Thursday, 27 December 2012

Solving the intractable problem of Camden Town

Anyone going to Camden Town by tube at a weekend to the markets will know that it can be crowded. Or even shut because it's so crowded. So from the 1990s onwards, London Underground came up with a plan to create more room at the station, with the latest plans being put forward in 2002. It would have replaced this landmark bank

(copyright The Local Data Company)

and this Leslie Green red-tiled tube station

(copyright Wikipedia)

with this new development.


Furthermore it would have evicted Buck Street Market,


moved the Electric Ballroom music venue

(copyright Wikipedia)

and rebuilt the Trinity United Reformed Church.


Understandably, having upset those who value the current architecture, those who dislike modern architecture, market-goers and stall holders, music fans and church-goers, there was considerable local opposition. So much so that the scheme was rejected for three reasons (my prĂ©cis):

  • detrimental to the local character (6 planning counts);
  • unsatisfactory for pedestrians (7 counts);
  •  too big (5 counts).
After rejection by a public inquiry in 2004 all went quiet, apart from LU stating in in 2007 they wanted to revisit the proposal. Then it went quiet again. Until now.

For all the benefits of a new station to visitors to Camden, most of the people who come to Camden on the train aren't heading for the markets. They are going to work.

(copyright TfL, edited by myself)

This is the Northern Line. It carries over 250,000 people per year, and everyone heading from the northern branches to work in the West End or the City passes directly under the Camden market area. This is the area of the line closest to Camden:

(copyright TfL, edited by myself)
Underground it looks like this:


This labyrinth of tunnels allows trains from both Edgware and High Barnet to access both the Charing Cross and Bank branches. Given that 20 trains per hour (tph) can run on each of the Edgware and High Barnet branches, the commuter in North London will have no more than six minutes to wait for a Charing Cross or a Bank train. And wait they do, because this gives them a rare commodity on the tube - a seat for all of their journey, be it to the City or the West End. So, under normal rush hour conditions, how many people change at Camden Town? Very few.

There is an upgrade to the signalling going on at the moment, which is why there are currently so many weekend closures. By 2014, the capacity will have increased to 24 tph on each branch. It's welcome, but it will mean that morning trains on the Bank branch go from being dangerously overcrowded to overcrowded.
Now here's the interesting part. The recent decisions regarding funding of a Northern Line extension to Battersea mean that trains will soon have two southbound destinations from Kennington. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to see that it will be trains from Charing Cross which will be heading for Battersea. Here's the current layout at Kennington:


And here's the extension proposal:

(copyright TfL)

The reversing loop is a bit of a give away. Now there's absolutely no theoretical reason why trains from Charing Cross shouldn't carry on to Morden, as they do occasionally now - but it's a lot easier operationally to keep the lines separate, especially given that the line is so busy. But here's the rub - a recent article in Modern Railways states that London Underground are looking at the long-desired split of the [Northern] line into a Morden-High Barnet via Bank Line and a Battersea-Edgware via Charing Cross route...This would require the rebuilding of Camden Town station.

I can't source the information - but the dependency is fairly clear. The people changing at Camden Town on a southbound rush hour train from High Barnet can't be more than 10% from empirical evidence. And those people often stay on the platform to wait for the next train in the direction they are heading, because it's easier than the two minute cross-platform interchange with stairs - when, in any case, the next train is as likely as not to be behind you. 

With the new plans, all this would change. 50% of the people on the trains from High Barnet and Edgware would be changing from a train arriving every minute and a quarter across the narrow Camden tunnels - in the immortal words of Douglas Adams this is, of course, impossible. So do we need a revival of the Camden rebuild project? Well, no, not necessarily - but we should, at least in time, if we really care about Londoners.

It's essentially two separate schemes - one which benefits commuters, one which benefits weekend market-goers. That's not just my opinion. Look at this detail from the Inspector's Report from the public inquiry:

Notwithstanding the public benefits that the improved station would provide, the station works are effectively separate from the above ground redevelopment that would take place after completion of a crash deck slab over the station works.

