Victoria tube station – construction & upgrade

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Continuing the series of comprehensive posts on the history of the Victoria Line – the new sixties tube was originally planned to be a more substantial affair, however as things turned out it gained a somewhat austere atmosphere – which led to a lot of complaints. The only real relief in terms of visual depreciation at tie new line’s most important station of all – Victoria – was the attractive tiled motifs featuring Queen Victoria herself – a somewhat misleading portrayal because the station wasn’t actually named after the Queen but rather the area itself. The image below shows a rather more interesting portrayal of how the station could have looked – its far more futuristic than the denigrated cheap off the shelf bathroom tile look the line’s stations received in the late 1960s!

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An early design for Victoria tube station. Source: Scott Brown Rigg

In terms of size however, Victoria tube station was going to be a quite substantial affair anyway, being a key interchange. As the Victoria Line’s original southern terminus (this is before the Brixton extension was approved) Victoria tube station had to be designed and built for the huge influx of passengers which would come directly from the main line station. In those days railway travel was somewhat on the wane thus no one would really see how much pressure would be put on the station towards the end of the 20th Century as rail travel increased once again, showing how inadequate the original design had been.

The original idea behind Victoria tube station would be that where trains arrived and departed quickly. Thus the idea here was it would be built with a pair of reversing sidings sandwiched in between running lines. In terms of the tube system this arrangement was indeed unusual because the only deep level tube station that had so far received a double set of reversing sidings happened to be Liverpool Street – and that work was done back in 1912! Both these cases however show the strategic importance of these two stations, being at the end of a line where huge passenger flows would be encountered. As had happened at Liverpool Street, the original aspirations for Victoria Tube station soon proved to be redundant when the line was extended – in the same way as that at Liverpool Street was extended towards Stratford, that at Victoria was extended towards Brixton.

Little known to most Victoria station too came with a double scissors crossover. This was present in the early days of the station’s track layout. This and the pair of reversing sidings made sure the station could cope in the very busy peak hours, however I do remember the general method in 1969 was either to clear a train once it had arrived and send it into one of the reversing sidings or if it was to return north, it was then to be dispatched almost immediately from the platform it had arrived at. There were quite a few station staff at work on the platforms making sure the operations were effective and trains were dealt with as quickly as they could be whichever way they were going (to the sidings or returning northwards.)

There was in fact an indicator at the bottom of the escalators which denoted which train would be leaving first, much like those indicators seen at Walthamstow and Brixton. Invariably the overall preference eventually was to send trains into the sidings and keep the platforms as ‘southbound’ and ‘northbound’ although trains still had to be reversed in the platforms themselves when necessary. In those far off days Victoria tube station had more than ample capacity and it wasn’t being fully used. When the extension to Brixton opened the scissors crossing was reduced to a trailing crossover from the southbound platform, thus only that platform in future would see a train terminate and then leave from it to head back towards King’s Cross, Seven Sisters or Walthamstow. Over time most of the reversing at Victoria was reduced considerably as most trains were now going to Brixton thus it didn’t matter too much.

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Victoria Line progress leaflet 1967. This does show the total actual track arrangement of the line in its early days – including the short lived double crossover at Victoria station. Source: Tumblr

Nowadays of course it is quite rare to find a train that terminates at Victoria (or even King’s Cross) and this usually happens only if there is a very serious delays or a need to close sections of the line. Until the late 1990s a number of trains still terminated at either of these stations instead of going through to Brixton or Walthamstow but in terms of operating efficiency these were eventually seen as superfluous because they sort of upset the service frequency and the optimal loading and unloading of huge numbers of passengers. In terms of frequencies and the recently enhanced super frequency service (the Victoria Line happens to have one of the most frequent metro services in the world), stepping back has became the norm at the ends of the line. The use of King’s Cross and Victoria to turn trains is now increasingly rare. What it of course means is service frequencies are now even throughout the entire line rather than the central core having the highest service frequency and the Brixton and Walthamstow extremities the lowest service frequencies as was once the case.

