Construction of Oxford Circus station 1962-69

As most will know the Victoria Line fully opened in its original format during March 1969 – and this alone ensured the Victoria Line received great publicity worldwide compared to the mediocre openings of the earlier stages between Walthamstow and Warren Street. It was an event where the Queen of the British Isles became the first monarch ever to ride the London Underground, although she had of course as a princess taken earlier trips on the tube.

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The commemorative plaque which can be seen at Victoria tube station.

This is an overview and history of the three stations and route which formed the third part of the Victoria Line to be opened in 1969. The stations involved were Oxford Circus, Green Park and Victoria and their construction is looked at. The Oxford Circus umbrella is covered in some detail too. In the second part there’s some stuff on the line’s gradients and its air shafts – and there’s a considerable section on the Royal Opening which took place on 7th March 1969.

Planning the Victoria Line began years before anyone even entertained the thought of building any part of it! In fact it had been first mooted during the 1940s, before more defined conceptions emerged in the fifties of how the new line and its proposed route should look. Initial Government approval for the new line was gained in 1955. However the actual funds for the railway took longer.

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Resurrected tube map from a 1957 exhibition on the proposed new tube line. Note the purple colour! Source: Twitter

As history shows, the original conception at that time was for a route from Wood Street to Victoria. The line would begin above ground adjacent to the branch to Chingford, and presumably have a depot nearby. It would then go underground in order to reach Walthamstow Hoe Street (now Central.) From there onward the route as we know it is the same.

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The 1957 exhibition on the proposed Victoria Line with the map in question on the wall. Source: Twitter

The Victoria Line was approved on 20 August 1962. However a fair bit of work had already been done in preparation for the new line. 2km (just over mile and a quarter) of underground tunnel from Finsbury Park to Netherton Road had been built between January 1960 and July 1961 – though this was originally an experimental work undertaken to test new tunnelling methods and the employment of expanded tunnel lining as a means of speeding up tunnel construction. This work was designed by Sir William Halcrow & Partners and the tunnel segments made by Messrs Charles Brand Ltd.

Another job begun far in advance of the new tube line was the Euston Arch’s demolition – which began on 7th November 1961. Though primarily to make way for the new main line station, this work began far in advance because the site was required in order to dig the hole needed for the new ticket hall and escalators which would eventually link to the Victoria Line. I wrote on this at length here.

The main part of construction did not commence until September 1962. In terms of the line’s stage three section (Warren Street to Victoria) it was the work undertaken to prepare the Oxford Circus site for its famous ‘umbrella’ – as well as the complicated underpinning of a famous store in order that the new tube station could be built beneath.

Let it be said the story of the construction of the new Oxford Circus tube station is a long one and a book would suffice to cover every aspect of it!

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‘Here Is The Victoria Line Look.’ From the London Transport Magazine’s Feb 1969 article on the newly opened Euston tube station.

A lot of people will perhaps think the third stage of the new tube line was that which finally brought it into Central London. In truth people had been able to sample the Victoria Line from as early as October 1967 – almost a year before the line had even opened. This was when the new tube station at Euston became available to the public for the first time. This was a significant milestone because it was entirely built in the Victoria Line style. The northbound platform at Euston too was built right down to the smallest detail complete with Euston arch motifs, seating, stainless steel panelling and cabinets, backlit station signs – and those posh station starter signals that were once a major feature of the Victoria Line.

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The telephone booths in use at the new Oxford Circus station, September 1968. Source: Twitter

Similarly the new facilities at Oxford Circus opened well in advance of the new tube line’s Royal opening, which means people were able to sample more of new line – including the new automatic ticket gates for the first time.

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Publicity shot for the Victoria Line at Woodford at the introduction of ATO operation from there to Hainault. The train was actually in the bay platform at Woodford thus it would have been in manual driving mode! The 1967 stock worked this service until 1988. Source: Twitter

Besides this early sampling of the Victoria Line’s stations, if anyone wanted to ride a Victoria Line train they didnt have to wait for that either. No special effort needed here for the Central Line between Woodford and Hainault had become a test bed for the new automated railway system! This meant a number of 1967 tube stock trains were sent to Hainault depot to work this line and replace the 1960 tube stock that had been first used.

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Victoria Line 1967 stock seen at Woodford between duties on the Roding Valley route. The 1967 stock worked this line for 21 years. Source: Twitter

Of course with stage two, the Victoria Line was extended from Highbury and Islington to Warren Street thus introducing the new tube line to three of the Underground’s central stations in December 1968 – King’s Cross, Euston and Warren Street. Naturally the next section, from Warren Street to Victoria, became the most celebrated part of the new line because it served the West End itself and not only that, it was the Queen who opened it.