I could look at the end of my nose and dismiss the weekend requirement - but it would be very short-sighted to do so. London thrives on the money Londoners spend in London outside the centre of town, and this must not play second fiddle to the business needs of the City, the West End and Docklands. We do need a two-phased approach here to secure funding - but we do need to understand the requirements for the second phase. To a certain extent it drives what we do in a first phase, as we will see. 

Let's look at the reasons for the failure of the station rebuild scheme. The markets - the primary people the scheme was designed to help - were one of the most vocal objectors. This can be interpreted as either poor stakeholder management, or a bad scheme. In my opinion, it's probably both, and a rethink is needed above ground.

First let's look at the conservation area to the north of the station:

(data from, modified by myself)

Conservation area: area in pink
Area subject to demolition with the original application: bounded by Camden High Street, Kentish Town Road and Buck Street

Key to numbered buildings
1: Buck Street Market
2: Camden Town Underground Station
3: HSBC Bank
4: Trinity United Reformed Church
5: Hawley Street Infants
6: Electric Ballroom
7: Inverness Street, of which more later

My immediate instinct given the planning history is to stay clear of the conservation area. Buildings 3 and 4 - the HSBC Bank and Trinity URC - were the subject of an attempt at spot listing during the campaign against the last plans. Furthermore, the exemption from spot listing ran out in 2009, so would be liable to reassessment should the plans be reintroduced. The inspector at the public inquiry came to the conclusion that at least some of the market area - building 1 - would be required underground permanently, and that was in a revised proposal which made the site very cramped. I feel that we effectively have stalemate, and we need to look outside the conservation area for a new site for the station building. 

The northern side of Buck Street looks to be a possibility, but Hawley Street Infants (sometimes described as Camden's Village School) should rule this out straight away. Edit 29/12/12: I am informed that Hawley Street Infants is to move to Hawley Wharf, a new development close to Camden Road Station. This redevelops an area devastated by a fire in 2008. A paragraph from the consultation document relating to the move of the school says The existing school site is surrounded by sites with planning permission for large developments, which are likely to cause disturbance and disruption to the school. Hawley would be overlooked and overshadowed once these developments are finished. 

I can't find details as to what these developments might be, but my instinct tells me to look elsewhere. With the lack of social housing on Hawley Wharf, common sense would suggest that social housing will be built on the school site once vacated in 2015. That takes us to the northern side of Inverness Street. 


This is the view from Camden High Street. There's a market on the north side of the road, and it's already pedestrians only except for early mornings and evenings for loading. It's closer to the markets, and, provided we don't make the mistake of putting a new station on the corner, it solves the pedestrian and crime issues. Furthermore, apart from one hotel, we are talking about retail outlets and housing which could be replaced in a new - and modest - structure. And we can keep the old station entrance, and all of the emotive buildings can remain. 

The point about the corner is really important. Not only should the frontages on Camden High Street be able to be preserved, but one of the criticisms of the previous scheme - that it created opportunities for crime by virtue of having a blank frontage to Kentish Town Road - is immediately negated. Here is a possibility for a scheme:

(data from, modified by myself)

The area to the north of Early Mews is Arlington House, a shelter for homeless people, amongst other uses. This is equally emotive and shouldn't be touched. Although I haven't shown it clearly, the access to the rear of the properties of Camden High Street should be maintained. The market would need to move from its current position eastwards - but this link suggests that only 40% of the street is taken up by stalls, so this shouldn't be an issue.

Let's go back to the original scheme underground. I can't find the plans, but it was described by the inspector  of the public inquiry thus:

A bank of four escalators (two up and two down, but all reversible) would lead down to the northbound concourse level, via an elliptical atrium. From there further escalators would lead down to the southbound concourse and platforms. Three adits would link the concourse to each platform. The design of the station is constrained by the fact that the existing platform tunnels will not be repositioned or widened.

