Rush Hour in London, 1970 and Today


Bulbous black taxis and double-decker buses might supply London’s most recognizable transport iconography, but Britain, where the railroad was born, has long been a nation defined by trains. A look at two videos of London’s rail station at rush hour confirms the country’s undying regard for rail. The crowds pulsating through Waterloo Station in 1970 were at the mercy of the antiquated, almost Steampunk-styled signal equipment featured in the first video, a British Transport Film fished up from the archives of the British Film Institute last year, but if they were at all aware of this, it didn’t stop them from swarming the station in droves (though, being British, they also manage to organize the chaos into an occasional orderly queue).

Not even the materialism of the Thatcher years, their emphasis on homeownership, nor subsequent real estate booms, all of which promoted car ownership and the expansion of the London’s suburban commuter belt along the motorways radiating from the city, could seriously challenge British railways’ importance. Still less hemorrhage resulted from the 1993-7 privatization of the UK rail system, achieved, in the eyes of many, for no practical purpose and with disastrous results; in fact, traffic since privatization has actually increased, even as public impressions of the railways’ reliability and safety have declined. More passengers were carried in 2006 than in any year since 1957.

Even now that Waterloo’s long-held role as the terminus for international trains serving France via ferry, then the Chunnel, has come and gone (it was recently replaced for that purpose by the new Eurostar facility at slightly less swamped St. Pancras), it remains an important commuter crossroads, and, if anything, the station’s greater abundance of retail has made it even busier. With over 88 million passengers served annually, it’s easily one of Britain’s most frequented transport hubs, and the second most used station in Europe, after Paris’ Gare du Nord. The congestion charge, imposed in 2003 on most vehicles entering the city center, probably hasn’t hurt.

Evidence of Waterloo’s contemporary crowds can be glimpsed in plenty of online photos — and two 2007 films, The Bourne Ultimatum and Jhoom Barabar Jhoom (the latter a Bollywood saga in which the protagonist leads Waterloo’s commuter crowds in a dance). But for further visual confirmation that Britain’s rails still draw a similar crush of crowds, one only need look slightly down the line from Waterloo, to Clapham Junction. At 119 trains per hour (and over 2,000 per day), the tracks passing through the station are among Europe’s most active.

Soon Clapham is set to get even busier, eventually gaining both Underground and Overground connections and a direct link to Heathrow Airport (it’s already linked directly to Gatwick, meaning the station will serve as the one connecting stop between the two). And if it doesn’t seem to attract the epic crowds of London’s larger stations, that’s because it’s more of a transfer point than a terminus in the mold of Waterloo or Victoria Stations, where all the inbound trains sweeping through Clapham ultimately wind up. The sight of endless railcars streaming between its platforms in this time-lapse video, produced for the BBC’s Britain from Above series, evokes much of the same frenetic sense of activity and movement as the forty year old film above. And fortunately, the railways’ dodgy old signaling systems — which, in Clapham, resulted in a 1988 crash that left dozens dead — have finally been upgraded.

This entry was written by Christopher Szabla , posted on Wednesday September 08 2010at 12:09 am , filed under Europe, History, Transportation, Video and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

2 Responses to “Rush Hour in London, 1970 and Today”

  • John W says:

    Minor quibble – Clapham Junction has had a direct rail link to Gatwick for a long time. Also note that the direct link to Heathrow has been postponed (budget reasons), and any Underground station is at the very least a decade away and likely a lot longer (it’s a proposed offshoot of the Hackney-Chelsea line, itself mooted in various alignments since the beginning of the last century). Nonetheless, Clapham Junction already is Britain’s busiest rail station.

  • C. Szabla says:

    Thanks for keeping us up to date, John. I updated the above to reflect your comment.