London's Cancelled Transport Projects (Or, Why Commuting in the Capital is Rubbish)

By James O Malley on at

Until the mid-19th century, London was actually rather small by today’s standards. Hammersmith was still a sleepy country village, fields were to be found to the north of Great Russell Street, and the cities of Westminster and London were still identifiably separate. So taking the longview, since then London has exploded - hitting a population of around 9 million before WWII. Though the numbers fell after they soon started to rise again - with the population predicted to hit 11 million by 2050. And this raises an obvious question: How can London help everyone get around?

Throughout the city’s history, there have been a number of plans to answer this question: Some incremental, some bold… and some mad. Here’s our pick of some of the ideas for keeping London moving that never got off the ground.

Northern Heights Tube Extension

Image credit: Patrick Matthews

Have you ever wondered why poking out of the High Barnet branch of the Northern Line there’s a tiny spur that only goes to Mill Hill East? It turns out that it is the last remaining sign of a much grander plan.

Before the Northern Line was the Northern Line, it was a patchwork of different railways, all operated by different companies. When the London Passenger Transport Board (the forerunner to TfL) first took control of the lines in 1933, it was decided that a New Works Programme would knit together existing stations and extend the Tube network even further.

This resulted in the Northern Heights plan, which would have seen Finsbury Park station joined up with Highgate, and then split - with extensions to both High Barnet (which did get built) and Edgware (which didn’t - that still splits off at Camden Town instead). It was only partially constructed when work stopped for WWII… and then never got started again. When the railway went fully electric some years later, all of the non-electrified track was abandoned. Which is why trains don’t go any further than Mill Hill East, and why Finsbury Park doesn’t connect up with Highgate.

The former track in that latter connection has since been transformed into Parkland Walk - a really long, thin park that provides a useful shortcut for North Londoners away from the road.

Cross River Tram

Image Credit: TfL

Until the middle of the 20th century, trams used to run throughout London. Have you ever noticed that there’s tunnel running under Kingsway that comes out onto Waterloo Bridge? That used to be for the trams. And back when Ken Livingstone was Mayor, he instructed TfL to build a Cross River Tram network which would have linked Camden Town in the North with Peckham and Brixton in the South.

It appears that the route would have broadly followed where the 168 bus goes - down past Euston to Holborn, Kingsway, Waterloo Bridge and Waterloo Station - before diverging, with one branch roughly following the 59 bus to Brixton by going down Kennington Road and then Brixton Road, and the other going to Elephant & Castle, on to Walworth Road down to Burgess Park and then into Peckham. Other proposals tweaked the route a little. Others had a spur going to Kings Cross, or going down Old Kent Road instead. The plan was that the tram would begin operations in 2016.

It would have given mostly Tube-less South Londoners another link to the centre of town, and by starting in deprived Brixton and Peckham could have kickstarted regeneration.

Sadly though, shortly after Boris Johnson won the Mayoralty in 2008 he cancelled the £1.3bn plan, with the blame ostensibly placed on problems paying for Tube maintenance. Presumably the massive financial crisis hitting was the final nail in the coffin.

DLR to Dagenham Dock

Image Credit: TfL, but spotted by London Reconnections

Another planned service that felt Boris’s axe was a proposed extension of the Docklands Light Railway, which would have have created a new branch at Galleon’s Reach and taken the network out to Dagenham Dock via Creekmouth, Barking Riverside, and Goresbrook. It would have opened in 2017. You can see it on the above map which was published in 2011 by TfL, in which several new extensions are speculated upon.

In principle it was a good idea, as according to one TfL analysis it would have provided transport for 10,800 new homes.

Sadly though it wasn’t to be, as the cash for it wasn’t there. But transport planners haven’t completely given up on Dagenham. More recently plans have been discussed that would see the Gospel Oak to Barking London Overground line (the so-called “GOBLIN”) extended from Barking down to Barking Riverside, creating a new interchange for Dagenham residents coming from the existing Dagenham Dock station.

And if you’re wondering about the other extensions? Read on...

Fleet Line (North of the River)

Image Credit: Londonist

The Jubilee Line was originally going to be called the Fleet Line - named for the River Fleet, the path of which it roughly followed. Indeed, the river is still there but is almost entirely underground in sewers and pipes beneath the capital - but by the time the line opened the politicians decided to brownnose the Queen and rename it the Jubilee Line, as it coincided with her 25th anniversary on the Throne.

It first opened in 1977 and took over a branch of what was then the Bakerloo Line north of Baker Street, and connected to a new tunnel dug to link the station with Bond Street, Green Park and Charing Cross.

The intention was then to eventually extend the line, with the proposed route running north of the river, linking from Charing Cross to Aldwych Station on the Piccadilly Line (which has since closed) and then on to Ludgate Circus, where City Thameslink is now, and on to Cannon Street and Fenchurch Street before heading east. This never happened - though they did apparently start digging at City Thameslink, in preparation for the line.

