Second Time Lucky: Rebuilding Camden Town Station

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In 2005 TfL’s plans to rebuild Camden Town station were wholeheartedly rejected by both the council and the community they were intended to serve. Ten years later, with a station rebuild now critical, a chastened TfL have returned to the table. We look at how the lessons of the past translate into plans for the future.

Failure to launch

“Whilst the station below ground would provide an important public benefit…” Wrote Planning Inspector K.D. Barton in December 2004, “it would not justify the proposed above ground development… [The Camden Town station] proposal would have an overwhelming impact on the surrounding area by virtue of its significantly greater height, the mundane use of modern materials, and completely ignoring the fine grain of the surrounding townscape and creating a more enclosed feel in the surrounding streets. It would be completely at odds with the character and appearance of the surrounding area, and detrimental to the Camden Town Conservation Area, contrary to national and development plan policy objectives.”

“I consider that these detrimental impacts would far outweigh any benefits of the above ground scheme and the proposals overall.”

Barton’s words, taken from his final report, were pretty damning. No one doubted that the station needed rebuilding – not Camden Council, not any of the local community groups that had vocally opposed TfL’s redevelopment plans. Camden Town was – and remains – a major London tourist attraction in its own right. The station is also a key interchange point on the Northern line, the first place where the two arms of that line briefly meet before parting again to take passengers via either Charing Cross or Bank. As early as the nineties it had become clear that major work there was needed if closure of the station during busy periods was to be avoided.

What people objected to was the way that TfL wanted to demolish and rebuild a small but, to the local community important, area of Camden Town centre. Seemingly without much thought for the character of the area or the people who lived, worked and socialised there.

It was this objection – and the validity of it – that Barton’s comprehensive report to the Secretary of State made overwhelmingly clear. And it was this that would ultimately lead to the scheme being rejected in its entirety in June 2005.

“While the station below ground would provide an important public benefit sufficient to justify the demolition of all buildings on the site,” then-Secretary of State John Prescott would say in his final judgement, echoing Barton’s words, “it would not justify the proposed above ground development.”

“The scheme would neither enhance nor preserve the character and appearance of the conservation area.”

Planning permission was refused.

A transport bull in Camden’s china shop

Disputes over planning matters between TfL, London’s transport authority, and the local councils and community groups in the city are not entirely uncommon. Carrying the responsibility to take a wider view of London’s transport needs, it is inevitable that TfL will occasionally find themselves trying to argue that the needs of the many on a particular project should outweigh the local needs of the few. Our recent look at the trials and tribulations of the Cycle Superhighway Scheme (both online and in our magazine) provide good examples of where such conflict has occurred. It is rare, however, that relations become as fractious as they did over Camden Town.

It is not our intention to go into detail here as to what happened in the run up to the 2005 decision. To a certain extent we covered the topic ourselves in 2013 in our article We need to talk about Camden. A more thorough look at the major problems with TfL’s proposals, however, was put together by regular LR commentor Ian Sargeant on his own blog and is well worth a read (if Barton’s full 242 page report isn’t to your fancy).

Broadly speaking though TfL’s overall objectives were to:

  • Improve access and interchange at Camden Town station
  • Commercialise the expanded footprint of the above ground station in order to offset the costs of the project

It was the second objective that would prove to be so contentious. Not least because the expanded station footprint proposed meant wide-scale, and sometimes permanent, demolition within an area that had been flagged as a Conservation Area at the turn of the decade. This triangle included a number of key cultural or architectural Camden landmarks – a major reason for its special designation – and its protection had been supported by TfL at the time.

Indeed simply listing some of the landmarks which would have either have been demolished or adversely affected highlights precisely why the scheme went down like a lead balloon in the local area: Electric Ballroom, Trinity United Reform Church, Buck Street Market, the corner HSBC bank and, somewhat incredibly, the iconic, Leslie Green-designed, Camden Town station building itself.

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The Electric Ballroom. Photo by Charles Yarnold.

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Trinity United Reform Church

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Camden Town station, by Rept0n1x

Resistance to the plans would likely have been lessened had the intention been to build a building that would have added in some way to the area. As Barton pointed out, however, this was hardly the case. What TfL proposed was essentially a cookie-cutter office block with a station beneath. Unfortunately few images of the original proposal remain in circulation, but the few that do hardly scream “Camden.”

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The original architect’s impression, with apologies for size

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Image extracted from 3D architect mockup

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A physical model produced at the time

As can be seen, the plan was for a large (five storeys above the station itself) development that would take over a large chunk of the Conservation Area. Small though they are, the images hardly seem to contradict Barton’s conclusion that the design was somewhat tone-deaf for the area. It would also have hugely overshadowed Hawley Infants School behind and that, plus the impact that several years worth of noise and disruption would have had on the children there, were further reasons why the scheme was rejected.

