An Elephant in South London (Waterloo International station, London, UK)

If you know south London (well, London south of the Thames) at all, elephants normally refer to Elephant and Castle, terminus of the Bakerloo tube line and centre of a large urban regeneration project. But a couple of stops further up the Bakerloo line is a different, white elephant (see what I did there?). It’s Waterloo International station, on the western side of Waterloo station itself.

Eurostar trains at Waterloo International (note the asymmetric cross section of the roof). Timothy Baldwin [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Eurostar trains at Waterloo International (note the asymmetric cross section of the roof). By Timothy Baldwin [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Oh yes, Waterloo International. The Eurostar terminus that has a fabulously impressive blue roof with glazing that lets in the daylight, and is convenient for mainline railway, tube and bus connections. Just like St Pancras International in fact, except smaller. And a lot newer.

It’s in the news this month for embarrassing reasons. After years of standing empty while the UK government tried to work out what should happen to it, said government has finally decided that it’s all too difficult and is going to give up for now. A single platform will reopen in 2014 (we already knew this) to help out South West Trains with a chronic lack of capacity at Waterloo station, but otherwise it will definitely remain unused for the foreseeable future (we didn’t know this).

Ever since Eurostar moved out of Waterloo International, there has been a lot of talk about reopening it for domestic services, but very little action. And on 4 February this year, the government said that, “With regard to the other four former international platforms, previous plans to bring these back into use have now been subject to detailed evaluation which has shown them to be too short-term in respect of the efficient overall expansion of Waterloo station. A more comprehensive and longer term plan is required.” In other words, let’s give this up as a bad job for now and go get ourselves a nice cup of tea.

It’s a true waste of a beautiful station.

Detail of Waterloo International's roof, exterior view. By Piergiorgio Rossi (produzione propria) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Detail of Waterloo International’s roof, exterior view. By Piergiorgio Rossi (produzione propria) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Waterloo International opened in 1994, at a time when Eurostar trains used existing railway tracks between the Channel Tunnel and London.

Its short operational life –  just 13 years – resulted from the decision to take an easterly approach to London for High Speed 1, the dedicated link between the Channel Tunnel and the capital, with HS1’s terminus at St Pancras in north London. British Rail’s original idea was to bring the high speed line in through south London instead, with a positively Victorian cavalier lack of regard for the extensive property demolition that would have been required. A branch would have led to Waterloo International for trains terminating in south London, while other services would have carried on in a tunnel under central London to a new station at King’s Cross from whence some would have continued to destinations north of London. Ah, those were the days.

As it turned out, the easterly approach taken by HS1 meant that serving Waterloo International became an impossibility, so it closed in November 2007 when High Speed 1 and St Pancras International opened, and it has lain dormant ever since, except for occasional performances of a stage production of E Nesbit’s The Railway Children, in which a steam train is rather dramatically brought into the station-cum-theatre at the appropriate moments.

There was much to admire about Waterloo International, the station roof perhaps most of all. Waterloo International was built on a tricky site, a curvy, narrow slice of the old Waterloo station complex, wider at the north end and narrowing towards the south. So Grimshaw Architects devised a rather brilliant undulating steel and glass roof which followed the curves of the tracks as well as arching up and down along its length, and tapering as it went. Further adding to the complications, but enhancing the impressive look of the finished station was that in cross section the roof was asymmetric. It was very clever engineering and very light and airy underneath. Grimshaw Architects’ own website has a brief write-up and a lovely image that sums up Waterloo International at its best (here).

There was a glass curtain wall at the end of the platforms nearest to Waterloo domestic station’s main concourse, from where the Eurostar train nose ends could be seen. When Waterloo International opened and trains started operating in 1994, it was an incredible sight for passengers at Waterloo domestic. These were European TGV-style trains…right here in London! All right, they had tootled up to London on crowded UK railway tracks shared with commuter trains. And, yes, they had done so at what felt like 20mph after the blast across northern France at 186mph where there was a proper dedicated high speed line (in reality Eurostars probably went at about 90mph in the UK) but even so, this was clearly the future of railways.

The glazing in Waterloo International’s roof subsequently proved problematic, with cracks appearing in some of the panes of glass which led to fears of it dropping onto the platforms below (I said it was beautiful, I never said it was perfect). Fabric sheets were hung under the glazing to catch any strays, ruining the look of the roof and making the whole place feel like a National Trust property with its sun blinds down to prevent damage to the delicate furniture within, all diffuse light and soft shadows. A lot of work has been taking place on the glazing recently and from the looks of things (the sheets seem to have disappeared) it’s all been sorted out now.

