A Brief History Of The Victoria Line

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By M@ Last edited 6 months ago

Last Updated 20 December 2023

A Brief History Of The Victoria Line

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A cross of crowns at kings cross station
Each station on the line comes with its own location-specific tile pattern, here King's Cross. Image Matt Brown

The Victoria line remains London's newest built-entirely-from-scratch tube line. The 13.25 mile route opened in stages between 1968 and 1972, ultimately linking Brixton and Walthamstow.

One of the biggest deals with the light-blue line was something called Automatic Train Operation (ATO). Dubbed "Robot trains" by an exaggeratory press, ATO was a revolutionary system that allowed the trains to go about their business automatically (though always under human supervision). The technology was not without its hiccups, as we'll see in what follows.

Here, then, is a potted history of the Victoria line...

See also:
A brief history of the Bakerloo line
A brief history of the Central line
A brief history of the Jubilee line
A brief history of the Metropolitan line


The route of the Victoria line
Victoria line geographic route.

1948: The British Transport Commission publishes a plan for a Victoria to Walthamstow tube line, to relieve pressure on the central area. It's the first murmur of the Victoria line, although elements were taken from an earlier Croydon to Finsbury Park scheme.

1955: A Private Bill is introduced to Parliament, to build the railway from Victoria to Walthamstow. The name Victoria line dates from this time, although the idea of calling it the Viking line (an amalgam of Victoria and King's Cross) also gained some traction.

1960 (Jan): The first speculative works to build the line begin, with a tunnel between Tottenham and Manor House to test new boring techniques. It's been about 30 years since any tube tunnel was bored through London clay, and the technology has moved on a bit. This experimental tunnel takes a year and a half to excavate and is eventually incorporated into the scheme.

1962 (20 Aug): Parliamentary approval is granted to build the full line. Work begins soon after.

This wonderful British Pathé short video shows how the tunnels were dug, by hardhat-lacking, chain-smoking men:

1963 (Aug): In one of the most visible signs of construction, a steel "umbrella" is built over Oxford Circus, allowing vehicles to pass across the junction while work on a new ticket hall could take place beneath. The umbrella will remain in place for five years, and become something of a local landmark.

A black and white image of Oxford Circus showing traffic crossing a road 'umbrella'
The reinforced "umbrella" that raised traffic over Oxford Circus.

1966 (Mar): Even while construction is proceeding, plans to embiggen the line are already underway. The extension to Brixton is approved in this month.

1968 (12 Jul): The Prince of Wales visits the completed tunnels of the Victoria line. He wears a pristine white boiler suit for his grimy adventure but, according to the Daily Mirror "stayed spotless as any proud mother's Monday wash". Confident in his dirt-dodging abilities, the Prince again dons pearly white overalls two weeks later for a trip down a coal mine.

A black and white image of a tunnel boring machine in the Victoria line tunnels
Tunnelling the Victoria line. Image TfL

1968 (21 Aug): "Passengers" get a first taste of the new line, thanks to a mock-up carriage in an exhibition on Haymarket.

1968 (1 Sep): The first section of the line opens, between Walthamstow Central and Highbury & Islington. The opening ceremony is non-existent. No celebrities, no ribbon cutting. Instead, train operator William Harvey "pushed two buttons at precisely 7.32am", and off went the first train. Onboard are 500 railway enthusiasts. The first to buy a ticket for the new line is a Dr Hugh Pincott of Muswell Hill, Highgate. Dr Pincott, we salute you! (And would quite like to interview you, if you're still with us.)

1968 (1 Dec): The line opens to the south as far as Warren Street. The inclusion of both Euston and King's Cross hooks in many more passengers.

1969 (7 Mar): The line is now open as far as Victoria, just seven years after Parliamentary approval. (Over almost exactly the same period, NASA had approved, developed and flown a crewed rocket to the Moon, which isn't relevant, but is a mildly interesting comparison.)

Up to this point, the staggered opening had been achieved without ceremony, but the Queen is lured in to unveil this milestone. In a short, inaugural journey, her subterranean majesty travels from Oxford Circus to Victoria. She's the right person for the job. The Victoria line is ultimately named after Elizabeth's great-great grandmother, plus it passes directly under Buckingham Palace. She'll get her own line in 53 years' time.

Victoria line roundel
A special roundel from the front of the Royal Train, on show at Walthamstow Pump House museum. Image Matt Brown

1971 (May): Businesses in the Victoria area complain about a massive rise in vermin. "This trouble first began when the work started on the Victoria line," says a Miss J Stevens of a local employment bureau. "I think nests of mice must have been disturbed... I just hate these mice."

1971 (23 Jul): The Brixton extension is opened by Princess Alexandra who (double-checks Google) is the Queen's cousin. The Princess gets to ride in the driver's cab between the still-unopened Pimlico and Brixton.

1972 (14 Sep): Every new line has its straggler station, and in the Victoria's case it's Pimlico, which completed the line today. It'd be another 27 years before London got another zone 1 tube station, in the rather delightful shape of Southwark. Pimlico was a late addition to the line. Its creation, to serve a densely populated part of inner London with no existing rail link, was spearheaded by Sir Alan Dawtry, who is now commemorated with a plaque above one of the station entrances.

A plaque to Sir Alan Dawtry over Pimlico Station
Image Matt Brown

1981 (14 Dec): Blackhorse Road had existed for over a decade as a kind of dual station, with the tube and the mainline stations separated by a road. This year, the mainline station is rebuilt adjacent to the tube, allowing rapid interchange.

1990 (Apr): Runaway train! A driver gets out of his cab to remonstrate with a troublesome passenger, but forgets to turn off the Automatic Train Operation system. He watches helplessly as his train pulls out of Vauxhall. It stops a few minutes later at Pimlico with no harm to any passengers. But this would not be the last problem with ATO.

1990 (Oct): Just six months later another train pulls off without its driver... and this time it nearly runs him over. The train in question had stopped at a red signal 300 yards short of Seven Sisters. The driver climbed out of his cab to use a trackside phone. But he'd forgotten to switch the controls from automatic to manual. While on the tracks, the signal turned to green and the ATO kicked in. The driver was almost hit by his own train but managed to squeeze into a niche just in time. He then narrowly avoided being hit by the following train, which was fortunately able to brake in time.

2005 (22 Jul): Jean Charles de Menezes is fatally shot at Stockwell station, after police officers wrongly identify him as a terror suspect. A memorial can be found at the station.

2011 (30 Jun): The final 1967 stock trains run on the Victoria. After this date, all services use 2009 stock.

Inside of an old Victoria line carriage
Interior of a 1967 Stock carriage. Image Lubo Ivanko/iStock

2014 (23 Jan): In farcical scenes, the line is suspended south of Warren Street after workers accidentally fill a control room at Victoria with cement. Happily, the sludge is prevented from setting by the emergency addition of sugar (!), and quickly scooped out.

2016 (Aug): The Victoria line is one of the lines selected to run on the Night Tube, which offers all-night services on Fridays and Saturdays.

2017 (May): Services now run at one train every 100 seconds during peak times.