Besides that, its the fact the line now employs a peak hour service, which is a train every 90 seconds roughly, and what that means is there are far more trains running than there are platforms – and every possible spare bit of track is needed to move trains off the line should the need arise to reduce the frequency greatly. As well as Northumberland Park (which is generally the first port of call should any number of trains need to be moved off the system) the spare capacity for the additional parking of trains would be at Victoria sidings (two trains), Brixton sidings (two trains), Walthamstow sidings (two trains) and King’s Cross siding (one train.)

The issue of service frequencies is getting away from the construction of the line somewhat – although it is important to understand London Underground’s original aspirations for the Victoria Line have evolved in terms of the exponential growth in passenger numbers and how Victoria tube station has changed in terms of the services it offered. As we will see later it has also meant the original Victoria tube station itself has changed considerably beyond recognition. Thus the station that was opened by the Queen in 1969 is no longer the station we know in 2021. Even the original opening plaque that was unveiled by the Queen is now to be found in a totally different location and that in itself is an indication of the profound changes that have taken place!

In terms of actual construction at Victoria to build the new tube line, that work began in 1963:

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Work clearly began at Victoria station on Monday 22 April 1963. Source: LURS

The year 1963 is of considerable importance in terms of London’s transport thus the new Victoria Line was of considerable jubilation because the last tube line to be built in London had been nearly sixty years previously. 1963 wasn’t of course the first part of the line to see work begin as construction work actually began some years earlier when long lengths of experimental tube railway tunnel were constructed in order to evaluate new methods of digging tube lines, new types of tunnel segments, even matters such as noise, air flow, the type of track base, and how tube trains could be made to run quieter. In terms of that a report in the Guardian dated 22 August 1962 tells us the Victoria Line would benefit from ‘smoother rides with less rattling. This will be achieved through the use pf long-welded rails, gentler curves and acoustic slabs to absorb noise…’

These very early tunnels which had been built to the east of Finsbury Park were eventually incorporated into the Victoria Line itself. However the fact it was 1963 and this being the 100th anniversary of London’s underground, it meant this was some serious stuff because the city would soon be seeing a new tube line. Various proposals for new tube lines had come and gone and the Victoria Line itself had been on the cards for several decades under various names and proposals. In fact I remember as a kid my huge excitement at the prospect of a new tube line, and looked eagerly at the construction works at both King’s Cross and Oxford Circus – where we regularly walked around the famous ‘umbrella.’ My family reminded me at times that I’d have to wait until secondary school before ‘the new tube’ had even opened. In fact I was in my second year at secondary school when I travelled the Victoria Line for the first time between Highbury and Walthamstow just a week or so after its opening.

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Progress on the new tube’s ticket hall takes place at Victoria bus station, prob 1965. Note the old Wilton Road entrance then under construction. This was replaced by a new one in 2018. Source: Ground Engineering

Compare the above image with the diagram below. The top of the original linking subway which was built during the late 19th Century between the District Circle and Victoria main station can just be seen to the right of centre behind the temporary walkway shown here. This would be doubled in width. Much of the area within this large hole would become the new ticket hall. The steps down from Wilton Place are already partially built and can be seen at the bottom of the picture. The District/Circle line station can be seen on the right – the building with the rounded top windows being a giveaway.

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1965 diagram showing the layout of the Victoria Line and its tunnels, plus the new ticket hall. The ticket hall itself proved to be too small for modern needs and in the recent rebuild this was increased in size about three times more. The station itself would be based in part on the existing subway from the main line terminus to the District and Circle line station. This subway would be expanded and a new ticket hall for the Victoria Line built to one side of it.

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The original Wilton Road entrance to the Victoria Line. Source: Google Streets

The original Wilton Road entrance has now been now replaced by a new one a little further to the left, as shown in the picture below. This was opened in 2018 as part of the station upgrade. Victoria’s sub surface station (District/Circle) is on the north side of the bus station and although its platforms too have had an upgrade to match the Victoria Line’s, the ticket hall is still largely as it has always been save for a few small changes. One of the biggest changes to the Wilton road entrances saw the removal of the air shafts that were placed here. One of these can be seen in the above picture to the left of the station entrance. With the upgrade work the ventilation systems have been improved and that coupled with the much larger ticket halls and new subways has ensured the need for any unsightly ventilation shafts has been avoided.

