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Widening the horizons…

It rarely takes long in any debate about overcrowded commuter trains before cattle trucks get a mention. There would be a cheap gag here had cattle trucks run to Smithfield Meat Market using London’s City Widened Lines, because today Thameslink uses these very tracks.

Sadly, for comedians, London’s livestock market moved from Smithfield to Copenhagen Fields in 1855, before today’s market opened in 1868, so only slaughtered meat arrived by rail.

The Widened Lines themselves run between King’s Cross and Moorgate. They acquired their name in 1868, when the Metropolitan Railway’s 1863 line was doubled from two to four tracks. The Met’s 1863 line was partly financed by the Great Western Railway, and ran from Paddington to Farringdon and then to Moorgate in 1865. Paddington provided a link with the GWR, and it was this company that ran a large depot under and part of Smithfield Meat Market, which sat between Farringdon Street and Aldersgate (now Barbican) stations.

Smithfield Market Tenants’ Association notes: “The arrival of the railways had already brought about an amazing revolution in the movement of animals. Before then fresh meat could only be transported on the hoof, which took time and was wasteful, as it was reckoned that each cow lost about 20 pounds in weight on a 100-mile walk.”

Rail was the backbone of the 19th century’s distribution system, so incorporating rail into Smithfield’s new market was essential. The GWR’s depot featured six long roads and 29 wagon turntables that gave access to different roads. There was a profusion of cranes and two hydraulic lifts to take meat to the traders above. The first train arrived on May 1 1869 and the last left on July 28 1962.

The Great Western’s involvement led to broad-gauge tracks being laid to Moorgate (actually dual-gauge). The final broad-gauge train ran on March 15 1869, with GW standard gauge trains starting from June 1 1869 after the company assembled sufficient stock for services.

Smithfield wasn’t the only goods depot in the area. The Great Northern’s was by Farringdon Road, on the west side of the station, while the Midland Railway’s was at Whitecross Street, between Aldersgate (Barbican) and Moorgate stations, a short distance to the east. The Metropolitan Railway had a depot at Vine Street, just north of Farringdon.

Great Northern freight trains reached its depot (and passengers trains Moorgate) via two single-line chords at King’s Cross. These sat either side of the station - the western one was labelled Hotel Curve (it passed under the Great Northern Hotel) and dealt with trains leaving the widened lines (northbound), and the eastern one was York Road Curve (named after the road running alongside the station’s eastern wall) and dealt with southbound trains running to the widened lines.

Each had a passenger platform. Both chords curved sharply. It’s possible today to peer into York Road Curve through gratings in Bravington Walk, just off Pentonville Road. (Just to complicate matters, there was a third curve. It ran west from York Road Curve, crossing Hotel Curve on the flat, and allowed trains to head towards Paddington. It opened in 1863 and closed in 1865.)

These curves opened in 1863 and closed in 1977, following the withdrawal of inner suburban passenger services to Moorgate in 1976. The trains were a mix of diesel multiple units (DMUs) and locomotives, usually Class 31s, hauling Mk 1 suburban coaches. At 57ft, these coaches were shorter than standard 63ft 6in Mk 1 coaches. They had no gangways between coaches and were compartment stock with no corridor. Some of these coaches still run today on the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway.

The Metropolitan worked with the London Chatham and Dover Railway (LCDR) to link Farringdon with Blackfriars in 1866. This enabled the Great Northern Railway to run passenger trains and heavy coal trains through Ludgate Hill and Herne Hill. The LCDR ran to King’s Cross with trains that included through coaches from Dover and Ramsgate. All this added to the pressure on what was still a twin-track railway, and prompted the Metropolitan Railway to expand.

The LCDR then persuaded the Metropolitan to build a south-to-east curve that allowed the LCDR to run trains from Victoria, south of the River Thames, to serve Moorgate. These started in 1871 and reached a peak of 80 trains per day (which was also the limit imposed by the LCDR’s agreement with the Metropolitan Railway).

