21 December, 2008

District Line: Earl's Court - Wimbledon

Journey south from Earl's Court and you'll find yourself following the route of tracks first laid almost 150 years ago.

There used to be a great deal more railway lines in this part of London, most of which were conceived, developed and died before the 20th century even began. This one spur of the District Line survived, and now keeps a huge swathe of south London connected to the rest of the capital.

It's a poor state of affairs. There has been talk for decades of a whole new Underground line running from south west to north east via Chelsea, Victoria, Piccadilly, Angel and onwards to Leytonstone. It needs to be built. The advantages of being able to, for example, miss out the melee that is Earl's Court and nip straight up to central London from Putney or Wimbledon are self-evident. Equally anything that eases the burden on the inner London stretches of the Piccadilly or Victoria lines can only ever be a good thing.

A route has been 'safeguarded' for development, to use the official jargon, but whether anything gets done, especially with the current fare-increasing, car-friendly regime in City Hall, is doubtful.

Meantime residents of this part of London will have to struggle on. I have a colleague at work who relies on this part of the District Line to get her to the office every day, and almost every day there is a problem. Delays. Re-routing of trains. Unexplained stoppages. Infrequent services. And a general, relentless, lack of information.

As far as she, and I, can make out, the cause of the problem is usually to do with Earl's Court (surprise surprise) and specifically getting the Wimbledon branch trains in sync with those coming from Richmond, Ealing Broadway and Kensington Olympia. How sweet the idea of a new route that omits that wretched interchange.

First stop south of Earl's Court is West Brompton, added to the overground West London Extension Joint Railway in 1866 and the Metropolitan District Railway in 1869. The District building remains pretty much as it was when first built, which gives it an air of reassurance at odds with the reliability of the train services it hosts.

This feeling is deepened when you go inside and get to stand on one of two walkways that span the platforms. Take away the signage and the sound of iPods turned up too loud and you could almost be 100 years ago.

Fulham Broadway, on the other hand, has recently junked its original building for a brash and undignified makeover inside a shopping centre.

'Life begins at Fulham Broadway'. What does that mean? Seriously, just think about it for a moment. What does that mean? What on EARTH does that mean?

At least the original building can't be demolished by virtue of having Grade II listed status. That hasn't stopped it suffering the fate of becoming a branch of TGI Friday's. Thankfully bits of the old station still survive:

Both Fulham Broadway and Parsons Green date from 1880 when the line was extended from West Brompton.

It's a compact and poky place, which would need serious redevelopment were it to ever become, as has been mooted, the point at which that new south west/north east line would leave the existing District Line tracks and plunge underground towards the Kings Road.

Putney Bridge is more airy and user-friendly:

It was the terminus of this branch until the MDR got its act together and built the Fulham Railway Bridge across the Thames, connecting up with the London and South Western Railway at...

...East Putney in 1889. Apparently this station was owned by British Rail right up until 1994, despite mainline services ending in 1941. It's another place that bears traces of how the network used to be, when this bit of the line was part of a giant loop that connected up with Clapham Junction and Barnes. You can see odd spans of disused line and ill-kept bridges when you pass this way. Lines that once ran somewhere, and now go nowhere.

At Southfields...

...you can see an evocative reminder of this line's history:

An inscription which also survives at Wimbledon Park:

I'm not sure I believe it, but I have read that there has been a railway station at Wimbledon since 1838. The current station isn't the same building, nor is it on the same site. What is Wimbledon today was first occupied by the District Line terminus in 1889, subsequently rebuilt with its marvellous Portland stone entrance in the 1920s.

The station's interior does not match the promise of its exterior. Inside it is a mess. This is not really the building's fault; it wasn't designed to be the frontispiece for the sprawling multi-platform beast that is 21st century Wimbledon station. Still, there must be some better way of organising the place than currently exists, with its poor signage, confusing cross-platform changes, lack of proper information and pervasive air of nobody giving a damn.

Splendid from the outside. Squalid from the inside.


Anonymous said...

I saw a live fox at midday on the platform at West Brompton station in early December. I don't know if it's a permanent resident.

Clay said...

I'm pleased that I live exactly midway between "perhaps the most miserable station on the entire network" and one that has "gone straight into my list of the 10 best stations on the Underground"!

Saying that, I tend to choose to travel from Gunnersbury cos at least it has *some* indicator boards, even if they're not always right. Chiswick Park has *nothing at all* on its platforms to tell you when or if a train is likely to arrive. Not even announcements break the silence.

But yes, it's lovely to look at!


Jake said...

Many babies are born at Fulham Broadway is all I can figure.