The need for a new tube station at Oxford Circus

One of the main reason for Oxford Circus being on the Victoria Line’s proposed route was the station had for many decades suffered from overcrowding. Earlier improvements such as the building of escalators to replace the lifts didn’t do terribly much. The fact the station had two main entrances didn’t mitigate the problems much either. It was all down to the sheer popularity of the area as a shopping and tourist destination.

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Oxford Circus tube station overcrowding in 1958. Source: Twitter

The solution was to build a new tube line and facilitate a much larger station. The old entrances would be retained as exits. A huge ticket hall and a new bank of four escalators would be built beneath the Oxford Circus intersection. In order to allow that to happen a road decking would have to be built and it would permit the new ticket hall and escalators to be built beneath whilst traffic could continue to flow above. This would become the famous ‘umbrella.’

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The station in 1963, just after the initial prepartion work on the Victoria Line had started. Source: Twitter

Overcrowding would be much reduced as a result of the Victoria Line. That’s what they thought! We know these days the overcrowding here is even worse. The Victoria Line is bringing more people here, and the station is these days not fit for purpose. Its regularly closed because the Victoria Line platforms become dangerously overcrowded.

Perhaps the biggest problem of all was the Victoria Line platforms (here and at most of its stations) were built to a much narrower profile. The stations are actually quite substantial but there’s a reason for the platforms being narrower and this wasn’t just for reasons of economy. Thus the line’s future problems were built in from the very start because I do not think anyone expected the new tube line to have to carry so many people as it does these days.

I’m getting ahead here, because this is about the construction of the Victoria Line not its subsequent problems! I have the measurements of all the Victoria Line stations so I can see what’s narrow and what’s wide in terms of each and every one of the line’s station platforms. I had meant to do an article on this and the line’s enormous overcrowding problems but it hasn’t been done yet. Maybe one day…

The Victoria Line would provide much relief for the other tube lines as well as providing expanded station facilities where necessary. That was the plan. There would be more capacity all around.

Much of the work was quite complex and the four previous stations (Finsbury Park, Highbury & Islington, King’s Cross and Euston) were themselves very complicated jobs, yet this third stage too had its problems.

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News on construction work at Oxford Circus tube station. Guardian 15th August 1963.

Oxford Circus was no easy job. It was the biggest headache. First it needed new platforms and secondly a new ticket hall was needed and there was not much space for this. The new platforms and running tunnels had to thread their way through a maze of other ‘tubes’ including the Central Line, the Post Office Railway, sewers, electricity conduits etc.

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1963 Poster illustrating the new station to be built at Oxford Circus. The text on the poster read: “An artist’s impression of the new station, showing how the Victoria Line will run in relation to the Bakerloo and Central Lines and how interchange will be made between the three lines….The work is expected to take about six years to complete.” The poster was republished in the Illustrated London News for 21 November 1964. Source: Twitter

Most of the utilities near the surface beneath the Oxford Circus roadway had to be moved or strengthened before anyone could even build the famous ‘umbrella.’ All that had to be completed before any work could even begin on the new ticket hall and escalators alone.

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The complex network of cables, sewers, drains, water mains at Oxford Circus. The red dots represent the positions for the umbrella’s foundations. Source: Twitter

The Peter Robinson store problem

One of the biggest issues facing any construction of the new tube line was the fact it would practically breach the foundations of the Peter Robinson store on one corner of the Oxford Circus intersection. Surveyors found the roof of the southbound tunnel would be just beneath the third level basement at the Peter Robinson store.

Oxford Circus proved to be the ideal location for cross-platform interchange and meant the Victoria Line had to follow the profile of the Bakerloo platforms closely. This meant the line of its tunnels was practically fixed. Then of course the engineers realised Peter Robinson’s store was in the way!

When it was found the southbound tunnel had to be built along an alignment beneath the stores on the east side of Regent Street one might think ‘why didn’t they just move the tunnel to a different alignment?’ The problem with that would mean the Bakerloo Line station and tunnels would have to be moved too!

This meant that preliminary work had to be undertaken very early on and that is a reason work at Oxford Circus began very early compared to the rest of the Victoria Line. In fact this station and its tunnels was the one part of the entire line that took the longest to construct.

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Schematic diagram of the ground below Peter Robinson’s store. From bottom – southbound Victoria Line tunnel. Above this the temporary access tunnels and works to build the concrete raft and (marked in red) the cable tensile foundations.

