Last August one London station saw trains stop there on just two days in the entire month. Indeed in the end for 34 consecutive days no trains called at the station. We take a look at the story behind Birkbeck – LR Christmas Quiz answer and, last summer, London’s least used station.

Birkbeck station – rather grandly marked as an interchange station. Solid green line is Tramlink.

The cause of Birkbeck’s isolation was partly the ongoing crisis at Southern as, from its introduction in July, there were no trains on Monday-Friday due to the Southern Emergency Timetable. The need for this timetable was the shortage of drivers, caused by various factors. The result was no trains were scheduled to call at Birkbeck on Mondays to Fridays. As trains do not serve Birkbeck on Sundays that meant that the only service scheduled was on Saturdays. On the last weekend of July and the first three weekends of August there were no trains on Saturday either due to engineering works. This meant that from late July until late August no trains called at Birkbeck station at all.

On the last day of August 2016 there is the rare sight of at train calling at Birkbeck

There was very little to indicate this lack of trains at the station itself. Although a general poster by the entrance did convey the information, it was not obvious. There was also nothing to indicate this state of affairs on the platform, which was still open and accessible. The solitary Customer Information Screen, located a long way down the platform (way beyond the Oyster touch point) simply said “Welcome to Birkbeck”.

Only indication that there was no service

Here we go again

The situation was bad then, but in many ways it was no better for most of January 2017 when, once again, trains were not serving the station. As a result of ASLEF’s overtime ban, there was no attempt to run any service at all on any day of the week.

Short history of the line

During these periods of no service one could stand on the platform of the now-singled railway line at Birkbeck, waiting for a non-existent train, and, with great difficulty, try to comprehend that this route was once the main line to London.

Birkbeck is situated on the National Rail line running between Crystal Palace and Beckenham Junction. This line opened in 1858 and was once the main railway route into London from Kent. This honour only lasted until the opening of the Penge Tunnel in 1863. Rather curiously, the line technically ran between Beckenham Junction (the junction at Beckenham) and Bromley Junction (the junction for Bromley but actually at Norwood. They couldn’t call it Norwood Junction for obvious reasons).

The opening of the Penge tunnel meant that the line through Birkbeck was no longer required as a primary route. Indeed at first it was felt that the line was not required at all and it closed at the start of July 1863. Incredibly, despite the line only being five years old, this wasn’t the first closure it had witnessed. By the end of 1860 Penge station (West End of London and Crystal Palace Railway) had also closed. This was located on the site of the current day Beckenham Road tram stop. This had reputedly only ever been used by one regular user and occasional users were either few and far between or non-existent.

Eventually it was realised that closure of the line was shortsighted and it reopened exactly a year later. The next period of closure, however, many years later, was not to be so short. In common with many lightly used lines, or stations and routes where there was an alternative, the line was closed again at the end of 1915 as a wartime economy measure. Many lines closed in this way took a long time to re-open and some never did. The line through current day Birkbeck finally re-opened in February 1929 complete with third rail electrification. It does seem that this period of closure may not quite have been as total as implied, however, with reports of troop trains using the line during the Great War.

Birkbeck station finally opens

Birkbeck station looking towards Beckenham Junction in 1961 and probably not much changed since opening. Courtesy Wikipedia. Thanks to Ben Brooksbank for making this available.

The 1920s and 1930s were a period of optimism and Southern Railway expansion, with new lines opened and old lines re-opened. None were a great success. Southern were, however, keen to maximise the penetration of Southern Electric to all parts of South London. On this line a station was built where the line went over Elmers End Road, which was the most suitable location available at the time. It was named after a local estate, itself named for the philanthropist after whom Birkbeck College is named.

The station was probably built very cheaply. It consisted of a couple of Southern 1930s style concrete platforms with steps leading up to each from the road. Both platforms featured a basic shelter and a small booking office was located on the ‘up’ platform. Passengers for a ‘down’ train requiring a ticket were thus required to go to the other platform, back down to the road and then up a further flight of stairs to the down platform again.

Present day: an uninspiring entrance

A lack of prospects

With the benefit of hindsight, there were some disadvantages to the station which meant building it was probably not a good commercial move. Ten minutes walk away was Elmers End station, with its excellent service to Cannon Street and Charing Cross. At least at the time, trains from Birkbeck went to Victoria, so there wasn’t quite the obvious duplication of services to London.

Elmers End station – a more attractive option?

Another problem was the most prominent feature in the area – the cemetery. This adjoined the station and effectively halved its immediate catchment area. Beyond the cemetery was the extensive grounds of Norwood Sewage Works, which was eventually transformed into a wildlife park and remains so today.

The biggest employer in the local area around the station for many years was London Transport, with Elmers End Bus garage a short walk from the station. Employees there received free bus travel though, and it is hard to imagine many choose to get to work by train.

Seventies and Eighties Nadir

It is not really surprising that by the 1970s the station was in decline from its already low usage. Operationally, the principal benefits of the line were that in normal circumstances it provided somewhere for trains from Victoria to Crystal Palace to terminate at and, in exceptional circumstances, it provided a diversion route to from Beckenham Junction to London when the main route (via Penge) was blocked. The fact that there was a station on the line was probably almost incidental.

In February 1983 the line was singled – hardly an unexpected move given the half-hourly service (at best). As a result, junction simplification was made possible. An obvious consequence of this singling was that the route was less useful for diverted traffic, but there had never been sufficient demand for this to make keeping it doubled worthwhile. Indeed in the long term this singling actually proved beneficial as, together with the closure of the line from Woodside to Selsdon in that same year, the opportunity to provide a tram service for a scheme based on Croydon started to emerge and this was actively pursued in the late 1980s.

