In Synecdoche New York, Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Caden Cotard, a director attempting to create a genuinely truthful piece of theatre. But the work never feels quite real enough for him: he spends so long adding more and more detail to his fictional world, that the project can never be finished.
I have a similar story to tell about an unfinished piece of train nerdery. The names of a city’s metro stops do much to shape our perceptions of a city – and it strikes me that there are many different systems for choosing those names. Some networks prefer to name them for streets, others for landmarks; others still favour districts. American cities generally opt for the drab and functional: others, like Paris, tend more towards the whimsical. London, awkward in this as in all things, has gone for a slightly messy mix.
So for some years now I’ve been toying with the idea of putting together a sort of taxonomy of metro station names, because it seemed like the sort of thing that you lot might read. But, there’s a problem: like Cotard, I keep spotting details that it feels dishonest to leave out.
There is an obvious difference between, say, Cannon Street and Paddington. But then, were they named after a street and a district – or were both actually named after the mainline stations which preceded them? Or consider the neighbouring stations of Borough and Elephant & Castle. Both seem to be named after districts – but while Borough was a place first, the use of Elephant for a stretch of south London has its origins in the station which took its name from a junction which took its name from a pub. So are these two really the same sort of name or not?
And then there’s the fact there really aren’t that many metro systems where I actually know all the names. London I know backwards of course, and I’m familiar enough with a few others (Paris, Manchester, NYC) to draw at least some conclusions.
But after that though I get hazy. I’ve been to Barcelona three times, but would struggle to name more than half a dozen stops on its metro without googling it – let alone tell you where all the names come from. Who knows what else there is out there in the big wide world that I’m missing?
So for a long time now – literally years – I’ve been putting off the moment I start writing. There is always some sub category I need to add, some detail I’ve missed. I’ve been failing to write this article since David Cameron was prime minister and the word Brexit was a joke.
Which is, quite obviously ridiculous.
So: I’m just going to do it. What follows is not, after all, a definitive attempt to produce a taxonomy, merely a sort of first draft. Please do write in with feedback – let me know what I got wrong, and what sorts of names and fine subdivisions I have missed. And definitely feel free to offer names from cities I may not even have considered, because I love this stuff and almost literally everything else going on in the world right now is awful.
Right. On with the show.
1. Place names
In a pattern that will swiftly become familiar, there are several different types of these. Sometimes they overlap – but it’s not always clear where.
Firstly, there are the names of quarters of the city that got attached to stations: Southwark, say, or Whitechapel. Then there are the names of whole settlements that were places in their own right but have since been swallowed: Uxbridge feels to me like a different sort of place to Holborn because it was a town, rather than just a corner of London. And it’s not always clear where the line is. What’s Westminster?
Then there are district names that came from the station, rather than the other way around. Waterloo is an area of South London named after the station named after a bridge which was named after a battle. So where would the name fit in our putative taxonomy? Or what about Angel, an area named for a station named for a pub?
I’m only one category through and already I’m getting a migraine.
I’ve never been wild about naming metro stations after streets, for reasons I’ve bored on about before. I can see why they’re popular – a station may not clearly belong to one specific district, or sit next to one obvious landmark, but there will always be a nearby street name to hand.
Nonetheless, it strikes me that there are two problems with using street names for stations. Firstly, not all streets are famous names, so the station name may not tell you anything about where in a city it is (Warren Street, to pick one, would be entirely obscure were it not for the tube station).
Secondly, a street is a line, not a point, and some streets will be served by multiple stations – so calling just one of the four stations on Holloway Road “Holloway Road” doesn’t feel very useful. Then again, calling three different stations on the Chicago L network “Chicago” on the grounds that they serve different bits of Chicago Avenue doesn’t feel very useful either.
Chicago station, Chicago. Not to be confused with Chicago or Chicago. Image: Graham Garfield/Wikimedia Commons.
Street-based names are stupid, is what I’m saying here.
Anyway, we’re stuck with them, so here are some different sub-categories. There are stations named after squares (Russell Square, St Peter’s Square). There are stations named after junctions: Oxford Circus is one of those; so are 14th St-Union Square and Réaumur-Sébastopol. Those avoid the problems I was bitching about above, because they refer to points rather than lines.
Then there are stations named after the street they sit on (Cannon Street); and – this feels subtly different to me – stations named after the street the line happens to be crossing at that point (let’s say, Baker Street). Something like Warren Street could be in either group.
Stations named after cross streets are particularly prevalent in cities with grid systems. This makes some sense – if you know you’re on the Lexington Avenue line, then knowing that the train is just crossing 86th Street does actually tell you how far up Manhattan you are. But this system is also responsible for absurdities like Tottenham Court Road or those three Chicago stations, so I’m sticking to my belief that anywhere outside Manhattan it’s a stupid system.
So, anyway, moving on.
London, famously, has five tube stations named after pubs (Angel, Elephant & Castle, Manor House, Royal Oak, Swiss Cottage). It also has stations named after parks (Regent’s Park), cathedrals (St Paul’s), docks (West India Quay), government buildings (Mansion House and, if you squint, Bank), and long demolished gates in its long demolished walls (Moorgate, Aldgate).
