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Work on the down northbound escalators at Oxford Circus is accompanied by a novelty rarely seen at any escalator work on the tube. This is a photomontage of images depicting escalator history and building. While this has been done at one, maybe two, other tube stations, this particular exhibit includes a photograph of London’s only spiral escalator, as well as some other rarely seen photos of Oxford Circus, including construction of new escalators as a replacement for the station’s lifts in the 1920s.

The station was renowed for taking the longest to repair or replace escalators, as well as having the most frequent malfunctions, quite possibly owing to the escalators’ very heavy use. In reality, there is one fewer set for the downward trips, leaving only four available compared to the five sets for those exiting the tube. This imbalance clearly puts unprecedented pressure on the station northern bank of escalators – such as that now being replaced.

As some may be aware, escalators are a major engineering headache particularly on London’s subway system because they cannot be purchased off the shelf. They have to be custom-made for each station and escalator shaft, and given the abuse they take, it’s no surprise they endure so long. In fact, the escalators at Oxford Circus have proved to be a bugbear, first because the station extensions built the sixties for the Victoria Line were lined with asbestos, and this too included the escalator shafts. This was exposed by the major fire which occurred at the station in 1984 – as well as that major fire at King’s Cross three years later in 1987 which highlighted the problem even more. Clearly the escalators at Oxford Circus have required a great deal of work over the years since to clean up as well as having a programme of modernisation.

There’s more detail on London underground’s escalators in the following photographs plus text, thus its on with the show!

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How the top of the escalators currently look. There’s a surprise when one gets to the side of the hoardings where the escalators begin!

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There’s a pop up exhibition featuring the history of escalators! On the right is one featuring the abortive spiral escalator which was built in 1906.

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The spiral escalator of 1906. This clearly is the earliest escalator to be seen on London’s underground. The next time any station acquired an escalator was that at Earl’s Court in 1911. Little is known of this abortive attempt at Holloway Road to introduce an escalator that merely took up the space in a spiral staircase shaft. The steps were very narrow indeed as can be seen on the far right of the picture above. One interesting design aspect of this early escalator was the steps had slats incorporated the tooth comb arrangement designed by Reno in the US. Part of the spiral escalator was found a few decades back and given to the London Transport Museum.

Jesse Reno built his first escalators in the US during 1892 and over the next couple of decades he built quite a few examples for use in stores and on the New York subway, and although they had quite narrow steps they had tooth combs on the entry and exit so didn’t require the awkward turn offs seen on the London underground’s early examples. Curiously those we see in the next picture were too designed by Reno but instead utilised a flat topped step and an awkward top end arrangement – but that probably was because the demands of London’s underground necessitated a very wide step system, clearly beyond the scope of Reno’s original narrow tread system.

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New escalators at ‘Embankment’ in 1914. The description is somewhat wrong as the station was actually known as Charing Cross until 1915. When it said the barrier steered the flow of passengers that’s only right in a sense. The escalator was built like this because its how they designed them! The underground’s first escalators at Earl’s Court and one or two other stations including Liverpool Street (constructed 1911) on the Central London Railway were built in this older style. Getting on these early escalators wasn’t a problem however getting off them was the big difficulty. These old escalators had flat topped steps, thus they suddenly dropped down out of sight. and the issue here was was one of trying to build a system that could safely ensure people alighted before these steps dropped down. Its why these systems had that awkward barrier at the end of the escalators’ travel. Its because of that arrangement the handrail too had to turn from the horizontal to the vertical in order guide peoples hands away from the direction of travel, and even to nudge people off the steps at the top should they not be taking notice of where they were going!

Those new types of escalators as seen at Embankment in 1914 were already out of date. Paddington station in 1913 was the first to receive the same type of escalators that we still we use today – this type being those with the slat (or serrated) tops for the steps and steel tooth combs at the end of the escalator’s travel ensure people can safely get off the steps even if they miss the very end of the escalator.

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In 1924 a newly rebuilt Moorgate tube station was opened as part of what would be known as the Morden-Edgware Line. As well as the Hampstead tube, this work too utilised much of the former City & South London Railway’s route, whose stations and tunnels had to be enlarged as they were unsuited for standard tube stock. At the same time most of the stations had their lifts replaced by escalators (the exceptions being Elephant, Borough and Angel.) Here we see UERL executives inspecting the new escalators at Moorgate. Interesting to see top hats were still largely the order of the day!

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As mentioned earlier, the lifts at Oxford Circus were replaced by escalators in 1925. These escalators are those that rise up from the Central Line platforms. Ironically these escalators came without a central fixed staircase, however it was probably thought this wouldn’t be needed as the old spiral staircases were at the time still available for those who wanted to walk the stairs instead.

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This picture must have been taken in early 1926 for Colliers Wood station on the Morden-Edgware Line opened in September of 1926. There seems to be some implication that the escalators on this section of the tube were the first to receive fixed staircases between the escalators. In fact those built 1913-15 on the Bakerloo extension to Queen’s Park were the first to have these fixed central staircases.

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Waterloo’s escalators in 1928. Note the sign which says ‘moving stairs!’

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Archway escalators. These were built to replace lifts as were those at the other stations on the Highgate branch of the Morden-Edgware Line. Interestingly those stations on the Golders Green/Edgware branch of the same line retained their lifts!

From August 1937 the Morden-Edgware Line became known as the Northern Line.

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Workmen on an escalator in 1937. Location unspecified.

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The bottom of the escalator at Oxford Circus showing the last three descriptive panels – covering 1976, 1950 and 2014. I don’t know why it wasn’t done chronologically here!

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1976 escalator picture with commuters. Possibly the down escalator at Victoria or King’s Cross.

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Escalator maintenance in 1950. Possibly Piccadilly Circus or Leicester Square.

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Greenford was the last to have wooden escalator steps. All those stations with escalators down into the depths of the ground were dealt with first. Being a station on the surface with tracks on a viaduct meant Greenford kept its old escalators longer than any other stations.

4 thoughts on “Oxford Circus escalator pics

  1. I’d love to know if there are detailed plans for making Oxford Circus step-free. I doubt if it will happen any time soon, because of the cost, but how would it be possible? Where would the lifts go, and new tunnels? And would sloping, inclined lifts be an idea for some of it?

    1. I don’t think it will ever happen. Not without a total rebuild. Even that might require the buildings in the street above to be demolished. Oxford Circus station originally had lifts but these were removed in the 1920s and the amount of alterations since means the original lift shafts can’t be used because the premises above are now used for other things such as restaurants and shops which means there’s no scope for street level to platform level direct lifts. Incline lifts might work however the Central Line presents more of a problem than the Bakerloo or Victoria because of how the station is laid out. The ticket hall is particularly shallow so that presents another problem. A good question but unfortunately its obvious there’s no easy answer!

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