Snow Hill tunnels – 30 years on

Snow Hill tunnels – 30 years on

Today is the 30th anniversary since Thameslink began its public services through the Snow Hill tunnels beneath the City of London. On this day the line’s full timetable of services to from Bedford to Brighton and Guildford began. Its not just a Thameslink anniversary for its also 30 years since the old Snow Hill lines once again saw regular train services after many years out of use.

In a nutshell the official opening of Thameslink took place 30 years ago on 28 April 1988 with Princess Anne officiating. In the interim period to 16 May 1988 Thameslink ran a basic service to help with staff training and increase driver knowledge of the routes. Some of these were were run as unadvertised public services hence one could on the off-chance travel from Bedford to Brighton – well before public services actually began on the 16th May. I wrote about this roughly three weeks ago.

Basically the Holborn Viaduct lines and Snow Hill tunnels are the vital elements that make Thameslink what it is – and on this particular occasion I take a look at the route in question as it is today and see if anything’s left of the old order – and where the tunnels run. This post is not really about scenes of trains apart from the historic pictures in the second half of the post.

Leaving Farringdon station….

When one departs Farringdon station on a Thameslink service the train plunges into the Snow Hill tunnel almost as soon as it has left the station platforms behind. But where exactly does it go if one follows the route above ground? And where was the old route towards Blackfriars?

The platforms practically reach the start of the Snow Hill tunnels.

In the older days it was quite possible to see the Snow Hill tunnels from Farringdon Road because they were partially open to that side. Today its not even possible. The tunnels almost immediately run beneath the Port of London Authority Buildings at an angle and the way this property is aligned reflects the railway below.

In a matter of seconds one’s train has entered the tunnels – where does it go?

Where do the lines go indeed? I have drawn a map showing approximately where the Snow Hill lines go, this shows both the newer City Thameslink (in red) and the original Thameslink/SECR routes (in yellow.)

Farringdon at left, Blackfriars at right. City Thameslink/Holborn Viaduct/Ludgate Hill in the centre section.

Thameslink passes beneath the right hand side of the Port of London Authority building in Charterhouse Street.

The Snow Hill tunnels run beneath Gate 19 and West Poultry Avenue on the right.

Once Charterhouse Street is reached the Snow Hill line crosses below this throughfare and runs in part beneath the Smithfield markets. Its route is diagonal from the frontage of the Port of London building under the north west corner of of the New Poultry market and then below West Poultry Avenue to its junction with West Smithfield. The large rectangular green building seen on the Farringdon end of the above map is part of that shown above, with its green roof just visible.

Looking along the alignment of the Snow Hill tunnel as it passes beneath West Poultry Avenue.

Looking in the other direction towards the Port building. The concrete barrier more or less reflects the tunnels’ alignment.

It is evident from the buildings and maps the Thameslink lines run diagonally across West Poultry Avenue and at the other end of the avenue one can see an old building, notice how it is angled. That is because it is built to accommodate the Snow Hill lines running below.

At one time this very location was the point where the other line hereabouts and long gone, the east Smithfield curve, began. This once provided direct access from the south to the Moorgate lines. The curve did not last very long as it was little used, being of quite tight radius and thus could not be used by anything other than fixed wheel railway carriages and so it was closed in 1916. The ‘flat-iron’ building shown below is actually built on part of the old Smithfield curve.

Sort of a Flat Iron building! Its shape is dictated by the route of the railway below.

At this point there used to be an open stretch of railway line in the gap below. One of the reasons for that gap was it constituted the site of the junction between two lines (Snow Hill & east Smithfield curve.)The rather awkward layout of buildings in this part of Smithfield is explained by the fact the railway runs through the area. The huge canopy – shown below – is at such an obtuse angle to the street precisely because of the position of the Snow Hill lines. The following OS map shows the situation as it once was.

The awkward layout of the Smithfield market buildings as shown here is simply because of the railway.

