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The Lonely Life of Birkbeck: South London’s Bellwether Station

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Last August one London station saw just two trains stop there in the entire month. Indeed in the end for 34 consecutive days no trains called at the station. We take a look at the story behind Birkbeck – LR Christmas Quiz answer and, last summer, London’s least used station.

Birkbeck station – rather grandly marked as an interchange station. Solid green line is Tramlink.

The cause of Birkbeck’s isolation was partly the ongoing crisis at Southern as, from its introduction in July, there were no trains on Monday-Friday due to the Southern Emergency Timetable. The need for this timetable was the shortage of drivers, caused by various factors. The result was no trains scheduled to call at Birkbeck on Sundays and on the last weekend of July. In addition, for the first three weekends of August there were no trains on Saturday due to engineering works. This meant that from late July until late August no trains called at Birkbeck station at all.

On the last day of August 2016 there is the rare sight of at train calling at Birkbeck

There was very little to indicate this lack of trains at the station itself. Although a general poster by the entrance did convey the information, it was not obvious. There was also nothing to indicate this state of affairs on the platform, which was still open and accessible. The solitary Customer Information Screen, located a long way down the platform (way beyond the Oyster touch point) simply said “Welcome to Birkbeck”.

Only indication that there was no service

Here we go again

The situation was bad then, but in many ways it was no better for the most of January 2017 when, once again, trains were not serving the station. As a result of ASLEF’s overtime ban, there was no attempt to run any service on Saturdays.

Short history of the line

As one stands on the platform of the now-singled railway line at Birkbeck, waiting for a non-existent train, it is hard to imagine that this route was once the main line to London.

Birkbeck is situated on the National Rail line running between Crystal Palace and Beckenham Junction. This line opened in 1858 and was once the main railway route into London from Kent. This honour only lasted until the opening of the Penge Tunnel in 1863. Rather curiously, the line technically ran between Beckenham Junction (the junction at Beckenham) and Bromley Junction (the junction for Bromley but actually at Norwood. They couldn’t call it Norwood Junction for obvious reasons).

The opening of the Penge tunnel mean that the line through Birkbeck was no longer required as a primary route. Indeed at first it was felt that the line was not required at all and it closed at the start of July 1863. Incredibly, despite the line only being five years old, this wasn’t the first closure it had witnessed. By the end of 1860 Penge station (West End of London and Crystal Palace Railway) had also closed. This was located on the site of the current day Beckenham Road tram stop. This had reputedly only ever been used by one regular user and occasional users were either few and far between or non-existent.

Eventually it was realised that closure of the line was shortsighted and it reopened exactly a year later. The next period of closure, however, many years later, was not to be so short. In common with many lightly used lines, or stations and routes where there was an alternative, the line was closed again at the end of 1915 as a wartime economy measure. Many lines closed in this way took a long time to re-open and some never did. The line through current day Birkbeck finally re-opened in February 1929 complete with third rail electrification. It does seem that this period of closure may not quite have been as total as implied, however, with reports of troop trains using the line during the Great War.

Birkbeck station finally opens

Birkbeck station looking towards Beckenham Junction in 1961 and probably not much changed since opening. Courtesy Wikipedia. Thanks to Ben Brooksbank for making this available.

The 1920s and 1930s were a period of optimism and Southern Railway expansion, with new lines opened and old lines re-opened. None were a great success. Southern were, however, keen to maximise the penetration of Southern Electric to all parts of South London. On this line a station was built where the line went over Elmers End Road, which was the most suitable location available at the time. It was named after a local estate, itself named for the philanthropist after whom Birkbeck College is named.

The station was probably built very cheaply. It consisted of a couple of Southern 1930s style concrete platforms with steps leading up to each from the road. Both platforms featured a basic shelter and a small booking office was located on the ‘up’ platform. Passengers for a ‘down’ train requiring a ticket were thus required to go to the other platform, back down to the road and then up a further flight of stairs to the down platform again.