So, would this design cope with total separation of the Northern line branches? I estimated no more than 10% of a train from High Barnet changing at Camden Town in the morning peak. This would become 50% averaged over the two branches. Say for the sake of simplicity the split of people between the City and West End branches is even (it isn't, as more people are travelling to the City). Given that the separation (and other measures) will allow 32tph, we are left with the below frightening statistics:

And if anyone thinks I'm being alarmist, a person being taken ill on a train can easily cause a six minute delay. Can the southbound platforms cope with 1371 people on them? Of course not! And the evening peak is not going to be much better. A total rebuild is needed. But how without closing the line?

My objective is that TfL deliver something like this:

The two northbound and the two southbound branches share so called "Moscow platforms" (like those  designed by Charles Holden at Gants Hill.below). This allows cross platform interchange between the branches - without which we would see many disgruntled customers.

(copyright Wikipedia)

The platforms are either side of the pillars. The logic here is that it saves space, and there should always be plenty of room, as the only way the platforms could be really full is if there was a serious delay on one branch. If there were a serious delay on both branches, people would only be arriving from the station itself.

But how to build this design on to an operational railway? There seems to be little choice but to build below the existing station. Now - yet again - we come up with a major challenge. Under - and to both sides of -Camden High Street there lies a 370m long World War II deep-level tube shelter. It's not specifically listed, but there is little doubt that the inspector of the public inquiry considered it a major asset. Edit 29-12-12: My mistake here. The Inspector actually felt it to be beyond his scope to comment, in answer to a letter of objection from Barnet Transport Users Association, to which I was referring. My apologies - I elaborate on this in answer to a question from Long Branch Mike further down.

This challenge seems to me to be by no means insurmountable, but it does force the location of the platforms to the south of the current positions. This is any case necessary to an extent to create the cross platform interchanges, but it moves the platforms from their current position between the current station and Buck Street to south of Britannia Junction (the apex of Kentish Town Road and Camden High Street, south of the HSBC Bank).

A cynic might say this scheme is not deliverable without using the Buck Street Market as an interim work site, given it's fairly clear that there would be a requirement to have two sets of escalators down to the platforms with an intermediate open space. This would create a work site as below:

(data from, modified by myself)

If this extra space were necessary, would it be a show-stopper? Looking at the inspector's report:

Camden Market at Buck Street is in a highly visible location and it is hardly surprising that a high proportion of visitors at least look at the goods on the Camden High Street frontage. However, this does not mean that it is a crucial part of the markets as a whole, or that it is essential for their overall success.

Also we should consider this from Camden's planning brief on the site:

The Secretary of State agrees with the Inspector at 29.6.73 that due to the nature of their tenure, stall holders at Camden Market at Buck Street on the site are unlikely to be compensated, and that although some might be able to relocate, a number of businesses would be likely to fail with significant social and economic impacts on those who run or depend on them. The Secretary of State agrees there would be a significant impact on the traders and their dependents. However, he considers that the benefits of the new station in terms of transport, housing and sustainability would outweigh these negative impacts. The permanent acquisition of the land at Camden Market at Buck Street under a Compulsory Purchase Order is a matter for formal consideration by the Secretary of State for Transport.” (Paragraph 19)

This hardly makes the market site, at least in the interim, a show-stopper. It also has the benefit of removing one eye-sore - the Buck Street entrance to the deep-level tube shelter. An alternative access point would need to provided from an extended area underneath the market - but it was part of the original proposal to remove this entrance.

Could the platform widening part of the scheme be executed without the new station buildings on Inverness Street? It's not ideal, but I don't see why not. The initial access to the new platforms may not be all we would ask of it, but if our objective is to allow 32 tph in each direction on each branch without people having to traverse the station to change trains, we will have accomplished our objective.

So do we have a solution? I'm not a civil engineer, but I do know a bit about conflict resolution. I'll leave it to the wider community to comment.

