IMG 7406 - A Whitechapel station detour

The long awaited Crossrail/Elizabeth Line/London Underground/London Overground interchange at Whitechapel opened on 23 August 2021. The station has ten lifts in total. Seven of those are public service ones, whilst one is an emergency service lift that goes down to the Elizabeth Line. There’s another lift that serves as an emergency too (I think its right at the northern end of the mid level concourse and away from the public areas.) There’s also a staff lift, and that makes ten altogether. But curiously, and depending on where one is in the station, it has six, or five lifts, present, but never seven! Confused? So is everybody else I think! What happened here is some lifts have diagrams showing five lifts, whilst other lifts have diagrams showing six lifts. I couldn’t tell you why that is, perhaps it was thought some clarity would be gained by showing fewer lifts than needed, especially if one of those wasn’t any use, that depending of course on where one began their starting point through the cavernous station’s thoroughfares. But what it has achieved is some considerable confusion for other people, as well as showing some accessible routes that could well be better taken by using an alternative one. The problem there being those alternative routes aren’t shown and people are instead sent on a detour through the station!

But first, the most immediate problem for many are the lifts with a single button for both floors. These single buttons have an up and down arrow to denote the lift will go in the opposite direction to where it is currently at. Its very confusing for many people because those lifts where there’s more than one floor served, the traditional lift button layout is used, and when people switch to these single button lifts they’re somewhat confused because they cant work out what that one button is meant to do.

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Several of the lifts at Whitechapel have a single operating button. Its confusing when some of the other lifts use separate buttons for each floor. Clearly consistency isn’t a good point at Whitechapel!

I asked Tomas of Step Free London (he is also the main founder of #LevelBoarding which campaigns to ensure the transport system is as fully and properly accessible as it can be) what he thought of these single floor use buttons. Despite being away on holiday he was good enough to let me know his opinion on seeing a picture I sent him of these. His verdict was ‘they’re counter-intuitive and just cause more confusion for no reason.’

Maida Vale Muse commented ‘Wonder what’s the logic of putting identical labels both sides of buttons as more to read, will cause initial confusion.’ That is another good point, I’m sure reading these labels one must think, ‘well where am I supposed to be? This floor or the other floor?’ Or maybe even ‘does this lift actually work?’

One other person commented on the labels, it was clear these had been an afterthought, they had been printed and stuck on as a means of trying to give more clarity as to what the one button did. But it likely makes it more confusing. And confusion is the key word here. Why try to confuse people with this arrangement? Floors are separate and trying to make them into one, clever as it might be, simply defies peoples’ logic.

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When it comes to more than two floors the lifts go full tilt and use what is clearly the classic control button arrangement! This arrangement can be seen on Lift C (pictured) and Lift F. All the others have a single floor button.

Lift Map

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Map I drew up to show the lifts & where they are positioned. Its not meant to be brilliant but does the job. The distance from Lift B to Lift F is about 65 metres, slightly more to Lift E as involves backtracking a bit.

Lift A

That’s the button issue out of the way (and the presentation of the lifts map I created too!) Next we look at the station’s other lifts (mainly by way of their diagrams and routes.) I decided to look at each in alphabetical order because it made more sense (and stopped me from getting too confused as to how the whole system worked too!) It too does follow how the lifts are shown, but not always exactly as they are, on the diagrams. Anyway we start with Lift A. This is one of three that has a single floor operating button, the same as the example shown earlier.

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Lift A looking towards the main Whitechapel Road entrance.

One aspect of Lift A is it’s map does confuse people (as I’m sure some of the other diagrams shown below too too!) If one is not in the know, it can be confused for Lift G as this District Dave post shows with a link to Lift A’s diagram. The thread claims Lift F should be G. Unfortunately the diagram is right that the lift in question is F. What the diagram is wrong about is it omits Lift G completely thus what’s happening here is people are then sent the long way round via Lift F in order to reach the Overground southbound platform. We’re getting ahead of ourselves here but anyway this is the first glitch, one of many we will find across the Whitechapel lifts system which I am sure will annoy quite a few people.

Lift A is perhaps the least important of the lot. When I say least, I don’t mean it hasn’t got any purpose at all. It is a very important lift because it carries people from street level to ticket hall level. But its presence doesn’t in any way or form affect how people find their way from ticket hall level to the Hammersmith/District Lines, London Overground and of course the Elizabeth Line. So we’ll leave that one out for the rest of this post.

