Unbuilt London: The River Line

By James FitzGerald Last edited 118 months ago

Last Updated 15 July 2014

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 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.

See also