Eurostar trains are based at the wonderfully restored St Pancras station close to central London, but they nearly ended up in West London, at White City.

Planned to open in 1980, it obviously didn’t, so what went wrong?

Attempts to build a tunnel under the English Channel date back over 200 years, but the attempt that would have seen a terminus at White City owes its origins to an agreement in 1964 between Britain and France.

Announced by Mr Marples, the Minister of Transport on the 6th February 1964 following meetings with his counterpart in France, the tunnel was estimated to cost around £160-£170 million on then estimates.

“There are many problems to be solved, but in principle, we have decided it is a good thing,” the Minister told Parliament.

However, the date of starting construction, and indeed who would pay for it were still undecided. While generally presumed to be a state operation, there was a stock market listed company, the Channel Tunnel Company, which jumped on the news. That company had been formed in 1881 to built the first attempt under the sea and was still technically solvent. Somehow.

Although an agreement existed, it took a lot of negotiating to decide on the details.

There were competing lobby groups arguing for a railway, or a road, or both.

Survey works on the English side started in 1964 in advance of the final tunnel decision being made.

Finally, on 29th October 1966, the new British Transport Minister, Barbara Castle announced that the tunnel would be for railway traffic only, built mainly by private companies and would be completed in 1975 at a cost of around £170 million.

It took until November 1973 for the phase 1 plans to be agreed though, and construction work to create two tunnels designed to accommodate car shuttle wagons on either side of a service tunnel started on both sides of the Channel immediately. The opening date had been pushed back to 1980 though.

The cross-channel agreement only covered the tunnel under the sea and the coastal edges. It was up to each government to decide what to do with the railway once it was on land — the assumption being that they would run to the respective capital cities.

But where would the Channel Tunnel terminus in London end up?

After looking at 11 sites, a shortlist was drawn up of Victoria station in Central London, Surrey Docks in East London or White City in West London. Victoria was quickly dismissed from contention, leaving east and west London to battle it out for the Chunnel Terminal.

Surrey Docks

Although British Rail wasn’t keen, the Greater London Council (GLC) was strongly in favour of the Surrey Docks site, hoping that the arrival of the station would spur economic regeneration in an area blighted by the decline of the cargo docks.

The government was also less keen seeing better opportunities in West London, and in November 1972 the GLC published another paper supporting its preferred Surrey Docks site.

The difficulty is that Surrey Docks site was estimated to cost nearly double the cost of the White City location mainly due to the additional rail and road links that would need to be built to connect it to the rest of London, and as the land would need to be bought for the site (British Rail already owned the White City site).

It was also felt to be inferior for onward services beyond London, whereas the White City location already connected to mainline tracks to the north of England.

White City

This was the preferred site of both the government and British Rail, seeing it as cheaper than the others, and better connected for onward travel.

However, Ealing council were concerned about road traffic congestion, and argued for the Surrey Docks option, while also criticising the neighbouring Hammersmith council for supporting the White City location.

Nearby Kensington was also rather sniffy worrying about road traffic and rising house prices. John Tilly, a prospective MP for the area warned in 1972 that Kensington and Chelsea could become “a suburb of Paris and Brussels”, which sounds less a threat than rather appealing in fact.

However other voices were raised in support citing the construction jobs building the railway station, and the long term jobs from working there and in all the ancillary hotels and services that were expected to spring up in the area.

There was also support for the fact that although Victoria had been dismissed as a terminus, the route towards White City offered the option of a secondary terminus at Victoria at a later date.

A diversion – Covent Garden

One novel idea came from the Railway Development Association in the Autumn 1974 suggested building the terminus station right in the middle of London – at Covent Garden.

The “Europa” station would have been an underground station to be built beneath Covent Garden after the market moved to Nine Elms at the end of that year.

Beyond a short presentation, the plans didn’t go anywhere.

The decision

In the end, White City was chosen because British Rail already owned most of the land – being former sidings and good sheds, and its close proximity to the motorway and existing tube lines.

Government pressure finally silenced the GLC which kept lobbying for Surrey Docks even after the government announced its decision.

The station would have been a through station with the aim of allowing trains to pass through to the north of England — a plan similar to that was also included but never carried out with the current Eurostars.

A new tube station on the Hammersmith and City line would be added close to the Channel Tunnel terminus, along with a tunnel linking it with the existing Central line station at White City

The new railway would have come into London via a tunnel from South Croydon to Balham, emerging from the tunnel in the middle of Tooting Bec Common and there it would have joined the existing railway through Clapham Junction and up to White City on what is now part of the London Overground.

This route also gave them an option to run trains into Victoria station as well in the future.

Public concern about the high-speed trains was to be allayed by prepared comments that Intercity 125 trains tended to be quieter than the existing Southern trains along most of the route, and would only go at full speed in the tunnels, being limited to 50mph within central London.

These were to be replaced by the even quieter and faster Advanced Passenger Trains — which was to be as successful a prediction as were the plans for the White City terminus.

