Poor Marylebone. It’s a terminus you have to feel sorry for. It’s one of the smallest main line termini as well as the youngest. It only has six platforms, meaning it’s outdone by the likes of Richmond and Wimbledon out in the suburbs. Even the Underground virtually snubs it, only serving it with the Bakerloo Line.
The fact is, Marylebone never really had a chance. It was built by the Great Central Railway, opening in 1899 – long after the other main line companies had already got their foot in the door. The Great Central Railway, by the way, should not be confused with the Great Northern, Great Eastern, Great Western or Great North of Scotland Railways.
The Great Central Railway was a somewhat pointless enterprise. By the time it was built, several of the places it ran to already had a railway. Oddly enough, one of the railways it was in competition with was the Metropolitan Railway, now of course the Metropolitan Line of the London Underground. I say oddly because a gentleman by the name of Edward Watkin was on the board of directors for both and had the ultimate ambition of a train service all the way from Manchester to Paris, using railways in which he had a controlling interest and an ambitious 19th century Channel Tunnel project.
Sadly, as we know, it was not to be, and the Great Central remained the line that no one asked for. Chronically short of money, the company could barely afford to get into London, squeezing in between Euston and Paddington. Even their station hotel, normally a grand statement by the railway to say “We Are Here,” had to be contracted out. Nevertheless, the company remained optimistic. Although they could only afford four platforms, they planned for ten. All this despite the fact that they couldn’t even afford their own trains.
Making things worse for them was the fact that much of their route into London was already developed. The biggest obstacle was, in fact, cricket fans – the proposed route would have threatened Lord’s, and so the plans had to be hastily rewritten accordingly.
Architecturally, it has to be said that a very nice job was done on the station. While it’s not as grand as either Euston (as it was before redevelopment) or Paddington, it provides a pleasant aesthetic contrast with both, being constructed in a baroque style. It looks more like a country house than a railway station, but that’s no bad thing when it harmonises so well with its surroundings.
The station suffered when Britain’s railways were nationalised. More important services were diverted to the larger stations, turning little Marylebone into little more than a commuter station. Maintenance was cut down. Under the notorious head of British Railways, Dr Richard Beeching, any line seen as a loss-maker was to be culled, and Beeching was ruthless. The former Great Central was the only main line to be closed, and with only a few commuter services to justify it, it looked like curtains for Marylebone. I refer once again to Alan A. Jackson’s London Termini, written during this turbulent period (in 1969 to be precise), in which he notes that:
Marylebone seems unlikely to last much longer. Already much of the goods yard has been sold for building. The temptation to dispose of the rest, which is on higher-value land, must be very strong… The killing could be done without too much pain, but when it comes, there will be a certain sadness.
Indeed, plans were made to divert all services to other termini and turn Marylebone into a coach station – Jackson’s prophecy looked worryingly close to becoming a reality.
In retrospect, we know now that a lot of the cuts were over-hasty, leaving many communities with inadequate public transport and forcing them on to the roads, with obvious environmental consequences. Indeed, railway historian Christian Wolmar has argued that even the Great Central shouldn’t have been closed, precisely because it served a lot of places that already had a rail link – it could have been used to increase the number of services to those destinations.
Is it worth noting that Ernest Marples, the Minister for Transport under whom Beeching worked, owned a road building company? I think it is. To be fair, when it was pointed out that there was a conflict of interest, he sold his shares in the company. By a million-to-one chance, they were bought up by his wife. Eventually he was forced to flee to Monaco due to legal difficulties and a heinous amount of tax fraud, living the remainder of his life in his French chateau. What a bastard.
But anyway. Marylebone. Marylebone is a shining example of why it’s a good idea not to close stations. In the 1980s, Paddington was becoming overcrowded. And fortunately for British Rail, it happened that there was a badly underused terminus just down the road. Marylebone, the little terminus that no one wanted, found itself in demand. It was revamped – unused land was sold to finance repairs and rebuilding. In the 1990s, it gained two new platforms. About a hundred years later than planned, but still. Plans are afoot to reopen lines (including part of the old Great Central) and provide new train services to Wales, and suddenly Marylebone is, metaphorically speaking, the prettiest girl at the dance.
By the way, do you pronounce it “Marlibun” or “Marri-le-bone?” I was always taught the former was correct, but I seem to be the only person who pronounces it that way. Hmm.