to form part of the eventual northbound tunnel to Lewisham and was thus dug for approximately 180 meters. This could also be viewed as a further LT attempt to get investment priorities committed towards the Lewisham extension.
Although the later Jubilee line did not ultimately progress along this New Cross alignment, the test tunnel demonstrated the efficacy of the Bentonite Shield through water soaked soils. Modified versions of the Bentonite Shield were later used on the extension of the Jubilee line from Green Park to Westminster, which pushed British civil engineering practices forward by using compensatory grouting techniques to prevent Big Ben falling into the Thames. This Bentonite Shield technique was further improved to an exact science by Crossrail. For more details on the tunnel, read Ianvisits excellent article on the subject.
As development of the Fleet plans continued, so did the need for a focus on the Docklands increase. This had not been foreseen as a planning priority until the late 1960’s, when the traditional docks started to decline. The GLC’s Deputy Leader at that time, Horace Cutler, launched a review of initial Docklands planning and regeneration issues, with a large two-volume ‘Docklands’ report developed between 1970 and 1972. This report favoured a spine transport corridor (road, minitram or rail) cutting across the Thames at numerous places. This was because the existing Docklands railway geography had radial lines that shunned the area, leaving service only by occasional freight (and even more occasional passenger) spurs and branches.
This wasn’t the only report that increased pressure to factor the Docklands into the equation. In 1973 Travers Morgan produced a Docklands Study, commissioned by the Department of the Environment and the GLC, to investigate possible rail connections to meet the area’s needs. As little redevelopment was expected in the area at that time, this study recommended an LRT or rubber-tyred minitram connecting to the Stage II Fleet line at Fenchurch Street. This soon mutated into a Tube scheme, however.
LT in parallel published a Docklands Land Use report in 1973 by Llewellyn Davies Forestier Weeks & Bor which advocated that the Fleet line should serve Surrey Docks with a new high-density housing development there which could take advantage of the route. So here were more planning options – should the Tube follow the Docklands Spine logic, or should redevelopment follow part of the original Tube route? Surrey Docks was of course a valid Docklands option.
The GLC gets its way
We have already noted that the London Transport Executive was devolved in 1970 from nationalised industry status to being a subsidiary of the GLC. Thus the paradox of LT in 1973 still trying to justify its Fleet line extension to Lewisham, whilst its parent GLC was forging ahead with alternative aspirations for a Docklands spine. The desire to serve Lewisham, with intermediate high density housing echoes today with the Old Kent Road regeneration area on the current Bakerloo extension scheme as an intermediate point towards southeast London.
After several years’ struggle though the GLC began to insist that LT work to its direction, not to LT’s own internal priorities. This was signalled at the end of 1974 by the departure of ex-civil servant LT chairman Sir Richard (Sam) Way, and a more politically amenable LT chairman being installed, Kenneth Robinson, a former Labour MP and Minister.
Thus eventually the GLC won out and, amongst larger changes, Fleet line planning was redirected to a cross-Thames Docklands corridor/spine. Powers were secured in due course for a Fleet line extension via the Royal Docks to Woolwich and Thamesmead.
The River line
The GLC support for a Docklands-focused Tube option instead of a southeast Tube to Lewisham really shines through in the 1974 London Rail Study (LRS), a joint Department of Transport and GLC report with huge input from LT and BR. This was intended to provide an agreed basis for railway priorities for the next decade and beyond and focused very much on the Docklands option.
Unsurprisingly, this proposal attracted a new name of its own, the ‘River line’, to reflect the river spine corridor that it would serve.
The LRS recommended the line extend from Fenchurch Street to serve the east Thames, with stations planned at:
- St. Katharine’s Dock
- Wapping (near the East London Line station)
- Surrey Docks North (near the current Jubilee Canada Water station)
- Millwall (near the current Canary Wharf station)
- North Greenwich (now North Greenwich Jubilee station)
- Custom House (now a DLR station and soon to be a Crossrail station)
- Woolwich Arsenal (a NR and now DLR station)
- Thamesmead West
- Thamesmead Central
An alternative route from Custom House to Thamesmead via Beckton was also proposed.
