How many people have cursed their luck on making a dash to the Tube station after a night out, only to discover that they’ve missed the last train? And how many people have seen New York’s 24-hour subway service and thought, “Why can’t we have one of those over here?”
The reason, simply, is that the Tube needs to be shut down every night for maintenance purposes. The reason New York can run 24-hours is because their tunnels have regular crossovers, meaning that trains can be diverted from one line to another while routine maintenance is carried out. Above ground, crossovers aren’t a major expense (so it’s possible to get the train from St Pancras to St Albans more-or-less 24/7). Under the ground, however, it’s a different matter. Tube lines were expensive enough without building a whole load of extra tunnel. So, the result is a remarkably inflexible railway (with narrow tunnels). No night trains, no overtaking and when a train fails you’re screwed.
Which is why the gaudily-painted building on the left is of interest. It’s located in Stockwell, just a short distance from the Tube station. Gay paintwork aside, it could be more-or-less anything – an electricity substation, a public toilet or something even less interesting. Another of
those random buildings you get. However, if you look around the metropolis, you’ll notice that it’s not alone. There are several similar structures. The majority are in South London, a few are in Central and a couple more are North.
Some of them are disguised, as per the one on Clapham High Street seen left. Some are painted, as per Stockwell. Others just stand there, being weird and mysterious.
Well, the story of these buildings is rather interesting. They were originally built during the Second World War.
It’s a commonly known fact that the Tubes were used for shelter during the Second World War (and also the First, but people tend not to talk about that). So it was that the Ministry of Home Security had their great idea – if the London Underground could be used as a deep shelter, why not vice versa?
So they approached London Transport with a proposal. London Transport could build a series of deep-level shelters, some for public use and some for the Government. In return, the Government would grant them permission, after the cessation of hostilities, to build tunnels linking them.
They would form an express Tube line running along the approximate route of the Northern Line, increasing speed and capacity along its busiest stretches. The idea had been proposed in the late 1930s, but nixed until now. London Transport leapt at the chance to finally carry their scheme out.
Unfortunately, the scheme didn’t proceed quite as planned. For a start, the war had left the country with a labour shortage. Then, as with any major construction project, there was the NIMBY factor to be taken into consideration.
Probably the one person you really don’t want to annoy during a major construction programme in the middle of the biggest war the world has ever known is God. The authorities at St Paul’s Cathedral are the next best thing in London, and they had a few objections to the concept.
They hadn’t been big fans of the Central Line, and they weren’t going to stand for anyone else digging in the vicinity of their Cathedral either. Their concerns were not entirely baseless – the ground beneath St Paul’s is somewhat shifty at the best of times, so much so that Christopher Wren incorporated an early example of an expansion gap into its design. Anyway, that was that shelter scuppered. A lone Central Line shelter was, however, built under Chancery Lane.
The Goodge Street shelter – seen in the somewhat abortive attempt at night time photography above – was opened in 1942 as General Eisenhower’s London HQ, and is known to this day as the Eisenhower Centre (although it’s been a long time since it’s had a use half as interesting). The others were used for similar administrative purposes until 1944, when a new menace came to town – the fearsome V2 rockets. Stockwell, Clapham North, Clapham South, Belsize Park and Camden Town were all opened to the public.
Unfortunately, things didn’t go quite as planned after the war. One way or another, it was discovered that, with a handful of exceptions, the shelters were no longer suitable to be converted into Tube stations. They served other purposes – first they were used to house demobbed soldiers, then the large influx of immigrants from the West Indies. Finally, they were turned into document storage facilities. In the 1990s, London Transport bought the shelters for their own use once more, with the aim of improving facilities at already-existing stations. By the look of things, at least one is now available to let.
They’ve had, to my knowledge, two appearances in fiction – in his classic work of London-based fantasy, Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman has a character making his home in one. The building on Clapham Common appears in Michael de Larrabeiti’s children’s fantasy, The Borribles Across the Dark Metropolis, in which it’s used as a secret police HQ.
Sadly, though, this seems to be about as much as the deep-level workings can hope for. They’re unlikely to ever be used for their intended purpose now. For all Ken and Boris’ exciting plans for transport in this city, so far none have included reviving this scheme.
Which is a pity, because, to return to the point with which I began this rambling entry, it would be nice if the Northern Line had an extra tunnel or two. You know, for night trains, overtaking and when a train fails…