Monday, 6 May 2013

Ambulance Trains - Crossing London

I grew up in the London suburbs, just a couple of hundred yards from a railway station. It was an odd sort of station as which ever way you went - there were only two platforms - you ended up at Waterloo half an hour later - that's where the train stopped. If you wanted to go north, east or west you then crossed London by tube or bus and reached one of the other London terminus stations - Paddington, Liverpool Street, Kings Cross ... that was where all the trains started from, and of course stopped. It never occurred to me that it was, or had ever been possible to cross London by train, without stopping.  London was one big full stop.By 1988 I was living near Brighton, and the Thameslink line opened.  I thought it was a great innovation, the ability to go right through the heart of London without changing trains, though I admit to never having gone beyond Farringdon. It never occurred to me that the wheel hadn't just been discovered, only re-invented.

So when I started to get interested in ambulance trains, it puzzled me how these huge trains, longer than anything we see now, could get from Dover, going north, without making some long haul round the M25 of railway lines. I apologise if this sounds really naive and stupid but I grew up spending my life on trains, and believe me, they always stopped at Waterloo or Victoria. Since then I've learned a little bit about the mass of independent railway companies that owned track nationwide, and the tangle of different lines that criss-crossed London taking trains anywhere at all if the mood took them.  So, to get to the point.

During the Great War there were three main ways that an ambulance train could cross London on its way from Dover, depending on its stopping places and final destination. Briefly, they were:

The West route:  From Clapham Junction over the Thames at Battersea Railway Bridge (at that time called Cremorne Bridge), and then via Addison Road Station, now Kensington Olympia, and up via Willesden Junction and onwards north or westbound.

The Central route:  From Loughborough Junction in the south, across Blackfriars Bridge and then up through Farringdon, King’s Cross, and Snow Hill Tunnel - the current First Capital Connect (Thameslink) route.

The East route:  Up via New Cross and Surrey Docks in the south, crossing under the river via the Thames Tunnel between Rotherhithe and Wapping, then up the eastern side of Liverpool Street Station. The Thames Tunnel has had a long and chequered history, but today is used as part of tfl's London Overground services.

The Thames Tunnel in its original condition

So London has never been a full stop for trains, and even today you can travel long-distance north to south across London on at least two of the routes used during the Great War. The wheel is very old, and still going strong.


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