By the time that rejection came, it was safe to say that relations between TfL and Camden Council were far from amicable. In a way, the entire process ended up being more similar to the kind of planning wars that increasingly happen over aggressive redevelopment of London’s pubs than over an important improvement to the transport network, albeit with a bit more civility. Business cases and expert witness testimony were changed at the last minute by TfL in an effort to make the scheme look better whilst on the other side of the fence temporary preservation orders were sought on various of the buildings affected in order to block the scheme.

Reading through the copious documentation produced at the time it is hard to escape the feeling that to a certain extent TfL were their own worst enemy. Their goal of overhauling the station was a valid one, but they were so focused on achieving it (and the associated oversite development) that they ultimately forgot that there was a local community there with valid concerns of their own.

Lessons learned

TfL emerged from the planning process chastened rather than enraged, and many of their own (and later Crossrail’s) planning submissions since shown that the lessons of Camden Town were hard-learned. Antagonising the planning hand that feeds was simply not worth the risk. At Camden Town, it effectively halted any plans TfL might have had for permanently re-segregating traffic on the two branches of the Northern line. It also forced them to completely drop a building project that they’d confidently put forward as a key part of their five-year Business Plan.

In many ways nothing sums up just how much the organisation has moved on post-Camden as the fact that relations between TfL and Camden Council have long since thawed. Indeed as we wrote back in 2013, this meant that genuine discussion of how Camden Town station might be rebuilt has now been underway for some time. The outcome of these discussions is a a new consultation from TfL on rebuilding the station.

More people. More places

That consultation is necessary because rebuilding Camden Town station is now more important than ever. For although TfL don’t mention it in the consultation itself, the permanent separation of the two branches of the Northern line is now all but inevitable. Passenger numbers across the network continue to increase and, as Jonathan Roberts covered in our article on Peak Tube, this means a need for more trains-per-hour. The signalling to support that is now in place on the Northern line and soon the last remaining barrier to increased frequencies will be the need for a simplified service pattern – something that can only happen by segregating the branches once again.

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Overcrowding at Camden

Even if passenger numbers weren’t still climbing, the extension of the Northern line to Battersea effectively sealed the deal.

The full details as to why this is the case are a topic for another day. In short though, nothing ever happens on a contained railway (such as a Tube line) without ripples spreading elsewhere. For Battersea this means changes to the service pattern in order to serve the new stations in the most effective manner. It is also going to be far easier for Charing Cross branch trains to serve the extension than it is for Bank trains. Running more trains in future means getting maximum efficiency out of the service pattern and thus it almost certainly follows that (perhaps to the shock of any bankers who buy shiny new flats at Nine Elms) full segregation will occur.

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Current passenger numbers at Camden Town. They continue to grow, but interchange numbers have essentially stayed steady… until now.

That segregation will instantly bring with it an enormous demand for interchange at the top end of the Northern line. Right now, passengers wishing to get from High Barnet to Charing Cross generally just wait for an appropriate train – the possibility of getting a seat and not having to change trains mid-journey outweighing the benefits of boarding the first train and changing. This keeps the number of actual interchanges at places where the two branches touch relatively low. In the future, however, passengers will only be able to do the latter and interchanges will inevitably soar.

This is a huge problem at Camden Town. The station is the first place at which the two branches meet when travelling north to south, and it’s the most natural interchange point on the line. Over a hundred years old, it is also a station that is spectacularly badly setup for such an action to take place. Nor is trying to discourage or prevent interchange at Camden Town really an option. This would just increase pressure on Euston which that station would be hard-pressed to absorb. TfL thus need to solve the Camden Town problem before full segregation can take place.

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Camden Town station, current layout. Please note that this diagram is orientated south to north

The new proposals

It is fair to say that TfL’s new proposals are considerably more modest (indeed one might even say more humble) than those put forward before. You can read the full consultation details here but, in a nutshell, the goal is clearly to shift entries and exits away from the existing entrance to a new one elsewhere, whilst facilitating interchange by simplifying and expanding the connections between platforms.

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The new layout, looking north to south.

The image above shows the new arrangement being proposed below ground. Three new (bi-directional) escalators lie at its core, along with step free access and larger sub-surface circulating areas. Whilst TfL describe the new setup as “adding a second entrance” it is clear this actually means shifting the entire centre of gravity of the station northwards. Like the (relatively) new Northern line ticket hall at Kings Cross, the goal is clearly a wholesale shift in how people navigate through – and out of – the station, rather than simply expanding capacity within the existing route-finding.