**Many thanks to Taz for helpful suggestions on London Reconnections, which led to this article being written.

Two essential pieces of accompanying reading:

1. Public Inquiry - Inspector's Report
2. Camden Council - Camden Town Station Planning Brief

Edit 29/12/12 - Long Branch Mike asks: 

Ian you bring up an interesting point on your blog, to which I could not post a reply. Here it is:
I’ve thought about the use of the deep level tube shelter as a possibility for use in resolving this Camden Town branch changing problem. I’m glad you’ve brought it up, but you don’t seem to have developed the idea at all. Would that you could. It seems to be a great way of re-using a long idle asset, for the purpose it was designed for – hosting tube trains, to the benefit of the entire Northern Line(s).

Just to give those who don't know some background, there were eight deep tube shelters completed (two others were started), built during the Second World War for the Government, Four, including Camden Town, were handed over to be used by the public because of intensified bombing in 1944.

The description given by Wikipedia of the tunnels is "a pair of parallel tunnels 16 feet 6 inches (5.03 m) in diameter and 1,200 feet (370 m) long. Each tunnel is subdivided into two decks, and each shelter was designed to hold up to 8,000 people".  This sounds like a fantastic opportunity to run really long trains, until we remember "Each tunnel is of a diameter much larger than that usually used for running tunnels, but smaller than that used for the platform tunnels, hence they were constructed at the stations that would have been bypassed on the high-speed lines". Forgetting my incredulous look at the possibility of a high speed line bypassing Camden Town, we have something a little narrower than a Northern City Line tunnel. If we take out the bit in the middle for the length of a Northern Line train, do we have a big enough Moscow platform to cater for the number of people? Well, it's possible - I just don't know. The only information I could find was in the Inspector to the Public Inquiry's report: <i> The shelter consists of two long, deep tunnels that run either side of, and parallel to, Camden High Street, joined by cross-tunnels and with a main entrance in Stanmore Place south of Parkway.</i>  Also, the only information I could find regarding the relative depth of the deep tunnels to the tube lines was at Belsize Park from Subterranea Britannica: <i>About half way along the full length of the shelter tunnel is another cross passage with a wide stairway leading down to the lower level and up about 20 feet round a right-angle bend to a brick wall - this was the connection through to Belsize Park Station.</i> If this height differential is similar at Camden Town this is not impossible with gradients.

The bigger issue here is the sensitivity of the site. Although there is nothing in the planning brief precluding the use of the deep level shelter as railway tunnels - the Inspector to the Public Inquiry said merely <i>Access to the Deep Level Shelter Tunnels is not a matter for the Inquiry but they are let to a company and are used for storage.</i> Presumably that is why the deep tunnels themselves are not mentioned in the planning brief, but this, by no means, implies that they could be reused. I would suspect that there would be another long dispute if this was proposed, leading to a number of subterranean listings. The fact that the Euston Trust attempted to spot list the Buck Street passages to the tunnel shows the depth of feeling here.

One other point. Although the tunnels are double-decker, the floors between the decks are wooden in structure. I cannot perceive how it would be structurally sound to run all four platforms in the deep level tunnels. We are therefore left with what to do about the 'other' two platforms - leading to a proposal similar to mine, I would suspect. There's also the matter of cost - how far would you have to tunnel to rejoin all the branches?

In conclusion, lovely idea, but I don't think it - quite - works.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Christmas in West London

Scene: Paddington Station
Date: Christmas Day 2012
Time: 10:30
Present: Paddington Bear, Isambard Kingdom Brunel

The railway being closed and Paddington Station being silent, Paddington Bear and Isambard Kingdom Brunel have left their respective plinths to admire their station. As they have done every Christmas Day in recent years, their paths cross. It is not hard for them to notice one another: apart from pigeons and scurrying rodents, they are the only creatures moving on the station.

If you were a fly on the wall (whom I didn't forget when talking about moving creatures: Freda the Fly is as still as the statues Brunel and Paddington were a few minutes ago) the first characteristic you might notice is the similarity between the old engineer and the bear from Darkest Peru. Both of small stature, both wearing a hat. both taking slow, short, serious steps as they make their way across The Lawn.

