The East London Line: Ten years on…#1

The East London Line: Ten years on…#1

The 10th anniversary of the East London Line is with us! Thirteen years ago the original East London Line line shut. In 2010 it re-emerged a new route as part of London Overground. Its official opening took place on 27 April 2010 at Dalston Junction by the then Mayor, Boris Johnson and the first month of operation was classified a ‘preview’ – eight trains an hour to New Cross/New Cross Gate. Full services began on 23 May 2010 between Dalston Junction/Crystal Palace/West Croydon.

In many ways the new East London Line performs the intents of the earlier 19th century built line which was to provide a through rail route between North and South London although that route was only ever used for freight as well as the occasional through railtour.

What has happened is part of the old Broad Street to Richmond route has been reused. This formation lay derelict for twenty years or so before being re utilised to facilitate an extension of the East London Line to Dalston and onward to Highbury and thus a new connection to the national rail network. Consequently the line is no longer connected to the underground network via St. Mary’s curve.

IMG 0718 - The East London Line: Ten years on...

My pic of London Overground’s ‘first train’ – Class 378 154 at Haggerston 27 April 2010.

At the southern end it provides onward connections to Crystal Palace and West Croydon, as well as the provision of a brand new line between Silwood Junction and Bermondsey so as to extend the route to Clapham Junction.

The old order on the East London Line was much admired by many (including me) even if it was a mere service which shuttled back and forth between Whitechapel (Shoreditch in the peaks) and New Cross/New Cross Gate. The big attraction I suppose was it happened to be a sort of a dog’s end of a route – but in fact it had so much character compared to the other underground lines.

The biggest draw of course in terms of the old order was the fact one could ride on full sized sub-surface stock under the Thames. Even now, despite the line’s change of identity and looks, its still the only full sized railway route that goes underneath the Thames. And that in itself makes this part of London Overground totally unique!

NOTE: This was actually discussed in terms of London Underground hence the A Stock were the only full sized trains to go underneath the Thames. Indeed the A Stock were known to be some of the widest passenger train stock in the UK, so they were more than the usual full sized main line stock in fact! This doesn’t discount the fact HS1 has a tunnel under the Thames too nor the fact the new Crossrail route (aka Elizabeth line) which opened May 2022 too goes under the Thames. In respects the East London line still is the only ‘UndergrounD’ route that ever had that distinction of full sized trains underneath the river.

Despite the merits of the trains that once ran on the East London Line – the Q stock, A stock, D stock and of course the venerated 1938 tube stock – the route naturally remained remained much of a backwater. It was never very busy – except perhaps in the days when London’s docks were in full swing. It was a line that didn’t seem to have a proper purpose. Not only that the branches to New Cross and New Cross Gate were curious that one was just a few minutes walk from the other which essentially meant it didn’t really matter which direction the train was heading towards! Ultimately it was all sort of contrived and remained an oddity with the rest of the Underground network but at the same time it remained extremely compelling for the railway enthusiast.

Today the East London Line has a stronger sense of purpose, and the passenger numbers are high. Witness the large numbers of people who switch from the Jubilee to the East London and vice versa at Canada Water. This is because passengers are now garnered from a greater catchment area and they travel over far greater distances than the old line could offer – West Croydon, Crystal Palace, Clapham Junction and north to Highbury and Islington.

Even these days it still does feel like a different entity to the rest of the London Overground system. The fact it runs separately from the other London Overground line between Dalston and Highbury reinforces this distinctiveness from the main system.

ell4leaflets - The East London Line: Ten years on...

East London Line closure leaflets 2007 – 2008 with the new regime depicted at least two years before London Overground began.

Another aspect of the line’s individualism is the different types of train used. Whilst London Overground uses bi mode electric stock (class 378/2 third rail/overhead) on all of its other lines, those on the ELL (Class 378/1) are uniquely third rail only – which is of course why the section to Highbury is managed to all purposes and intents totally separate from the other Overground routes and why the line’s depot at New Cross consists almost exclusively of third rail stock. The bi-mode stock Class 378/2’s do however occasionally venture down the East London line when they need attention or major work at New Cross depot however those movements are undertaken under particular supervision.

The Thames Tunnel

The line has gone through many identity changes and upgrades… but let’s not forget there’s one biggie on the whole jigsaw! The East London line would have never have been possible in the first place if it hadn’t been for what was essentially in those days a far fetched scheme to build the world’s first ever tunnel under a huge body of water. That simple idea turned into a huge engineering headache – and took eighteen years to build – before it became a reality.

These three pictures below show the men originally responsible for the East London Line. Well not the actual railway but the tunnel that would enable the line to be built. Without their great insight and determination, there would have been no East London line!

The most curious aspect of all this is a railway was never even part of the plans. What the originators of the scheme had hoped for was a roadway connecting the north and south sides of the River Thames. It in fact shows roads were seen as the new future very early on in Britain’s railway history – but through a series of delays and huge financial problems the project was never completed – and those long ramps leading down either side to enable vehicles to drive through the Thames Tunnel itself were never built.

Marc Brunel with a drawing of the Thames Tunnel. Source: Twitter

That meant the Thames Tunnel remained a white elephant until it was realised it could be used to great advantage as a railway tunnel! But before that let’s have a quick look at the construction of the tunnel itself….

The Thames Tunnel was Sir Marc Brunel’s idea. He set up a company in 1824 – The Thames Tunnel Company – which was established with a view to ‘making and maintaining a tunnel under the Thames.’ He brought in his famous son, Isambard as the project’s resident engineer.

