The Kent Route Study (Part 4): Victoria – Dartford, the Forgotten Southeast Service

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For our final look at passenger suburban services considered in the draft Kent Route Study we look at a route which is, in many ways, a bit of an oddball – not least because it doesn’t have a current (or predicted) problem with capacity: the Victoria-Dartford service.

The service in question utilises a connection, otherwise unused by regular passenger trains, to connect the suburban heartlands of the London Bridge Metro services with Victoria. Seeing a train on the destination boards at Victoria advertised as going to Dartford seems out of place at a terminus originally built for the London, Chatham and Dover railway and generally serving routes via Bromley South.

The section of track between Nunhead and Lewisham unique to Victoria-Dartford services. Based on Carto Metro and used with permission

The potted history

The existence of the Victoria-Dartford service is a result of various quirks of railway history. The background behind the route is not really needed in order for us to look at it in relation to the Kent Route Study, but its story is quite atypical of rail development in London. The history does help explain why it is not a turn-up-and-go service and why the line more-or-less came about by accident rather than existed to fulfil a particular purpose – factors which lead some to consider it to be expendable.

The Crystal Palace at Sydenham Hill in 1854 – an unlikely start to our story. Photo in public domain

That story really begins with the Great Exhibition of 1851 held at Hyde Park. Referred to in a derogatory fashion by Punch magazine as a palace of very crystal, it was not long before the building that housed it became referred to as a “Crystal Palace” by the general public. When the Exhibition closed it was decided to relocate the building to Penge Common just below the summit of Sydenham Hill. It was to be extended and rebuilt, even bigger than before. The move and work was completed in 1854.

The London, Chatham & Dover Railway (LCDR) wasted no time in deciding to tap into the potentially lucrative traffic available. Part of their urgency may be down to the fact that two of the directors of the holding company responsible for rebuilding the Crystal Palace were also directors of the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway (LB&SCR). Clearly, if a line was to be built, it was highly desirable for it to be the first to serve the Crystal Palace by rail and to become established as the best way to get there from London.

A new railway

Indeed, serving the Crystal Palace was their primary objective. Subsidiary objectives could wait. The fact that the railway company set up to create this new branch was called “The Crystal Palace and South London Junction Railway“ (CP&SLJR) shows that the purpose of the railway was to explicitly provide for visitors to the Crystal Palace rather than provide a service for the surrounding catchment area (Sydenham Hill). It must be rare example, especially then, of a station not named after the area it served.

As things turned out, the LCD&R were beaten in the quest for having a station at Crystal Palace by the West End of London and Crystal Palace Railway – a subsidiary of the LB&SCR. However the rival station, located less conveniently on Anerley Hill, did not provide a direct route all the way from the West End until 1860.

The original Crystal Palace and South London Junction Railway

The “South London Junction” in the title of the railway company is today’s Loughborough Junction and at the time only the routes to Herne Hill (centre arm) and Victoria (western arm) existed. The CP&SLJR would create the eastern arm. The railway was built through an area then devoid of railways so had no junctions beyond Loughborough Junction. It was just a long branch line. The line was opened before either of the two original intermediate stations (Lordship Lane and Honor Oak) were ready – such was the focus on exhibition traffic.  

Nunhead

Once built, it must have been obvious to the LCDR that they weren’t exactly using their assets to the best effect. What then followed was a scenario, typical of the railways of South-East London and Kent, that only makes sense if one presumes that inter-company rivalry was the dominating factor in decision making. The LCDR, very reasonably, decided that a station at Nunhead would be a good idea in order to increase traffic. The CP&SLJR almost paralleled the main London Bridge – Brighton line for much of its route, so the potential for profitable intermediate stations was limited and Nunhead was probably, by far, the best location.

Off at a tangent

Also relatively sensibly, the LCDR decided to have a branch line branching off at Nunhead. This is where the red mist seems to have set in. The area south east of Nunhead (in the direction of Bromley) was a railway desert, likely with a lot of potential for local traffic. This would also be the logical direction to go in as it would lead away from the centre of London. Instead, the LCDR decided to go eastward towards Lewisham, but before reaching Lewisham the line would then head north east towards Blackheath and Greenwich.

The Blackheath Hill branch – later extended to Greenwich Park

There seem to be only two possible explanations for this somewhat absurd routing which both lacked strategic sense and inexplicably missed the one place where one would expect a lot of passenger traffic – Lewisham itself.

One possibility is that the LCDR had set its sights on a station at Greenwich, which would have been a popular leisure destination in its own right. It was also close to a location for catching pleasure steamers up or down the Thames. The rationale for this seems not to stand up to great scrutiny when one realises that it took the company 17 years to extend the line from Blackheath Hill to Greenwich Park – but then the LCDR was notorious for being nearly bankrupt for much of the time, and being hopelessly optimistic about money being available for new lines.

