Unbuilt London: The River Line

 

Our impression of how the River Line might have looked according to proposals in the 1976 Docklands Strategic Plan. Because it would have existed instead of the Jubilee Line, it's been given the colour grey.

Our impression of how the River Line might have looked according to proposals in the 1976 Docklands Strategic Plan. Because it would have existed instead of the Jubilee Line, it’s here given the colour grey.

If you’ve seen the 1971 Stanley Kubrick film A Clockwork Orange, you’ll remember its chilling depictions of ‘ultra-violent’ teenage yobs marauding through high-rise estates. Those scenes were shot in Thamesmead — a new town which straddles the Boroughs of Greenwich and Bexley, whose futuristic new-builds were at the time less than a decade old.

With extraordinary naivety, someone rubber-stamped the filming of dystopia in a place anxious to stress its utopian credentials. You might say the area has suffered an image crisis ever since. You’d certainly say Thamesmead could have done without the abortion of a tantalising project that would have seen it become the eastern terminus of London’s newest Underground line – the River Line.

Proposed in the ‘70s, the route would have joined the first stage of the Jubilee Line to areas of the City, following the Thames to serve the then-depressed Docklands on both banks; its final destination being the south east.

Now, a disclaimer. Major infrastructure projects take shape over decades, not years, and proposals come and go with the flightiness of papers on a drawing board. What follows is a necessarily speculative account of ‘what could have been’. But then, we’re nothing if not romantics.

Streamlining the design

In the 1970s, the fate of what we now call the Jubilee Line was a matter of some debate. Although phase one was underway, the overall concept had no grand purpose, let alone a name or colour on the tube map. As the initial job ‘only’ entailed drilling out a couple of miles of relief track in the West End to ease pressure on the Bakerloo Line, there was no shortage of advocates for sending the line onward from its Charing Cross terminus.

That first short stretch of the Jubilee was delivered, with comical tardiness, two years after the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. Before tunnelling had even begun in 1971, various suggestions were raised for how to extend it and what to name it. The popular vote was for a snaky east-west conduit following the Thames — called the Fleet Line (after the tributary river), and subsequently the River Line.

The big idea was for a sharp eastward turn at Charing Cross — via the now-abandoned Aldwych station (to which the original Jubilee tracks do almost reach). Thereafter, the Fleet Line would follow Fleet Street, serving Ludgate Circus and then proceeding to finally grant Fenchurch Street its long-awaited tube stop.

From this point, plans for the River Line were appropriately fluid. The initial call, in the ‘60s, was for a south Londoners’ hook-up: from the City, the line would cut down to Lewisham and then Croydon.

But it became obvious that the Docklands needed better transport links: bear in mind the DLR was ten years off. So the Fleet Line was recommended to observe the course of the Thames. After Fenchurch Street, probably by means of a mini-tram, the route would be Wapping, then south of the river to Surrey Docks, back north to the Isle of Dogs and Custom House, before describing a stretch through the Royal Docks now covered by the DLR, and ending up south again, via Woolwich and Thamesmead. The tram idea was canned in favour of trains, and the above amended to include the Greenwich Peninsula. When the 1976 Docklands Strategic Plan endorsed it, swathes of riverside East London must have got excited indeed.

Sold down the river?

What followed was a story of waning budgets and interest. The River Line would have developed in place of the full-length Jubilee. But before long, as soon as the Jubilee Line had christened, this project was conceptualised as the Jubilee Line Extension. In name it sounded more like dragging something out than pioneering a new route, and the Government found its hands tied by the geographic availability of external investment.

The eventual Jubilee Line Extension was completed in 1999, proceeding from Green Park not east but south, leaving the old Charing Cross terminus marooned between empty tunnels. It criss-crosses the Thames four times, so does preserve some of the River Line’s original spirit.

Thamesmead had remained tabled well into the ‘80s, but the DLR killed off any last hopes of an Underground link. Because the DLR would end up serving many of the intermediaries, the decision was made to send tube trains along the cheaper overground route to Stratford.

Some speculate that there was more to it than that; that serving northbound suburban bankers was a greater political incentive than serving southbound Docklanders. The story does have that timeless sense of north/south rivalry to it.

It’s definitely ironic that the modern extension ended up being so impressive given the supposed fiscal constraints: almost half the Underground’s escalators are on the Jubilee, and Canary Wharf station is apparently vast enough to fit the neighbouring tower into it sideways. Those automated glass doors are one of many futuristic thrills which might have suited Thamesmead’s original utopian dream.

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Article by James FitzGerald | 32 Articles | View Profile

  • Geoff Marshall

    For the uber-geeks..

    Have seen the TfL/LU technical plans and the Jubilee line tunnels do indeed run all along under the Strand, and stop literally at the point where the ‘curve’ of Aldywych/Strand/Waterloo Bridge converge (by the Wellington pub)

    Also, there is ventilation tower a few roads back on Southampton Street, by the junction of Maiden Lane, and dare I say it .. access to down the tunnel that way. I really must go along and try and find the street level door to that someday ..

    • Squarewheels

      Access at street level? This has been done – a lot, I may say! – and there’s almost exactly nothing of it to be glimpsed from street level.

      • Squarewheels

        (Um, when I say “done” I mean “considered/investigated”. Actual accessing has not proved possible!

  • Geoff Marshall

    Oh! Bonus uber-geek fact. Down in the Jubilee Line station at Charing Cross (still there), there is part of an old diagram/equipment down there that is labelled still as ‘Fleet Line’, installed before it got renamed.

    • Jethro Tull

      Geoff parts of the Jubilee are still coded as F for Fleet Line on the LU infrastructure map!

      Baker Street – Green Park (tunnels only) and the Charing Cross branch plus the overrun to Aldwych.

  • Geoff Marshall

    Here! Someone’s tweeted me a pic of the ventilation shaft … https://twitter.com/cfcprop/status/489055922225168384/photo/1

  • m

    The Jubilee Line may still be extended to Thamesmead, as there was a junction built at North Greenwich to enable another branch. Also, the DLR might extend over the new bridge from Beckton to Thamesmead, if it is built.

  • Michael Jennings

    “After Fenchurch Street, probably by means of a mini-tram, the route would be Wapping, then south of the river to Surrey Docks”

    Which meant taking over Marc Brunel’s then massively underutilised Thames Tunnel from the East London Line. Ultimately, of course, as well as the Jubilee Line Extension we did get, that tunnel was instead connected via a fairly small piece of new track to the disused viaduct that previously went from Dalston Junction to Broad Street, a few junctions were improved to the south as well as a connection to the South London Line rebuilt, and we got the massively extended and much more useful East London Line that we now have (and which would have been made impossible by building the “River Line”). Honestly, I think what we did get (including that East London Line extension) was ultimately better than this proposal.

    I don’t live in Thamesmead, though.

  • http://version3point1.co.uk 3.1

    Fire Compliance plans at North Greenwich Station still show what could’ve been, with labels to say where they planned the next phase to go.

    (And, randomly, no prizes for guessing where Fleet House Train Crew Accomodation at Stratford got its name from.)

  • SG

    Everywhere on that line did alright in the end, except Thamesmead. Destined to be forever ignored it appears.