The Case of the Missing Tube Line

My explorations in and around Islington continue, and last week saw a visit to one of London Underground’s oddities. Take a look at this old map of the Northern Line found at Acton.

IMG_1736As you can see, it shows a branch that is no longer there. A slightly pointless branch, in fact, given that Essex Road and Highbury & Islington are just a short walk from Angel (unless you’re lazy). This is the not-quite-departed Northern City Line.

The line was devised by the Great Northern Railway (the company who built the terminus at King’s Cross and also came up with the Flying Scotsman). While King’s Cross was nice and all, it wasn’t in the best place for city folk. The Northern City Line would let them send trains into the City itself, as well as clear up some of their congested lines around King’s Cross. Unfortunately, they lost interest in the idea and so the Great Northern & City Railway was built without the help of its original backer.

The completed line ran from Finsbury Park to Moorgate, incorporating all the stations seen above. With the exception of Drayton Park, the whole thing was built underground. Uniquely, while it was definitely a “tube” line, i.e. built completely underground in a tunnel, as opposed to being built in a trench and then covered over a la the District and Metropolitan lines, it was large enough to hold full-size trains. For comparative purposes, here’s a normal Tube train next to a District Line train, which is about the size of a regular train:

Tube tunnels were built small because it's easier to dig.So there it was. A short Tube line designed for greater things but rendered essentially useless by unfortunate circumstances. The Metropolitan Railway, as it was then, stepped in and bought it in 1913. They essentially aimed to finish what the Great Northern Railway had started, running services from the GNR station at Finsbury Park via the GN&C Line, extending to the Metropolitan station at Aldgate. But they weren’t allowed to build the extension, so that was that. The Metropolitan Railway was left sheepishly holding on to a line that not only didn’t go there, but didn’t even connect with the rest of their line.

1933 saw the Metropolitan Railway taken over by London Transport, and the notion of an integrated transport system could finally be explored. London Transport had a scheme that was known as the “Northern Heights” Plan. This was a scheme to extend the currently-existing Morden-Edgware Line (it wasn’t the Northern Line in those days) up through the Northern suburbs of London. It would have taken over a number of already-existing GNR branches, giving the Northern Line a service to High Barnet and Alexandra Palace among other places. It would also have added an extension from Edgware to Bushy Heath. Most importantly for the purposes of this entry, it would have incorporated a line from Highgate to Finsbury Park and then taken over the GN&C. All in all, it would have made it even harder than it already is to find a Tube going in the right direction.

Incidentally, if you’ve ever wondered why the Northern Line is so called, despite the fact that it’s not especially Northern compared to other lines (in fact, it goes further south than any other Underground line), it’s because of this scheme.

A certain amount of work on the Northern Heights went ahead, including an incomplete station at Highbury that stands to this day, but the full scheme was scuppered by the Second World War and post-war Green Belt legislation.

And now the Northern Line was left with the Northern City Line (as it was now known). A line which, again, didn’t link directly to any of their other lines. In 1964 the Victoria Line swiped the Northern City’s Finsbury Park platforms and in 1971 it was decided, sensibly, to hand the line over to British Rail in 1975.

28 February 1975 was the date of the most notorious event in the line’s history, when a Northern Line train overran the platform at Moorgate and crashed straight into the end of the tunnel. Forty-three people, including the driver, were killed in the accident and several more died from injuries, rescue attempts made all the more difficult by the accident having taken place in the tunnel. The circumstances of the accident are a mystery. Driver Leslie Newson appeared to actually accelerate as the train approached Moorgate, and witnesses reported that he looked perfectly calm as the train shot through the station. No strong evidence was found of any intoxicating substance, nor was there any apparent reason for suicide – Newson even had money in his pocket to buy a car for his daughter. Various suggestions have been made for the driver’s actions, from brain seizure to simple human error, but none are entirely satisfactory.

A few months later, British Rail took the line over, and it remains in their hands as a commuter route. I’d long been curious about this route, having first encountered it in 2000 when commuting to Highbury & Islington Station. I’d never had the chance to actually explore it until a couple of weeks ago.

IMG_1984One of the things that I found strange about this line – apart from the fact that it’s half regular railway and half Tube – is the fact that the stations are timewarped. This one, for instance, carries the colours of Network SouthEast, which ceased to exist in 1994. It rather reminds me of the way the Waterloo and City Line used to look before it was taken over by London Underground.

IMG_1987This building was at Drayton Park. I’d guess it’s either an old electricity substation or a goods shed.IMG_1990

The platform ends at Drayton Park, in the shadow of the Emirates Stadium.IMG_1983

I rather like this strange, twisty tunnel you use to get from the Northern Line to the Northern City Line at Old Street. I don’t know why. I feel like using it in a low-budget horror movie.

IMG_1992Train departing Essex Road. If I were to set a low-budget horror movie on this line, this would be the point where our hero is left trapped in the station on his own with the monster. Wait, I think I just described the exact plot of Creep. Damn it all.

IMG_1994In order to get up to street level, you have to go quite a long way down from platform level. This may be taken as a sign of unfortunate planning, or possibly that the builders of this station wanted to mess with our heads in order to soften us up for the inevitable late-night vampire attack.IMG_1995

I don’t know why it was felt necessary to fit these buttons to the lift. If you try to press “lower level” when you’re already on the lower level or vice versa, the chances are you’re not the sort of person who’s allowed out unsupervised anyway.IMG_1996

Essex Road Station at street level. I wish I’d had a bit more time to explore the line, as frankly I never realised how spooky it is in the middle of the day with no commuters around.

Every so often someone will suggest doing something with the line. The Green Party want to link it to the Waterloo and City to create a new cross-London route, for instance. But I quite like it as it is. I know, it’s a fairly useless line when you get down to it, but I’m just sentimental like that.

Further Reading – A fuller history of the line. – Something else I found that day. – And another thing.



Filed under 20th Century, Buildings and architecture, History, London, London Underground, Transport

9 responses to “The Case of the Missing Tube Line

  1. gary

    its not useless at all. its a city train to take the shirts to work.

  2. Pingback: The Gates – Moorgate | London Particulars

  3. Robert Morgan

    The incomplete Northern Heights station to which you refer is not Highbury but Highgate High Level.

    I used to work not far from Essex Road station. I always thought it spooky, which made it even more interesting, and would let my mind run riot imagining just how more spooky it must have been at weekends, when no trains ran. I now live in Australia and so am out of touch: does the line still close at weekends, or has Emirate Stadium given it a boost?


    Yes we have a right to know & especially what went wrong on platform 9 at Moorgate on D272 train at 8.46 Friday 28th February 1975.


    I know this is’nt nice but does anyone have any pictures of that train? It should’nt of been in service in the 1st place as it was brought in illegally! D272 Carriages 11175, 12263, 10175,–11115,12167,10115, It was also stated that one of the dummy cars was leaking fluid,(12263 or 12167) Why havent they been mentioned in the 150 odd E.Mail comments?

  6. Robert Morgan

    Why is my reply of 11 April 2014 still awaiting moderation 3 months on?

  7. Robert Morgan

    The Green Party need to do their research. The Waterloo & City Line is of Tube loading gauge, whereas the Northern City Line is of main line loading gauge. The project would only be feasible if a conjoined line ran Tube trains from Drayton Park to Waterloo, or even reopened the old stub of line between Drayton Park and Finsbury Park, which would facilitate exchange between the main line and the conjoined line. And even if this were possible, how would it fit in with the main line trains currently running to Moorgate without running to over-capacity?

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