At various times over the years the tunnels have been visible due to construction works (including Thameslink) and there was for many years two permanent short open air sections which could be viewed from above.

These open air sections are shown on the map. From this the triangular layout of the buildings in the area can easily be seen.  It is clear there used to be emergency access to the old Snow Hill station site on the north side, marked by steps. However that access has now been moved to the other side.

One can easily work out where the tracks are beneath Snow Hill by way of the emergency exit (previously a wooden door) that gives access to the Thameslink tunnels. The door was replaced about 2014.

On the other side of this building in Snow Hill itself one can see the present emergency door leading to the tunnels.

On the other side of Snow Hill, flanking the north side of Holborn Viaduct (opposite the doorway mentioned above) there was another open air section of line and this is the image of the line as shown in April 1954 on the disused stations website. This section is the second ring marked on the above map. The photo in question by R. C. Riley shows signals and these are too marked on the above map. At this point was the former entrance to Snow Hill station – or as it was sometimes known, Holborn Viaduct Low Level.

Hereabouts is the start of the new turnback sidings for Southern trains that terminate at City Thameslink. These use part of the old goods sidings that once served Smithfield. The access to these is apparently via the ramp at Smithfield (this is just round the corner from the emergency doorway. That ramp is also used for access to the Farringdon Crossrail works.) These sidings are quite short and I dont think they’ll see a lot of use in the future especially with the demand for longer trains.

At Holborn Viaduct the route is beneath Tesco’s. The old station of the same name was where the newer building with white pillars is next door.

At one time once this would have been a view towards the platforms of the old Holborn Viaduct station.

Holborn Viaduct station was so named because it served the road of the same name. The station was originally opened by the London Chatham & Dover Railway in 1874. It closed in January 1990 to make way for what is now City Thameslink and the oversite development.

Looking south where the old Holborn Viaduct railway once ran towards Blackfriars.

Compare with the map below which shows more or less the same site. Notice the subway that was once part of Fleet Lane. This ran more or less across the bottom of the above picture. Some may notice the Holborn Viaduct station buildings are on the right as shown on the map, not on the main road itself as it usually was. This was the situation for some years when the original buildings were bombed. The later South Eastern and Chatham railway’s goods depot next door was taken over for several decades and was finally relinquished when the new Holborn Viaduct station was opened in the sixties.

Holborn Viaduct on the OS map. The Snow Hill lines are on the far left.

The Snow Hill tunnels ran straight beneath the main area of the station before curving slightly to the left to pass under Holborn Viaduct itself. The current Thameslink alignment is slightly different, being a bit more towards the west – the current lines having a somewhat pronounced curve from the north end of City Thameslink towards Holborn Viaduct/Snow Hill.

At the west side of Fleet Place this spot marks the southern portal of the Snow Hill tunnels.

Where the Snow Hill tunnels once began, there was too another tunnel which passed underneath the tracks just before they entered the Snow Hill tunnel and deep below Holborn Viaduct station itself. This was the road tunnel belonging to Fleet Lane, as shown on the above OS map. Even though it no longer exists, its alignment is reflected by the present Old Fleet Lane on the west side and St George’s Court on the east side.

The present roads do provide access to City Thameslink, both in terms of emergency access but are also important when engineering works have to be done or railway equipment needs to be moved in.

Looking the other way from the above photograph, and strangely even though all the old buildings have been knocked down the alignment of the original tracks leading down into the Snow Hill tunnels are curiously replicated by the current gap that can be seen between the new buildings at 5 Fleet Place and 10 Fleet Place.

Looking in the other direction the old alignment of the Snow Hill lines can be seen between 5 and 10 Fleet Places. The older building mentioned below. 1-6 Farringdon Street, can just be glimpsed at the far end of this alley.

The small gap on the extreme left at the rear of 1 – 6 Farringdon Street is where the western edge of the viaducts ran.

Continued in part two.