The great Isambard Kingdom Brunel. He was the project’s resident engineer. Source: Twitter

The story of the construction of the Thames Tunnel is a long one. In brief it was begun during 1825 and despite initial good progress disaster soon struck. The Thames flooded in during May 1827. Isambard Kingdom Brunel undertook the repairs and held a banquet in it afterwards! Worse disaster stuck in January 1828 when six men were drowned. It is said I. K. Brunel scrambled quickly towards a different exit – initially thought to be locked – and was lucky to escape the great ingress of water that ensued. He however became very ill and had to recuperate for a considerable length of time, during which time his thoughts turned to other projects.

Advert for a partially opened Thames Tunnel. People could walk beneath the river as far as the middle. Source: Crouch Rare Books

Ultimately I.K. Brunel went on to build the Clifton Suspension Bridge whilst his father Sir Marc Brunel took over the Thames project fully. The senior began steps to re-commence construction and improved the tunnelling shields sufficiently that he was able to restart work in 1836. Although there was further flooding the determination to complete the job never felt greater and it was finally completed in November 1841.

Marc Brunel’s sketch for his Thames Tunnel showing crowds on parade in the tunnel while ships fired salutes. Note the fish in the river! Source: Twitter.

The tunnel was officially opened on 25th March 1843 with Sir Marc Brunel officiating at the ceremony. This took place at four in the afternoon. By that time there was a huge crowd of people wanting to sample the new underwater pedestrian route. At six pm the tunnel was opened to the public. In its first 24 hours around 50,000 had passed through! In just ten days around 100,000 people had visited it!

Although the Thames Tunnel had been officially opened, it too was visited by Queen Victoria on 26 July 1843. This was an impromptu visit thus Brunel was not present. According to the Queen this was in fact her second visit as she had seen its construction when a little known princess. The Royal Visit overshadowed things however and its often mistook that the Queen had in fact opened the tunnel.

This is Marc Brunel’s copy of a report on the Queen’s visit. Brunel himself was not at the ceremony. Source: Twitter.

In its first four months of opening more than a million people came to look at this new marvel. The tunnel however wasn’t really anything other than a mere pedestrian thoroughfare underneath the Thames despite the greater plans that had originally been mooted for it. In fact despite its huge engineering ingenuity it was in fact a white elephant. It didn’t go anywhere in particular apart from being a more than ample foot tunnel between Wapping and Rotherhithe!

Despite huge numbers of visitors the novelty of venturing beneath a body of water soon wore off and the tunnel struggled to pay its way in spite of markets and fairs and entertainments. Others began looking to making greater use of the tunnel – and very fortunately it had been built sufficiently large to allow something the size of trains. Sure enough after twenty five years of limbo, a railway was built.

The opening of that railway in 1869 is how the East London Line came into being. Fifteen years later it had become part of the new London underground network which at this moment in time merely consisted of both the Metropolitan and Metropolitan and District Railways. In 1884 passenger services on the East London were taken over by the Metropolitan Railway – although in some years it was in fact managed by the District Railway!

7th December 1869. The first trains on the East London Line commence service. Source: Twitter.

In 1926 the Metropolitan Railway entertained the idea of extending its East London line services into Kent and also allow Southern units to run along the East London line, thus giving it a more cosmopolitan flavour. However the complexity of merging third and fourth rail services was always a problem – and its why freight trains were the only through traffic – steam locomotives required neither third or fourth rail systems!

In its final few decades the ELL’s final services were perhaps best known for their use of the Metropolitan’s A60 and A62 stock, though Q, CO/CP, 1938 and D stock were too used. The use of 1938 tube stock was perhaps the biggest surprise of the lot!

The District Line’s D stock took over for a few years while the A60 stock was refurbished – and these on their return to New Cross depot became the last underground trains to regularly work the route. Though Shoreditch closed in the summer of 2007, the rest of line closed completely in December 2007 for complete renewal and conversion to third rail operation as part of the new London Overground network.

East London Line picture gallery 1913 – 1985

The old order! I created this special collation of ELL maps. Left to right: 1921, 1933, 1938, 1960 and 1972.

The change-over from steam to electric operation. 1913. Source: PicClick. (Note: The page is deleted thus an archived image has been used.)

The old Surrey Docks station. Completely rebuilt 1979-82 and called Surrey Quays since 1989. Image coloured by author.

Surrey Docks station, probably in the sixties. Note the lovely sign with feathered arrows. Source: Twitter.

A good colour photograph of the station sign with its feathered arrows can be seen here.

The old order at Rotherhithe with enamel LT roundels present. Notice the sign for goods trains going through the Thames tunnel! Source: Twitter.

Rotherhithe looking in the direction of Surrey Docks station. 1970s. with enamel LT roundels present. Source: Twitter.

Surrey Docks in 1971 with Q stock heading south. Source: Twitter.

East London Line

1938 tube stock on training run before these began operation on the East London Line. 1973. Source: Flickr.

New Cross Gate (1970)

Great picture showing New Cross Gate in 1970. Source: Flickr.

LT East London Line train at New Cross Gate in 1971

Q stock at New Cross Gate in 1971. Source: Flickr.

British Rail is travelling! Curled up British Rail sandwiches no doubt on offer too! 1938 ‘Inter City’ branded tube stock at New Cross in 1975. Source: Twitter. (Note: Tweet has been deleted thus an archived image is used.)

East London Line

CO/CP stock at Whitechapel in 1973. Source: Flickr.

The 1938 tube stock, seen at Whitechapel, was used on the East London Line for a short period from 1973. Source: Twitter.

D Stock on the ELL at Whitechapel 1985. Source: Twitter.

A Stock also ran on the ELL for quite a few years. The D stock was used for a period when the A Stock needed major refurbishment. Rather than deplete the Metropolitan line’s allocation this temporary arrangement with the D Stock was used until such tiime when there was once again a full complement of A Stock for both the Metropolitan and East London lines.

Continued in part two.