1. Transport
July 17, 2017

This BBC archive newsclip shows the North London Line in 1981 – when bad people wanted to turn it into a road

By Jonn Elledge

The BBC Archive is a selection of social media accounts that do exactly what the name suggests: post video and audio clips from decades past, most of which serve mainly to enable us to marvel at the accents of yesteryear.

It did once have a website, but ironically, it’s been archived:

Anyway. Over the weekend, one of its old tweets caught my eye thanks to our occasional rail correspondent John Band. The tweet dates from July 2016, and the news clip it features from 1981. But it paints a vision of a dystopian future so horrifying, that I felt it was worth bringing to your attention, simply to show what a close shave we had. Honestly, it gives me chills just thinking about it.

Back in 1981, reporter Bill Kerr-Elliot (amazing accent) tells us, the North London Line was “so underused that you can often have a carriage to yourself”. Unlike latter incarnations of the largely orbital route, it ran into Central London, terminating at the late lamented Broad Street station.

Broad Street station is no longer with us: it closed in 1986, and was demolished, to be replaced by the Broadgate Office complex. Already by 1981, though, it was, Kerr Elliot tells us, a place of “Victorian splendour, now sadly down at heel”, before adding, in a marvellously portentous voice that you just don’t get in news reports any more, “No one quite remembers when the station master left.”


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A blurry screenshot from the BBC film clip. Image: BBC.

At the time, it looked like the line it served (just 95p for a return to Richmond!) might be able to go the same way. The news clip features an interview with Andrew Warren of roads lobbying group “Movement for London” demanding the powers that be tear up the tracks and build a new road, on the grounds that everyone loves cars (no) and people would definitely use it (well, yes).

Another interviewee had a rather different vision for the line. David Thomas, chair of the North London Line Action Committee, we are told:

“has called on British rail to incorporate the line into a complete ring route around London, to operate more closely with London Transport, to advertise service more aggressively and to smarten up the stations”.

This, in the end, is exactly what happened. Okay, the line had to be diverted to Stratford and North Woolwich, and rebranded as “Silverlink” for a few depressing years. But in 2007, it was transferred to the new privately-operated but TfL-owned London Overground network.

The Overground in 2010, shortly before the North London Line Action Committee vision was realised. 

The new owners gave the line a deep clean, raised the profile of the system by advertising it as “London’s new trainset” and, over the next few years, hooked it up to the East, South and West London Lines to create a new loop around London. TfL, in other words, did literally everything that the North London Line Action Committee had asked for, even if it took 30 years.

So: the road lobby lost, for once. Which is nice. God, though, imagine if they hadn’t.

If you fancy watching the full clip, and seeing just how miserable London looked – and just how fruity BBC reporters sounded – in 1981, then you can do so here:


Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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