The blog with no sense of history or facts!
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The tube's highest stations & gradients

Dont we all love records! The biggest this the highest that! London Underground records are something we love! We know Amersham’s right up there as the highest of all at practically 500 feet whilst High Barnet hits the top parade out of all of the deep level tube lines in terms of elevation. One doesn’t even need a bee in their barnet (!) to see these figures make for some excitement!

Its regularly said Hampstead tube station is the deepest on the system. That’s absolutely right. Its platforms are higher than other tube stations too. The other fab thing about Hampstead is how its platforms are way deep and the lifts are the fastest on the tube system.

There’s a problem with that reasoning however – and this is because Hampstead platforms aren’t even the highest on the system.

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The platforms at Hampstead are not the highest on London’s tube system

Any other station that’s deserving of a prize in lieu of Hampstead has to be Southgate. In the sixties we often caught a bus from Southgate down the hill to nearby Winchmore Hill. And knowing how Southgate station sits at the top of a hill, aren’t its platforms actually higher than Hampstead’s…

Before we move on let me tell you that despite Southgate station being an UFO, this whole post hasn’t even got anything to do with spaceships in flight either. Relax!

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Southgate station takes flight among the stars of the cosmos! Gawd its built almost exactly the same shape as the USS Enterprise! Who knew Charles Holden was an early Trekkie fan? Source: Twitter

Sure enough by looking at maps and elevations (and the basic data others have managed to acquired from TfL through FOI’s) it was quite easy to conclude Southgate should be first in such a list – and not Hampstead….

To be honest I don’t think this has ever been discussed before – thus this is a new record and one where Hampstead tube station for a change has to sit in second place!

In brief, Hampstead’s platforms are 160 feet above sea level (49 metres) whilst Southgate’s are 196 feet (60 metres) above sea level. These are the official figures from TfL.

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London Underground’s highest elevated deep level platforms are at Southgate – and they come with a bit of daylight thrown in too!

As some of us will know Southgate has the only tube platforms where one can see trains coming in from the outside. That’s a record of sorts too and one which I’ve written about elsewhere 🙂

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Few knew the Piccadilly line would hold some records on London’s Underground. Poster advertising its opening from Finsbury Park to Arnos Grove in 1932. Source: Twitter

Not to be outdone by Hampstead, the Piccadilly line in fact holds some other undocumented records in terms of the entire tube system… Some of those I discuss here, others I’ll leave for perhaps another post.

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Colina Road in Harringay is a ventilation point and practically the lowest level between Manor House and Turnpike Lane stations. At one time a tube station was planned here however this was relegated to the tube just getting a bit of air!

The most important of those records in my view is that Southgate station is also right at the higher end of a considerable climb from Harringay. From Turnpike Lane northwards each station is higher than the previous. In fact there’s an almost continual rising gradient between Colina Road and Cockfosters – a gradient which at times even a main line railway would struggle with.

A number of these gradients are 1 in 200 to 1 in 500, but there’s also sections with as much as 1 in 60, maybe more. What is surprising is even Arnos Park and Southgate viaducts – which one would think would have been built on a constant gradient – in fact vary somewhat.

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Arnos Grove station’s gradient post points downwards towards London. That at the other end of the platforms points upwards towards Cockfosters.

Colina Road too is very unusually the lowest point on any of the tube system outside the central area that doesn’t pass UNDER a river. What this means is the Piccadilly line, despite having climbed up from Central London to its original summit at Finsbury Park – 75 feet (or 23 metres.) It then descends considerably again, losing about 65 feet of that gain in the process – and that ultimately results in what is the longest and almost continual ascent on the entire London underground system!

Left: This gradient post denotes a very brief northwards dip into Arnos Grove, whilst the other shows the 1 in 60 descent down though the tunnels to Bounds Green.

For those reasons Colina Road heralds the start of a 299 feet (or 91 metres) climb up to Cockfosters. This trounces further records everyone always thought had existed on a different tube line that was very easily noted for its considerable gradients! But I suppose the difference here was that had steam trains struggling up those very gradients – whilst the Piccadilly had the convenience of modern electric multiple units to help make an easy job of theirs!