The other explanation is that the LCDR wanted an incursion into the established territory of its hated rival – the South Eastern Railway (SER). Such a decision would appear typical of the time, but there was no rational business justification for it. The SER already had direct routes to the West End and the heart of the City. It made no sense to provide an alternative, more long-winded route to Blackfriars and Holborn Viaduct – which were neither the heart of the City nor the West End.

A service that wasn’t needed

Of the four stations eventually opened on the new Greenwich Park branch line, three were in close proximity to existing stations. The one station that was not duplicated by the SER was Lewisham Road. This station was located on the main road now called Lewisham Way. However, even this station wasn’t the success they might have wished because the SER, probably in retaliation, subsequently built a six platform station nearby on their existing route to London Bridge. The SER station was called St John’s which was the name of the recently-built church practically adjacent to Lewisham Road station.

St Johns July 1913 HPR resized

St Johns station in 1913 looking towards Lewisham with the bridge carrying the line then in use to Greenwich Park.

To give the LCDR some credit, one of the stations they did open (in 1872) was Brockley Lane which was directly overhead and at right angles to Brockley station on the London and Croydon railway. It is hard to see how Brockley Lane could have rivalled Brockley, but it may at least have led to some sensible interchange possibilities.

Finally, in 1892, very late in the history of Victorian railways of London, the LCDR got around to building the line they should have been thinking of building more than twenty years earlier – Nunhead to Shortlands.

It’s all doomed – or maybe not completely

Although it might not seem obvious, the Greenwich Park – St Paul’s (later renamed Blackfriars) service was, in many ways, the forerunner of today’s Victoria-Dartford service. However, the Greenwich Park branch closed at the start of 1917 as a wartime economy. Whilst, as events turned out, the line from Lewisham Road to Blackheath Hill and Greenwich Park was forever doomed, a twist in the tale led to the revival of the line from Nunhead to Lewisham Road and the building of a new short stretch of track from there to Lewisham Junction.

Under new management

In 1923 the Southern Railway was formed – one of the “big four” – when railways were amalgamated. In London it encompassed all main line railways south of the Thames – not just the area covered by today’s Southern Railway. The Southern Railway of 1923 quickly realised it had various problems to solve. It also recognised that there were considerable opportunities with the development of electric traction for suburban services and colour light signalling.

One of Southern’s challenges was to standardise on one form of electric traction rather than risk multiple different types of electrical working expanding over its network. It was rapidly decided to go for 750V third rail, as it provided the power needed and could be installed very quickly and cheaply. The need to be able to electrify the network was important in order to keep traffic receipts up and costs down, as well as to be competitive with the many tram services then in existence. On the South Eastern side there was the added bonus that multiple unit electrification did a lot to resolve the issues of an inconvenient weight restriction on Hungerford Bridge, which formed the approach to Charing Cross.

One of the main problems specific to the South Eastern side of Southern Railway was the bottleneck west of London Bridge – primarily at Borough Market Junction. Electrification and colour light signalling would do a lot to reduce the problem, but the benefits of this would be limited as long as there was a substantial amount of steam-hauled freight traffic going via London Bridge and Blackfriars via the Metropolitan Curve to the Metropolitan line at Farringdon and beyond that to the north.

Revival – due to freight

So, whilst rapidly electrifying and preparing pioneering four-aspect colour light signalling schemes, Southern Railway also embarked on a scheme to eliminate freight from passing through London Bridge station. By relocating Lewisham Junction signal box, the way was clear to build a viaduct to provide a connecting line from Lewisham Junction to the site of Lewisham Road station and from there they could reinstate the remains of the Greenwich Park branch to Nunhead. From Nunhead the freight trains could then travel along the original route of the Crystal Palace and South London Junction Railway to get to Loughborough Junction. They could then continue to Blackfriars where they would rejoin the established freight route and continue on their journey north.

New route (in red) to replace the old route (in blue) enable freight to avoid London Bridge
Routes overlaid on Carto Metro

The plan wasn’t quite as simple as that, because the freight trains had to be able to get to Lewisham Junction from the main line to Sevenoaks. To solve this lesser problem a short double track spur known as the Courthill Loop was built to the south of Lewisham station from the main line to the Hayes line (or “Mid Kent” as it was then known).

New link and Courthill Loop

What needs to be emphasised at this point is that the Courthill Loop and the new connection between Lewisham and Nunhead were only intended for freight use. They were not electrified when built, despite all the surrounding tracks now sporting electric trains and despite a major electrical feeding station being very conveniently located at Lewisham.

