The Lonely Life of Birkbeck: South London’s Bellwether Station

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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.

Written by Pedantic of Purley