During the course of the planning process the GLC and LT were also getting more innovative, and the eastern Fleet line powers included provision for one of the cross-Thames tunnels between Custom House and Woolwich to be designed at mainline gauge, and to potentially be built early to enable North Woolwich Line trains to run through to Woolwich. Another option was an early continuation to Plumstead to facilitate through passenger and possibly freight trains ahead of the Fleet line.
The River line proposal made it into the London Docklands Strategic Plan (LDSP) of 1976, its ‘spinal’ character closely reflecting the earlier plans from the ‘Docklands’ report. Unfortunately, the related land use and economic growth benefits weren’t adequately established in the LDSP, so for once this was a case of a railway scheme being ahead of the underlying economic and spatial strategy that justified it.
The LDSP didn’t have dense enough proposed centres of community and economic activity to justify much more than a tram, but unfortunately there was a Tube-scale cost attached to the rail project.
Not that it mattered. The chances of these plans being turned into reality were low in the mid-1970s. There were always going to be central Government and Treasury limits to permitted expenditure, and this was made plainer from 1976 when the UK financial crises put severe caps on total government expenditures.
Fleet to Jubilee
With Fleet line stage I being scheduled to open in 1977 in time for Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee, Horace Cutler – by then the GLC’s new Leader – announced the renaming of the Fleet line as the Jubilee line. This cost London Transport £50,000 in 1977 prices, worth £310,000 in today’s money.
Notwithstanding this political indulgence, the very tight fiscal situation in the economically turbulent 1970s, plus labour strikes and fitting-out problems, meant that actual opening of the line was delayed until 1979, two years after the Jubilee celebrations. Furthermore high inflation throughout the 1970’s meant that all the monies planned for stages II, III, and IV had been spent on completing stage I to Charing Cross by 1979. Initially budgeted at £35m in 1971 prices, stage I ended up costing £90m by 1979 (£325m at current prices). Despite this, the Jubilee quickly achieved one of its principal objectives, abstracting away almost half of the Bakerloo’s passengers south of Baker Street.
The Fleet Line Tube map colour was planned as battleship grey to honour the Royal Navy. But with the name change to Jubilee, a lighter grey was used (Corporate Grey – Pantone 430 for DIY aficionados) instead to approximate silver. It is interesting to note that the Royal Navy actually used several variations of grey on its battleships, depending on the theatre in which they were deployed, from the Mediterranean Fleet light grey to darker grey for more northern fleets.
Following the opening of stage I of the Jubilee line in 1979, the successive stages (now known as phases) along the original route were to be:
- Phase 2: Extending the line along Fleet Street with stations at Aldwych, Ludgate Circus, Cannon Street, and Fenchurch Street as originally planned. Aldwych (Strand) station was to be rebuilt with a new ticket hall underneath Strand and Arundel Street, a new flight of escalators to the Piccadilly stub line platforms and a further flight down to the Jubilee platforms. The original surface station would be closed as too small.
- Phase 3: Continuing the line under the river to Surrey Docks (the current Surrey Quays Overground station) then taking over both of the ELL’s branches to New Cross and New Cross Gate stations, with an extension to Lewisham. The ELL would terminate at the disused bay at Surrey Docks station.
- Phase 4: Taking over suburban services on the Addiscombe and Hayes suburban branches.
The following works for stages II and later were constructed:
- A ventilation shaft and emergency access for the Charing Cross overrun tunnels near Southampton Street and Maiden Lane.
- The passage safeguarded for the Fleet line at Holborn Viaduct (now City Thameslink station).
- A short station box for Fleet platforms under Cannon Street station forecourt to allow access to the future Fleet line.
A path to opening
Ultimately, it was the 1976 River line route from the Docklands Strategic Plan that was to be again proposed in 1979 – and which would eventually emerge as the Jubilee. This thus seems a sensible time to pause in the story of the Fleet. In part 2 of this series we will look at how, and why, the line finally emerged in the form that it did.
Our thanks to Graham H, and to all those who provided images and maps