Present day: an uninspiring entrance

A lack of prospects

With the benefit of hindsight, there were some disadvantages to the station which meant building it was probably not a good commercial move. Ten minutes walk away was Elmers End station, with its excellent service to Cannon Street and Charing Cross. At least at the time, trains from Birkbeck went to Victoria, so there wasn’t quite the obvious duplication of services to London.

Elmers End station – a more attractive option?

Another problem was the most prominent feature in the area – the cemetery. This adjoined the station and immediate halved its catchment area. Beyond the cemetery was the extensive grounds of Norwood Sewage Works, which was eventually transformed into a wildlife park and remains so today.

The biggest employer in the immediate area for many years was London Transport, with Elmers End Bus garage a short walk from the station. Employees there received free bus travel though, and it is hard to imagine many choose to get to work by train.

Seventies and Eighties Nadir

It is not really surprising that by the 1970s the station was in decline from its already low usage. Operationally, the principal benefits of the line were that it provided somewhere for trains from Victoria to Crystal Palace to terminate or divert if the main route from Beckenham Junction was blocked. The fact that there was a station on the line was probably almost incidental.

In February 1983 the line was singled – hardly an unexpected move given the half-hourly service (at best). As a result, junction simplification was made possible. An obvious consequence of this singling was that the route was less useful for diverted traffic, but there had never been sufficient demand for this to make keeping it doubled worthwhile. Indeed in the long term this singling actually proved beneficial as, together with the closure of the line from Woodside to Selsdon in that same year, the opportunity to provide a tram service for a scheme based on Croydon started to emerge, which actively pursued in the late 1980s.

A bit of a revival

In 1985 the service, which had been to Victoria for well over 100 years, was diverted to London Bridge. This, together with decent connections at Beckenham Junction, stimulated some demand and it is this service that remains to this day (under normal circumstances).

The tram arrives

At the turn of the millennium Croydon Tramlink opened and the vacant trackbed at Birkbeck was used for the branch to Beckenham Junction. The site of the former ‘up’ platform was used to build a completely new tram stop. Despite the superficial competition, this probably helped raise awareness of the line and the fact that there was a rail service there at all. Less encouraging for those wishing to use it to get to Beckenham Junction was the new opportunity for railway operators to terminate trains from London at Birkbeck during periods of disruption. This was because there was now a frequent tram service there for passengers to complete their onward journey.

Birkbeck Tram Stop

The idea of terminating trains short at Birkbeck in times of disruption – such as during the early problems at London Bridge – might make operational sense but it seems strange to terminate a train at such a lightly used station. It is also unsatisfactory for passengers travelling from Beckenham Junction, who are often simply told by passenger information boards there that their train has been cancelled. Many don’t realise that, in fact, it is likely starting a short tram ride away at Birkbeck and is thus still usable.

A short lived tram takeover idea

For a while there was a serious suggestion that the trams should take over both tracks. The DfT would have been happy to get rid of it, and it was suggested that TfL would have been equally happy to take it over. This was because it would have allowed them to improve reliability on the long section of single tram track between Harrington Road and Beckenham Junction.

Today, the idea of a tram takeover seems to have died. This is likely because plans to extend trams to Crystal Palace are of a low priority, due to the lack of future available tram paths into Croydon. Current TfL plans envisage that 8 trams per hour (tph) could be run on the single track Beckenham Junction tram branch, on which Birkbeck tram stop is is situated, simply by means of adding one short passing loop to the current track layout. Combine that with 8tph to Elmers End and a proposed 10 – 12tph to New Addington and one quickly realises there is not really any spare capacity for trams from Crystal Palace direct to Croydon. Without this service there seems to be little appetite to suggest replacing the Crystal Palace – Beckenham Junction train service with trams.

Current station status

Looking towards Beckenham Junction

Although single track, Birkbeck station is surprisingly well signalled with a colour light signal at each end of the platform. This appears not to be primarily for terminating trains, but to enable one train to follow another down the single track section. This would be useful when used as a diversionary route but for two things. Firstly, drivers no longer tend to have the route knowledge to be able to operate on the diversion. Secondly, the general off-peak service is now sufficiently frequent (every half hour in each direction) that spare train paths for diverted services – especially unplanned ones – are few and far between.