However, the service was not a long-term success. By 1911, the South Eastern and Chatham Railway (a partnership between the LCDR and the South Eastern Railway) recorded just 78 passengers alighting from 52 trains arriving at Moorgate between 0703 and 1104. The SECR withdrew trains from the curve in 1916, with calls to cut coal consumption in the First World War a handy excuse.

The curve was formally closed in 1927, after the Southern Railway paid the Metropolitan £25,000 to release it from the agreement its LCDR predecessor had made in 1870. The curve’s tunnel was demolished in 1958 following a fire in the poultry market above it, that led to a new market being erected.

The SECR’s 1916 withdrawal left only freight trains using Snow Hill Tunnel between Blackfriars and Farringdon. By 1946, it was still busy with 70 trains per day to and from Ferme Park, north of Finsbury Park on the East Coast Main Line. But traffic declined over the following decades and the line closed in 1969, leaving the Widened Lines simply serving Moorgate. Thameslink restored Snow Hill services in 1988 (RAIL 852).

The Midland Railway’s connection opened in 1868, with a twin-track line that curved under the company’s magnificent St Pancras station to surface a short way north of the station and join the Midland Main Line at Kentish Town Junction.

This link had the Widened Lines running on the north side of Metropolitan tracks. Hefty ironwork (the Ray Street Gridiron) just north of Farringdon station allowed the two pairs of lines to cross, with the Widened Lines ducking under the others so that as the pair turned southwards, the newer lines were on the west.

The Midland Railway started Bedford-Moorgate services in July 1868 (before it had finished building St Pancras). It later added services from South Tottenham to Moorgate and introduced Hendon-Victoria services using the City Widened Liines.

Once the Widened Lines opened in 1868, their first user was Great Northern Railway’s goods trains (these ran to Farringdon from January 1868), with limited passenger services starting the following month.

In March, the GNR began joint services with the LCDR between Edgware and Ludgate Hill, extending to Loughborough Junction that summer at the same time as GNR suburban trains switched to Moorgate. The extra capacity allowed the GNR to run services between Muswell Hill and Enfield in north London and Woolwich Arsenal.

When competition from Tube and tram lines emerged at the turn of the century, passenger services over the Widened Lines suffered. The GNR and LCDR ceased services in 1907, while LCDR trains with the Midland lasted another year. The Great Western’s half-hourly Aldgate to Mansion House via Westbourne Park, Kensington (Addison Road) and Earls Court had already gone, in 1905.

This reduction in passenger traffic created space for more freight, which proved very useful when the First World War began in 1914. Over the four years of the war, the Widened Lines carried 250,000 tons of freight and 26,047 special troop and material trains. From early 1915, the line’s remaining passenger trains were restricted to run only between 0800-1000 and 1700-1900. War trains peaked in 1918, with 6,269 troop trains and 58,902 tons of freight.

When the line was doubled, the Metropolitan Railway expanded its King’s Cross station accordingly, allowing passengers to reach a variety of destinations. Early in the 20th century, two Tube lines began serving King’s Cross with what is now the City Branch of the Northern Line (1907) and the Piccadilly Line (1906). This eventually prompted London Transport (it had absorbed the Metropolitan in 1933) to consider moving its station eastwards, to better link with them.

The new station opened in 1941, closer to King’s Cross, and used some of the space created by a tunnel built in 1868 as part of an aborted plan to extend the widened section westwards to Praed Street Junction near Paddington (where the lines diverge to Hammersmith and High Street Kensington). London Underground’s station for the Circle and Metropolitan Lines remains on its 1941 site, having been modernised and remodelled in recent years.

Abandoning the Widened Lines extension westward deprived Euston of its chance to connect London and North Western Railway (LNWR) services into Moorgate and the City. However, the LNWR had its own route to the City, with trains leaving the West Coast Main Line at Camden Junction to use the North London Line to Dalston before turning south on an 1865 line to run into Broad Street station. These services clung to life until 1986.