Ticket Hall Level

The ticket hall level is perhaps the most important location where people choose the routes that are available to them. I think there are several defining factors here which could mean make or break for some – in other words what I mean is some will choose what are the shorter routes whilst others choose the longer and less convenient routes to the platforms.

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The ticket hall area. The London Overground sign indicating the direction towards the mid level concourse can be seen suspended high up on the ceiling. Compare that with the other for the lifts and there’s a difference in size. From this perspective its clear Lift B (on the right) is more prominent than even Lift C in the distance! A guy (with cap) can be seen at right reading the line maps – so evidently one has to have their back to the main areas of the ticket hall, and the signs too which means these can be easily missed. It means when they turn round the biggest sign is the most prominent and so they go that way.

Let’s think of the ticket hall in terms of psychology! Let’s not see the main lobby areas to Whitechapel as an entrance to a public transport facility but rather that to a supermarket. You can laugh at me and say psychology ain’t part of a tube journey! Well I think it is and it can be useful in giving passengers the information and the confidence to begin their railway or bus journeys. I’ve studied psychology, I did that as part of my degree, so I know this is important. Anyway we enter Whitechapel’s brand new ‘supermarket’ and what would be the first thing we would look for? The tasty things, the nice things, the colourful things. Most supermarkets aisles start with fruit and (and certain veg) because there’s lots of colours and the reason they do this is because invariably people go straight for this type of food. Colourful strawberries, lovely oranges, lovely tomatoes and ever so tasty peppers.

Its the same with the tube (but I dont think its always managed that well however.) The first thing (especially nowadays when most have oysters or passes or contactless) is people pass through the barriers and go straight for the line maps. Look at the busy tube stations and what are most doing? They’re consulting the line maps! A lovely sprawl of different lines and different colours, almost like an artwork! So what it means is we go through the barriers at Whitechapel and the first thing we most would likely want to do is consult the line maps.

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The line diagram for London Overground – this points towards the mid level concourse – which must impress some that its the only route to those platforms.

What we are doing in fact is going straight for the fruit! So we get to the line maps in the ticket hall area. So far, so good! But is that really a case of it being so far so good? Well I think the problem here is the line maps are placed in the wrong location. You can laugh at me I don’t care, but I do think it has a bearing where the line maps are located. You see, when we do turn round to think about which lines or where we could catch our trains, the arrows on the line maps are invariably pointing northwest, which is towards the nice inviting curved corridor atrium section, and if one is disabled, Lift B is the first lift that’s seen and what is important is BOTH stairs and lift have ‘London Overground’ signed very clearly. So psychologically we see this as the means of reaching London Overground’s platforms.

Sadly it means a number of people will probably overlook the fact there are other lifts or indeed another way to London Overground. Those other lifts, which are Lifts C and D, are very poorly signed and its not even immediately evident they lead to the Overground’s platforms. Thus as a result we have people especially those who could do without the extra hassle, going the long way round to get to their trains. Let’s have a look at the signs that lead to Lift C and Lift D – and see what people are missing out on. Shall we do that?

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From the ticket hall area its not too obvious there’s an alternative route to the London Overground, and its a better one for those with disabilities. Conversely the Hammersmith/District platforms are quite well signed. I think one problem is the huge cavern that is the new ticket hall area makes it somewhat difficult to provide good and proper signs without cluttering up the aesthetics of the building’s design. Lift D is at left (out of sight) and Lift C is just visible to the right of centre.

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Lift D doesn’t indicate London Overground at all even though its actually the shortest route from the ticket hall to the Overground’s southbound platform! Looking at the signs one would think its for the Hammersmith/District only.

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From the ticket hall if one gets near enough, its evident the other, this being Lift C, does serve London Overground. The sign is ambiguous and not until one gets to the lift itself its clear this is for the northbound Overground.

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The signage thats on the top of Lift C is the first proper indication this is a route to the London Overground’s northbound platform. But as indicated one has to enter the lift lobby properly in order to discern this.

Lift D is also an alternative route to London Overground southbound. But this is not shown on the signs! Only the northbound platform via Lift C is shown in any sort of definitive sense and that only after one has got closer to the lift itself. Its not very obvious fro the ticket hall area and I suppose if one has been consulting the line diagrams, they’ll more likely be looking in the other direction towards Lift B and the nice modern styled curved mid level concourse!