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The new layout viewed from above

As the consultation states (and the images show) one of the clear aims of the new proposal is to avoid wholesale disruption (read: station or line closure). That said, with long-term Northern line closures planned for work at Bank, it would not be surprising to see some attempt to “double up” work should the opportunity present.

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The internal designs are hardly inspiring at this stage. Clearly space is a greater priority than flair.

Nor is extensive reworking of the existing platforms clearly intended. This may come as a surprise to those who had envisioned a grander scheme involving a more drastic overhaul of the platform spaces, but it is not entirely unexpected. For a number of reasons Camden Town is a particularly constrained site. A truly impressive junction to the south limits scope for work there.

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One hell of a crossover, as illustrated in Eagle.

This isn’t the only piece of interesting sub-surface architecture lurking beneath the station. There is also an oft-forgotten legacy of London’s wartime past – one of the eight deep level air-raid shelters built to protect civilians during the Second World War.

Built by London Transport on behalf of the government, these shelters were constructed beneath a number of Northern and Central line stations ostensibly so that, post-war, they could form part of a new high-speed Tube line either running under or as part of the lines they were in proximity to. In fact, even during construction, it was largely recognised that this was highly unlikely to ever happen. Nonetheless all eight remain today, lurking silently beneath London’s streets.

Indeed the presence of one at Camden Town has, perhaps naturally, prompted some to ask whether the need to expand the station might finally represent the opportunity to bring it into use. Sadly this is one of those ideas that is far better on paper than in reality. It is true that the scale of these shelters was vast. They are not, however, quite vast enough to be useful as platform tunnels (or transfer spaces) in their own right. Purely out of dedication to you our dear readers, however, we took a trip down the shelter at Clapham South (Camden Town shelter itself currently being entirely off limits) to give you an idea of the kind of space available inside them. A couple of photos from that visit are included below. A dedicated article on Clapham South will follow at a later date.

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Connecting central passage at Clapham South

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One of the 16ft diameter “running tunnels.”

In fact, if anything the shelter is a barrier to development rather than a blessing. “Deep” at Camden, it turns out, is not as deep as one might think. The shelter there is only 18m below the surface – just deep enough to clear the running tunnels. Thus any extensive redevelopment of the station would actually have to go deeper still and start below the shelter, adding cost and complexity to the project. Indeed if they have a use in the current project then it is likely the same as similar tunnels at Old Street – as potential storage space for equipment and material.

The big difference

The real difference between the current and previous proposals is above ground rather than below. The map below sets out the footprint of the new surface buildings and, as is immediately obvious, TfL have clearly decided to avoid touching the problematic Conservation Area as much as possible. It is this that shifts the station’s centre of gravity northwards, in the process avoiding almost all of the valid objections raised before. It also means that the existing station building can remain – although as indicated above, we suspect that TfL are underplaying slightly how much they intend to shift foot traffic away from it to the north.

That this can happen is down to a rather handy piece of real estate business entirely outside of TfL’s control. Hawley Street Infant School is relocating to a better site at nearby Hawley Wharf, cleared as a result of a devastating fire in the area back in 2008.

This has instantly made a whole section of land just to the north of the Conservation Area available for development and it is primarily here – albeit with some need for compulsory purchasing to the west – that TfL are proposing to site their new station.

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A (most certainly deliberately) light and breezy mockup of the new entrance.

Keeping the elephant out of the room… for now

All in all, it is far harder to see the new scheme garnering the same level of objection as the first. Indeed it seems highly likely that Camden Council will have been heavily consulted before it even made it to consultation stage.

This is not to say that there aren’t potential hiccups there. The consultation, at least at this stage, neatly avoids any real discussion of over-site development on the new station itself, pointing out that planning for permission for the surface building will be sought separately. No doubt this is deliberate and another lesson learnt – as much as possible get the station build underway first, and tackle the thornier issue of property development separately. Any failure there thus doesn’t jeopardise the required station work itself.

Nor will the availability of the Hawley Street school site mean that the project can be disruption free. All the regular issues of noise, work-sites and spoil removal will need to be addressed and at least a few compulsory purchases required. Indeed it is not out of the question that TfL might still require a slice of the Conservation Area – albeit temporarily – if they cannot fit all of the required works within the station space itself. If that happens then the most likely location seems to be Buck Street Market, whose stall holders may find themselves either temporarily relocated or (in the worst case) simply removed should the council agree to a work site there.

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TfL’s proposed timeline.

For now though, all these discussions lie in the future. What matters now, for TfL at least, is that a rebuild of Camden Town – any rebuild at all – is now finally on the table again. They, and indeed London’s current and future travellers, will be hoping that the process of documents to digging is less traumatic this time round.

Written by John Bull