The platforms of the Met’s King’s Cross station remain today and are easily seen from passing LU trains. Those serving the Widened Lines remained in use for many more years, served by trains to and from the East Coast and Midland Main Lines until 1976 and 1979 respectively. For Midland passengers, the closure was temporary with the line reopening following modernisation and electrification in 1983. The station was renamed King’s Cross Midland City.

Five years later it became King’s Cross Thameslink, with the reopening of the short section between Farringdon and Blackfriars (RAIL 852). It closed in 2007 when Thameslink’s station also moved west, to sit close to St Pancras and its new international services. The platforms remain today, slowly succumbing to pigeon droppings and the dirt of London and passing trains. The new station’s platforms are considerable wider than the old ones, and the station itself is better placed to serve passengers for St Pancras or King’s Cross services.

Having lost the link to the East Coast Main Line in 1976, trains are once more running from the Widened Lines to ECML destinations, courtesy of Canal Tunnels. The tunnels were built a decade ago as part of High Speed 1’s remodelling of St Pancras. They lay idle while the rest of Thameslink was upgraded, but started carrying trains earlier this year.

However, their passengers can no longer travel directly to Moorgate, because Thameslink’s upgrade severed the link between the Widened Lines and Moorgate in 2009. Inner suburban trains still run from the East Coast Main Line (Welwyn Garden City and Hertford North) to Moorgate, but they go via Finsbury Park and the Northern City Line, which opened in 1976 having shut in 1975 for conversion from a London Underground line.

Instead, the Widened Lines now host outer-suburban services from Peterborough and Cambridge that traditionally terminated at King’s Cross, as well as trains from Bedford, as they have since 1983.

All these trains head south from Farringdon to Blackfriars to cross the River Thames for Brighton, Sevenoaks and several other destinations. As they head beyond London Bridge, many will pass New Cross Gate, which until 2007 was one of the southern termini of LU’s East London Line (the other was New Cross). The East London Line ran north under the River Thames to its northern terminus at Shoreditch.

LU used the same trains as on its Metropolitan Line to shuttle back-and-forward. It moved them to and from their main depot at Neasden via St Mary’s Curve towards Aldgate East, Moorgate and the Widened Lines corridor.

The ELL closed in 2007 for conversion to heavy rail operation as part of London Overground. This included building a bridge over the Great Eastern Main Line and a connection to the formation of the line into Broad Street that closed in 1986. It reopened in 2010 and later became part of a route circling London.

St Mary’s Curve is no more. It closed with the ELL but had lost its passenger service as long ago as 1939. But consider that a little over a century ago, London had a railway that took trains from the GWR, fed them through a line under central London to the City, and then had tracks (if not services that ran further east to split near Whitechapel to head south under the River Thames and eastwards towards Essex.

London is shortly to receive a new railway. It will take trains from the Great Western Main Line and feed them under central London to reach a junction near Whitechapel, where they will run under the Thames or head east to Essex. It’s called Crossrail and will operate as the Elizabeth Line.

Meanwhile, the City Widened Lines once more serve a wide range of destinations (outer rather than inner-suburban), with Thameslink’s expansion. What’s missing today is freight, although with intensive passenger services on Thameslink and on London Underground sub-surface and Tube lines, there’s no room.

Had the Widened Lines expanded west to Praed Street Junction over a century ago, many of London Underground’s congestion problems between its Circle, Metropolitan and Hammersmith and City Lines would be solved. It’s possible that Crossrail would not have been needed.

What’s clear from this brief look at the City Widened Lines is that the concept of Thameslink’s expansion or Crossrail is nothing new. The Victorians had grasped it, but the coming of Tube and tram services diminished rail’s market before London’s growing population and employment restored the need for both.

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  • Robert Harris - 28/10/2018 11:01

    Fascinating. I'd always wondered why they were called The Widened Lines

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