London has seen some very strange trains over the years; a good example- which I explored in my last article– being the two Necropolis railways which once operated from King’s Cross and Waterloo.
Although the idea of funerals being conducted by rail is a fascinating one it is also, let’s be honest, pretty morbid too! To lighten the mood therefore, I thought it would be fun to countdown what I believe to be London’s 20 quirkiest railways!
If you’d like to discover more about the strange trains in this list, please be sure to watch my two YouTube documentaries, which explore each of these oddities in more depth.
20. The Travelling Tavern
In the late 1940s and early ’50s, it was possible to ride on a pub train! Eight of these cars, each of which were given traditional tavern names, were built.
The first pub-carriage was displayed at Waterloo station in 1949 and, although initially popular, complaints soon began to arise concerning feelings of nausea whilst riding on them due to the lack of windows (nothing to do with the booze I’m sure…)
19. The Scrubber
In its earliest days, the London Underground was operated by steam locomotives.
Unsurprisingly, all of that soot and smoke meant the tunnels languished in a filthy state, so what better to clean them than a flatbed truck equipped with a huge scrubbing brush?
The innovative cleaning device is pictured here in 1905, taking care of the District Railway (now the District line).
18. The Class 4DD Double Decker
Although common in many parts of the world, double decked trains have never caught on in the UK, largely due to the Victorian infrastructure having lots of low bridges and narrow tunnels.
In 1949 however, an attempt was made to introduce double deckers to the British network.
The Class 4DDs as they were known ran between Charing Cross and Dartford and, despite complaints that they were cramped and stuffy, remained in service until the autumn of 1970.
17. The Tower Subway
Opened in 1870, the cable-hauled Tower Subway, which ran beneath the Thames, was essentially the world’s first deep-level tube line.
Despite being a pioneer, financial issues meant the subway was very short-lived, and it was shut down within a year. It was then converted into a pedestrian tunnel which, in turn, was closed in the 1890s.
16. The City & South London Railway
Two decades after the Tower Subway came the City and South London Railway which was the world’s first truly deep-level underground line. Powered by electricity, it ran between Stockwell and the now defunct King William Street Station.
The locomotives and carriages used on it looked very different to the tube train designs that would follow…
15. The Vista Carriage
In 1949, London Underground created a prototype carriage known as the ‘Vista’, which had larger windows (to give those standing a view) and portholes.
14. The Royal Arsenal Railway
Once the most intricate and densely packed railway network in Britain, this system- which began to develop in the 19th century- served the huge Royal Arsenal complex at Woolwich.
A mixture of different gauges were used to haul both freight and workers, and the railway remained in service until the 1960s.
13. The Post Office Railway
For many years the Royal Mail operated their own tube line, which whisked mail along a route between Whitechapel and Paddington.
At its height, this clever system- which was fully automated- carried several million items over the course of every 22 hour working day.
Although the Mail Rail closed in 2003, a section of it is now open to the public at Mount Pleasant’s wonderful Postal Museum.
12. The Red Route
In 1911, the Festival of Empire was held in the grounds of the Crystal Palace.
This bombastic event was served by its own electric railway: The Red Route, which wound its away around the exhibits.
11. The South Acton Shuttle
The South Acton Shuttle was a single carriage which ran back and forth between Acton Town and South Acton, in the days when the latter station was a short outpost of the District line.
So short was the route, it was said that it was possible to boil a kettle (for tea, naturally) in the time it took the train to complete a circuit!
10. The 1986 Tube Stock
In 1986, London Underground were looking for a new train design to run on the Central line. Three working prototypes were built, colour coded red, green and blue.
These three potential models ran sporadically on the Jubilee line, during which time the public were asked for their opinion. The blue tube won, and would go on to form the basis of the 1992 stock.
The red and blue models have since been scrapped, although the minty-green coloured carriage can now be seen in the London Transport Museum’s superb Acton Depot.
9. Barnet's little tram
In his back garden in Barnet in the late 1940s, engineer and light-rail enthusiast, Claude Lane built his very own compact tram network which the public flocked to see… It was so successful in fact, that Claude would later go on to build mini-tram systems in Eastbourne, Rhyl and Devon.
8. Wembley's Road Rail & Never Stop Railway
Similar to the earlier Festival of Empire, the British Empire Exhibition, which was held at Wembley between 1924 and 1925, boasted its own railway network.
This incorporated two systems: a collection of ‘Road-Rail’ trains, and the curious ‘Never-Stop’ which, as the name suggests, always kept rolling- even at stations (albeit at a far slower pace).
7. Waterloo's Concourse Track
For many years, the South Western and South Eastern Railway companies were physically connected via an unusual line which was routed directly across Waterloo station’s pedestrian concourse.
If you’d like to find out more about this health and safety nightmare, be sure to check out my upcoming book: Waterloo Station: A History of London’s Busiest Terminus!
6. The Crystal Palace Atmospheric Railway
The Crystal Palace Atmospheric Railway was an experimental system which used air pressure to blast a single carriage along a short tunnel.
Although popular, it was only in service for a short time and its existence has given rise to a creepy urban legend, which claims the carriage was buried beneath the park- complete with its load of Victorian passengers!
5. Prosser's Wooden System
Building railways is an expensive business; largely due to the amount of metal required to forge the lines.
In the 1840s, an engineer named William Prosser came up with what he believed would be a cheaper solution: wooden railway tracks!
His system was tested on an experimental track, laid on Wimbledon Common. One reporter wasn’t too impressed, claiming the experience was extremely bouncy and uncomfortable.
Prosser’s system ended up seeing use thousands of miles away- on New Zealand’s Southland Railway in the 1860s.
4. The Far Tottering & Oyster Creek Branch Railway
Designed to reflect British eccentricity, the Far Tottering & Oyster Creek Branch Railway ran in Battersea Park during 1951’s Festival of Britain.
Three engines operated on the line- Nellie, which resembled a tank engine, Neptune which was made to look like a paddle-steamer, and Wild Goose which was inspired by air-ship design.
3. The Lartigue Monorail at Tothill
Named after its inventor, Charles Lartigue, the Lartigue Single Rail system was one of the strangest railway designs ever conceived.
It was essentially an early monorail, designed to cope with difficult terrain such as that found in hilly areas and mines.
In the late 1880s, a demonstration track was built at Westminster’s Tothill Fields (close to Victoria Station), which the public could pay 1 shilling to view and ride.
The most famous example of a Lartigue Railway, which was located in Kerry, Ireland, opened shortly after the Westminster display. Today it is a popular tourist attraction.
2. The Royal Travelling Lounge
When it first opened in December 1904, Covent Garden’s Coliseum Theatre contained a very strange train indeed- a single carriage known as ‘The Royal Travelling Lounge’ (and also The King’s Car) which was electrically powered, and ran from the street entrance, through the foyer and onto the Royal box.
As you can imagine, it was strictly for VIPs only. Unfortunately though it broke down on its maiden voyage, leading its passenger- King Edward VII- to joke that he’d prefer to walk anyway!
The theatre’s internal railway was decommissioned soon after, and the carriage transferred to the Stoll Theatre on Kingsway- which was demolished in the late 1950s.
1. The Impulsoria
No, your eyes are not deceiving you: that really is a locomotive powered by horses on a treadmill!
The Impulsoria as it was known as designed as a cheaper option to steam, and was trialled at the huge Nine Elms depot (which sprawled between Vauxhall and Battersea) in the summer of 1850. It was then displayed the following year at the Great Exhibition.
Funnily enough though, it never caught on…