This underpinning had to be done in advance of any tunnelling work and in 1962 contractors dug a temporary tunnel 250 yards in length from Cavendish Square. This tunnel was at a higher level than the main access tunnel later dug for the building of the station’s running tunnels and platforms. This small tunnel passed just under the Bakerloo Line and then a diagonal shaft was built for a short distance. From here a further section of tunnel at a different level was built to the bottom of the store’s basement. Experienced miners were used to build these small tunnels.

This alone meant a substantial amount of extra work prior to the main building of the tube line. No money had yet been authorised for the full works between Walthamstow and Victoria thus this particular job had to be done with a very small number of workers toiling in quite cramped conditions.

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Temporary tunnel from Cavendish Square to a point just below the Peter Robinson store. These scenes are from this Victoria Line video

This tunnel ran southwards below Regent Street. In the image above the cables used for anchoring the Peter Robinson store foundations can be seen. The inclined section of tunnel leading under the Bakerloo Line can too be seen in the distance.

Once the tunnellers had reached Peter Robinson’s, they built two further tunnels which were longitudinal underneath the store’s basement. One was a short access tunnel and the other formed the actual work site itself.

Once this had been done workers then drilled a series of holes between these two tunnels. These would be used to accommodate high tension cabling.

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Workmen under the Peter Robinson basement. The small tunnel which the man is emerging from is a short one running west to east below the store.

Once the high tension cabling had been threaded through these holes, the cables were tightened using hydraulics. As the pictures show all this took place in quite cramped conditions. For all we know the tunnels are still there!

The task of installing the high tension cabling had to be done before the next stage of the job could be done – which was to build a concrete raft surrounding the works. This raft would have to be at least a foot thick.

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Workmen using hydraulics to tighten the cables used to strengthen the immediate area between the two tunnels.

The combined strength of the high tensile cabling and the concrete raft spread the building’s load over a larger area. Once this was done, work to build the station tunnels could commence.

This early work its one of the least known aspects of the Victoria Line’s construction! It was unfortunately overshadowed by the construction of the famous Oxford Circus umbrella, which I can remember riding over a number of times on the bus!

At this point it must be said there is a continual leakage into the station tunnel at Oxford Circus tube station. The damaged tunnel wall is evident over a good length from the station platform and has been like this a good number of years. Who knows, it could be the remains of this pilot tunnel that’s causing the problem.

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The damaged tunnel wall at Oxford Circus – possibly a result of the 1962 works to underpin Peter Robinson’s store.

The Oxford Circus umbrella

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The Oxford Circus umbrella with the Peter Robinson store on the left. Source: Twitter

The proposed new ticket hall was another major construction problem. It’s ceiling is only two feet six inches below the road surface! Clearly such an undertaking could not be done without the road on top collapsing by way of the sheer weight of the traffic upon it.. Thus the ‘umbrella’ was built. Its in fact a bridge (or deck if one prefers) weighing a total of 600 tons spanning the four roads intersecting here. It raised these roads several feet higher and that gave the workmen the space they needed beneath to remove the old road, dig a space for the new ticket hall and then build reinforced foundations on top for the new road that would be later laid.

The plans for the ‘umbrella’ were announced by the London Transport Board on 20th May 1963. The contract was let to Mitchell Bros and Sons Ltd. That however was not the start of the works. Like the Peter Robinson store, preliminary works also had to be undertaken. This began on 20th September 1962, and was conducted almost nightly for the next four months to determine where the many services beneath the road were and establish the locations at which the very deep foundations needed for the new umbrella could be drilled.

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Work was done at night for six months prior to the installation of the ‘umbrella’ to locate the different utility services which would ultimately need to be moved when proper construction work got underway.

Although Mitchell Brothers were the company given the contract for the umbrella, the construction of this was done in partnership with Kinnear Moodie, whilst the work to build the actual bridge and its steel framing was sub-contracted.

The huge steel structure was manufactured by Rubery Owen at their works near Wolverhampton whilst the road decking was subcontracted to Carter Horsley Limited of Tipton (whose equipment used for the work actually came from their southern base in Crawley!) The asphalt work was contracted to the London firm Limmer and Trinidad Lake asphalt company. Limmer apparently went to the Black Country to install the asphalt decking at the time a trial installation was undertaken there.

There were in total 245 pieces of ‘umbrella’ that had to be put together. An average time of eleven minutes each was taken for every one of the 245 pieces. Saunders of Woolwich were contracted for the smaller lorries and low-loaders that would be needed during the actual construction works. Cranage was provided by Mobile Lifting Services Limited (a subsidiary of Tarmac) who operated the largest fleet of mobile cranes in the UK at the time.

