The East London Line opens once more

Londoners get used to delays getting to work. Nonetheless, passengers at Wapping must have breathed a sigh of relief last week when the first train for two and a half years rolled in to the station.

Even by the slothlike standards of our city’s transport system, the East London Line upgrade and extension has been a long time coming. And promises that this is just the first section of a line that will circumnavigate the capital will be met with sceptical shakes of the head by Londoners who waited more than 30 years to get this far. But then nothing has ever been straightforward for a line that was cobbled together from other people’s railways, continually reshaped and renamed, and which for years seemed to be dying a slow death.

Looking at the map of the London Underground (within which the East London Line is now hived off as ‘London Overground’) it’s easy to see a planned network of lines, but of course it’s nothing of the sort. Before they were lines they were railways, operated by separate companies which frequently lurched from financial calamity to near collapse. Just over a century ago, the Tube map of London, as well as not yet obeying the neat topography of the classic Harry Beck design, featured such oddities as the City & South London Railway and the Hampstead Railway.

At the eastern edge of that 1908 map sits Whitechapel and its defunct District Line neighbour St Mary’s. But there is no East London Line, even though trains had been running the route since 1869. Why?

The reason lies in the long and tortuous history of a line which, only intersecting with the rest of the network at one point, Whitechapel station, was a rather forgotten and semi-detached part of the network – not quite a Tube line in fact.

The world’s first underground railway was the Metropolitan (now the Metropolitan Line), opened in 1863 and joined a year later by the Metropolitan & District (which became the District Line). Both employed cut-and-cover architecture, where a shallow trench was dug for the tracks, then covered over, hence the spaciousness of these lines and their stations and their closeness to the surface. The goal, for the next generation of lines, was to go deep underground, using tunnelling to create a genuine ‘tube’. Ironically, the Brunels had already done just that, with their Thames Tunnel, built between 1825 and 1843. At enormous cost to human life, the father-and-son team had developed an entirely new means of construction.

The tunnel had been a commercial flop, but a consortium of railway companies (the Great Eastern Railway, the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway, the London, Chatham and Dover Railway (LCDR), the South Eastern Railway (SER), the Metropolitan and the Metropolitan District) saw huge potential. This was an existing crossing that linked north and south London and was close to the docks on both sides of the river as well as to mainline railway stations.

The railway programme of the mid-1800s had built lines that reached the edges of London – Kings Cross, Euston, Victoria and the rest – but didn’t venture into the centre. Fenchurch Street was a rarity, lying within the City of London. The lines that would make up the London Underground had been seen as filling that gap. And with their new East London Railway, the consortium saw a way of profitably joining the lines that ran into Bishopsgate in the City to southern lines running as far as Brighton and Dover.

Now it was possible to catch a train from Liverpool Street to Croydon should you wish. And passenger trains from the south would swing westward just before Whitechapel, taking the St Mary’s Curve tunnel to join the Metropolitan District Railway just before St Mary’s station. The next time you head west out of Whitechapel station, look out to your left and you’ll see the disused tunnel. The line did well out of freight too. Coal from mines in the north of England would arrive at the Great Eastern Railway’s Spitalfields depot and be hoisted by crane onto East London Railway trains.

The electrification of the District Railway in 1905 severed the passenger connection with the East London Line. The line finally caught up with electricity in 1913 and now services ran to Hammersmith and Kensington. At the start of World War II, these westbound services were cut, and now the East London Line (as it had become when the whole Underground was placed in public ownership in 1933) was marooned, only intersecting with the rest of the network at Whitechapel. Until 1948, and the full nationalisation of the railways, the East London Line remained a strange hybrid, with publicly owned trains running on track still owned by a private company.

In 1966, the Line was further isolated, as the passenger link to Liverpool Street was closed. It seemed as if London Transport were even uncertain what the tiny line was. Maps between 1933 and 1968 show it as part of the Metropolitan Line. It then became ‘Metropolitan Line, East London Section, with a white stripe bisecting the Met’s magenta. In the 1980s it became the East London Line, and from 1990 was recoloured orange. By then, plans and funding had been falling through for years and many sceptics assumed the line would never be extended. Even when the Government gave the plans the go-ahead in 2001, the project was fraught with difficulties. Plans to demolish the Grade II listed 19th-century Braithwaite arches in the old Bishopsgate Goods Yard drew howls of protest (from Prince Charles among others). And it took former Mayor Ken Livingstone to step in and save Wapping station, which was originally deemed too small to fit into the new line.

Finally though, East London has its own Tube line back, even if it has now been divorced from the Underground network, this time seemingly for good. Who knows where the line will eventually stop.

About John Rennie

Writing about East London history. Sub at Daily Express. Teaching journalism at City University London. One presented a TV show called the Unsellables and the BT Walletwatcher blog. West Ham fan. Native of Basildon
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