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Lift C with its not very obvious Overground signage. Its not big compared to the one in the ticket hall area! The other sign by the lift itself does say Overground southbound, but that’s not visible from the ticket hall!

In a nutshell what will happen is they will have missed the nicer routes (if these can be called that) to the London Overground! That’s not really good is it? If we think about Victoria for example, those who can walk to the Victoria Line are sent the long way round, and that is for very obvious reasons which is to prevent overcrowding. Disabled people are however sent the shortest route and that is quite well signed and I think that is right and only fair too. Its not acceptable to send them on a lengthy detour unless it cant be avoided at all. But they’re not doing that at Whitechapel! They ‘re not even trying to manage this sort of thing and that combined with the lift diagrams, signage, and somewhat lousy routes can easily make Whitechapel a bit of a nightmare to use.

Lift B

Thus the first lift we properly start with is Lift B. Its somewhat like Lift A too that it forms an important connecting route. This one connects the ticket hall to London Overground, and in due course, the Elizabeth Line (when that does open.) It does involve a bit of a walk (or a somewhat substantial journey for someone with a wheelchair) in order to reach the other lifts that takes one down to London Overground. Those other lifts are F and E as shown on the diagram below. Lift F also connects to the Elizabeth Line platforms which are currently waiting to be put into public service – though that’s anyone’s guess at the moment.

Lift B isn’t really in any way problematic – except when it becomes the very lift that’s used to send people on substantial detours through the station! By that it is meant that instead of using what should be the most convenient, shortest route, people are sent via Lift B up to the ticket hall and then back down to wherever they want to go. I really dont know why this is necessary. perhaps its due to a need to maintain passenger flows. Perhaps its to stop certain parts of the station or certain lifts becoming too heavily used.

I did indicate to one of the station staff the glaring omission in some of the routes through the station and I actually pointed out to him the glitches in the lift diagrams. He looked at these and indicated he couldn’t really help me on that since neither he or the station staff had designed the lifts or the routes shown – and very much like me, he didn’t know the what the answer would be either!

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So anyway, this is Lift B and the diagram above shows it at ticket hall level. Lift B too has a single floor operating button.

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And this diagram above shows Lift B at the lower level – what they call the mid level which is that long cavernous section with side windows that look down onto the London Overground platforms below. The lifts are right at the far end, practically where the London Overground platforms finish at the northern end of the station itself. So we leave it there, Lift B is very important as part of the network of lifts here and we’ll refer to it again soon.

Note: The mid level concourse route is approximately 70 metres in length from mid point on ticket hall area to about where the lifts down to the southbound Overground platforms begin. Its around 64-65 metres from the bottom of Lift B to the northern bridge leading to the other lifts.

Lift C

Lift C is the next one and its perhaps the most important one because it links the ticket hall to the Hammersmith/District at intermediate level and London Overground at the lower level. However when coming from the other lifts in the system, Lift C often seems to be the one omitted from the diagrams (which makes it look like Whitehcpael has five, and not six, lifts.) Its also the first of the diagrams to show, yes five and not six lifts!

So whats missing here? Yes its Lift D, which is the other route down to the Hammersmith/District platforms and that’s as far as that goes. But there’s a problem with that as, again, we will see later. Okay, so Lift C is important and its evident one can also come up from London Overground to the ticket hall directly. But as we will see, sometimes they don’t show Lift C in its fullest form because they want people to take the long way round instead. Dont ask me why!

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Lift C has five lifts shown on its diagrams at each level. Its the only lift to show five whereas all the others show six!

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Lift C at the intermediate level for the Hammersmith/District Lines. Lift C is also the first of our examples to use separate buttons for each floor.

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Lift C where it reaches the London Overground platform level. This emerges onto the main platform area so its the most useful one in fact in terms of getting to or from the London Overground’s northbound services.

Lift D

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Lift D is another with a single floor operating button. It goes straight down from the ticket hall to the Hammersmith/District Lines level. Combined with Lift C these serve the very busy sub surface platforms as well as perhaps people who use the stairs from London Overground and then decide they want to take the lift the rest of the way instead.

Lift D is also the shortest route from the ticket hall to London Overground southbound platform. Quite why they don’t even bother to indicate that I couldn’t tell you. In my opinion I would have thought Lift C for the northbound Overground and Lift D for the southbound Overground would help to make life easier. They haven’t done that. Only Lift C is shown as going to the northbound and there’s ABSOLUTELY nothing in the ticket hall to indicate where one could get to the southbound Overground, except by way of the very long mid level corridor.

