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.


  1. A good article, although the figures in the table seem to show the same Northern line capacity at both 20tph and 32tph which looks suspect.

    The cross platform interchanges are essential here as you suggest. Are the existing platforms really unable to be altered to perform the Moscow role, such as that done at London Bridge?

    Thinking bigger, I wonder if the scheme could be linked into Crossrail 2. If Crossrail 2 ran N-S half way between Euston and Kings Cross, it could still link to both. It could then continue to a new station at Camden Town, linking to Camden Road. North of there, many route options exist. What if the High Barnet branch was re-aligned to have a cross platform interchange with Crossrail 2 instead of the Edgeware branch? Then High Barnet to West End would be mostly taken off the Northern West End branch entirely as people would use CR2.

  2. Thanks for that Stephen. To answer your points in turn:

    1. I'm showing the capacity of ONE Northern Line train, hence the lack of variance.

    2. If you look at the diagram of the current layout, the tracks have diverged before they reach the current platforms. You could probably create a step-free layout, but it wouldn't really be cross platform as the platforms are a good way apart.

    3. I've thought of this north to south alignment across Euston Road for Crossrail 2 before, but is it practical to go under the British Library? The foundations are at the height of the Victoria Line if I remember rightly.

    4. General point re Crossrail 2 - TfL's ideas are very poor north of Hackney. As I believe you have alluded to, the focus for urban and metro traffic relief needs to be south of the river and Liverpool Street. I will come back to this topic in time.

  3. On 2, I meant build two new 1km tunnels north of the station and alter the junction south of the station, so the High Barnet platforms become Northbound only and the Edgeware platforms become Southbound only (or vice versa). While involving a reasonable length of new rail tunnel, it does reuse the platforms. And if you adopt the London Bridge solution of an additional platform alongside (converting the old platform to the Moscow area), then a CPI solution is complete.

    On 3, You could put the platforms west of the British library, just requiring the escalators to go around the basement (or through it?).

    On 4, I've got a much better plan for the SW corner as well. All I need is time to blog...

  4. 2. This would work. Whether it's cheaper or easier than what I'm proposing I don't know.

    3. OK, fair point. That makes us about 150m from each station.

    4. I'll look forward to it :)

  5. "Although the tunnels are double-decker, the floors between the decks are wooden in structure."

    Absolutely not true - they're concrete, although granted, they were designed to be removable.