A bit of a revival

In 1986 the service, which had been to Victoria for well over 100 years, was diverted to London Bridge. This, together with decent connections at Beckenham Junction, stimulated some demand and it is this service that remains to this day (under normal circumstances) although it did go through a period of indecisiveness switching between the two termini.

The tram arrives

At the turn of the millennium Croydon Tramlink opened and the vacant trackbed at Birkbeck was used for the branch to Beckenham Junction. The site of the former ‘up’ platform was used to build a completely new tram stop. Despite the superficial competition, this probably helped raise awareness of the line and the fact that there was a rail service there at all. Less encouraging for those wishing to use it to get to Beckenham Junction was the new opportunity for railway operators to terminate trains from London at Birkbeck during periods of disruption. This was because there was now a frequent tram service there for passengers to complete their onward journey.

Birkbeck Tram Stop

The idea of terminating trains short at Birkbeck in times of disruption – such as during the early problems at London Bridge – might make operational sense but it seems strange to terminate a train at such a lightly used station. It is also unsatisfactory for passengers travelling from Beckenham Junction, who are often simply told by passenger information boards there that their train has been cancelled. Many don’t realise that, in fact, it is likely starting a short tram ride away at Birkbeck and is thus still usable.

A short lived tram takeover idea

For a while there was a serious suggestion that the trams should take over both tracks. The DfT would have been happy to get rid of it, and it was suggested that TfL would have been equally happy to take it over. This was because it would have allowed them to improve reliability on the long section of single tram track between Harrington Road and Beckenham Junction.

Today, the idea of a tram takeover seems to have died. This is likely because plans to extend trams to Crystal Palace are of a low priority, due to the lack of future available tram paths into Croydon. Current TfL plans envisage that 8 trams per hour (tph) could be run on the single track Beckenham Junction tram branch, on which Birkbeck tram stop is is situated, simply by means of adding one short passing loop to the current track layout. Combine that with 8tph to Elmers End and a proposed 10 – 12tph to New Addington and one quickly realises there is not really any spare capacity for trams from Crystal Palace direct to Croydon. Without this service there seems to be little appetite to suggest replacing the Crystal Palace – Beckenham Junction train service with trams.

Current station status

Looking towards Beckenham Junction

Although single track, Birkbeck station is surprisingly well signalled with a colour light signal at each end of the platform. This appears not to be primarily for terminating trains, but to enable one train to follow another down the single track section. This would be useful when used as a diversionary route but for two things. Firstly, drivers no longer tend to have the route knowledge to be able to operate on the diversion. Secondly, the general off-peak service is now sufficiently frequent (every half hour in each direction) that spare train paths for diverted services – especially unplanned ones – are few and far between.

Looking towards Crystal Palace

The signalling that allows for multiple trains in one direction comes into its own for empty stock movements. Surprisingly there are daily empty coach services (ECS) including those of Thameslink stock. Weirdly this meant that even when there is a general absence of passenger trains in service on the line, it was still actually in use on an almost daily basis.

Potential not realised

TfL Journey Planner correctly showing no trains

Whilst it is totally understandable why Southern Railway withdraw the service at Birkbeck at times of staff shortage, the uncertainty of whether a service is provided or not clearly will not help in ensuring that the station has a significant use in the future. This is made worse by the National Rail Journey Planner not always giving the correct information. Sometimes this is the case with TfL Journey Planner as well.

Although Birkbeck hardly offers an attractive service if one wants to go to London, suburban traffic levels mean that it has the potential to be extremely viable even for short suburban routes. When trains run it takes just four minutes to get to Crystal Palace station. That would be extremely hard to achieve in a car. There is also no direct bus, with a journey by this means taking at least 20 minutes even with a perfect connection.

Birkbeck is probably one of the least important stations in the South London suburbs. It attracts more interest than warranted by its passenger numbers. Latest available figures (pre Southern dispute) suggests around 117,000 passenger journeys originated or terminated there in 2015/16. Given the London Bridge disruption during that period, these figures (usual accuracy caveat applies) suggest there is a potential to be higher. Unfortunately the events of the past year give rather more opportunities for it to be significantly lower, at least in the short term.

Despite its low use though there is good reason to follow the fortunes of Birkbeck. This is because it can act as a sort of bellwether for the general health of services in the Southern suburban area. This is because if there is a major issue on the railways, short term or long term, then services to Birkbeck will be affected as they are some of the easiest to withdraw. Unfortunately at the moment, as is clearly apparent, the message that Birkbeck has been sending out has not been good.

Better under devolution?

Birkbeck also shows why some people believe it is vital for London to control its suburban railways. At times of disruption, such as staff shortage, any rational railway manager will give priority to longer distance services. Proponents of locally devolved railways argue that only by focusing on Metro services will railway management ensure adequate staffing that, in general, avoids the need for suburban cancellations. And, they would argue, only an organisation like TfL would avoid losing sight of trying to provide a good service at a little used station that is not meeting its potential.

What all this means for the future of Birkbeck, however, remains to be seen.

Much of the historical information was obtained from or verified by “The Railways Of Beckenham” by Andrew Hajducki.

jump to the end
There are 63 comments on this article
  1. TonyW1960 says:

    The primary operating benefit that the route provides is to allow frequent operation of suburban trains on the Crystal Palace – West Norwood section without adding (too much!) to congestion in the Windmill Bridge Junction complex south of Norwood Junction. I understand this is the main reason the route was included in the 1929 electrification scheme.

    One of the challenges of the proposed Crystal Palace tram extension was the cost/practicality of providing reversing facilities for the trains currently running through to Beckenham Junction (which, of course, are required north-west of Crystal Palace).

    Ironically, routinely terminating at Birkbeck meets this reversing need, and one could envisage that, if, say, a scheme to widen the Chatham mainline through Beckenham Junction was being considered, the link to Birkbeck would be cut at the drop of a hat if it made such a scheme more feasible!