The shorter route to the Overground southbound in question is indicated on Lift D’s diagram at least, but its the last thing one would find when they’re trying to orient themselves at the ticket hall and looking for a route to that very platform.

Some might suggest that those like me could ask the staff if there’s confusion or ambiguity in the signs! That’s a brilliant suggestion! Except I couldn’t and for a very good reason linked to disability, and I’m sure there are a few others besides me who might have the same problem. Not only that when i do try to do that, communicate the best way I can, almost invariably the staff cant be bothered because their expectation is everyone speaks and if someone isn’t speaking, well they shouldn’t be using the tube or the overground for a start! So I get a puzzled look from staff or get swiped as if I was a fly or something.

In terms of Lift D this more direct and shorter route too isn’t shown when coming off a different part of the London Overground platforms, especially via Lift F instead. You’ll probably notice Lift F isn’t shown on the above diagram as serving London Overground, but it does serve it, and that is also one that offers a detour through the station via Lift B and Lift C or D rather than what would be considered the sensible option – which is to use Lift G instead if one wanted to reach the Hammersmith/District platforms.

From the ticket hall its about 40 metres via Lift D to London Overground’s southbound platform. The alternative route (which is indeed sometimes the only route shown) is about 85 metres! That’s over twice as far as the shorter route and involves the use of one extra lift.

The mid level concourse

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This is the mid level concourse which runs above the London Overground platforms. At right are the escalators to the Elizabeth Line. The next side entrances lead to Lifts E (right) and Lift F (left.) The main concourse leads under Durward Street and in the far distance, just past the flight of stairs which can be seen, is Lift B on the left side. This concourse can be considered a fair walk for some and quite long for someone using a wheelchair. I know its not like the Elizabeth line platforms which are 250 metres long. That’s more than three times the length that can be seen here!

But what concerns me is if someone has to come from the far end of the Elizabeth Line platforms and then up here and are sent the longer way round to reach the Hammersmith/District Lines for example, then it really is quite a distance to cover. Public transport is supposed to be about making things convivial, not forcing passengers to undertake endurance tests, if you know what I mean.

In that sense it could be said the design of the layout at Whitechapel hasn’t been optimised. Its nice, its cute, its modern, but if its not doing the job, well its not good. I think it can be made better with some thought and better signage for a start. I mean if one looks at the signs in this picture well these are sending people the long way round to the Hammersmith/District Lines especially if they’ve just come off the London Overground or Elizabeth Line!

Lift E

Lift E connects to the London Overground at the northern end of the station. Its a fair distance from the Hammersmith/District platforms and can be considered a detour option should one want to interchange to those lines. All so far, so good. But what Lift E doesnt show is Lift C connecting to London Overground!! Yes! Look at the Lift C diagram and then the Lift E diagram. Why does Lift C on this diagram – shown below – only connect to the Hammersmith/District platforms and NOT the London Overground? I say that because Lift C is in fact the shortest route to the Hammersmith/District platforms – but the diagram below is telling one to use Lift E – and that means going up to the mid level, then via Lift B to the ticket hall, and finally either Lift C or D down to the Hammersmith/District line platforms. That’s a lot of faffing about especially when Lift C is in fact the one and only lift that’s needed to reach the Hammersmith/District platforms from London Overground!

The distance via the shortest route would be about 60 metres. The distance via the recommended route is however around 125 metres plus an additional two lifts!

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Lift E shown as the only option to the Hammersmith/District lines – involving a detour via ticket hall level – when there’s a better route!

Nowhere is there any indication or advisory that a route via Lift C will be considerably be better for people with disabilities (or PRM) if they are intending to aim for the Hammersmith/District lines. I cant fathom why they have done this. Maybe its a concern the London Overground platforms could be too narrow but why should that be a problem especially when they allow access to those anyway from the other lifts?

Maybe they are wanting to ensure that people use the right lifts from the Elizabeth Line, and I cant argue with that. But what if passengers in fact want the Hammersmith/District lines? If someone comes up from the Elizabeth Line and sees the diagram below which shows their route to London Overground’s northbound platform, that’s entirely valid because this is the most convenient route.

I couldn’t tell you what the diagram looked like at Elizabeth Line platform level, but its very likely going to be like this one. There’s another detour in that case should one want to reach the Hammersmith/District lines – because as we have just seen, that route again involves a trip via ticket hall level. It might be a question of wanting to give the best route available, so its not quite as bad as alighting onto the London Overground platform and then being sent the long way round.