You can find most of these in other cities. New York has Borough Hall in Brooklyn. In Manchester you’ll find Abraham Moss, which is named after a school named after a person. Paris and Brussels both have stations named Bourse, the continental name for the stock market. Barcelona has Ciutadella–Vila Olímpica which is named after the Parc de la Ciutadella, and the Vila Olímpica, which probably don’t take much explaining. (I was also going to accuse it of having Jaume I, named after a statue of a king, but it turns out it’s just named after a street named after a king which is much less interesting.)
Anyway, there’s loads of these, but all the ones I can think of fall into the same basic patterns, so let’s jump on to:
4. Bigger stations
Most cities have mainline railway termini, which are served by their metro networks. I’ve covered this before, and can’t be bothered doing it again. The only interesting points I can think of as they relate to metro systems is:
Some metro stations serve more than one main line station (Kings Cross St Pancras);
Some cities end up including other things in their metro station names other than the mainline station itself (Grand Central-42nd Street; Montparnasse–Bienvenüe);
Some cities use the word for railway station in the names of their metro stations to communicate the fact that the metro station serves a specific railway station, in a way that would feel bloody weird in British usage (Gare du Nord in Paris, Sants Estació in Barcelona).
Occasionally a metro station does more than one of these things, like 34th Street–Penn Station. The more you know.
5. Commemorative names
There are ostensibly loads of these in Paris. Stalingrad, for example, or Franklin D. Roosevelt, or George V.
All of these admittedly share their names with streets – but those streets were actually renamed at the same time and for the same purpose as the station. So I think we can think of the stations as named to commemorate a person or event, rather than after the street.
Stalingrad station, Paris. Image: Pline/Wikimedia Commons.
It’s a similar story with one of my favourite Paris Metro names (yes, I have a favourite, so sue me). Fulgence Bienvenüe was a late 19th century civil engineer, responsible for the construction of much of the original metro system. In 1933, to commemorate his work as the father of the metro, both Avenue du Maine station and a nearby street were renamed Bienvenüe in his honour. A few years later the station was connected with another nearby to form the aforementioned Montparnasse–Bienvenüe.
I’m sure there are loads of examples of stations named in this way from cities other than Paris, but the only one I can think of right now is not a metro station at all: Edinburgh Waverley, which is named after some novels by Sir Walter Scott. If you can think of others, please do write in.
6. Cash money
On Dubai’s fledgling metro system, you’ll find such stops as Nakheel, DAMAC Properties and Emirates. These are the results of a 2008 scheme in which the metro auctioned 19 of its station names, raising itself DH1.8bn. The ugly DAMAC Properties was previously the more geographic and explicable Dubai Marina.
London experimented with this in the dark days of the Boris Johnson era. Its cable car is the Emirates Airline; its two stops are named Emirates Greenwich Peninsula and Emirates Royal Docks, even though those two termini sit next to North Greenwich tube and Royal Victoria DLR station respectively.
This is horrible and we shouldn’t do any more of it.
On modifiers, and other thoughts
A lot of cities lumber individual stations with more than one name. We’ve already seen a couple of examples from Paris (Montparnasse–Bienvenüe, Réaumur-Sébastopol) and New York (14th St-Union Square). Manchester has Deansgate-Castlefield. In London, we have a few of these, but don’t go in for the dash, instead opting either for the ampersand (Caledonian Road & Barnsbury, Finchley Road & Frognal) or nothing at all (Kings Cross St Pancras).
Deansgate-Castlefield, Manchester. Image: Zack Hallam/Wikimedia Commons.
I may be misreading this, but my sense is that London is also bigger on modifiers than many other cities: Ruislip Gardens, Dagenham Heathway, Hackney Downs and so on. Acton famously – for a certain value of famous – has stations named for every point of the compass, plus a Central, a Town and a Main Line.
It also feels to me that there’s a difference between putting the compass point before and after a place: West Hampstead is a place in its own right, Dagenham East is just the eastern bit of Dagenham. That said, East and West Croydon totally bugger this model up – they’re really just the eastern and western stations in the town centre – even though South Croydon is a place in its own right. (There is no North Croydon, thankfully.) So maybe I’m talking shite again.
Anyway, if the three Chicago Chicago stations adopted this system, or at least added the name of another nearby street to distinguish them from one another, that might be in some way kind of useful, don’t you think?
One last thought. I said at the start that some systems had much more whimsical names than others. I was mostly thinking of Paris, and I stand by that.
But something I’ve realised in the writing of this is – a lot of Paris’ station names are really just street names, with the “Rue de” or “Place” bits knocked off. Les Gobelines sounds much more poetic than Avenue des Gobelins; Poissonnière better than Rue du Faubourg Poissonnière.
London has done this a little on the DLR, where you’ll find East India, Cyprus and Royal Albert, and very nice those names are too. But then again, while Holloway or Caledonian would work, stations called Baker or Bond would sound stupid in London, so.
I’m going to stop there. I’m aware I’ve only referenced half a dozen cities here, and focused heavily on London and Paris. So what have I missed? What other sources have cities found for station names?
Do write in, if you want to encourage this madness.
Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.
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