Unbuilt London: The Transport Schemes That Never Were

A short series in which we document the haphazard schemes, the outrageous ideas, the inspired projects and the ridiculous brainfarts that planners, developers and entrepreneurs have tried to foist on London. 

In the first part of Unbuilt London, we take a look at the transport schemes that never quite made it off the drawing board. From monorails to raised motorways, heliports to pneumatic propulsion railways: herein lie schemes good, bad and mad that, for one reason or other, never lived to see the light of day.

A note on our methodology: Obviously we haven’t included every single kooky transport scheme. But we’ve tried to include most of the significant ones, those which would have impacted on the city, and those that we just plain loved or loathed. If you think there’s anything we should have included, drop us a note in the comments.

Kings Cross Aerodrome, Westminster Airport &  Charing Cross Heliport

One would assume that, in the 1930s, airplanes had an exemplary safety record, to judge by the willingness with which planners entertained the idea of building major airports in the middle of London. Here are some examples.

The first is a proposal for an ‘aerodrome’ at King’s Cross, half a kilometre in diameter; as recorded in the 12th June, 1931 edition of Flight magazine, it would be a “huge central air and rail terminus on a site now occupied by railway sidings near King’s Cross and St. Pancras stations”.

The second is even more improbable: a platform of runways erected on stilts above the Thames at Westminster Bridge. Handy for an MP anxious to escape to his Tuscan bolthole, less helpful for those on the ground disinclined toward having the din of propellers as a constant companion.

By the time the 1950s came around, the helicopter was poised to relieve the plane as the popular mode of transport. A pressing need arose, therefore, for a heliport, such as the one pictured above jutting out over Charing Cross station and part of the Thames. Notes the accompanying blurb: “[it includes] radar aids to help landing in London’s pea-soup fogs”. A reassuring message for those nervy flyers.

More recently, a late-1970s scheme by Norman Foster involved the complete destruction of Hammersmith Broadway (no bad thing, some might argue) and its replacement with an enormous new transport interchange-cum-office block, with a bus and Tube station at the base and a helicopter landing pad at the top. Despite the architect reputedly trousering £1m for the design work, it was rejected.

Unbuilt Tube stations

Some stations get to reappear in ghost form. Others don’t even survive gestation. Some are planned and never built, but none got as close to a rendering on the Tube map as North End. Also known as Bull and Bush (after a local hostelry), the station was proposed in 1903 to serve a new residential area between Hampstead and Golders Green. However, when the new area fell through, work on the station ceased. Photographs from a 2002 site visit can be seen here.

Several other stations were planned, but never built, for the aborted Northern Heights extension to Edgware; this excellent video explains the project fully.

Monorail Schemes

Over the years there have been a number of schemes to bring monorails to the capital. Pictured in the gallery above is one floated in 1967 by the GLC Department of Highways and Transportation, which envisioned a monorail route running down Regent Street and Piccadilly (see the Wuppertal monorail for an idea of what it might have looked like). There was also a more recent plan from 2006 that pictured a route crossing the Thames at Waterloo Bridge. Sadly there’s little chance of either being built any time soon, so we’ll just have to leave the monorail and all the joy it brings to those lucky folk in North Haverbrook.

The Trafalgar Square Car Park

If you’re of the opinion that modern town planners have scant respect for the masterpieces of the past, consider what they thought of doing to Trafalgar Square in the 1930s. Turning it into a giant car park must have seemed the height of modernity at the time.

London Ringways

Love it or loathe it, the Westway is a major part of London’s road infrastructure. Had the original planners got their way, we would have had a lot more of it. The Westway was a precursor to London Ringways, a series of four ring roads planned during the 1960s that would have circumnavigated the capital. Ringway 1 would have seen a raised concrete motorway gripping central London like a noose. The plan was cancelled in 1971; however, remnants of the scheme remain in the form of partially-constructed spurs that lead nowhere in particular (see gallery above for an example). The Ringways are imaginatively explored in this video, and if that doesn’t slake your interest, read this detailed explanation.

Cross River Tram

One of Ken Livingstone’s key transport projects was this tram network, linking Camden to Peckham and Brixton via King’s Cross, Holborn, and Waterloo Bridge. The tram was one of the first projects smote by Boris Johnson when he became Mayor, and though there is a chance the project will be resurrected at some point in the future (Livingstone has said he’ll re-start it if he wins in 2012), it’s not likely to happen for some time.

Thames Railway Viaduct

In the 1860s, in order to eschew the ever-expensive demolition costs for building in London, a pair of engineers, James Samuel and John M. Heppel, proposed to build a railway down the middle of the Thames. Supported by cast iron piers, the Thames Railway Viaduct would link London Bridge with Westminster Bridge, via a series of intermediary stations. The railway could, engineers boasted, be finished in just two years, with a single road being obstructed. Alas, their optimism was never to be tested, although Messrs Samuel and Heppel would no doubt be pleased to learn that, 150 years later, London will welcome its first Thames-straddling station, when the new Blackfriars Bridge opens in 2012.