  2. Sykobee says:

    The service between Beckenham Junction and London Bridge might not get a lot of passengers at Birkbeck, but it is very popular for LBG commuters at Crystal Palace, Gipsy Hill, WeNo and so on. It’s withdrawal annoyed a lot of people. Admittedly at GH and CP they could get the VIC-LBG service instead (if it was running), but then the issue becomes one of crowding and subsequently not being able to pick up people on the mainline stations to LBG.

    Hence a lot of people wanted at least that one Southern service to be given over to London Overground, and maybe the LBG->West Croydon via Tulse Hill too.

  3. Greg Tingey says:

    The relevant Railway Jn Diagram very interestingly, shows no mention of Birkbeck – as noted, the previous “Penge” station had long closed.
    Remembering that West is at the top of the map, the other thing to remember is that the E-W “SE&C” line originally belonged to the “West End of London & Crystal Palace Rly – subsumed into “The Chatham” (LCDR) in 1864, but that the N-S lines belonged to the LCD’s then deadly rival, the SER, & they were not semi-amalgamated until 1899.
    Note the connecting curve between Beckenham Jn & New Beckenham (As they then were) & also the other connecting link, southwards to the “Brighton” at Norwood Jn.

    There are only miniscule traces of this latter line left, now, though it did not close until 1966

  4. ngh says:

    Re Sykobee

    The service between Beckenham Junction and London Bridge might not get a lot of passengers at Birkbeck, but it is very popular for LBG commuters at Crystal Palace, Gipsy Hill, WeNo and so on. It’s withdrawal annoyed a lot of people

    Including one well known London Assembly (Transport Committee) member who was more than happy to be quoted in the Standard on the subject which lead to a lot of extra grief overall.

    Admittedly at GH and CP they could get the VIC-LBG service instead (if it was running), but then the issue becomes one of crowding and subsequently not being able to pick up people on the mainline stations to LBG.

    Given many Beckenham Jn – LBG were & are standing room only from Gipsy Hill in the mornings the resulting struggling to board at Sydenham and further in on the VIC – LBG was predictable (long with terminating one of the 2tph at South Bermondsey also helping to divert passenegers the other way).

  5. timbeau says:

    “The result was no trains scheduled to call at Birkbeck on Sundays and on the last weekend of July. In addition, for the first three weekends of August there were no trains on Saturday due to engineering works. ”

    That seems to have been a bit garbled. Wouldn’t that make more sense as:

    “No trains are scheduled to call at Birkbeck on Sundays. In addition, for the first three weekends of August and on the last weekend of July there were no trains on Saturdays due to engineering works. The result was……”?

  6. As a reminder to all commentators, please use full station names, as we have many non-railway enthusiast readers. LBM

  7. Anonymous says:

    As someone who uses this service regularly from Birkbeck; it helps me get to odd bits of both West and East London by changing either for a Clapham Junction service or the overground, far faster than the services on the Hayes or Orpington lines. The loss of the service last year lengthened my commute considerably. It should be noted that there are a number of regular users of the service at Birkbeck in the early mornings and late evenings, often more passengers get on/off at Birkbeck than do at Beckenham Junction. The service also provides a useful link down to Beckenham Junction from London Bridge if there is a problem on the Hayes Line.

  8. Stuart says:

    I am surprised to read that the line was singled as early as 1983. Having lived within 100 metres of Beckenham Road tram stop in the late 1990s just before the tram was opened, I could have sworn that it was double track through to Beckenham Junction until the tram works started

    Nice story though …

  9. Dave Lally says:

    Mm-this reminds me aeons ago re Lea Bridge Road (then the least used BR Stn in London) and I even got to its then last day of operation. But of course it has now been very recently reopened (with some ££ available) so who knows perhaps Birkbeck will have some luck also.

  10. ngh says:

    Re Stuart,

    I think you are at least partly correct it may not have all been singled to the current extent in one go and that there was more done at when the tramlink works started.

    Some Victoria – Beckenham Junction via Birkbeck services still existed well after 1985 till relatively recently (at certain times of day/week) and till the Southern Metro service pattern changes when ELL phase 1 opened and the former London Bridge – Tulse Hill – Crystal Palace – Forest Hill – London Bridge loop services (a badly performing service I can’t remember it being on time -ever !) were split so the London Bridge – Tulse Hill – Crystal Palace segment was joined to the Palace – Beckenham Junction segment with the Victoria – Palace segment joining the Crystal Palace – Forest Hill – London Bridge to form the current service pattern with Victoria – London Bridge via Palace and London Bridge – Beckenham Jn.

  11. Stuart says:


    “Note the connecting curve between Beckenham Jn & New Beckenham (As they then were)”

    Aren’t they still Beckenham Junction and New Beckenham, with the connecting curve also still in place ? (Albeit not in regular use)

  12. Philip Wylie says:

    @Stuart yes, the New Beckenham to Beckenham Junction spur is still open and creates a useful turnback facility if Hayes trains are terminated short at New Beckenham for whatever reason. The spur is sometimes used for main line diversions as well and has been used on some Sundays to provide a service from Hayes to Beckenham Junction (reversing at New Beckenham) when the Mid-Kent line is closed for engineering works. Not sure if the one train a day service is still running from the Mid-Kent to Beckenham Junction (because of London Bridge works?), although ECS via the spur parks in Plat. 4 at Beckenham Junction.

  13. NLW says:

    Would someone please explain which entry on the disruptions poster would indicate to a stranger the lack of service from Birkbeck.

