diamond geezer

 Thursday, July 25, 2013

VICTORIA: Underground overground

Passengers on the Victoria line travel entirely underground, because that's where all the stations are. From Brixton to Walthamstow Central, not a chink of daylight is visible from any platform or train. But the trains do run overground, if you know where to look, should you ever want to see them on terra firma. The reason for their emergence is because every line needs a depot, somewhere for trains to be stabled and repaired, and when you have four dozen trains that can't be below ground. Instead the depot was slotted in beside the Lea Valley railway line, close to Northumberland Park, just across from the reservoirs. Additional tunnels were dug from Seven Sisters, bypassing Tottenham Hale and the eastern end of the line, and it's from here that Victoria line trains enter and exit the system.

Seven Sisters has a "secret platform" from which no passenger train ever departs. If your northbound train terminates at Seven Sisters you'll alight here on platform 4 before your empty train rattles on into the tunnel. It could then reverse back and head southbound, or more likely it'll continue onwards quite some distance before emerging above ground alongside the Lee Valley Technopark. Ordinary passengers can't stay aboard, but members of Victoria line staff are allowed to use these trains from platform 4 at Seven Sisters to get to the depot. They look out for the special diamond on the display panel on the side of the train, hop aboard and are shuttled ahead to Northumberland Park for their next shift, or whatever. If this mysterious service intrigues you, please go away now and read The Secret Life of Seven Sisters over at London Reconnections. I'll wait here until you get back (and it's 2500 words long, so you could be some time).

Alighting at Northumberland Park station isn't the best way to see the Northumberland Park depot, not unless you have a staff pass and can enter through the front gates. They're hidden up a dull dead end lined by car parks, enlivened only by a very lovely flower bed at the far end, from which only the walls of the depot can be seen. To see the trains it could be quite a hike out towards Tottenham Marshes, or else take the 192 bus a couple of stops north from Tottenham Hale. This will deposit you at a lonely bus stop called, promisingly, Northumberland Park Rail Depot, whose presence is the only likely reason for getting off here. Look, there it is through the railings. This is the home of the lesser spotted Victoria line train, indeed barely spotted above ground at all. An arc of railway tracks fans out towards a massive blue shed, one of two on the site, this with parallel openings numbered to at least 47. There might be lots of red-fronted trains inside, or the majority might be out doing their thing. A tall white chimney rises up from the trackside, and the occasional empty service rumbles in and out.

But that's not the best vantage point. A few steps away is a footbridge, one of the few means of crossing the tracks in these parts. It's clearly a lowbrow hotspot, judging by the number of discarded lager cans, plus (when I was there) a completely out-of-place cuddly elephant abandoned at the foot of the steps. Climb to the top and you can stare down over the tracks and watch the activity... but only if you're a likes-trains sort of person, otherwise there's no reason to be here at all. Every few minutes a train will exit the shed and edge its way towards a gantry, awaiting the signal to proceed. Then it'll pass on and wait again, if you turn and look through the grating on the other side of the bridge. And finally it'll get the signal to descend into the depths, run down to Seven Sisters and join the other trains providing a public service.

If there's another train coming out, returning to the depot at the end of a shift, you might get to see a rare sight - two Victoria line trains on opposite tracks, one with halogen white lamps at the front, the other with red lights at the rear. It may be hard to poke your camera through the fence, what with the protective wire gauze being rather close-knit. But like I said, if trains do nothing for you, stay away, else the occasional passing local will give you such a hard stare. Proper enthusiasts should note that there's another footbridge a short distance down the line, this with a better view of the subterranean portal. A very gentle slope leads down beneath a concrete viaduct, this carrying a nearby road inelegantly above the tracks. Come at the right time on a weekday and there'll be a couple of trains queueing to slip back into the system, to add capacity or to provide relief. One last chance for the driver to catch a glimpse of daylight, before re-entering the artificial world of London-under-ground.

This vantage point is well connected for the middle of industrial nowhere, with a subway running beneath the tracks linking exactly the same points as the footbridge above. Indeed this is probably the only place in London where you can stand both above and below a Victoria line train, obviously not simultaneously, but close enough. If that last sentence gave you a frisson of excitement, you're probably exactly the sort of person who'd enjoy a trip out to this lonely spot. It's not an attractive location otherwise. Dirty mattresses and charred remains in the undergrowth suggest that the adjacent footway is used regularly as an overnighter for the homeless. Sleep here and you'd be well out of the way of passing pedestrians during the hours of darkness, but the whining of the trains would pause for only brief respite during the early hours of the morning.

If all that staring at trains has made you want to ride one, follow the subway to the east out to the wilds of Clendish Marsh. This is a delightful spot with several acres of long grass dotted with wild flowers (or at least it is at the moment, I can't vouch for February). The first river you meet isn't the Lea, it's the Pymmes Brook, which runs in close parallel for about a mile preventing pedestrian access to its more important sibling. That comes only at Tottenham Lock on Ferry Lane, at which point trainspotters should turn right and approach the bowels of Tottenham Hale station. You won't see here any of the trains you've just seen overground - they enter the network one stop down. But ride to Seven Sisters and wait on platform 5 until a completely empty train arrives, and now you're one of the few who's in on the secret of where it's just been.

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