However, the turmoil of the 1974 elections in February and October caused delays in ratifying the bill, and although the government intended to proceed, the economic situation was looking grim.

As with most large projects, the prices had soared, from an initial estimate of £468 million to over £1 billion.

The British and French governments agreed to work on a slower and cheaper proposal, but contracts had already been signed and some construction work carried out. The companies proposed an alternative plan, the government disagreed, and on 1st January 1975, they issued a formal notice to the government of breach of contract.

On 20th January 1975, the British government cancelled the project.

Apart from the political ill will in France, the decision was also to cost the government some £40 million in compensation to the companies who had already started some of the construction works.

British Rail said in a statement that “We think this decision is a tragedy for both British Rail and the nation because it means we are losing a great opportunity”

When the Secretary of State for the Environment, Mr Crossland announced that the government was cancelling the project, he expressed hopes that as the UK grew richer on newly discovered North Sea oil, then maybe he would live to see the tunnel completed. He would have been 76 when that happened, but sadly he died suddenly in 1977 and never got to see his hope realised.

Sources:

Hansard

The Channel tunnel story

The Journal of the London Underground railway society, Issue 136

The Official History of Britain and the Channel Tunnel

Acton Gazette – Thursday 01 February 1973

Acton Gazette – Thursday 20 September 1973

Chelsea News and General Advertiser – Friday 01 December 1972

Kensington Post – Friday 08 December 1972

National Archives: AN 191/222

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5 comments
  1. Stephen Spark says:

    Fascinating – I vaguely remember this at the time (though I was just a schoolboy then) and somewhere in an old file I may even have newspaper cuttings about the scheme. My dad would have written about it for his magazine European Railways. Despite his interest, he was a sceptic and never believed the Channel Tunnel would be built, so was surprised to be proved wrong when it did finally open and was nable to sample it for himself. The last time we’d crossed the Channel in a railway carriage was on the late lamented Victoria-Paris Gare du Nord ‘Night Ferry’ service. Now that was an adventure…

    There was so much politics and old-fashioned thinking at the time. HM Customs wanted to force everyone off the train at Cheriton, walk through a customs hall with their bags to have them examined and then get back on again. It took years of lobbying to get them to change their mind – partly by people like my father showing them that trains crossed borders perfectly well on the Continent without the need for that sort of nonsense.

    In retrospect, it’s probably a good thing the White City site wasn’t chosen as it looks quite cramped and I think would quickly have become congested. The extra road traffic and consequent pollution it would have generated would have been appalling and the amount of parking space seems pitiful compared with modern road-rail interchange stations.

    As for sending Channel Tunnel trains through my home station of Balham and sacrificing a chunk of Tooting Bec Common, that clearly shows the planners’ remarkable optimism and/or their ignorance of local conditions. True, Balham is the Gateway to the South, but how you’d squeeze a new high(ish)-speed line into a narrow, elevated urban site like that is beyond me. Even before Balham’s late-80s gentrification the proposal would undoubtedly have met serious local resistance. A couple of years ago there was an outcry when Balhamites thought that Crossrail 2 would necessitate the demolition of Waitrose. Can you imagine – life wouldn’t be worth living if we couldn’t get our stuffed quails’ eggs! But CR2 is merely a chimera, and the quails’ egg supply is assured for the foreseeable future.

    I must rootle through the Channel Tunnel cuttings file and see what lurks therein.

  2. Al says:

    From the map of the proposed terminus at White City, it seems the site would have not completely butterflied away some version Westfield appearing in the south.

    Would question the value of the White City terminus on its own, yet under better circumstances it might have proved useful together with Stratford International (had the HS2-HS1 link at Camden been approved), along with the unbuilt King’s Cross Low Level site.

    Intrigued to know more about the proposed rejected terminus at Smithfield via Bishopsgate that was to either use part or all of the ELL as well as well the rejected terminus at Euston via either or both Victoria and London Bridge.

  3. Paul says:

    I’d be interested to know the views at that time of the two eventual stations (Waterloo and Kings Cross St Pancras), and any long term plans to extend HS1 / connect to HS2 (will the tracks be compatible?) to allow vehicles to board further north

    • JP says:

      I’d imagine that in those times the infamous irony of our continental cousins from France arriving at Waterloo tickled enough civil servant schoolboy funny bones to ensure that it actually went ahead in the future.

      Quite apart from it being on the more logical side of the capital than the present estimable terminus ~ even though that itself ruined a perfectly decent club space in the (beer)barrel vaults below St. Pancras, as long as you weren’t too wasted to avoid bashing your ed on a lovely cast iron pillar of course.

  4. Chris Rogers says:

    Fascinating; I knew about the abandoned tunnel itself but not the White City plans. An alternative history 1980s with APTs whilstling through W London and on to the continent… The model/s in that Pathe film are great, like something from Thunderbirds.

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