  14. Londoner in Scotland says:

    Retention of the heavy rail line through Birkbeck imposed quite significant cost on the Tramlink project. When the line was singled it was the up line that was retained, so that had to be shifted to make room for Tramlink. This was done during a temporary closure, 27 February (pm) to 16 March (am) 1998. London Regional Transport assumed that they would be able to take over the up bay at Beckenham Junction for Tramlink. I cannot recall whether they expected the Crystal Palace service to be able to reverse on the main line, or for it to go right over to the down bay. Neither was acceptable to NSE, which insisted on keeping the up bay. The next suggestion was to provide a second bay platform for Tramlink, adjacent to the Crystal Palace one. That would involve demolition of an anonymous-looking brick building. When informed that that housed a major railway telephone exchange, and what the likely timescale and cost for moving it would be, LRT accepted that Tramlink would have to terminate in the station forecourt. That required quite a bit of redesign after statutory powers had been applied for. I think they had to acquire a small area of land outside the limits of deviation to build the line. If there had been greater consultation with NSE much earlier in planning the scheme, I wonder whether the main line service via Birkbeck would have survived. In retrospect, it is curious that NSE stood firm at Beckenham Junction, but quite readily agreed to give up a platform at Wimbledon. (The Thameslink people were not consulted and far from happy when told what had been agreed).

  15. timbeau says:

    The West End & Crystal Palace Railway (and the later extension from Pimlico to Victoria) was used by both the London Brighton & South Coast Railway and the East Kent Railway (later renamed the London Chatham & Dover Railway) to try and break the stranglehold held by the South Eastern Railway on access to London, as both companies had until then been reliant on the SER for access to its terminus at London Bridge – the “Brighton” via the Forest Hill route to Spa Road Junction, the “Chatham” initially via Strood and later via Beckenham Junction and the Mid Kent (Hayes) line. (The only other terminus south of the river being the London & South Western’s Waterloo), However, the Brighton and the Chatham rapidly found they were no better at co-operating with each other than either was with the SER, hence the infamous wall at Victoria. Thus both companies built their own direct routes, via Thornton Heath and via West Dulwich respectively, leaving the original shared route via Crystal Palace as a backwater.

    Back in 1979, I did know someone who regularly used the line through Birkbeck as the middle leg of trips between Bromley and Croydon – there was even a Sunday service then! Of course, Birkbeck itself was an irrelevance to this journey.

  16. Ian J says:

    @NLW: which entry on the disruptions poster would indicate to a stranger the lack of service from Birkbeck

    The fourth entry down indicates that there are ‘alterations’ on services to Beckenham Junction at the weekend. You are then meant to go to the website or phone up to find out that ‘alteration’ means no service at all. There is no way of deducing that there was no service on weekdays either.

    Presumably a member of Southern staff visited the station each week (not by train!) to replace the nearly-useless network-wide poster with each new week’s version, but it never occurred to anyone to instead put up a sign saying in big letters “there are no trains operating from this station”. TfL probably would have done if it was their station.

  17. Malcolm says:

    Ian J: Unlikely that “it never occurred to anyone”. More likely – repeated suggestions from ordinary working staff got lost in the management chain, were rejected due to some “policy”, or thirdly were never even made because of perceptions (by the ground level staff) that one of the above was bound to happen.

  18. Southern Heights (Light Railway) says:

    The spur between Beckenham Junction and New Beckenham is used daily. Thameslink store a train there, on the siding next to the curve. And perhaps in the bay platform on the North side (4?) as well.

    It is also used when there are works on the Chislehurst to Hither Green section of the SEML. Normally the Hasting services are diverted via the Mid-Kent line to Charing Cross with the Ashford and beyond services diverted to Victoria.

    It sometimes also used in emergencies to to divert slow trains if there are problems with trains coming out of the depot or (recently) following the Courthill Loop derailment when my morning train was diverted that way. You can see plenty of surprised faces on the platforms when a trains rolls through saying “Oprington”… I guess many people don’t realise this is possible!

    As for Birkbeck, I came rumbling through in the rush hour over the summer on my way to Beckenham Junction. One person got off…

  19. Stuart says:

    Based on Londoner in Scotland’s comments, it sounds then like the comment that the line was singled in 1983 is not correct. Unless the comment is correct re the line at Birkbeck, just not the entire line through to Beckenham Junction

  20. TonyW1960,

    The primary operating benefit that the route provides is to allow frequent operation of suburban trains on the Crystal Palace – West Norwood section without adding (too much!) to congestion in the Windmill Bridge Junction complex south of Norwood Junction.

    Yes but it gets more complicated than that. One could re-instate platform 7 at Norwood Junction and terminate there – arguably more useful. However, this will now be needed to temporarily terminate various services short of East Croydon if work at Windmill Bridge Junction goes ahead. So it is hard to see any way that Birkbeck would lose its service in the foreseeable future even if there were scarcely any passengers.

    Greg Tingey,

    And interestingly enough the map shows the junction as “Penge Junction” which would have probably been its original name as the junction off the main line (via the future Birkbeck station) onto the new line towards the Penge tunnel.


    Not only is the singling very well documented, I remember it happening. At Birkbeck the “up” line entrance was bricked in and the platform demolished. What may have confused you is that often when a line is singled the redundant track is not lifted until months, or sometimes years, later. This gives the appearance of it still being a two track railway.

    Given that you state that you lived near the current day Beckenham Road tram stop and you make no mention of actually using the line you may well have been unaware of what what the situation was at Birkbeck or whether the rails that you saw were actually in use.


    I took a close-up of the wrong poster! I have now replaced it with a less good photo of the correct poster. It listed the affected services but I don’t think it specifically mentioned that there was no service at Birkbeck – you had to deduce this. And, I seem to recall, it was either the last item or very near to the last item.