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Where the Wilton Road entrance once was, now stands this new TfL totem. The new replacement entrance can be seen in the background.

The Victoria Line, unlike its earlier counterparts, would not follow street layouts or roads, being the first to entirely forsake street alignments in favour of a faster and more direct route. This raised concerns for many including the issue of noise and vibration. I detailed some of that stuff a couple of years ago in a different Victoria Line post. Indeed the very first week the line opened its stage one section there were numerous complaints from residents who claim their lives were now be unbearable.

The planners must have known something of this for it is said they gave the Queen and her palace considerable salvation. ‘Although senior officials of the London Transport Executive were confident that vibration would be kept to a minimum, the fact that the proposed route performs a little wiggle round Buckingham Palace, passing instead under the Victoria memorial, specifically to avoid any disturbance to the palace, suggests otherwise.’ The tunnels pass at a depth of 65 feet beneath the western end of The Mall near Buckingham Palace – and as the map below shows, it does avoid the palace! The only problem with this arrangement was the practicality of extending the line towards Brixton. Had the extension been mooted and approved at the same time as the rest of the Victoria Line itself, the route would have no doubt taken a different alignment. The problem of course is the line terminated at Victoria facing the wrong direction somewhat and it meant the line now had to take a huge sweep to the south east in order to reach Pimlico and Vauxhall.

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The early but complete Victoria Line map, probably early 1960s well before Brixton was envisaged. Source: Standard

Victoria tube station in the days before the Royal opening

The station was a very busy hive of activity in the weeks up to the Royal opening of the line in March 1969. As well as putting finishing touches to the station and completing any outstanding works, a number of staff had to be employed to deal with the huge numbers of press corps that visited the station for the preview tours that were on offer to the media. The pending Regal event was no doubt worldwide news and there was huge demand from all quarters of the planet for news, pictures, even television scenes, on what the new tube line offered – especially as it would be the world’s first automatic public subway – and what the Queen herself would see when she came to conduct the official opening of the line.

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Victoria Line train in the new station – the text says 10th March 1969. The date refers to publication in the Evening Standard – not the actual day it was taken, which was 5th March. Source: Gettys

In terms of the above picture details being incorrect its clear to me this must be a pre Royal opening photograph because of the absence of people on the platform, plus the fact the train has arrived at Victoria’s northbound platform. It displays ‘Warren Street’ on the front – which suggests it has come from that station out of service. This isn’t anything new because the same technique was being used when the Victoria Line first opened between Walthamstow and Highbury. Generally trains terminated at Highbury via the crossover to the north of the station. However some trains in fact continued to the as yet unopened Warren Street station empty, and then returned north. And it is known in terms of the second part of the line’s opening between Highbury and Warren Street, trains too were continuing to Victoria in order to turn round there. Of course with all the pre Royal opening publicity quite a few photographs of the new station would of course show a train present at the platforms – not as some nice touch for the press to photograph but rather more likely because these had come down from Warren Street in order to turn round. Of course the other aspect of all this is it too gave train operating staff considerable experience of the new sections of line before these were even opened to the public.

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Another photograph purported to be from 10th March 1969, but which I think was likely taken during a press preview day held on either 3rd or 5th March 1969, this being the week of the Royal Opening. There’s work going on at the bottom and the delegates are no doubt being guided by one of the station staff. Source: Gettys

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The escalators at Victoria on the same day! The two men seen working at the bottom in the previous picture are in full view here. Source: Standard

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Train Operator William Eagle (who was in charge of the southbound Royal Train) admires the new motifs at Victoria just before public services began on 7 March 1969.

In terms of the artistic merits of the Victoria Line, news reporter Anthony Sampson, after comparing other metro systems and their efforts to embrace art and culture around the world, often successfully too, Sampson claimed the new Victoria Line was nothing but ‘a journey into limbo.’ The reasons he gave in his article for the Observer, published 9th March 1969, are as follows:

‘Why should London be resigned to the idea of public squalor underground? The cost (£70 million) of the Victoria Line is so vast that the cost of this artistic improvement is relatively tiny; indeed, in terms of public education, to use a place where the public have to be anyway could be an actual economy.