Looking towards Crystal Palace

The signalling that allows for multiple trains in one direction comes into its own for empty stock movements. Surprisingly there are daily empty coach services (ECS) including those of Thameslink stock. Weirdly this meant that even when there is a general absence of passenger trains in service on the line, it was still actually in use on an almost daily basis.

Potential not realised

TfL Journey Planner correctly showing no trains

Whilst it is totally understandable why Southern Railway withdraw the service at Birkbeck at times of staff shortage, the uncertainty of whether a service is provided or not clearly will not help in ensuring that the station has a significant use in the future. This is made worse by the National Rail Journey Planner not always giving the correct information. Sometimes this is the case with TfL Journey Planner as well.

Although Birkbeck hardly offers an attractive service if one wants to go to London, suburban traffic levels mean that it has the potential to be extremely viable even for short suburban routes. When trains run it takes just four minutes to get to Crystal Palace station. That would be extremely hard to achieve in a car. There is also no direct bus, with a journey by this means taking at least 20 minutes even with a perfect connection.

Birkbeck is probably one of the least important stations in the South London suburbs. It attracts more interest than warranted by its passenger numbers. Latest available figures (pre Southern dispute) suggests around 117,000 passenger journeys originated or terminated there in 2015/16. Given the London Bridge disruption during that period, these figures (usually accuracy caveat) suggest there is a potential to be higher. Unfortunately the events of the past year give rather more opportunities for it to be significantly lower, at least in the short term.

Despite its low use though there is good reason to follow the fortunes of Birkbeck. This is because it can act as a sort of bellwether for the general health of services in the Southern suburban area. This is because if there is a major issue on the railways, short term or long term, then services to Birkbeck will be affected as they are some of the easiest to withdraw. Unfortunately at the moment, as is clearly apparent, the message that Birkbeck has been sending out has not been good.

Better under devolution?

Birkbeck also shows why some people believe it is vital for London to control its suburban railways. At times of disruption, such as staff shortage, any rational railway manager will give priority to longer distance services. Proponents of locally devolved railways argue that only by focusing on Metro services will railway management ensure adequate staffing that, in general, avoids the need for suburban cancellations. And, they would argue, only an organisation like TfL would avoid losing sight of trying to provide a good service at a little used station that is not meeting its potential.

What all this means for the future of Birkbeck, however, remains to be seen.

Much of the historical information was obtained from or verified by “The Railways Of Beckenham” by Andrew Hajducki.

The post The Lonely Life of Birkbeck: South London’s Bellwether Station appeared first on London Reconnections.

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1925 days ago
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Prevent Pita Pocket Spills With a Little Reinforcement

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Pita sandwiches shouldn’t be that difficult to eat. After all, pita bread is an edible pocket, but the bottom can get soggy, and stuff falls out, and then your lunch is ruined. Luckily, this all easily preventable, as the pita can be reinforced with a bit of itself.


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2031 days ago
Ohhhh did not know that
Cambridge, Massachusetts
2029 days ago
Trick of the trade when buying falafel in NYC
2030 days ago
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3 public comments
2023 days ago
I heard you like pita with your pita so I put a pita in your pita
Princeton, NJ
2028 days ago
Awesome, though I usually do halves.
2031 days ago
This is genius. And obvious, in hindsight. But mostly genius.
Portland, Oregon, USA, Earth

skunkbear: skunkbear: The past is packed with monsters!...

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The past is packed with monsters! Behemoths by the dozen!
Let’s meet these fossils! (and their less colossal modern cousins)

Earth’s ancient history is full of giant versions of modern animals. Evolutionary forces (competition for resources, changes in climate) pushed these species to become incredibly large. And I’m not just talking about giant dinosaurs - there were huge mammals and marsupials too. 

A lot of these giants lived in the Pleistocene, an epoch stretching from around 2.5 million to 11,000 years ago. Mysteriously, the extinction of many of these animals coincides with humanity’s arrival as a dominant predator.

Watch a video / listen to a poem about these prehistoric monsters.