    London in Scotland,

    Thank you for the information. However, when singling takes place engineers often do a bit of mixing-and-matching between lines used for the remaining track. This is especially true when bends are involved as they tend to go for the maximum radius available. As previously stated, at Birkbeck station itself it was the down platform that was retained.


    Presumably a member of Southern staff visited the station each week

    I forgot to add that the station is unstaffed though I would have thought that would have been fairly clearly understood. Birkbeck is not only always unstaffed despite being in the Southern Metro area, it doesn’t even have a Southern-managed station near it. I reckon that the closest is Selhurst but that does not have a direct train service to Birkbeck. The closest Southern station that has a direct train service (in normal times) appears to be Gipsy Hill.

  21. Anon E. Mouse (a pedantic correctionist) says:

    An interesting article but I have a few points to make about the writing:
    (Apologies in advance if this comes across as slightly rude.)

    Last August one London station saw just two trains stop there in the entire month.

    Is that what actually happened? Or did you mean to write:

    Last August one London station saw trains stop there on just two days in the entire month.

    as that is what was written in the quiz.

    The need for this timetable was the shortage of drivers, caused by various factors. The result was no trains scheduled to call at Birkbeck on Sundays and on the last weekend of July.

    As the line does not have a Sunday service anyway, the fact that there were no trains on Sundays has nothing to do with the shortage of drivers and the passage should be rewritten to reflect this.

    Operationally, the principal benefits of the line were that it provided somewhere for trains from Victoria to Crystal Palace to terminate or divert if the main route from Beckenham Junction was blocked.

    This is slightly ambiguous as it is referring to two separate service groups (Vic. – C. Pal. and Vic. – Beck. Junc.) but doesn’t make the distinction clear. It would be better to write:

    Operationally, the principal benefits of the line were that it provided somewhere for trains from Victoria to Crystal Palace to terminate or act as a diversionary route if the main line from Beckenham Junction was blocked.

    Finally, there are a couple of simple typos:

    The opening of the Penge tunnel mean that…

    should be “meant that” and

    …the opportunity to provide a tram service for a scheme based on Croydon started to emerge, which actively pursued in the late 1980s.

    is missing a “was”.

    [I don’t know how so many mistakes appeared when I read this so many times and others proofread. Some I have simply corrected and others I have rewritten. I hope I haven’t introduced more errors. I would be happier if there weren’t errors but, if there are, I would rather know about them so thanks. PoP]

  22. Londoner in Scotland says:

    For details of passenger trains via the Beckenham curve and other little-used lines, see

  23. TL driver says:

    You make an interesting point about lack of drivers route knowledge for using this section of track as a diversionary route.

    Thinking about it, I doubt SET drivers could use it as they don’t sign the route at all, and Southern drivers don’t sign beyond Beckenham Jct on to the Chatham Mainline so have no reason to use it. That leaves the two late night ECS Thameslink services being AFAIK the only services to use it as a through route (Sutton – Tulse Hill reverse – Birkbeck – Orpington). There is only one TL depot that signs from Bromley jct to Beckenham jct and I was surprised to discover last week that lots of our new drivers at said depot don’t yet sign it either.

    Personally, I have only ever driven it in the down direction!

  24. Londoner in Scotland says:

    The situation concerning route knowledge has always been as TL Driver describes it. When Eastern Section trains were diverted via Birkbeck in BR days the crew was conducted by a Central Section driver and guard between Victoria and Beckenham Junction. There was a requirement for a police officer to be present at Beckenham Junction when the ‘Night Ferry’ stopped to pick up or set down the Central Section crew, in order to check that nobody else got on or off. Whether one was actually there is another matter.

  25. Anonymously says:

    I’m surprised that the line has ever served as a diversionary route between the Chatham Main Line and Victoria…..when such a route is required, doesn’t everything just get sent via the Catford loop?

  26. Greg Tingey says:

    If the works are/were between Brixton Jn & Nunhead … no

  27. Man of Kent says:


    For many years, there was no connection between the Chatham lines and the Atlantic (South London) lines between Brixton and Victoria, so any engineering works on that section effectively cut Victoria off from the rest of the route.
    I can only recall one instance of actually being on an SE train that ran via Birkbeck (probably late 1970s/early 1980s) almost certainly because engineering works had closed the other options.

  28. Londoner in Scotland says:

    It was installation of the connections between the Catford Loop and the Atlantic Line at Crofton Road Junction, as part of the London Bridge area resignalling scheme, that provided a much more convenient diversion when there was a block between Brixton and Factory Junction. That would probably have been a factor in the decision to single the line through Birkbeck as part of the subsequent Victoria area resignalling scheme.

  29. JGH says:

    Something that is frequently forgotten when considering London’s railway byways is that historically, in Victorian days (and later), they were often part of what was often a radically different geography than that we are familiar with in current times, and from the recent past.

    In considering the story of Birkbeck, and the line on which it lies, the relevant point is that that line – the eastern part (‘Farnborough Extension’) of the West End of London and Crystal Palace Railway – became part of the London, Chatham and Dover Railway, while the western part (the WEL&CPR proper, west of Bromley Junction) became part of the LBSCR. So once the LCDR had opened its direct line to London via Sydenham Tunnel and Herne Hill, the Beckenham Junction to Bromley Junction was essentially owned by the ‘wrong’ company to be developed as a suburban line – for the LCDR it was redundant as a line to London (except for the occaisional diversion – I understand while they had running powers over the ex WEL&CPR line, these did not provide for local traffic), while it wasn’t part of the LBSCR – it was only after the formation of the Southern Railway that it could become – in 1929 – part of the Central Section (ex-LBSCR, and now ‘Southern’) network. What was as important (or more so) for it as the link to Bromley Junction & Crystal Palace was the spur from Spur Junction round to Norwood Junction – the (pre-1915) service was shuttles (steam railcar or push pull worked) from Beckenham Junction to Norwood Junction as much as to Crystal Palace. But this spur was also very useful for naval specials from Chatham to Portsmouth (I have heard reference to it as the Admiralty Spur), and the like: I wonder to what extent these outweighed the normal local passenger service.