Capturing more traffic

By the late 1920s Southern Railway had a new policy aimed at capturing even more suburban traffic. It has to be said this policy turned out, in the main, not to be a great success. The line from Beckenham Junction to Crystal Palace, mothballed since the middle of World War I was reopened and a new station at Birkbeck added. The line from Wimbledon to Sutton via St Helier was built from scratch. The line from Woodside to Selsdon Road was electrified and reopened, again, in the rather optimistic expectation that an even less financially sound proposal, the Southern Heights Light Railway, got built.

Either Southern Railway was looking very much to the long term and was convinced that traffic would eventually build up on these new services, or the hopeless optimism that originally bedeviled the building of new railways was still alive, well and residing in the Southern Railway boardroom. So it was, then, that in 1935 both the Lewisham – Nunhead freight route and the Courthill freight Loop were electrified and made available for use by electric passenger services. The Courthill Loop enabled additional trains from Hither Green to call at Lewisham rather than run direct to London Bridge. The Lewisham – Nunhead connection meant that for the first time ever an electric passenger service along this relatively short section of line was instigated.

Revived line, no revived stations

It does seem at first glance that some sanity did prevail at Southern Railway, because they did resist the temptation to reopen Brockley Lane and Lewisham Road stations – which were located on the newly electrified route. In the latter case, at least, the station building remained in fairly good condition. Such an outbreak of apparent sanity is tempered when one considers that this route was still primarily a freight route, and a busy one at that. Stopping passenger trains would have been a considerable nuisance. It wasn’t long before Southern Railway was back in form and building a new line down to Chessington South (and beyond). Today the Chessington line is considerably busier than any of the other revitalised lines that are still open, but even it cannot be considered a great success.

The line needs a London terminus

The choice of London terminus for the new electric service via Lewisham and Nunhead was rather strange. Holborn Viaduct was chosen. As we have already seen, this didn’t exactly open new markets and Charing Cross and Cannon Street could be reached much quicker. Why Holborn Viaduct? Perhaps even then people could sometimes be too keen to restore the railway routes of yesterday (the remnants of the Greenwich Park service in this case) rather than provide what is wanted currently.

An alternative explanation for the choice of Holborn Viaduct is that it was likely the easiest London station to terminate at from an operational perspective. The only real alternatives were nearby Blackfriars – which was probably at capacity as far as terminating trains were concerned – and Victoria. Whilst there was likely capacity at Victoria station itself, the congested approaches in the Brixton area would have made it a less favoured option. A consideration would also have been the substantial amount of freight heading towards the West London Line.

Why did they bother?

It is not immediately obvious quite why Southern Railway felt a need to run passenger trains between Dartford and Holborn Viaduct via Lewisham when no previous service existed. It wouldn’t have generated much more traffic, as the West End was already accessible from Charing Cross. The new route may have made some people’s existing journeys easier but the service would be unlikely to stimulate journeys that were not already being made. Either Southern Railway opened the new link simply because they could and it fitted in with their expansionist policy, or, much more likely, they were already running all the trains they could to Charing Cross and Cannon St and the line via Nunhead provided a genuine opportunity to increase capacity into London.

Death of the Holborn Viaduct service

The Holborn Viaduct-Dartford service ran from 1935 to 1990. Not surprisingly, throughout this period it was neither frequent nor especially busy and 8-car trains appear to have sufficed even at the busiest times. It was a service generally forgotten about by those who did not use it. The line was mentioned in the reports of the Lewisham Rail Disaster of 1957. The 17:22 8-coach Holborn Viaduct – Dartford train was the one that stopped just short of the collapsed bridge at St Johns. The accident report describes the Lewisham-Nunhead line as “an important freight exchange route, on which there were also some passenger services between Holborn Viaduct and Dartford”.

The birth of a new service to Victoria

In 1990 Holborn Viaduct station closed as a result of enhancements to the original Thameslink scheme, making it incompatible with the through route to Farringdon. It was clear that the service from Dartford via Nunhead would either have to be abandoned or another London terminus found. With other services being a higher priority for the three terminating platforms at Blackfriars, the only realistic option was Victoria. And so, by accident rather than design, the service from Dartford was rerouted after departing from Peckham Rye to take the tracks that would enable the train to terminate at Victoria.

For the next two decades the service had the feeling of one that was being dutifully run because it was fulfilling some kind of useful purpose for a small portion of the travelling public. However, nothing was done to encourage its use. In its nadir, the service was roughly half-hourly, Mondays-Fridays only, with no service after 19:00. It was not surprising that TfL honed in on it as a line that was not achieving its potential. Of particular note to them was the limited hours of operation and the potential of rebuilding the platforms at Brockley Lane. This would create an interchange station there which would increase journey opportunities for London Overground passengers.

Improvements

A very simple Sunday timetable

Things on the line have gradually improved. The nonsense of 19:00 finishing was eliminated and Saturday services were reintroduced. Sunday services have recently been added by the simple expedient of replacing the Dartford – Cannon Street Sunday service on the Bexleyheath line with a Dartford – Victoria one.