Illustrations by Mary McLain

I love me some prehistoric megafauna… megafauna…

We can thank some of these extinct giants for the evolution of the avocado. Don’t Don’t believe me? Watch this:

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2458 days ago
Damn those are big animals. From 2.5 MYA to only 11,000 years ago.
Cambridge, Massachusetts
2457 days ago
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2458 days ago
Philadelphia, PA, USA
2458 days ago

January on the rails

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Train-related stuff going on in and around London in January 2015

Gold Card zone (Friday 2 January) I mentioned this last year, but the one-third discount zone for those of us with annual travelcards now extends across most of the West Midlands and the whole of Norfolk and Suffolk. Terms and conditions apply, but hurrah, and I've made good use of it twice already.

Tottenham Court Road (Saturday 3 January) Jan) The Central line platforms at Tottenham Court Road closed yesterday, and won't reopen until the last day of November. That's eleven months without an interchange with the Northern line, and eleven months that Central line users in the vicinity will have to walk to Oxford Circus and Holborn instead - two already very busy stations. The platform closure is part of the station upgrade in readiness for Crossrail, four years hence, and involves the cutting of new passageways and the installation of lifts.
Tottenham Court Road (Monday 12 January) But a week later, subject to official confirmation, there's excellent news at Tottenham Court Road. The brand new entrance on the corner with Oxford Street opens for public use, and you'll be able to glide down the escalators into a proper 21st century station to catch your Northern line trains. You probably saw Londonist's behind-the scenes preview peek, yes?
Tottenham Court Road (Friday 9 January) And this means that this Friday is the last day you'll be able to enter Tottenham Court Road station via the old twisty staircase from Oxford Street, and the last day in use for the old ticket hall. No great loss, I think you'll agree, especially given that almost all of the Eduardo Paolozzi mosaics are being preserved for to reuse in the new station. Expect the station to The station will be completely closed next weekend to prepare for the changeover, and then nu-TCR is born (presumably without a ticket office). They knocked the Astoria down for this - it had better be worth it.

London Bridge (Monday 5 January) Above ground, tomorrow's the day that Southern's access into London Bridge reduces from six to three tracks. This means several cancellations, premature terminations and retimings, continuing until 2018. In particular no Thameslink trains from Bedford will travel via London Bridge, and far fewer from Brighton. Passengers who normally change at London Bridge for Charing Cross will be able to use their season tickets to open the turnstiles at selected Tube stations, but only if they get their paper tickets updated by the end of today. I foresee mild chaos tomorrow. [further details]
London Bridge (Monday 12 January) And then things get serious. For at least 18 months a) no Southeastern services to/from Charing Cross will call at London Bridge, b) Southeastern services from New Cross, St. Johns, Deptford, Greenwich, Maze Hill, Westcombe Park, Woolwich Dockyard, Plumstead, Belvedere and Erith stations will operate to Cannon Street rather than the more useful Charing Cross and Waterloo East. Expect the Overground and Jubilee line to be rather busier as a result. [further details]

Circle line (Sat/Sun 17/18 and Sat/Sun 24/25 January) Something highly unusual happens to the Circle line over these two weekends - it runs to Barking! The tracks between Baker Street and Liverpool Street are closed for maintenance, so instead Circle line trains will run from Edgware Road to Barking via Victoria (and H&C trains will run from Baker Street to Hammersmith). Expect to see some confused faces and several lost souls (more details at District Dave's Forum)

District line (Monday 19 January) This is the day that D Stock trains start to be removed from the District line and replaced by air-conditioned S stock trains. Expect a) a replacement a week, b) to see S Stock trains anywhere from Richmond to Upminster, c) the entire set of rolling stock to have been exchanged before by the end of next year.

Also this month, three cheap rail ticket deals
c2c : Half price fares when you book a Super Off-Peak Online ticket, 7 days or more in advance, for travel in January [details]
Greater Anglia : £5 tickets for travel on the Norwich line into London, from January 5th to February 27th inclusive (but not including weekends in February). Offer ends today at midnight. [details]
London Midland : 15% off all advance fares bought between 1-31 January 2015, for travel until 28 February. February 2015. [details]

And then next month...
• ...the first tube ticket offices start to close. Almost all will have gone by December, and the whole lot by next April.