    At the other end of the line there was also a connection round to Kent House (see ) which didn’t last very long – I do wonder what traffic it was intended, let alone used, for.

    A question over the 1915 withdrawal of service (and other such occurences) – was this in legal terms, or as seen (at the time), a permanent closure, or merely a suspension of service ‘for the duration’?

    And, in reference to the New Beckenham to Beckenham Junction spur – this was the southernmost part of the original Mid Kent Railway (became South Eastern): what became the LCDR line through Beckenham Junction was slightly later (and AIUI was originally intended to use the MKR to reach London), as was the Mid Kent line south from New Beckenham to Croydon (Addiscombe Road). And my understanding is that, pre Great War, Beckenham Junction was as important a destination for Mid Kent services as points further south.

  30. Graham H says:

    @JGH – there were no legal requirements in the 1962 manner before that date. One simply shut the line, permanently if desired.. (“Abandonment” was a slightly different manner).

  31. Pedantic of Purley says:


    Thanks for the insight regarding the significance of different companies.

    The book I referenced at the end of the article (The Railways of Beckenham, pages 43-44) describes the “Penge Loop” in detail and explains why it was built but not used. The critical line states “It seems unlikely that the line ever carried scheduled services or even unscheduled ones …” and other railway authors seem to agree that there was no evidence it was ever actually used when originally built. It was later revived as a carriage siding for a period.

    Regarding withdrawal of services in wartime, it seems that there was no obligation to reinstate any of these services. Whether it was believed at the time closure might turn out to be permanent is a moot point.

    Some wartime closures were revived pretty quickly when the war ended but the line from St Johns to Greenwich was never revived though in mothballs for a number of years. Woodside-Selsdon effectively closed during World War I and its re-opening (as with the line through Birkbeck) was more a case of re-using a former abandoned railway rather than simply reviving an existing one.

    My guess for the longest of these wartime closures to be revived is for Camberwell station which closed to passengers in April 1916 but may re-open one day.

  32. Greg Tingey says:

    See also: Southbury / Turkey Street / Theobalds Grove – which were closed for quite a long time, only to be re-opened in 1960/61

  33. Pedantic of Purley says:

    Greg Tingey,

    Yes, but those were not wartime closures – quite the opposite!

    The stations you mention were closed but re-opened in wartime (WW1) only to close again in peacetime in 1919.

  34. Walthamstow Writer says:

    @ PoP – thanks for the article. I regret to report I’ve spotted a few “glitches” in it. I’ve sent you an E Mail with them in.

    @ Ngh – you almost sound annoyed that an Assembly Member kicked up a fuss about the service not operating. Surely that’s the whole point about democratic accountability? That someone who has been elected, and shock horror uses the trains, makes a right royal song and dance when the service collapses to the point of being useless? For all the public howling and MPs moaning in the house nothing has been done by DfT ministers other than ceremoniously throwing someone else’s money (thus depriving others) at Southern to “fix” something (when people can work out what to fix and in what order). And yes you can argue and say the AM achieved “nothing” but at least Southern and the DfT know there are relevant “eyes and ears” seeing what is going on and that it may be likely they’ll be asked to explain what’s gone on (DfT, of course, never appear at City Hall. Presumably it’s “beneath” them).

    I won’t pretend TfL operating the line would be “perfect” but I tend to agree with the above remarks that TfL would do a damn sight better job of advising if there was an interruption / suspension and they’d make arrangements for people to use alternative local services (under TfL’s control). I also expect TfL would be very quickly “under the cosh” if it suddenly abandoned a station or a service and just didn’t run anything in its place. We can see a parallel example with the furore over the planned short term closure of Caledonian Rd tube stn for lift replacement. That ran into enormous problems because of the street to platform level access that the station design affords.

    Of course Southern / GTR have been given short term “carte blanche” to run a disaster of a franchise in a disastrous fashion in the name of modernising “archaic” working practices so they can get away with running nothing and barely bothering to tell anyone. Says a great deal about what they think of their customers, even the small numbers using Birkbeck.

  35. Walthamstow Writer,

    Absolutely right that Assembly Members should kick up a fuss. What I suspect ngh was alluding to is that the danger is that they kick up more fuss about services that affect them – possibly to the detriment of others who are, in fact, worse affected.

    The interest shown by AMs in their own line could be motivated by self-interest or simply that they can argue the case more competently as they are fully appraised of the facts and have first-hand experience. Either way, the perception is that if you don’t have someone who can speak out for your line you will not get as good a service as you would if you do.

    I have seen a TfL board member take the relevant person to task over Metropolitan line car parks being full which affected him personally but the person in question showed no interest or concern that this might also happen on other lines – lines that probably are used by substantially fewer board members than the Metropolitan and which probably have even less provision for car parks.

    The danger is that AMs or other similar people home in on a specific instance of a broader problem which leads to the specific instance being fixed and not the broader problem.

  36. Walthamstow Writer says:

    @ PoP – I agree those risks can exist with “senior people” whatever their position. Given I can probably guess who Ngh was referring to then they are a Londonwide member and, based on their Mayoral Questions record, they don’t seem to overly concentrate on one area. They do cover issues across Greater London. Referring to the same AM then they have been in office for a decent number of years and will have built up a vast amount of knowledge and contacts which will allow them to take the broader view as well as sometimes the more local one. Coming back to the train service in question it seems clear enough to me from the comments that the service is extremely well used once it gets to Crystal Palace and further in. Therefore complaints about its non appearance / temporary withdrawal would seem to be in the spirit of raising concerns on behalf of thousands of commuters and a wider hinterland of possible users. I think it’s also fair to say that the AM who represents the Croydon area is extremely well versed in local transport issues and is more than able to fight the corner for users of slower local and faster longer distance trains that serve their constituents.