Because of the narrow station site, the only place to put arrivals and departures was underneath the tracks, and an ingenious layout kept arriving passengers separated from departing ones. It was here that the cramped site really hampered Waterloo International though, and the departure lounge always felt a bit claustrophobic, tucked in right underneath the railway tracks. There was an enormous sculpture of several fish hanging from the ceiling (see the fish here). I think it was supposed to recall the journey under the sea that the trains and passengers were about to make through the Channel Tunnel (did the sculptor not know that you can’t see any fish? There aren’t any windows in the Channel Tunnel, and it’s under the seabed…) but for some reason it always reminded me instead of the colourful bathroom ornaments popular in homes of the 1990s. Still, there’s not enough public art at railway stations, so one shouldn’t complain.

Converting Waterloo International for domestic use is tricky. Platform 20 (the one nearest the domestic station) is easy – all it requires is cutting through the wall between Waterloo domestic platform 19 and International platform 20. It’s so easy that we were originally promised that platform 20 would be in operation with South West Trains in 2008. And so easy that we are still waiting, and will do so until 2014. The other platforms (21-24) require significant track work for trains to access them, and then there’s getting passengers to/from those platforms to/from Waterloo domestic itself. At the north end of the International platforms, nearest the domestic concourse, is a huge drop down into the ‘pit’ from which access to Waterloo International used to be gained. That pit would need bridging. Using the old access routes underneath the International station’s tracks isn’t considered viable, because they weren’t designed to cope with the numbers of passengers that would use them if commuter trains were routed into the International station.

There was a nice proposal last year to use the station as a single hub for all British sleeper train services. The long platforms would have accommodated the lengthy sleeper trains easily and would have been a suitably stylish point of departure/arrival. And the departure lounge underneath the tracks would have been the ideal waiting room for sleeper passengers. That idea seems to have gone by the wayside, unfortunately, as part of the government’s decision that such plans for the use of Waterloo International are “too short-term”. This represents one of the few known occasions when a UK government has decided that making short term decisions on transport is actually a bad thing, rather than a policy to be pursued rigorously whenever possible.

Until 2014 then, passengers will be denied the experience of standing under Waterloo International station’s roof and admiring the artistry of the engineering. And even then they will only be able to use platform 20. It will be a lot longer before the other four platforms underneath that amazing roof are fully available for use by train services.

Waterloo International cost some £120m to build. It had a life of 13 years. It has been out of use for five years and will be until 2014. It is costing money to maintain it even though it is currently unused. If you are a UK taxpayer, you have funded this extraordinary state of affairs. And now the government says finding a use for the asset you have paid for is a bit too difficult to get its head round. If I’d paid over £120m for something and it wasn’t working, I think I’d be inclined to make a bit more of an effort.

But let’s not leave on a sour note and instead take a slightly more philosophical approach.

…And so its roof, when trains are gone,

Waterloo International shall slumber on.

Which is what Percy Bysshe Shelley might have said if a) he were around today, b) he was interested in railway stations, and c) he didn’t mind that his poems didn’t scan.

Waterloo International, 13 November 2007. By lewishamdreamer [CC BY-2.0] via this flickr page.
Waterloo International, 13 November 2007. By lewishamdreamer [CC BY-NC 2.0] via this flickr page.

Postscript (24 October 2014)

Ahead of schedule, South West Trains ran its first domestic train service into Waterloo International’s platform 20 on 23 October 2013 (its press release is here). The platform is available for use in times of disruption, before coming into regular use in May 2014, as planned. There is still no news on when (or indeed if) platforms 21-24 might be brought back into service. But some of us, at least, will now get the chance again to admire Waterloo International’s fabulous roof from underneath it.

8 thoughts on “An Elephant in South London (Waterloo International station, London, UK)

  1. Just come across this, following the closure of 4 platforms last night at Waterloo due to track repairs, which made me think of the 5 unused platforms. Very nicely written piece, acknowledging the difficulty of converting the unused tracks but striking the right note of frustration at the approach that’s been taken so far. Very dispiriting to read that the latest is “We’re not going to look at this again for now.”

    1. It does seem a bit odd that while many parts of the British rail network struggle with increasing patronage and a lack of capacity, one of the few locations where additional capacity is available (Waterloo International) is sitting unused. Yes, making best use of it will require a long-term and probably expensive solution. But in the meantime, I can’t help feeling that there ought to be a short term fix which could bring the platforms back into use in a less-than-perfect way, until the ‘perfect’ (if there is such a thing) solution can be implemented.

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