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Preliminary works in Oxford Street to build the foundations over many weekends and overnight sessions in 1962 and 1963 prior to the construction of the famous umbrella. Source: Twitter

As mentioned briefly, the ‘umbrella’ was in fact put together off site first to see it all fitted together as intended. I do not know where this was done, but assume it was done up at Wednesbury or somewhere in the Wolverhampton area convenient to both Rubery Owen and Horseley Limited. The parts were brought down to London over the space of two weeks, with the smaller supports going first.

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The design of the new umbrella and how deep its piles actually went. Source: Twitter

In June 1963 25 boreholes were drilled in preparation for the 25 stools that would soon be installed to support the new umbrella bridge. The holes were excavated to around fifty feet in order to ensure a firm foundation, and a bell shaped based was then excavated. Steel tubes, used as a form of temporary shoring, were then inserted almost right down to the bottom and the cavities filled with concrete. At a stage when the concrete was of a certain consistency the steel tubes were removed to be used in the next hole.

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The beginnings of the new Oxford Circus umbrella. Source: Twitter

On Tuesday 23rd July 1963 a trial installation at Oxford Circus was undertaken. This was to establish exactly the positioning of each small key support – these were about two feet high and called stools. These stools had to be brought down from Rubery Owen’s works to London where they were then placed in position and holes drilled where the plans said these should be – so when it came to the actual installation of the umbrella it would all fit perfectly.

Although this was a weekday the work was undertaken with the traffic continuing to use the roads. The appropriate lanes needed for this work were closed where needed. A lot of measuring up during this work was undertaken, after having ascertained what sort of tolerances would be needed for the different parts to fit together, and then the stools were taken back to Rubery Owen for further refinement.

The umbrella was built by Mitchell brothers in the space of an extended weekend break during August 1963. All the parts were brought from the Midlands to Cavendish Square and stored here prior to the bank holiday weekend. Each part was numbered so they would be taken in the correct order necessary to build the umbrella. As the work itself got underway a small fleet of lorries took each section individually the short distance from Cavendish Square to Oxford Circus itself where the pieces were then craned into position.

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Some onlookers can be seen in this picture during initial construction of the umbrella! Source: Twitter

It is claimed in some news sources the entire location was closed off to the public but it wasn’t. It was meant to be out of bounds but it didn’t stop people coming to gawp. As a news report written halfway through the bank holiday weekend in question tells us, ‘the spectacle attracted a steady procession of interested persons yesterday. “Its a bit embarrassing to have so many people watching; makes you feel as if you are going to make a mistake” a foreman said.’

There is a common misconception the ‘umbrella’ was finished on Tuesday 6th August 1963. It wasn’t. The work to build this was actually finished on the Monday at 12.15pm, just 15 minutes after the planned noon deadline. The remainder of the time was used to tidy up the area, establish services, install new traffic lights, road signs and place in position kerbing, mark out the pedestrian crossings and so on.

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Constructing the Oxford Circus umbrella August 1963. Source: Brunel University

The original plans were for the umbrella to be in place for just three years. It was retained for five years instead. After three years, on August bank holiday 1966 the bridge decking was extended eastwards to enable the linking subway and the Central Line escalators to be built thus allowing another entry/exit route from the new ticket hall to be established. This linking subway is invaribly used in one direction only and this is from east to west.

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The new umbrella progresses. Source: Twitter

A lot of historians and blogges and the likes applaud the umbrella as if it was something totally unique. Perhaps but it wasn’t really. A far simpler form had been used at Bank more than sixty years earlier involving the use of plain decking whilst a new ticket hall was being built beneath the roadway. The piece de resistance in terms of these umbrellas was the Jubilee Line – a total of three umbrellas were used during its construction! (Bond Street, Charing Cross and London Bridge.)

What happened to the famous umbrella? It was mostly sold for scrap. After most of the works at Oxford Circus had been finished there was much less need for nearby Cavendish Square, which had been used as a major works site for the building of the Victoria Line. It became a temporary site for storing the dismantled umbrella in early 1968 whilst attempts were made to sell the valuable steel. Its said the various steel sections were sold for £7 a ton.

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The new umbrella in use. Source: Twitter

Cavendish Square as a worksite

Following on from the preparation work underneath Peter Robinsons and the installation of the umbrella, the main part of the work to build the new station could begin.