Yes! You sussed it. The steam operated line in question would have been the Metropolitan – and the Great Central too! Their total climb from a point near Moor Park to Amersham is two miles longer (approx 8 miles or 12.30km) than Colina Road to Cockfosters – but actually affords a mere climb of just 288 feet (or 88 metres) which isn’t terribly much these days.

In fact most of that climb up into the Chilterns (231 feet or 72 metres) has already been completed by the time the Metropolitan’s trains reach Northwood. Part of that gain is however nullified by a dip down through Moor Park.

Left: Someone evidently thought it a good idea to ‘ease’ the Piccadilly’s gradients by way of levelling the 1 in 80 sign! This is on Arnos Park viaduct pointing north. Right: The 1 in 500 from Southgate towards Oakwood.

The Piccadilly line in effect doesn’t lose any height en route. It keeps it at a gain (bar a very short dip – cant see why that was built – just south of Arnos Grove.) The only respite for The Piccadilly’s trains are those level sections through a couple or so stations and sections plus a near level stretch from north of Southgate viaduct towards Oakwood.

Interestingly the section from Turnpike Lane to Arnos Grove amounts to a height gain of 102 feet (31 metres) in a distance of two and a third miles (3.76km) however if we take that back to just past the tunnel mouths at Bounds Green and where the line briefly levels out to cross the North Circular, its still almost 100 feet in just a distance of two miles which is good going.

In comparison to the Metropolitan’s previously thought of as meteoric 288 foot rise, the Piccadilly’s Colina Road to Cockfosters does better and climbs 299 feet in just six miles. This is slightly less severe than yet another noted London Underground climb which again is the Metropolitan. This time its that bit of original steep climbing St. Johns Wood railway from Baker Street to its summit at Swiss Cottage – being just 100 feet of climb in a distance of 1.90 miles or 3km.

That early railway was most noted for its steep grades and numerous near disasters. In fact the Metropolitan Railway was so worried a train would one day hurtle its way from Swiss Cottage down to Baker Street and cause a disaster. That in fact did happen. In January 1869 a train sped all the way out of control from Swiss Cottage through Baker Street and collided with a Metropolitan train just outside Great Portland Street station.

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The very end of the line at High Barnet – more like a country terminus compared to Cockfosters’ cathedral like atmosphere!

In terms of a similar ‘northern heights’ feel to the tube in terms of the Piccadilly line, the parallel Northern line route to High Barnet offers a good comparison. However there is a big difference. Despite High Barnet station being the highest open air station of all on the deep level tube network at 321 feet (or 98 metres), the climb from the south is nothing like that to Cockfosters.

That is because even though the difference between Highate and High Barnet (similar in length at just over six miles or 10km) it merely amounts to 118 feet (or 36 metres) of climb against that to Cockfosters with a 299 ft climb.

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Finchley Central – which is much lower in elevation than East Finchley or Totteridge stations. A Morden bound train is seen arriving whilst a Mill Hill East working nears the station.

The section between Highate and East Finchley is quite steep as is of course that between Totteridge and High Barnet – but these becomes sort of irrelevant when its found the line actually takes a considerable descent through Finchley Central, Woodside Park and Totteridge, losing a gain of almost fifty feet. What it means is the Northern Line has to make up quite a bit of lost ground, so to say, thus the final bit is almost as steep as that from Highgate to East Finchley.

Of course the most steeply graded of all our tube lines has to be that from Kentish Town to Highgate/East Finchley. In just over two miles (3.37km) this ascends a total of 190 feet or 57 metres as far as Highgate. Onward to East Finchley makes it three miles in total at a height of 272 feet or 82 metres. There however isn’t a similar comparable distance in terms of Cockfosters because the line to High Barnet is let down by that lengthy dip through Finchley Central etc.

What is interesting is those very gradients along this section of the Northern Line were not so well known until a runaway train occurred. It was because of that and the subsequent public inquiry that people learnt of these.

I say that because its difficult to get accurate gradient profiles for the underground, and even freedom of requests to TfL have only been met with some partial success. Which means data has to be sought by other means and this gradients stuff has therefore traditionally been usually limited to the Metropolitan – which at least shared its tracks with a main line and for which gradient diagrams were quite easily found.

The runaway train in question took place in August 2010 and the full report (including gradient diagrams) can be found here.

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