It is difficult to believe today, but towards the end of the 20th Century, it really did feel like London Bridge (station) was falling down. The trainshed over the low-level London, Brighton and South Coast Railway terminating platforms was at least a faded glory, but the higher level through platforms were something else. Grubby and cramped, they were linked at their eastern ends by a windowless footbridge completely incapable of handling the increasing numbers of passengers trying to use it.
At their western ends, a passenger subway linked the platforms to the station’s undersized concourse, and every time it rained, the water poured into the subway everywhere it could. For one of Britain’s busiest railway stations, the state of its creaking fabric was nothing short of embarrassing.
But now look at it:
The biggest British railway station rebuild project of modern times, arguably more complex than the one which transformed St Pancras into an international station, saw London Bridge completely transformed. Yet it was done to all intents and purposes within the existing footprint of the station, and with the station remaining open (albeit with reduced functionality) throughout.
The catalyst for the rebuild was the long-delayed Thameslink Programme, which saw the Thameslink network considerably expanded both north and south of the Thames. London Bridge had long been a capacity pinchpoint, attempting to squeeze trains to and from Charing Cross, Cannon Street and Blackfriars into the station’s six through platforms, as well as Thameslink trains making their way or returning from north of London.
The Thameslink Programme saw an extra three through platforms added at London Bridge (making a total of nine), by reducing the number of terminating platforms on the south side of the station from nine to six. This was no mean feat considering that the terminating platforms were at a considerably lower level than the through tracks on the north side. The extra through platforms allowed Thameslink trains to have their own dedicated island platform (today’s platforms 4 and 5) and with some fancy new trackwork both east and west of London Bridge station, kept them segregated from other train services.
The rebuild took six years, from 2012 to 2018, though planning had been underway years in advance of that. The first part of the London Bridge rebuilding project to be tackled was the low level terminating platforms. Some rued the resultant loss of the grand old trainshed, including artist Gail Brodholt, who had produced several linocuts featuring views in this part of the old station (The Beauty of Transport 31 May 2017). But the reconfiguration of the through tracks onto areas previously occupied by terminating platforms and covered by the trainshed, meant it was impossible to retain it. Network Rail donated a large section of the trainshed roof to the Vale of Rheidol narrow gauge railway in Wales in 2013 for use as a museum building, though as far as I can tell little seems to have happened with the old roof so far.
The entrance and concourse serving London Bridge’s terminating platforms was rebuilt alongside construction of The Shard – Renzo Piano’s tallest-building-in-London – next door, and in a similar style. It is a practical and efficient but slightly anonymous assemblage of glass and white-painted steel by design practice Pascall+Watson. It is now known as the ‘high level concourse’; something of an irony considering that this end of the station was traditionally the lower part.
The focus of the new London Bridge station has, however, shifted even lower. The rest of the station was rebuilt to a spectacular design by architecture practice Grimshaw, which had been commissioned to rebuild Reading station just a few years earlier. Indeed, with the rebuild at Reading running from 2009-14, at one point the two stations were being rebuilt simultaneously. Grimshaw’s design for London Bridge would surpass even the spectacle of Reading, and for the first time make London Bridge feel like a single station with terminating and through platforms, rather than two distinct stations sitting side by side.
With passenger growth at London Bridge outstripping the station’s ability to handle passenger numbers, The lack of a sufficiently-large concourse area would be solved by doing the opposite of what Grimshaw designed at Reading with its huge transfer deck over the tracks. At London Bridge, the new concourse would be created by excavating the area under the tracks. The station sat on a mass of brick arches, at the western end of one of the longest viaducts (or series of viaducts as some of the purists will tell you) in the country, largely unrecognised because although very long, the viaduct(s) is not very tall. In a substantial area below London Bridge station, those arches would be swept away to create a huge open space. The station would gain large street level entrances at either end of this new under-track concourse; previously it had been surprisingly difficult to get into the station from Tooley Street and St Thomas Street. Meanwhile, at platform level the existing buildings and canopies would be demolished and replaced and the platforms extended.
The result is a station unlike anything else on the British railway network. There are plenty of stations with underpasses running from one side of the station to the other under the tracks, and even ones where there are additional facilities and shops in larger underpasses. But London Bridge’s new concourse is so much more than an underpass, a mere tunnel under the tracks. Instead, the huge void which has been created feels spacious and airy, as well as dramatic with the railway tracks carried in pairs overhead. It does away with the oppressive low roofs of standard underpasses, and from the new concourse it is possible to see all the way up to the sky, through the platforms’ glazed back walls high above. It is a stunning space, with extraordinary vistas, enhanced by a sympathetic lighting design in which spotlights glitter between the warm wooden slats of the ceiling. For the first time in the station’s history a single concourse gives access to all London Bridge’s platforms.
Many design elements which feature at the new Reading station make a reappearance at London Bridge. The wooden slats on the ceiling of Reading’s transfer deck can also be found in London Bridge’s concourse, lining the underside of the railway tracks and platforms. The muscular concrete columns which support the tracks as they fly across the concourse have a definite family resemblance to those supporting Reading’s transfer deck, although at London Bridge they are more curvaceous. And the point where London Bridge’s terminating platforms meet the through platforms is marked by a v-shaped column instantly recognisable to users of Reading station as being similar to those which support the canopies over the escalators at the latter. At London Bridge, this single column stretches high up above the concourse to support the platform canopy in this wider-than-usual gap between platforms (for more the Vierendeel Truss installation, see this Thameslink Programme fact sheet).