Instead, when they did get around to extending the line - decades later in 1999 - the decision was made to have the line dip south of the river - following the route we know today. The thinking was that by going south, the line would connect more of South and East London up to the tube network and encourage regeneration (in areas like Bermondsey and Stratford), as well as join the burgeoning financial centre in Canary Wharf.

As a result of this change of plan, the Jubilee was diverted away from the Charing Cross station and pointed towards Westminster instead leaving the Jubilee platforms there deserted. These are now regularly used for filming - so if you ever see Thor or James Bond get on the Tube in a film, it was almost certainly shot on these platforms.

The vacant platforms have also led to Tube Nerds fantasizing about the best way to bring them back into service. One suggestion is that perhaps one logical extension might be to take the DLR westbound from Bank, and extend that along the previously intended path of the Fleet Line, going to the vacant Charing Cross platforms. As evidenced by the DLR map above - there’s even wilder proposals that would take the DLR then on to Victoria or even up to Euston and St Pancras.

The idea though falls apart because though it would certainly look pleasing on a tube map, it would be sort-of self defeating, as trains would be overloaded with passengers by the time they reach Bank, making it impossible for financial types to easily travel between the City and Canary Wharf.

Oxford Street Tram

A vision of a pedestrianised Oxford Street. Not pictured: Any trams. Image credit: Urban Graphics

Another tram proposal, which was also scrapped by Boris when he culled the Cross River Tram, was the plan to (effectively) pedestrianise Oxford Street and instead install a tram running down the middle, from Tottenham Court Road to Marble Arch.

This could have been a great idea, as Oxford Street is not just the busiest shopping street in Europe, but also supposedly the most polluted street in the world. According to one measurement, it has 463 micrograms of pollutants per cubic metre - three times the EU’s safety limit. So removing all of those buses and taxis that belch out CO2 would be sensible.

Since then, though the tram plan appears to be dead and buried, there are currently plans in the works to at least pedestrianise the street in order to manage the pedestrian congestion. New Mayor Sadiq Khan, along with his vanquished rival Zac Goldsmith both pinched the policy, which was originally envisaged by transport guru Christian Wolmar. So really it is a matter of not “if”, but “when”.

Boris Proposed Road Tunnels

Image Credit: TfL

Of the numerous terrible legacies that Boris has left the capital, from stupid overheating buses, to stupid garden bridges and stupid cable cars, at least he was never able to get this plan into action.

Being dependent on votes from the Tory-voting donut that surrounds London’s core, where people tend to own cars, rather than behave sensibly and act to encourage people onto different modes of transport our now former Mayor instead proposed the building of two massive road tunnels.

Boris wanted to build a tunnel linking Park Royal in the North West with Hackney Wick in the East, and leafy Chiswick with not-so-leafy Beckton. Amazingly, this was the already slimmed down plan from a faintly ludicrous Zone 3 orbital tunnel.

Though it might sound like a good idea - after all, Oslo has dug an extensive motorway network beneath it - the fatal flaw is that building roads merely induces demand. If you make it easier to drive, more people will drive. So mercifully, this never got off the drawing board.

Kings Cross Aerodrome

Picture Credit: Darkest London

Though Heathrow is on the Piccadilly Line, it takes forever to get there. Wouldn’t it be more convenient if the airport was more central?

That appears to be have been the vision of architect Charles W Glover who in 1931 envisaged this crazy airport based at King’s Cross - just to the north of St Pancras now. The idea is that the bicycle-spokes design would enable planes to take-off and land in any direction. He reckoned it would cost just £5m.

Where would all of the planes be stored? In hangars beneath, of course - with a lift system used to transport planes to the runway. What could possibly go wrong?

Though ludicrous, it perhaps isn’t quite as insane as you might think: This was the era before airliners, when aircraft in general were much smaller. And at the time, London didn’t have any tall buildings that could have got in the way.

Of course, it didn’t get built - but that didn’t stop other mad, air-travel plans being drawn up too.

Charing Cross Heliport

Image credit: IanVisits

If you stand on the South Bank and look across to the Embankment, the idea is that Charing Cross station will resemble the front of a steam train - with the building perched perfectly on top of Hungerford Bridge. It almost works.

But it could have ended up looking so much different - and the Strand could have ended up being so much noiser. When the station was redeveloped in 1951 Labour MP Norman Dodds proposed on top of the station the most sensible thing to do would be to have built a heliport.

As the sketch above shows, it would have extended out into the Thames, supported by a number of piers in the water, and would have consisted of two decks 100ft in the air - one for landing, and one for maintenance. According to IanVisits, at the time plans for elevated helidromes (as they were called) were super trendy - though to our knowledge, it doesn’t appear that any were actually built.

The plan would have supposedly cost around £4-6m, and would have been built in 18 months. But, unsurprisingly, it never was. So I guess we’ll never know how convenient it would have been to touch out on the Underground and touch in on the A-Very-Long-Way-Overground.