(unless you know better)
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2692 days ago
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Thank the hostess or the guy who paid for the party?

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In the round of Boston-area holiday parties that I attended, a couple had been paid for by divorce lawsuit defendants not in attendance.

The alimony-fueled party was particularly lavish and fully staffed with caterers (at parties hosted by rich people who got their money by working or from a property division lawsuit, the cooking and serving was done by the hosts with help from guests). Although adults in Massachusetts are more likely than average Americans to have advanced degrees and earning abilities sufficient for self-support, alimony cash flows in Boston are 330 percent higher than in an average U.S. city (New York Times Dec 12, 2014 analysis; I am pretty sure that this is adjusted for the difference in incomes from city to city). Thus it is common for someone to have a $200,000 per year income (3X the Massachusetts median household income) and yet be officially dependent on a former spouse, from whom an additional $200,000 per year is collected and spent annually. Here’s an excerpt from our book that explains why the money has to be spent shortly after being received:

Attorneys report that both winners and losers tend to become profligate with money. “The defendant might have been a saver before the lawsuit,” said one attorney, “but then he’ll see how the courts penalize parents for being prudent with money. His plaintiff’s lavish spending on herself will become a ‘need’ used by the judge to justify higher child support and alimony awards. After mom wins she spends like a drug dealer because she’s spending someone else’s money and also because she doesn’t want to lose a modification motion on the grounds that her banking money every year demonstrates that her ‘need’ was overestimated. The father spends whatever he can too because he realizes that his plaintiff and the court will take away whatever he tries to save. Children who would have been very comfortably established in life end up with nothing from their parents.”

I already thanked the hostess of the catered party but does etiquette require me to track down and thank the guy who paid for the house, the caterers, and the $2 million in legal fees (in 2014 dollars; the divorce started decades ago) that opened the alimony taps?

Separately, one of the parties I attended was both to celebrate the New Year and also a housewarming. The approach was up a driveway that was the same length, width, and quality as a secondary highway in England or Wales. This terminated in a 50-car parking lot at the top of the hill. Given that the parking lot looked like the result of successfully robbing a BMW/Audi dealership I was confident that I had not arrived too early. Once inside I learned that part of the renovation of this house had involved the installation of a three-ton circular marble bathtub.  We were all awed by the resulting Homeric scale of the master bathroom. The host intruded on our reverie, however, by pointing out that three tons of marble has a lot of thermal mass. “After you fill it with hot water, the water immediately becomes too cold. So you have to drain it and fill it up again.” He has been taking showers.


  • “If I borrow your car and donate it to charity, does that make me a charitable person?”
  • from a reader, “Make divorce tougher on women, says leading lawyer” (Independent (UK), December 31, 2014) where “the outgoing chair of the Bar Standards Board” notes that young women in England would likely realize their maximum spending power by remembering “Never mind about A-Levels, or a degree or taking the Bar course – come out and find a footballer.” (From our book: A professor of economics in Massachusetts, a typical “winner take all” state, said “The best career advice that I could give to a female freshman would be to drop out and stop paying tuition. Get pregnant with a medical doctor this year. Get pregnant with a business executive two years from now. Get pregnant with a law firm partner two years after that. She’ll have three healthy kids and a much higher after-tax income than nearly all of our graduates in economics.”)
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2693 days ago
Once inside I learned that part of the renovation of this house had involved the installation of a three-ton circular marble bathtub. We were all awed by the resulting Homeric scale of the master bathroom. The host intruded on our reverie, however, by pointing out that three tons of marble has a lot of thermal mass. “After you fill it with hot water, the water immediately becomes too cold. So you have to drain it and fill it up again.” He has been taking showers.
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Link: Perverse Incentives


My opinion on soccer is well-known, but I realize it’s not shared by all. If nothing else, however, it seems clear that soccer officials are often terrible at tournament design and game theory, as this truly bizarre 1994 match between Barbados and Grenada should make that clear. In the end of regulation, one team was left trying to score on either goal, while the other was working to defend them both. That simply should not happen. When games can end in a draw, and when a value is placed on goal differential, all sorts of strange things suddenly make sense.

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