  37. Graham H says:

    @PoP/GT – like I said, prior to 1962, there was no closure procedure and services could come and go,wartime or no wartime. There had been a noticeable wave of closures between the wars*, and of course another afterwards before Beeching got going.(These had also included some LPTB services such as the Brill branch). The thing tht prevented the equally casual reopening of BR services was the existence of the PSO and the policy injunction not to increase its scope (hence the Spellar Act which permitted experimental re-opening without creating a long term PSO requirement).

    *including many in the London area, usually associated with the remnants of the “Middle” and “Outer” Circles, or some of the Midland’s extravagances such as StP to Kew.

  38. ngh says:

    Re WW & PoP,

    PoP I think understood the point I was making but from the obverse point of view.

    The current “Southern” London post code area MPs have been very poor at holding GTR to account compared to those in Croydon and most of Surrey / Sussex (but good at talking about Southern rather than actual doing anything in few cases). Hence LBG – Beckenham Junction being seen as an easy low risk target to cut. An AM stepping up instead when the MPs were failing wasn’t on their radar screen hence the choice of “Grief” to also include the often suddenness and unexpectedness. The Grief being well deserved and no different to what some of the MPs in leafier area were doing!

    Tessa Jowell (MP 1992-2015) was a very effective local MP for keeping tabs on Southern / Connex (and Southeastern /TL) in the metro area (and they all knew it) including gating stations and accessibility being in the 2009 Southern Franchise spec it wasn’t just TfL. With her retirement and a very ineffective replacement it looked to GTR like they had an easy run when they decided to axe the service for while (they admit that it was bit of an oops moment). A critically area to have an MP who gets transport with 10 stations within or on the border of the constituency and Crystal Palace just 350m outside but with considerable footfall from within the constituency. 5 stations (+ Palace) on the London Bridge – Beckenham Jn service in the constituency (Gipsy Hill, West Norwood, Tulse Hill, North Dulwich, East Dulwich)

  39. Greg Tingey says:

    That was my point – they opened, closed, may have re-opened, re-closed & are now open again (!)
    IIRC only one, temporary station, Carterhatch Lane, opened in WWI?

  40. Walthamstow Writer says:

    @ Ngh – thanks for the clarification. Makes perfect sense. If nothing else it shows that GTR are a bit clumsy with their stakeholder comms when it is perfectly clear if you follow certain people on twitter what train services they use. I would have expected alarm bells to sound all the way from the Twitter desk to the MD’s office when certain people are remarking on the inadequacy of their train services. I know we have remarked many times before about the scant staffing levels in NR & TOCs on press / media activities compared to TfL but something like making social media staff alert to particular names doesn’t cost very much nor does forwarding the relevant feedback to those who need to know. Still perhaps they have a learnt a valuable lesson esp given the political elevation of one of Southern’s regular users to a rather relevant role at City Hall? 😉

  41. Purley Dweller says:

    Southern’s twitter feed was one of the early casualties of the gtr tie up. Was excellent then became useless. They used to respond to tweets, now they don’t.

  42. Curious says:

    Was the curve from Birkbeck to Penge Tunnel ever used?

  43. timbeau says:


    (referring to JGH’s post of Feb 11th)

    The Railway Clearing House map shows no such curve.,_Norwood_%26_Woodside_RJD_53.jpg

    From London’s Local Railways (Jackson)
    “Jackson (in “London’s Local Railways”) says that this spur was promoted as part of a territorial struggle in the 1870s:

    “Such was the disappointment [with the commercial performance of the Crystal Palace High Level line] that the independent element in the Crystal Palace & South London Junction Co. grew somewhat restive in the mid-1870s, so much so that the LCDR was moved to action, obtaining powers in 1874 for a spur from Kent House [to] the Beckenham – Crystal Palace Low Level line designed to allow it a direct run from the City and Victoria to the Low Level station. An effective means of bullying the awkward elements on the CP&SLJR board, this move served its purpose and in 1875 the small company was absorbed into the LCDR, under the powers in the CP&SLJR Act of 1864.”

    Earthworks for such a spur can be seen on Google Earth (connecting Beckenham Road tram stop with Kent House station). I can find no reference to track having been laid, let alone a regular service having been run.

    It is mentioned briefly on page 3 of the 2009 Kent RUS

  44. Southern Heights (Light Railway) says:

    @timbeau: Interesting that response to the RUS, I’m sure I can smell a distinct scent of something… I wonder if my box has developed legs and has done a runner….

    Quite how a re-instatement of that curve could provide “Victoria – Victoria” loop services, is quite beyond me…

    Lastly the penchant for Parkway stations in the response seems a bit odd… I’m not sure if having a Parkway at every rail/motorway junction is going to really help traffic or train patronage.

  45. timbeau says:

    “Quite how a re-instatement of that curve could provide “Victoria – Victoria” loop services, is quite beyond me…”

    presumably Victoria – Herne Hill – Kent House – (curve) – Birkbeck – Crystal Palace – Victoria.

    What the point would be is a quite different question

  46. Graham H says:

    @SHLR – 🙂 Ah, if only money were no object, then everyone’s snout could go in the trough… [More generally,such is the state of top tier local government finance these days,that I doubt we shall see many more large scale capital investments by local government outside the GLA for many years].