On the next stage of the Victoria Line, as it happens, there is an obvious opportunity for such decoration – in the station at Pimlico, which will serve the Tate Gallery. On the existing underground lines, Trafalgar Square (for the National Gallery), Russell Square (for the British Museum), or South Kensington (for the Kensington museums) could all be used as extensions of the galleries above; it is just the kind of popularising project that ought to interest Jennie Lee or the new generation of showmen curators, like Roy Strong of the National Portrait Gallery.

Why should the idea of cultural patronage be confined to the cut-off world of museums and galleries? Why cannot culture be brought down to the places where people would see it every day? Surely the Victoria Line needs something more than automatic tickets and coloured tiles if it is really to be (as its advertisements proclaim) ‘London’s pride.’

That’s just one of the many huge criticisms lobbied at the Victoria Line, of which some others have been featured in my previous Victoria line posts. The mainly grey tiling that populated most of the new line was indeed a little depressing and rather monochrome. The only colours were in the station names (blue) and the roundels (blue and red.) There were of course artistic touches but these were limited to the motifs. The entire line was functional more than anything else, nevertheless it was well lit throughout compared to other tube lines. The station layouts were rather austere and indeed the design of some of those has proved to be problematic even to this day.

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Possibly a news reporter (or member of newspaper staff) posing with the new tiled motif – again this would be the station’s preview day. Source: Standard

In late 1968 the rumour in the press was the new part of the Victoria Line would be officially opened on 2nd March of that year. That day would of course be a Sunday, which was LT’s preferred day for introducing new things, giving a full day’s service before the following Monday morning’s rush hour service when the new system would really be tested. Both the earlier stages of the Victoria Line has been opened on a Sunday. It was announced on 3rd January 1969 that mid afternoon on Friday March 7th would be chosen as the official day for the opening of the penultimate section of the Victoria Line. This wasn’t of course a Sunday but being the end of the working week it was a subtle move in fact. First, it would allow the Queen to officiate in the official opening of the new section. Secondly the very late opening of the new line to the public would at worst only see one rush hour period of use, this being the evening peak. Any problems that arose during that brief first day of operation could be tackled over the ensuing weekend. That way the new line would be 100% up and ready to go the following Monday morning. There’s more about the Royal Opening in the next instalment of this series.

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Poster announcing the Official Opening on 7 March 1969. Source: Reddit

The Victoria station upgrade in brief

Mention must be made of the fact the station has a new look – its barely anything like it was when the Victoria Line first opened. Huge pressures on the station plus the rather inconvenient arrangement where the platforms afforded two exits to the surface (one to the BR station and the other to the District/Circle Lines) but that extra capacity which was indeed unique on the whole of the Victoria Line itself (Seven Sisters and Finsbury Park for example have multi exits too but not with escalators directly to the platforms.) But even with this additional capacity it wasn’t enough to deal with the huge numbers of passengers coming through the main line station and it also caused a considerable pinch point on the District and Circle Line platforms which inconvenienced things further.

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The overall design for the upgraded Victoria line/sub surface lines stations. Source: Twitter

It must be said the Victoria tube station upgrade was very complex in terms of progress. There was a lot of other additional work as well as the building of the new tunnels and services. Much alteration and underpinning of properties had to be done, and in fact a rebuild of the King’s Scholar’s Pond sewer had to be undertaken too. The work merits a whole publication to itself or at least a series of posts covering the various aspects and stages in detail and its not something I can do here.

Although the late 1960s built Victoria tube station still has elements that exist as a reminder of how it once looked, today’s station is almost a total rebuild. Part of that work was of course to provide full accessibility to both the sub surface platforms and the main line station itself as well as facilitate a more generous ticket hall that would distribute passenger flows better. The old 1960s style ticket hall is no more, with the new one being perhaps three times bigger and extra flights of stairs being provided from the main line station down to it.

That concrete flooding!