In the proposed timetable for May 2018 there is the rather imaginative proposal to extend off-peak service from Dartford to Gravesend calling only at Greenhithe (for Bluewater). This means that the line can be run both peak and off-peak with five dedicated trains. In the morning peak hour it is currently possible to run a service that is slightly better than half-hourly by utilising the a train returning from London on a different service from Cannon Street to provide an train to fill a slot where a gap would otherwise occur. A similar thing happens in reverse in the evening peak. This is clever and efficient but does reduce resilience as the service now becomes dependent on other services and can be affected by any delays at London Bridge. The proposed timetable with its captive fleet of trains eliminates the need for such dependency.

Issues

Having painted a fairly rosy account, one is led to wonder what issues there are with the service. Although this service is not explicitly stated, the Kent Route Study does mention the idea of reducing the number of London terminals served from individual stations as a means of improving reliability. Some people have interpreted this to mean the Dartford-Victoria service is in the firing line.

Best use of capacity?

What is probably more of a problem is that the Dartford-Victoria service is a bit of an operational nightmare to run. At Dartford terminating platform capacity is limited and this service is probably not the best use of that limited capacity. Capacity at Lewisham station is also limited and it could be argued that Dartford-Victoria trains are not making the best use of this capacity either.

Even in 2024 Network Rail believes that there will be some seats available (yellow) between Lewisham and Nunhead

West of Lewisham station the service crosses the diamond junction so that conflicting movements are maximised. The only saving grace is that down Victoria-Dartford trains can be held at a signal on the approach to Lewisham (in the vicinity of the former Lewisham Road station) without causing conflict. It is inevitable that these trains are timetabled to wait as necessary for a convenient moment to cross Lewisham junction.

To the west of Lewisham Junction the service shares the tracks with trains using the Tanners Hill flydown – now much more heavily used as a result of the Thameslink Programme, eliminating the day-to-day use of crossings to enable trains to switch between the Charing Cross and Cannon Street lines. In the up direction (towards London) this is not an issue, but in the down direction (towards Lewisham) one generally wants to avoid bringing a train to a halt on the rising gradient of the flydown. This is especially true if the train is 12-cars long as it will foul the main line. It is inevitable that these trains generally take precedence over ones from Victoria.

An unnecessary hindrance on the approach to Victoria?

The inconvenience at Dartford and Lewisham is almost insignificant compared to the approach to Victoria from Peckham Rye. On a track diagram it is clear that multiple opportunities exist to reach Victoria. This would appear to be helpful but, in fact, they are all pretty full. Things are not helped by the multiplicity of flat junctions or the relatively recent introduction of 4tph on the London Overground service to Clapham Junction, which eventually replaced the 2tph South London Line service. Each Victoria-Dartford train has to be threaded into the mix by whatever route is available. There is no consistency. It is inevitable that these trains are often timetabled to wait where they can do so in order to get their slot through various congested junctions.

One has to question whether the Victoria-Dartford service makes the best use of these tracks in the Brixton area, as not all the trains are even 8-cars long. Then again, London Overground operates 5-car trains so it could be argued there is even less justification for these. Certainly it seems hard for TfL to fulfil their wish of running 6tph to Clapham Junction on the East London Line by the early 2020s until another service is curtailed or the digital railway comes to the rescue.

Carriages required in the morning peak hour to provide the service (B)

The route study gives a figure of 22 vehicles (carriages) arriving at the London terminus (Victoria) in the morning peak hour. This would strongly suggest three trains with only two of them being 8-car formations.

A 21st century, half-hourly service in urban London

As well as the Victoria-Dartford service not really fitting in well spatially with the aspirations for London suburban services, it does not fit in well temporally in that it is only a half-hourly service. TfL for one would like to see a 15 minute service all day. They would also like to see high level platforms added at Brockley.

What will almost certainly happen in the next few years is that the service will continue as it is because it would be too difficult, politically, to abandon it. One factor favouring its retention is that it would be hard to see how the paths and terminal capacity freed by abandoning it could be put to better use. It is one thing to remove a service because resources could be better utilised elsewhere. It is quite another to remove it because it adds to the complexity of trying to run other services which have co-existed, without too many problems, up to now.

Unfortunately, it seems equally unlikely it will get any better unless it is the incidental beneficiary of some major infrastructure works. Even without TfL taking over Southeastern we are seeing services that run half-hourly becoming more and more of an anachronism in a built up area of London. Perhaps unsurprisingly though, that seems likely to be the fate of the generally unloved Victoria-Dartford service.

Some of the background recounted here can be found in “Holborn Viaduct to Lewisham” by Vic Mitchell and Keith Smith (Middleton Press). Wikipedia has also been surprisingly useful in the preparation of this article.

Written by Pedantic of Purley