The Crystal Way & the Great Victorian Way

Proposed around 1855, the Crystal Way was a covered railway-cum-shopping mall, with the locomotives running beneath and the arcade running above. Clearly taking its inspiration from the recently-completed Crystal Palace, the Crystal Way would have run from Cheapside to Oxford Circus, with a branch line to Seven Dials. Around the same time, the Great Victorian Way, proposed by Joseph Paxton, designer of the Crystal Palace, also gained traction. To quote the authors of London As It Might Have Been, this was a ten-mile “girdle round the whole of central London”, with eight lines, a road and shops and houses located within the ornate glass-and-steel frame. Its route would have followed much of what later became the Circle line.

Atmospheric Propulsion

In the early days of the locomotive industry, various plans were hatched to improve upon what was seen as a rickety and unreliable technology (how times change). One of them was an atmospheric-propulsion system, which was trialled in Croydon. In 1844 the London and Croydon Railway built a pumping station beside Jolly-sailor station (now Norwood Junction) and began to run tests. But the company merged with the London and Brighton Railway in 1849, and the plan was abandoned.

In future Unbuilt London posts we’ll be looking at skyscrapers, bridges, and other assorted projects. 

Sources:

The 1982 book London As It Might Have Been, by Felix Barker and Ralph Hyde, was of considerable help in compiling this post.

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  • Anonymous

    Great stuff!

    I used to own a hardback A-Z of London (c. 1965) that showed the future path of the proposed M24 which would have involved demolishing most of Mitcham (hooray!) and Tooting (shame!).

  • Ray

    “The first is a proposal for an ‘aerodrome’ at King’s Cross, half a meter in diameter;” I don’t think I would describe half a meter as huge.

    • Anonymous

      Cheers, fixed.

  • http://twitter.com/jonnelledge Jonn Elledge

    This is really brilliant stuff. Nice one, Deano.

  • http://twitter.com/katebevan Kate Bevan

    Lovely post, as always. Though I think you mean circumnavigated rather than circumvented!

    • Dean Nicholas

      Quite right! Fixed now, thanks.

  • Nottheviewsofmyemployer

    Enjoed that. Especially loved the idea of building a multi-story carpark on top of one of London’s top tourist attractions.

  • Snapper

    No need to go to North Haverbrook – Scotland had its own monorail attempt….

    http://www.britishpathe.com/record.php?id=3774

  • Chris

    Top stuff! Note the Westway would have crossed Ringway 1, not been a part of it, and was only considered a secondary route in the GLC’s motorway plans. Details: http://www.cbrd.co.uk/histories/ringways/

    • Dean Nicholas

      Thanks for that link — good explanation of the concept behind Ringways. I’ll add it to the post and amend it as per your comment.

  • Mac

    Well have a laugh at things the councils build
    With our money….

    http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Auto_Stacker

  • http://twitter.com/BorisWatch Boris Watch

    Great post – the Foster Hammersmith idea isn’t a million miles from what eventually happened, minus the heliport.

    I do hope you’re going to move on to discuss the myriad schemes for screwing up Piccadilly Circus, some of them are quite awe-inspiring in their awfulness.  Also the original British Library plans that would have demolished half of Bloomsbury.

  • http://twitter.com/topdowntoedown Lewis

    The Ringways themselves largely weren’t built (though the M25 is a hodgepodge of 3 and 4), but a lot of the radial routes were – the A12 “east cross route” that runs past the Olympic site near Hackney being a good example: it’s actually built to motorway standards for a few hundred yards where it would have been the junction between Ringway 1 and the southern end of the M11 (that was built as the A12 instead).

  • Dead Himmler

    Really stupid ideas. Looks like our architects just knew more here back in NYC. 

  • Anonymous

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  • David Whittaker

    For an easily digestible synopsis of Ringways, see Jay Foreman’s account here, music provided by his brother, Beardyman: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yUEHWhO_HdY&list=PLA26BE1C06DC3281A&index=26&feature=plpp_video

  • Alex Mathers

    You guys need to work on how you present your articles – very frustrating to flick between pictures, and the text is too small.

  • john

    Liked the Westminster airport. Where does that idea come from?

  • Ip440

    Wow! Great post! 
    Dean, can I use this pictures in my article?

  • Hannah

    A railway station was proposed – in the mid-nineteenth century – for the middle of Leicester Square. There was a map, a plan and probably even enough money.

  • http://twitter.com/lionsze lionsze

    There was a tram system proposed for Uxbridge Road and ? Hanger Lane in West London by Ken Livingstone. I wish I had kept the brochure to show you the images.

  • Andy humphreys

    I had the same idea in 2005! See what thoughts they had for Regent Street and Piccadilly Circus.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sfAIB6twf1E

    There is also a book called, unsurprisingly, Unbuilt America” We pitched to the BBC in 2008-9 but they declined saying “I prefer things that exist”. Now Unbuilt Britain on Radio 4 makes me think they have changed their minids…or what!
    Anyway, good post. BW AH

  • jock123

    If you don’t have a mono-rail, you could always opt for the George Bennie “Rail-plane”…!
    http://www.gizmodo.com.au/2012/06/this-hanging-monorail-was-once-considered-the-future-of-commuting/