IKB: Happy Birthday, Mr Brown [and it is indeed Paddington's birthday. Or one of them, to be precise.]

PB: Merry Christmas, Mr Brunel. The noise on Eastbourne Terrace!

IKB: Well, we should enjoy our short-lived silence. That's the price of progress.

PB: But why couldn't they have built the Crossrail station under our station? Much less disruptive.

IKB: But cheaper to dig a big hole in the ground. And I have an interesting proposition to discuss with you Mr Brown.

PB: Please tell me.

IKB: Well, if I had had the tunnelling capabilities available today, I would have taken the Great Western Railway across the West End to Liverpool Street - a bit like they are doing today. So Paddington today would likely be an inner-suburban station a bit like Ealing Broadway. And, with the station not being a terminus, it wouldn't have the grand architecture. And you would probably not exist.

PB: Ah yes, but that would mean that King's Cross and St. Pancras wouldn't exist either, Maybe it was for the best that the technology came later? We would have lost some wonderful architecture.

IKB: But then the interchange stations would have been the places where we spent the money. So you could have been Farringdon Bear, for instance.

PB: Frequenting Smithfield Market rather than Portobello Market? No thank you. I'm very glad that the station is here.

IKB: Another point Mr Brown. If the railway as a whole had adopted my broad gauge, we wouldn't have the capacity issues we have now.

PB: But imagine the land costs Mr Brunel. The benefit to cost ratio goes down because we need more land to build the same railway. So we build less railways. Look at the M25.

IKB: I'd rather not.

PB: It's an obvious analogy. First we ask for a three lane motorway, then demand increases to fill the capacity. We then have a perfect business case for a four lane motorway. If we'd asked for a four lane motorway in the first place we would have been given nothing.

IKB: Economics delaying innovation, as ever. Which is why I'm so pleased to see Crossrail - even if it is 20 years late. Or 170 years late, depending on your point of view. But I really think we should have had four tracks built - that way the fast trains could have gone through the tunnels too, and many people could have travelled from the West Country to work in the West End, the City and Canary Wharf without changing.

PB: And we would have waited another 20 years or another 170 years for it to be built, Mr Brunel.

IKB: You are so damned practical Mr Brown. So what do you think of the new wires coming to Paddington?

PB: Well our station will be cleaner no doubt. But I do miss the old steam trains.

IKB: How sentimental, Mr Brown. You must barely remember them here. By the time you arrived from Darkest Peru, they had almost been replaced with diesel trains. But if I could have built electric trains, I would have done. It's not only the dirt: they are so much quieter, and they're easier to maintain. Steam trains are great for showing children history in action, but for running a railway give me electric trains any day.

PB: Well, at least we are having overhead wires. The trains from Victoria and Waterloo become stuck in the snow.

IKB: Even that seems to be changing with the announcement of overhead wires from Basingstoke to Southampton. But the wrong decision by Southern region to have third rail electric traction will take decades to reverse - unlike my correct decision to use broad gauge, which took a weekend to replace in 1892.

PB: I feel we have said all there is to say that is useful regarding the broad gauge, Mr Brunel. What do you think of the new station for the Hammersmith and City?

IKB: Well it looks nice - but it's still awfully crowded on the platforms. And it seems to be further to walk via the new taxi rank. Which is a great success.

PB: Yes, that was a good idea. It's a long way from platform 1, mind.

IKB: Maybe that's the idea - take your luggage on Crossrail as it's easier than a taxi. Great innovative thinking there.

PB: Or maybe it's the only place the taxi rank can go with the hole in the ground and the awful noise on Eastbourne Terrace.

IKB: Maybe you should suggest that your plinth is moved temporarily until the building work is finished?

PB: Thank you for that idea Mr Brunel, I shall suggest it to Mr Grober when I next see him.

The station clock moves on to 11:00.

PB: Well, it was lovely to see you again Mr Brunel, it's time for elevenses. Now I wonder where I can find marmalade sandwiches on our station on Christmas Day?