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Victoria line turns 50: How north London artery brought about a renaissance for the London Underground

PUBLISHED: 08:00 01 September 2018

Queen Elizabeth II opening the line. With her, from left; Maurice Holmes, chairman of London Transport Board; F.E Wilkins, chief PR officer at LTB; Anthony Bull, vice-chairman of LTB and Richard Marsh, transport minister. Picture: PA

Queen Elizabeth II opening the line. With her, from left; Maurice Holmes, chairman of London Transport Board; F.E Wilkins, chief PR officer at LTB; Anthony Bull, vice-chairman of LTB and Richard Marsh, transport minister. Picture: PA

PA Archive/PA Images

This weekend, TfL is celebrating the half-century of the Victoria line. Ahead of that celebration, we spoke to the transport body’s former heritage chief, Mike Ashworth, for the lowdown on its origins.

The original Victoria Line poster. Picture: TfLThe original Victoria Line poster. Picture: TfL

On Sunday, September 1, 1968, the revolutionary Victoria line opened to absolutely no fanfare when a train left Walthamstow Central for Highbury and Islington station.

The first new Tube line since the Piccadilly opened 62 years earlier, the idea was to allow quicker access across central London and benefit areas in the north-east.

It’s still the fastest of all the 11 Tube lines, and runs 36 trains an hour at the busiest times. That makes it the UK’s most-frequent train service and the world’s second, behind the Moscow Metro.

Ahead of the 50th anniversary celebrations this weekend, the Gazette spoke to TfL’s former heritage chief Mike Ashworth, who told us why the “Viccy line” brought about a renaissance for the London Underground.

“It had its genesis in post-war planning,” he said. “London Transport, British Rail and the London County Councils were looking at how to improve London’s rail service. It had its origins as ‘Line C’, going from Finsbury Park to central London and out to Croydon.”

Workers tunnelling the Victoria Line. Picture: TfLWorkers tunnelling the Victoria Line. Picture: TfL

The plans changed many times until parliamentary powers were finally sought in 1955. At different stages it had been due to stop at Barnsbury, Manor House and Angel Road. Even after it was signed off, changes were made. Plans for the line to surface at Walthamstow’s Wood Street and join the National Rail line to Chingford were scrapped over financial difficulties.

Bosses sensibly settled on the name after realising efforts to repeat the Bakerloo’s success in combining locations had fallen flat. Had they not, we could now be marking the half-century of the Walvic or, worse, the Viking line.

Test digging began in 1959 around Seven Sisters, with experimental tunnel boring equipment. And on the August Bank Holiday in 1963 a huge operation was undertaken to open a giant steel umbrella over what was to become Oxford Circus’s new ticket hall. The structure created a temporary road while it was built. Workers took just 65 hours, starting at 1.30pm on the Saturday and ending at 12.15pm two days later. (It has so far taken three years to resurface a bridge at Highbury Corner.)

A huge amount of reconstruction was also needed at Highbury and Islington and Finsbury Park, and Mike said it took an “incredible amount of reimagining” to ensure there were cross-platform interchanges lining up northbound trains.

In fact, the southbound tunnel crosses over the northbound one between Highbury and King’s Cross, and back under again just south of Warren Street. That’s due to a design at Euston requiring cross-platform pairs to be northbound and southbound.

Workers tunnelling the Victoria Line. Picture: TfLWorkers tunnelling the Victoria Line. Picture: TfL

Despite all the tunnelling, the only major surface work at a station on the original stretch was at Blackhorse Road. But then there was the design aspect.

Mike continued: “The Design Research Unit, a famous mid-20th century design consultancy firm who did a lot of transport work, came up with the very laid-back grey and light blue look in the stations. The idea was the people and adverts would provide the dynamism.”

There is one famous design feature of the line’s stops, however. Any eagle-eyed commuter will have noticed each platform has a unique tiled motif based on the name of the station.

The other unique thing about the Victoria line is its trains.

“London Transport had been doing a lot of work with electric signalling after the war,” said Mike. “And when it opened it was the first-large scale programme of automatic train control. The driver is largely there as an invigilator. A computer takes over the signalling. That really was a technological achievement.”

Key dates

1954

Parliament approves the building of what will become the Victoria line

1959

Test tunnel boring is carried out from Tottenham to Manor House

1968

First stretch of line from Walthamstow Central to Highbury and Islington opens

1969

Queen Elizabeth II officially launches the line at Victoria station

Commuters who boarded that first 6.30am train at Walthamstow would have been very pleased with the results, Mike reckons.

“The Victoria line was seen as very sleek,” said Mike. “It was the first new deep Tube line in central London for 60 years. It was a real renaissance for the London Underground. The trains would have felt very modern and the stations very clean and brightly lit. And the other thing was it introduced the new automatic ticket gates.”

Later in 1968, the Warren Street extension opened, again with no publicity. That was saved for Her Majesty, who became the first reigning monarch to ride the Tube when she launched the line on March 7, 1969. “There’s a story, which I’m sure is an urban myth,” said Mike. “The Queen arrived and was asked to put in her ticket and the machine said: ‘Seek assistance’. They’d had some poor guy testing it for a whole day.”

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