  47. Southern Heights (Light Railway) says:

    @timbeau: Doh! I hate those clearing house maps, they seem to change the orientation at Random… I had mentally connected the Kent House with the Hayes line…

  48. Curious says:

    @timbeau: Thank you for that clarification – I always wondered about that disused embankment. This gives me the chance to record that I was once on a Croydon Tram from Birkbeck when, on its fast approach to Beckenham Jct., we overtook a loitering Eurostar train – and waved at the Paris-bound passengers.

  49. Greg Tingey says:

    Reminds me of a n other “phantom curve”, that ( IIRC ) never had track laid on it’s embankment – the “mirror-image” one connecting S-to-W between the GER just S of 7 Sisters & the T&HJR W of S Tottenham

  50. Southern Heights (Light Railway) says:

    @Curious: It was going to Brussels. I know, I was on it…. 😉

  51. Curious says:

    @SHLR: Thank you for the further clarification – no-else has really believed me for the past decade!
    Incidentally, anything planned for the rusting Waterloo Curve (if not too far off-topic)?

  52. Londoner in Scotland says:


    If you mean the curve used by Eurostar to get from the Chatham line to Nine Elms, the answer is no. This is way outside the scope of Birkbeck, so I’ll keep it brief, but there is no capacity on SWT to Waterloo to accomodate trains from Kent. Consideration was given to diverting SE and/or Thameslink trains to the Eurostar platforms during the London Bridge work, but track capacity was not there.

  53. Greg Tingey says:

    Maybe after when ( IF) CR2 gets built?

  54. ngh says:

    Re Curious,

    Even more rust.

    Re Greg,

    But Windsor lines would probably be looking for more services and there is still a bit of spare capacity at Victoria (Eastern) as discussed in another thread a few weeks ago the issue is getting them that far north.

    Construction of the Waterloo Curve was part funded by the EC hence no demolition to widen the approaches to Waterloo till at least the year the grant is non-repayable at which point on on the Windsor lines capacity pinch points could be removed – but only worth doing if several others are also tackled.

  55. 35B says:

    Regarding @Graham H’s comment on closures prior to Beeching, BR (I don’t know what the situation was pre-nationalisation) did have to go through consultation processes involving the TUCCs back in the 1950s. Backtrack magazine has run a number of articles on these, including the current (March) issue on the 1958 closure of the M&GN.

  56. Graham H says:

    @35B – but a consultation process only. No consent from the TUCCs or the SoS was necessary, nor were any of the “conditions” suggested by the TUCCs in any way binding.

  57. Anonymous says:

    Some of these dates are a bit askew…I was regularly using the Vic-Palace-Beck Junction service in the late 90s when I’d just missed South Eastern’s Orpington service – in those days only half hourly. I lost track of it after that but recall noticing in 2001 that it appeared to be going to London Bridge via Tulse Hill all day now. Ditto the Vic-Palace-London Bridge service appeared to become an all day service rather than just peak at that time. On South Central route knowledge is still reasonably widespread with Victoria, London Bridge and Selhurst drivers all signing it. I have the feeling around 2000 the regular service pattern was 2tph Vic-Palace-Beck Junc, Vic-Palace-West Croydon, and London Bridge-Tulse Hill-Palace-Smitham.

  58. Pedantic of Purley says:


    Supply us with documented details and I’ll write to the authors whose sources I used to tell them they were wrong.

  59. Southern Heights (Light Railway) says:

    Oh dear! No trains again!

  60. Man of Kent says:

    @anon @PoP

    Consulting old timetables shows the service was switched from Victoria to London Bridge at the May 1986 timetable change.

    At some point after 1989 but by May 1993, it had reverted to Victoria. This continued until at least May 1997; I then have a gap in my collection, but the May 1998 timetable shows trains again running to and from London Bridge.

  61. Thank you for that which is much more helpful. Apart from the discrepancy between 1985 and 1986 I don’t consider that what I originally wrote was wrong but have amended it to emphasise that the change was not an overnight one for all time.

    Text now reads : In 1986 the service, which had been to Victoria for well over 100 years, was diverted to London Bridge. This, together with decent connections at Beckenham Junction, stimulated some demand and it is this service that remains to this day (under normal circumstances) although it did go through a period of indecisiveness switching between the two termini.

  62. ChrisJ116 says:

    If it was deemed that Trams to Crystal Palace were a good thing then the closure of the Crystal Palace to Beckenham Junction line would be needed. The way to deal with the trains that currently use that line would be to divert them into the other side of Crystal Palace station and make them into an extension of the London Overground services that terminate at Crystal Palace.

    I know this would require a change in who runs the service but it would solve what to do with them when they arrive at Crystal Palace. Then all you have to solve is where the trams go to actually serve Crystal Palace.

    Hat, coat, tin hat, ducks behinds brick wall!

  63. Southern Heights (Light Railway) says:

    @ChrisJ116: The problem there is that from Crystal Palace trains also curve right, towards Croydon. Notably the Thameslink trains on diversion….

    Maybe some sandbags would help keep that wall together 😉

Leave a Comment

In order to make LR a pleasant place for discussion, please try to keep comments polite and, importantly, on topic! Comments that we feel do not meet these criteria, or that contain language that could cause some people trouble at work, may be moderated or deleted.

acceptable tags

* (This won't be shown, but you can link it to an avatar if you like)

Recent Articles

Friday Reading List – 17 March


As anyone looking to properly understand London’s transport needs and network knows, context, background and best-practice are important. As readers might imagine, behind the scenes here at LR Towers we thus spend a lot of time sharing links and reading

Read more ›

LR Magazine Issue Five: Overgrounded


With print copies now being prepped for dispatch to subscribers at LR Towers, London Reconnections Magazine Issue 5: Overgrounded is now available to purchase in our online store. Transport is politics, politics is transport You don’t get transport without politics.

Read more ›