In terms of the Victoria station upgrade, one very peculiar event took place and that is possibly the one thing many will remember of the upgrade. This is the day the Victoria Line’s control room got totally flooded with concrete! The date? 23 January 2014.

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One of the many pictures published showing the mishap that occurred in 2014! Source: Standard

Initially tube bosses had claimed it was mere flooding which had caused the calamity, but a tube worker published photographs showing the Victoria Line’s 1960s signalling control room which had just received an upgrade – even though it still consisted of 1960s equipment too as pictures show – had indeed been flooded with concrete at least two feet deep which had leaked through from the upgrade work being undertaken at the bottom of the new escalators nearby. The tube worker said ‘The only word for it is a f*** up of major proportions. Everyone was f-ing and blinding when they realised what had happened. It was knee-deep in the signal room swamping all the relay equipment and it’s going to be very, very expensive to repair because it was all brand new.’

Anyway in terms of a solution it transpired that tube workers and the upgrade’s contractors panicked and bought as many bags of sugar they possibly could get from local supermarkets, the trick being a commonly employed one – that sugar would stop the concrete setting. Workers toiled to clear out the offending concrete and continued into the night to restore the signal relay room to as new in readiness for train services the next morning. The following is a timetable of what happened. (Sourced from UK Rail Forums.)

Thursday 23 January
13:30 – Report of signal equipment failing.
14:00 – Line part-suspended and bulk of concrete removed.
16:00 – Concrete removed from delicate areas and detailed checks of wiring.
21:00 – Damaged equipment replaced.

Friday 24 January
00:45 – Signalling system tested.
03:56 – First test train runs.
04:25 – Trains tested in both directions.
05:00 Line handed back to resume service as normal.

The next set of pictures shows how one part of the upgraded station has evolved from a rough worksite to a completed escalator shaft – and this is the one that leads from the new Cardinal Place entrance to the Victoria Line. The pictures are not exact perspectives but at least one gets the idea of what sort of work had to be undertaken to even achieve this small part of the upgrade work. Remember it wasn’t done with the luxury of tunnel digging machines, but rather with the best use of what was available plus a considerable amount of hard manual work in those spaces any machinery would be unable to get into.

In the first picture below one can see how the newly dug escalator shaft tunnel has been spray concreted to afford a margin of safety whilst the more manual task of digging and lowering the bottom of the tunnel profile to a considerable depth so that the new escalators and their machinery could be fitted, leaving ample headroom headroom above for the public areas. In this picture one can see the area these men are working on is in fact the bottom of the escalators where they meet the floor level of the interchange hall that leads to the Victoria Line platforms. From that position the men are working in, the shaft had to be dug to practically the same depth as the height that has just been dug!

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The bottom of the new escalators leading down onto the tube station platforms. See the next picture for a more advanced state of work! Source: Twitter

The next picture of course shows how the new escalators look. They’re not finished of course. The time period between the two pictures is three years and it would in fact be another year before the whole work at this point was finished. In fact the digging here had begun around early 2012, so it must have taken four years or more just to dig this part! The work had to be done in a way which didn’t compromise the actual station platforms themselves because, with a few exceptions, the station needed to be active at all times.

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Students from Southampton University get a preview of the new escalators leading up to the intermediate level where tunnels lead off to Cardinal Place. Source: Twitter

As a result of the work to upgrade the station is now largely operated on a one way system from the main ticket hall to the Victoria Line platforms. The entrance/exit in Cardinal Place however affords a two way system because of the need to access the sub surface platforms as well as the deep level ones. That new arrangement has however created some quirks which were also extant in the old system, thus in some respects the upgrade can be seen as a little bit of a step back. Its good, its great that they have been able to do all this work and it has improved the flows considerably especially in the direction of the main line station. In terms of the sub surface platforms its a bit of a mixed blessing because it hasn’t fully resolved the problems on that alignment. Its an area where further improvement is definitely needed but its very difficult to squeeze much more capacity into the system because the tunnels are right underneath a good number of buildings and the foundations of these simply cannot be compromised.

Next: The Royal Opening March 1969

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