There are loads of us who, as tourists or new residents, have finished a journey to Charing Cross by changing from the District and Circle lines to the Northern or Bakerloo lines at Embankment only to realise it’s an obscenely short journey that’s best done above ground.
And then there are those who, staggering home at some small hour or other, have been driven half mad by the length of the corridors at Charing Cross, where getting to the Bakerloo line platforms from the ticket hall seems to involve walking through several dimensions.
So why are these two stations so problematic? The answer, as with so much about the tube, lies in its history.
The first underground railway to come through these two stations was the District Railway (now the District and Circle lines), which was extended from Westminster – its first eastern terminus – to Blackfriars in 1870. It ran through the newly completed Victoria Embankment, and called at Charing Cross, The Temple and Blackfriars.
Except it wasn’t Charing Cross. It was what we today call Embankment. As it was easier to use the new Victoria Embankment than to tunnel directly under Charing Cross mainline station, the new underground’s interchange was a little to the south of the station – but serving Charing Cross was still very much its purpose, so the station was called Charing Cross all the same.
About 20 years later, the Baker Street & Waterloo Railway company put a bill to parliament asking for permission to build another underground railway. The new line would have stations at Baker Street, Oxford Circus, Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square, Embankment, and a terminus and depot at Waterloo. The bill passed in 1893, all sorts of extensions and route changes were proposed, rejected, accepted and ignored while funds were found, and construction began in 1898.
The Baker Street & Waterloo Railway opened on 10 March 1906. Trafalgar Square station was just north-west of Charing Cross mainline station; Embankment station was alongside the District Railway’s existing Charing Cross station, at this point 36 years old, just to confuse everybody. You could change between the two stations underground, but you were technically changing from Embankment station to Charing Cross station. Nice.
In the turn-of-the-century underground railway frenzy, another line was taking shape nearby
The Charing Cross, Euston & Hampstead Railway company was founded in 1891, and successfully put a bill to Parliament in 1893 to build a railway from Hampstead to Agar Street, by the Strand in front of Charing Cross mainline station (which, today, is just opposite that horrible single-storey Superdrug).
In 1902, the company proposed three new bills, applying for extensions in various directions. One of these was a short spur south of its approved Strand terminus to Victoria Embankment, to link up with the then-running District Railway station. Though the other two extensions were not approved, the Charing Cross, Euston and Hampstead Railway Act 1902 was passed, and construction started that July.
(As an important side note, a 1905 act gave the company permission to modify its route at Charing Cross, and tunnel directly under the front of the mainline station.)
David Lloyd George, already an MP for 17 years by this point, opened the railway on 22 June 1907. Its southern terminus was at what is today Charing Cross, and was then actually called Charing Cross, rather than at the Victoria Embankment, as had been allowed by the 1902 bill.
So at this point that we have one station with two names (Charing Cross and Embankment served by the ‘Bakerloo’ Railway and the District Railway at today’s Embankment station); another station with the same name as half of the other station (Charing Cross, served by the CCE&H Railway); and another station sitting on its own with a different name (Trafalgar Square, the Bakerloo Railway’s station one stop north of ‘Embankment’).
In 1910, the now-merged London Electric Railways company applied to restore the expired 1902 permission to extend what’s now the Charing Cross branch of the Northern line to the Embankment. A single tunnel would continue in a loop under the Thames, to a single platform allowing an interchange to the District Railway and the ‘Bakerloo’ railway. The permission was passed in 1911 and the extension opened on 6 April 1914. You can see the loop, which closed in 1925, on this map, where it’s marked as ‘Charing Cross loop’. It’s also the best map ever.
Following this extension, the deep-level platforms were called Charing Cross (Embankment) and the District Railway platforms were still called Charing Cross. In 1915, the whole station finally got one name.
It was Charing Cross.
This set off a whole chain of station renamings. The Bakerloo station to the north remained as Trafalgar Square, but the Charing Cross, Euston & Hampstead Railway station became Strand, and the Great Northern, Piccadilly and Brompton Railway (now the Piccadilly line) branch line terminus changed its name from Strand to Aldwych.
We have two very enjoyable cutaway diagrams from this point, which give you a sense of how what’s now Embankment station worked.
This arrangement of the three stations and their names – Trafalgar Square, Strand, and Charing Cross – remained in place for most of the 20th century.
In 1926, the Charing Cross, Euston & Hampstead Railway closed its tunnel loop and opened a second platform at what’s now Embankment and an extension to Kennington. That’s how it appears in the first diagrammatic (rather than geographical) Harry Beck map from 1933.
Enter stage right (or stage left if you’re from south of the river) the Fleet Line, which is what the Jubilee line was called before the Tories made a silly pledge in the 1977 Greater London Council elections to rename it in honour of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, and then went and won the things in a look-at-our-shiny-new-leader-Margaret-Thatcher jumbo swing of 14.5%.
Construction on its first phase began in 1971, with a terminus planned at Charing Cross – although the tunnels continued for a short stretch to pave the way for the second, third, and fourth phases, to Fenchurch Street, Lewisham, and Hayes respectively.
Strand station, on the Northern line, was closed in 1973 to make way for the construction of the terminus platforms and passenger detritus – which included below-ground passages to connect the Bakerloo line platforms at Trafalgar Square and the Northern line Strand platforms.
In August 1974, what was then Charing Cross station became Charing Cross Embankment, and when the Jubilee line opened and the Northern line station reopened, the complex we now know as Charing Cross became Charing Cross. In August 1976, the southern station became Embankment. Hence what you can see on the 1977 tube map from earlier on.
Understanding the Charing Cross Embankment problem
So to understand the problem with Charing Cross, it makes sense to think of it as being a bit like Green Park. There, the Piccadilly and Jubilee line platforms are miles away from each other – the corridor of death – and the Victoria line platforms sit roughly in the middle.
Imagine the Northern line platforms at the back right, running roughly north to south, and the Jubilee lines in the foreground, running roughly west to east. The long corridor just behind them dribbles off the page in the bottom left-hand corner, heading towards the Bakerloo line. That’s a long corridor.
But when the Jubilee line was extended in 1999, the Charing Cross Jubilee platforms were closed, and we were left with a really long tunnel between two stations that were never intended to be joined up.
Meanwhile, one station south, we’ve ended up with three deep-level platforms very close together and easy to change between (the Bakerloo’s two platforms and the Northern line’s northbound platform) and one slightly less convenient (the Northern line’s 1926 addition, the southbound platform). Oh, and the station’s only there at all because the 1860s constructors of the District Line couldn’t be bothered to tunnel to Charing Cross mainline station itself, so went for the easier, nearby-ish option.
So, what are the take-home lessons?
One is that the early days of the underground were a gaggling mess of private companies scrabbling around without much thought for long-term strategy.
The other is that if you find yourself compelled to change from the Bakerloo line southbound to the Northern line northbound, you’re better off doing it at Embankment than Charing Cross.
[Read more: Why we can’t speed up escalators to increase capacity]