The QE Tube: What’s In A Name?

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“It is a gutter title” complained The Railway Magazine. “Not what we expect from a railway company.” The line in question was the Bakerloo, and just how it got that name has always been subject to a certain amount of debate. What’s certainly true is that it opened as the Baker Street & Waterloo Railway in 1906, and that the London press soon decided this was too cumbersome for day-to-day use. Precisely which of the papers coined the actual name Bakerloo, which the company itself swiftly adopted, however, isn’t entirely clear.

According to Underground historian Mike Horne the most likely candidate is journalist and historian G.H.F. Nichols, who wrote for the Evening News as “Quex.” At least, he points out, that’s what Quex’s obituary proclaimed in 1933. We are unlikely though, ever to know for certain. Only that despite Railway’s dislike, the name remains.

Given the amount of column inches and screen time given over to the subject since yesterday’s announcement that Crossrail is to be renamed the “Elizabeth line”, it is clear that such decisions can still evoke considerable debate today. Yet as the Bakerloo’s own nominal adventure demonstrates it was hardly a unique act.

Nor does one need to look too far back to find the last line that went through a similar transition. As LBM and Jonathan Roberts pointed out in our look at the origins of the Jubilee line, that line too suffered more than one identity crisis – “the Fleet” and “the Thames” were both considered before a final decision was made:

With Fleet line stage I being scheduled to open in 1977 in time for Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee, Horace Cutler – by then the GLC’s new Leader – announced the renaming of the Fleet line as the Jubilee line. This cost London Transport £50,000 in 1977 prices, worth £310,000 in today’s money.

As author John O’Farrell once wrote in Things Can Only Get Better, this choice of name was deeply problematic for many of his most left-leaning friends, with one particularly staunch republican refusing to ride the line in protest until it was renamed. This meant the occasional tortuous journey to otherwise convenient pubs or venues when the Jubilee would have been the more viable option. Whether that friend ever admitted defeat is unknown.

Crossrail, then, is not the first line which will be renamed. Nor will it be the last. Indeed it is certainly not the first to be named after a monarch. Indirectly, the Victoria line got there first. Nor is it arguably the first to be named after a reigning monarch or even the current one – as we’ve seen, that honour goes to the Jubilee. One might think it slightly greedy, perhaps, for the Queen to have helped herself to a second Tube line when she already had one, but as the fact that London keeps building them demonstrates, they are terribly more-ish.

The simple truth is that much of the discussion around the subject online is thus noise and the origins of the suggestion are simple enough. Although not mentioned in the official press release TfL have confirmed the idea belongs to the current mayor, Boris Johnson. It is not a new suggestion for him either, having first been raised in 2013 in the Evening Standard (we tip our hats to Mayorwatch for the link):

We need a proper name for Crossrail, the vast new line on London’s underground network — and who better to give her name to that line than someone who has served her country so unfailingly and well for 60 years

That suggestion was finally, officially put to the Palace last year, with the Queen formally approving it in September 2015.

Nor does it signal some kind of precedent. Crossrail 2, should it be built, is not now suddenly guaranteed to be “the George” (although should Her Majesty’s longevity extend to after its opening then it would perhaps be ungracious to deny her the opportunity to complete a unique hat trick).

Instead it is largely a simple act of opportunism on the part of the mayor and TfL.

And that opportunism does extend to TfL, even if the idea itself does not. For the change can only have been put forward with the organisation’s blessing and just why that blessing was forthcoming is worth pausing to ask. Republican issues aside, it is a name hardly designed to trip off the tongue and a colloquial abbreviation to the “Liz” seems highly likely. A ‘love it or hate it’ reaction was thus inevitable. There is also the issue of rebranding those Crossrail signs which already exist on the network, although it is true that they are currently limited in number.

So why support such a change? The answer perhaps lies in understanding TfL’s careful appreciation of brand and symbolism. Whilst one must avoid assuming that every act by the powers-that-be at TfL is a machiavellian scheme (or perhaps, now, ‘Mike-iavellian’), they have always been very careful about how they present Crossrail to the world and it would be thoroughly out of character for the organisation to suddenly become blind to that now. The decision to launch the Crossrail concession’s first services as TfL Rail was a cool and calculated one, for example, ensuring that passenger expectations would not be raised excessively before the arrival of new trains and services:

In general, the public see TfL branded services as better (or at least very different) to their equivalents on national rail – even in situations where statistically it is not always the case. Building this image was a significant challenge at the beginning of the London Overground, and it is an image that TfL are no doubt keen to protect.

Perhaps more pertinent here though is something we pointed out in 2013 – that granting Crossrail a roundel was also a carefully measured act:

This is thus more than just a roundel, because it tells us that Crossrail will not be a railway that just happens to be run by TfL, it will be a fully-fledged member of the TfL family. That suggests that there are some interesting times (and debates) ahead in the world of suburban services not just on the subject of Crossrail, but also beyond.

It is this that perhaps provides the likeliest clue as to why TfL were happy to go along with the mayor’s suggestion. For they have declared that the name change will happen when the line opens and not before. This thus allows two brands to be leveraged now not just one. Crossrail the successful construction project can beget Crossrail 2, for which backing and funding are still in the balance. Meanwhile the operational railway that is the Elizabeth line becomes, to the wider public, the newest addition not just to the TfL family, but to the Underground.

That last part is a clever piece of nominative determinism. For it no longer matters that operationally Elizabeth will be a mainline railway, with mainline tunnels and rolling stock, mainline branches reaching as far as Reading and a mainline management structure all operated by TfL at (ultimately) the grace of the DfT. To the public at large it is now a Tube line. It may act like Thameslink, but it looks like the Bakerloo.

And it would be a brave civil servant or transport minister that, at some point in the future, tried to justify taking a “Tube line” back under “national” control, no matter how silly its name might be.

With thanks to Briantist for his TfL queries and Del_Tic for the title

Written by John Bull