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Lift E at the mid level concourse. The situation remains the same as the previous diagram. Not forgetting the fact Lift E also relies on a single button for the two separate levels it serves.

Lift F

The one to the Elizabeth Line! We’ve already looked at its options somewhat under Lift E. This Lift F links the mid level to London Overground’s southbound platform and then the Elizabeth Line at the lower level. Lift F can be found next to the emergency service lift, so evidently both lifts end in the same cross passage at Elizabeth Line platform level.

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Lift F diagram showing the status at mid level.

The one problem with Lift F is it can send people on a detour! Instead of using the better route which would be by way of Lift G in order to reach the Hammersmith/District lines, Lift F sends people via the ticket hall! That’s an extra lift and extra distance just to reach the Hammersmith/District lines!

The big problem is Lift G isn’t shown at all. That’s a big omission!

Again I dont know why that is but it may be a need to avoid cluttering up the lift diagrams too much, since a good bit of the time at least one, sometimes two, lifts are omitted from these diagrams and it may be a need for clarity and legibility which is also important. But why compromise in terms of what is the better alternative via Lift G?

I can say surely if the diagram is indeed pressed for space, why not remove Lift A, not the others? Lift A doesn’t do much does it? Oh no that’s not true! It leads to the main station entrance. Well in that case the other lifts and their connections are too important and should be missed off or curtailed in some way to make the arrangement seem even more confusing.

I think its misleading also to show Lift C as not serving the London Overground northbound platform when it does but then again its probably considerations of space and so not too important in this case. Lift C, if shown would offer an alternative route via Lift E.

Lift G

Lift G is one that not been shown a lot so far. Its one more with a single floor operating button. and is sited away from the other lifts at the south east corner of the London Overground station. Lift G provides the only link between the Hammersmith/District lines and the southbound London Overground. However as has been shown previously, if one were at Lift F instead of Lift G, they would be sent the longer way round especially in order to reach the Hammersmith/District lines.

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Lift G is evidently the shortest route from the southbound Overground platform to the Hammersmith/District platforms. Ironically its a longer route to the ticket hall especially if one is by the area where Lift F is, which then makes that one a rare case of being the shorter route via the mid level concourse!

The problem here is the connection from London Overground to Lift F isn’t depicted on the above diagram. Note how its marked as going straight from the Elizabeth line to the mid level concourse. Thus once again an alternative route that could prove to be the much shorter one isn’t shown.

Lift G offers a route of 115 metres if one starts from by the area where Lift F is. Using Lift F means its just over 70 metres to the ticket hall. Both routes involve the same number of lifts – two.

Agreeably if one is right by Lift G then its the shorter route. This happens to be one of the quirks of having two different routes from either end of a platform that go to the same destinations. Yet the big problem is Lift G isnt shown on Lift F’s diagram at all especially if one wants to reach the Hammersmith/District lines let alone the ticket hall, so that’s another omission.

Another small quirk is Lift E (which too isn’t shown) is an alternative route to the Overground northbound. That’s however not a lot of difference to using the route shown here which is via Lift G and then Lift C, so that’s probably an omission which does at least work.

I think in some of these cases it might be best to have signs sited on some of the platforms (especially the Overground) showing the better routes.

Finally… those ‘Elizabeth Line’ lifts

There are also other issues – such as the labelling of lifts as London Overground specific & Elizabeth Line specific. I just want to be brief here as this post is getting too complicated otherwise. TBH I can see what they are trying to do with Lift D (which is sort of indicate this is a route to the Elizabeth Line) and its meant to be informative, creative even, but when it does denote lifts that don’t actually connect to the Elizabeth Line as being ‘Elizabeth Line’ specific lifts, I think that confuses things even more.

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Lift D at Hammersmith/District line platform level has been decked out in Elizabeth Line colours! Its not the only one given this confusing identity. It doesn’t even serve the Elizabeth Line! Sadly this is not the only example, another can be found in the form of Lift E too.

(Note: In terms of Lift G for the Overground southbound, one can see this is also the route from Lift D to Lift G in the distance.)

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I think it would be better to give the lifts this kind of signage as shown with this example from the lower level at Lift C. Its still ‘Elizabeth line’ of course but its not saying its a Elizabeth Line specific lift. What it does is more sensibly indicate this is a route to the Elizabeth Line, not that its the Elizabeth Line itself.

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