At platform level, London Bridge’s new canopies resemble those at Reading, although finished in silver rather than blue. And like the canopies at Reading, they present a neat and tidy appearance, hiding away cable runs and integrating flush light fittings in their undersides. They are supported along by lines of neat Y-shaped columns at the back of each platform. While Reading has straight platforms, those at London Bridge curve, so the design of the canopies is considerably more complex and ribbon-like, made more so by Grimshaw’s decision to raise the canopies over the centre-line of the concourse below to allow more daylight down.
The canopies are enormously photogenic both from platform level and from above. The viewing gallery in the next-door Shard provides a convenient place to get a new perspective on the undulating canopies. According to the Thameslink Programme, it is the only British railway station with canopies covering the full length of every platform.
London Bridge’s new concourse links to London Underground’s London Bridge station entrance via the attractive Western Arcade. Historically the site of a market, it had been been remodelled relatively recently in railway terms, when a new link was formed through it between the Underground and the mainline station as part of the Jubilee Line Extension works in the late 1990s. Now remodelled again and extended, the original brick vaults remain at the western end of the arcade with their bases protected by pale concrete enclosures. Brand new vaulting at the eastern end of the arcade mirrors the shape of the original vaulting but with the colours reversed as pale concrete uppers with a shuttered finish have bases made of darker corten steel. The Western Arcade is now lined with shops (as well as housing the station toilets) and is just about big enough for the double duty it serves as retail space and busy pedestrian link between National Rail services and those of London Underground.
Outside the station, the new street entrances to London Bridge are finished in brick and glass. On the Tooley Street side the bricks are installed in an intricate textured relief pattern above curtain wall glazing while on the St Thomas Street side the brickwork forms the surrounds of more modest glazed arches. In both cases the finishes enhance the streetscape by complementing the older station arches without being leaden facsimiles, nor trying to out-compete them with visual trickery.
Grimshaw’s reconstruction of London Bridge allowed Network Rail to become a better neighbour in the area, by addressing the problems of severance the old station caused. To get from one side of the station to the other before the rebuild involved a frankly terrifying walk along narrow pavements in one of the roads which ran under the station. The reconstruction saw Stainer and Weston Streets incorporated into the new concourse and Stainer Street in particular transformed into a publicly accessible walkway from north to south. It hosts a major piece of public art, “Me. Here. Now.” by Mark Titchner, a series of umbrella-like mirrored steel domes suspended from the ceiling. Other pieces of temporary artwork have also found themselves a home at London Bridge from time to time. It’s now the sort of space that lends itself to such uses.
A less visible, but no less important, feature from a passenger perspective is the acoustic design of the station. What ought to be large echoey spaces are surprisingly quiet, and public address announcements are clearly intelligible. The secret is a considerable amount of acoustic insulation, with sound deadening materials hidden behind perforated panelling which otherwise look like visual design features. Take a second look at the bases of the arches in the Western Arcade; they’re made of acoustic panels. The wooden strips which line the ceiling in the new concourse are also designed to absorb and break up, rather than reflect, sound.
To no great surprise of anyone who had taken notice of what had been achieved at London Bridge, it was shortlisted for 2019’s RIBA’s Stirling Prize for Architecture and was a 2019 RIBA London Building of the Year winner, with the judges praising its “voluminous light-filled spaces that are a joy to use.”
It is not a station without its criticisms or minor quirks, because no major public building ever is. I know some people who just don’t like its concourse, finding the idea of a space under the tracks somehow less ‘railway’ than a grand concourse in its more traditional place alongside or across the end of the tracks. And others feel that the platform canopies fail to afford sufficient shelter (see the comments section of The Beauty of Transport 29 January 2020).
A minor but puzzling design element is the extruded National Rail symbols outside the station entrances, and the way they have been installed. The two outside the Tooley Street entrance are a case in point. Because they are attached at right angles to the exterior walls, they appear to be ‘back to front’ from one side. So far, so inevitable. However, the two symbols are themselves installed two different ways round. One has the upper arrow pointing towards the wall, while the other one’s upper arrow points away from the wall. Taking the convention from the British Rail flags detailed in BR’s Corporate Identity Manual, the upper arrow should point towards the affixing point (pole). At London Bridge, therefore, it is presumably the double arrows with the upper arrow pointing towards the wall which are ‘correct’. But then again, the Corporate Identity Manual was never asked to consider quite such an installation.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the new London Bridge is the fact that of its points of similarity with the new Reading station. Those points of similarity occur because Grimshaw somehow contrived to design, near simultaneously, two comprehensive station rebuilds of enormous style and impact. Large station rebuilds are a rare thing. To successfully win the right to design two of them at once, and make such a good job of it, is without recent precedent.
Together, the new Reading and London Bridge stations speak to the state the British railway network in the early 21st Century. Network Rail is today building for success and expansion. We have come a long way since the 1980s and 1990s where the expectation of the railway network was one of long-term, inevitable decline. We often think of the great Victorian stations as representing a golden age of the railways in Britain. The quality and the ambition of the new Reading and London Bridge stations suggest we might, perhaps, be living through another one.
Bibliography and Further Reading
Grimshaw’s project page on London Bridge station, here
Pascall+Waton’s project page for London Bridge station high level concourse and entrance, here
The Thameslink Programme’s Learning Legacy page on London Bridge station, here
Grimshaw’s Design and Access Statement, here
Mark Titchener’s website page for “Me. Here. Now.”, here
Henning, Wallace (2016): Corporate Identity Manual. Henning Ltd, Folkestone