A Brief History Of The Waterloo & City Line

By M@
A Brief History Of The Waterloo & City Line

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A waterloo and city train aproaches the station

A punchy, quick-fire history of the Waterloo & City line.

Given that it only has two stops, we always wondered why this railway wasn't simply called the Waterloo and Bank line. In fact, the northern terminus was called 'City' for much of its life, and hence the line was founded as the Waterloo & City. They could change it to the Waterloo & Bank... but then waggish Londoners would, of course, shorten it to the Wank line.

It's always felt a bit alien, hasn't it? The platforms have a different feel to the rest of the network — especially the whitewashed brick of the Waterloo terminus. Then there's the route map, which is hilariously simple. Even the turquoise colour feels a bit jarring. But we love it — especially for that massive travolator thing at the Bank end.

Anyhow, here's a short chronology of this oddball uncle of a tube 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
A brief history of the Northern line
A brief history of the Victoria line

On a Waterloo and City carriage

1891: For decades, thousands of workers had commuted into Waterloo from Surrey and surrounding counties, only to face a torturous onward journey to the City. Various schemes had been put forward to get them the extra mile or two, but without success. In this year, the City of London conducts a survey that concludes some 12,000 people per day need to get from Waterloo to the City (and back home again for tea). Something must be done...

1892: Hot debate ensues about the best way to get that something done. A cut-and-cover tunnel is quickly dismissed as likely to get a bit wet when going through the Thames. A viaduct over the river is more do-able, but would also smash through a lot of buildings on either bank. Tunnelling seems the best option. One scheme would have mainline trains continuing on from Waterloo to a massive subterranean terminus under the Bank.

1893 (27 Jul): Finally, plans crystallise around the simple tunnel railway we know today. The Waterloo & City Railway Act gains royal assent and we're all set. This will be London's second deep-level line, after the City and South London (now the Bank branch of the Northern line) in 1890.

1894 (18 Jun): Work begins... in the river. Counterintuitively, the first shaft is dug into the riverbed using a cofferdam to keep the waters at bay. It seems like a mad place to begin, but two teams digging from the midpoint back towards the termini is twice as fast as one team digging the full length, and less complex than two teams digging inward and trying to meet in the middle (if you see what I mean). The Victorians did not have Tunnel Boring Machines as we do today but instead used the Greathead Shield method, with men scooping away manually at the clay and quickly reinforcing the walls with iron panels.

Part of a greathead shield in a modern tube corridor at Bank
Remnants of the Greathead Shield used to cut the line can still be found in the tunnels at Bank.

1898 (Apr): One peculiarity of the Waterloo & City line is that it doesn't ever peep above ground level, nor connect up with other railways. That means a hoist is needed to lower carriages down to the tracks (or get them out again if needed). This month, an 'Armstrong Lift' is installed just north of the station with this in mind. Its successor, now to the south on Spur Road, can still be seen.

1898 (11 Jul): The line receives its royal opening. The richly whiskered Prince George, Duke of Cambridge gets the honour. The date is chosen as the 50th anniversary of the opening of Waterloo mainline station, above.

1898 (8 Aug): As had been the case with the City and South London railway (now Bank branch of Northern line), there was something of a delay between the royal opening and the public opening. Almost a month, in fact. The line proved immensely popular at peak times, but a ghost train during the middle of the day. For its first 42 years, the city terminus would be referred to as 'City' rather than 'Bank' (the name used on both the Central and Northern stops at that station).

1907 (1 Jan): Ownership of the line transfers from the Waterloo & City Railway company to the London and South Western Railway (the main operator out of Waterloo).

1923: Britain's many and various railways amalgamate into four super companies. The Waterloo & City line now finds itself part of the Southern network.

1933: London's underground railways come together under the single umbrella of the London Passenger Transport Board (a kind of predecessor to TfL). The Waterloo & City does not, and remains part of the Southern network. It still gets itself onto the tube map, though.

1934: The W&C might have got more stations. Proposals are afoot to introduce an intermediate station at Blackfriars (connecting to the Circle line), and an extension on to Liverpool Street and Shoreditch. Trains could then hook up with what is now the Overground network to run back down to New Cross. Needless to say, nothing comes of it.

1935: The earliest reference I can find to the Waterloo & City's nickname, "The Drain". A Daily Mirror article (£) describes the line as secretive and little-known and particularly emphasises the steep climb for passengers exiting at Bank. The origins of the nickname are a little mysterious, but it seems fitting for a tube that only has a start and an end but no intermediate stop. A later article (£) of 1960 suggests that the nickname applies only to the slope at Bank, but I can't see this repeated in any other source.

1940: Despite the Blitz raging up above, the W&C takes delivery of new Class 487 carriages, often described as art deco in style. The new trains are much welcomed, as the 40-year-old cars were more laughing stock than rolling stock. The line also changes the name of its northern terminus from City to Bank, finally bringing itself into harmony with the tube network.

1948 (1 Jan): Now 50 years old, the W&C comes under its fourth different ownership. With the nationalisation of most of the country's railways, the line now falls under the umbrella of British Railways.

The Bank travolator

1960 (27 Sep): Generations of City workers have had to struggle up a steep incline to reach the exit at Bank. The platforms had to be built west of Mansion House at the top of Queen Victoria Street, but the exit was built into the same structure as the Northern and Central line exits. Hence, lifts were not an option, and the long slope was too shallow for a conventional escalator. After decades of "something must be done", Bank finally got its much celebrated travolator — the first in Europe according to press reports. The opportunity is also taken to make changes to signalling, now allowing trains every 2½ minutes at peak times.

1989: Following a shake-up (or 'sectorisation' to use the jargon) of British Rail in 1986, the W&C finds itself controlled by new entity Network SouthEast. Its trains are repainted in the red, white, grey and blue livery of the organisation.

Detail of a tube station platform with old red, blue and grey paint marks
Old Network SouthEast livery can still be seen on the Waterloo platform

1993 (28 May): The line gets a new set of trains, called Class 482 (or 1992 stock). The line is closed for two months while the stock is swapped in and tested.

1994 (1 Apr): The W&C falls under its sixth and current ownership when it is transferred to London Underground for the princely sum of £1. Finally, finally, we can call the W&C a proper tube line.

1998: The Waterloo platform plays a key role in the movie Sliding Doors, when Gwyneth Paltrow both does and does not catch a departing train. Curiously, she uses the Bank travolator to get down to the Waterloo platform.

2006: The line is closed for a full six months to undergo major overhaul. The stoppage was among the longest in the tube's history, but resulted in swifter and more frequent services. The refurb would also see the old Network SouthEast livery removed from the trains, to be replaced with standard London Underground colours.

2020 (Mar): The Covid-19 pandemic more than decimates the number of passenger journeys on the tube, with a drop of 92%. The Waterloo & City is indefinitely suspended. It would not reopen until 4 June 2021, and that was only for peak hour weekday services.

2021 (Nov): Full weekday services finally resume following withdrawal during the pandemic. To this day, the line remains closed on Saturdays (and always has been closed on Sundays).

All images by the author.

Last Updated 21 December 2023