The construction of the Victoria Line from Oxford Circus to Victoria, worth over £2 million, was awarded to John Mowlem and Sons on 23 October 1963. The other section towards Warren Street (and on to Euston/King’s Cross) was awarded to Mitchell Bros and Sons Ltd on 28 November 1963.

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Looking down the Cavendish Square shaft. Source: Standard

The nature of the site meant it had to be dug by hand and a new method of mucking out the clay soil dug at this point was devolved and this involved a substantial processing and sorting plant in Cavendish Square just north of Oxford Street as well as a conveyor belt in Regent Street North to take away the spoil for the new ticket hall.

It wasn’t too much of a problem anyway. It has generally been found that any new tunnels under 2km are invariably better dug by hand or other mechanical equipment. Tunnelling machines are better suited to lengths of 2km or more and this explains why several sections of the Victoria Line were dug by hand – including a section underneath the Lea Valley were the ground was so bad the machines failed to work.

Cavendish Square became a major construction site and also provided storage space for the many tunnel rings and other associated stuff needed to build the tunnels. As the newspapers of the time observed, every single item from the large to the small was ‘elaborately labelled.’

A substantial operation was also in place at the top of Regent Street where excavated material was conveyed from the site for the new ticket hall and then carted away by lorry. This was in a rather restricted location with part of the umbrella passing over it.

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The lift at the top of the Cavendish Square shaft. Source: Standard

The reason for the lift at Cavendish Square going higher than ground level was for a very good reason. There would be so much spoilt to remove from the Oxford Circus area, and this being a restricted site (remember it too had to store equipment, the tunnel lining segments and other stuff used in the line’s construction) the purpose of this elevated section was so that these rail wagons full of spoil could be tipped directly into a processing plant below, before the spoil was taken away.

Hall and Company were the company contracted to take away the spoil and the clay excavated during the works.

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The access tunnel from Cavendish Square to the station work area. Source: Mail

One of the biggest challenges in the area was the Post Office railway tunnels. These thread through the site of Oxford Circus tube station but they also pass beneath Cavendish Square. This meant the Victoria Line contractors had to deal with the Post Office Railway tunnels twice within a short distance when it came to building their own shafts and tunnels for the new tube line.

The Cavendish Square shaft is not there anymore, however like most other working shafts it wasn’t even capped over, although the tunnels to from Regent Street North where there was a connection to the running tunnels north of Oxford Circus station site, are sealed off.

What happened is after the Victoria Line work here had finished the square faced another couple of years construction work to build an underground car park. What this meant is the shaft was removed entirely in order to make way for this new car park which opened in 1971.

At the time of writing its said the car park is due to close and a new underground shopping centre built here instead!

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Oxford Circus southbound platform in early days. Source: Twitter

One of the biggest changes to the plans for Oxford Circus involved the decor for the ticket hall. It was intended to have the walls of the new structure lined with a special design of brick. When LT found it would take three months to make these bricks they simply changed tack and ordered the walls be lined instead with concrete! Not any special concrete – just the cheap and nasty mass produced stuff!

Another major engineering problem in regards to Oxford Circus was the fact the tunnels had to cross each other. The Victoria Line tunnels switched over between Highbury and King’s Cross to provide right hand running (for reasons of cross platform interchange at Euston) however the switch back to normal left hand running had to be done between Warren Street and Oxford Circus.

It meant much additional engineering work and for this specific job three working shafts were built within the short section between Warren Street and Oxford Circus. These were at Whitfield Street, Fitzroy Square and Great Titchfield Street. With the all important main working shaft at Cavendish Square added there were in fact four construction shafts alone in this section.

In April 1967 the tunnels at Oxford Circus were the last on the new line to be completed.

In the summer of 1968 the new ticket hall came into use with three of the new entrances also coming into use and one pair of the four new escalators was put to work carrying passengers down to the Bakerloo Line.

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Experimental LT roundel at Oxford Circus with yellow section. The idea was soon dropped. Source: Twitter

Despite the huge modernisation that was undertaken to the station, Oxford Circus has the unusual distinction of being the only Victoria Line station with a Leslie Green building! Not only that there’s the original Central London Railway building too! Both these buildings form the exit from the tube lines.

To be fair it must be said Finsbury Park (at the time of writing) still had some of its original tiling and stairs dating from the construction of the station in 1904 and that only because the Victoria Line shares some of the station’s access with the Piccadilly Line. Highbury too still has its 1904 Great Northern and City tube station buildings – however its not part of the passenger areas of the station so unfortunately doesn’t really count.

Next: Construction of Green Park/Victoria stations and the line’s Royal opening.

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