Test your knowledge of London geography by seeing if you know roughly where Birkbeck is. » 5 points if you already know » 4 points if I have to tell you it's between Anerley and Elmers End » 3 points if I have to tell you it's between Crystal Palace and Beckenham » 2 points if I have to tell you it's between Croydon and Bromley » 1 point if I have to tell you it's in southeast London, zone 4 » 0 points if you actually live there, because that's too easy
It's not immediately obvious why Birkbeck station should have such a small number of passengers each year. Plenty of people live nearby. There are direct services to London Bridge. Two trains an hour stop here, in each direction. And yet a mere 35,368 people used the station in the last year for which data is available. That's 113 people a day, or about two people per train. Those figures don't sound too rockbottom to me, but they're low enough to dump Birkbeck right at the bottom of the usage heap.
It's a strange station, possibly unique in London, originally two platforms but now divided into separate halves by a fence between the tracks [photo]. The platform to the north serves Southern trains, in both directions, one way towards Beckenham Junction, the other Crystal Palace. Every half an hour a train heads one way, and every half hour the other, carefully timed so as not to crash headlong into one another. And they're eight carriages long, which might seem like overkill at such a lowly spot, but through traffic requires.
Meanwhile the opposite platform has been taken over by a completely different mode of transport - Croydon's Tramlink. Again there's two-way traffic, inbound and outbound in both directions, and again there's single track running. But this side of the station feels more in touch with the outside world, with its green-liveried shelter, and advertising, and rather more in the way of passenger traffic. Escape here for the Whitgift Centre and proper shopping aboard one of the regular gliding trams. A more attractive and more frequent service than waiting for infrequent Southern railstock opposite.
To cross between the platforms requires heading down a long flight of steps to the main road, passing under the bridge and up the other side. Down at pavement level there's a bike rack, if two places to leave a bike counts as a rack [photo]. There's also a schematic map of the station, not to scale, which shows the location of a since-removed ticket machine and whose author can't spell "cemetary". "Please ask a member of staff if you require any additional information", the map adds, but members of staff are entirely non-existent.
The National Rail half of the station may have very little in the way of facilities, but still boasts an unlikely circular plaque at the foot of the stairs which reads "Presented to Birkbeck for Five Star Achievement in the Experience Quality Improvement Process 2010". For those not in the know, this is a customer-focused Southern Railway initiative run by Service Quality Managers such as Emma and Debbie. Their role involves checking every station on the network four times a year to ensure it's up to scratch, not that any check here would take very long. Presumably Birkbeck's sparse platform passed with flying colours in 2010, but what went wrong in 2011, I wonder?
Alongside one side of the station is Beckenham Crematorium and Cemetery, a large expanse of higgledy headstones which stretches as far as the next tramstop down the line, while on the opposite side stood Grace's, now a closed-down pub. The catchment area includes the Birkbeck Estate, named after Dr George Birkbeck, the Yorkshire philanthropist, although you'll not find the university he founded anywhere close. Instead local businesses include the Beckenham Car & Van Centre and the Elmers End Supermarket, plus a bloke who sells funereal flowers from a trestle table. Birkbeck's most definitely not in the middle of nowhere, but the tram gets the passengers, and the National Rail station gets relative tumbleweed.