May 14, 1999. Mean anything to you? Next time you travel in and out of North Greenwich station, take a peek at the plaque on the wall. The Jubilee Line extension is 10 years old today. Now overcrowded and struggling to cope with the huge expansion at Canary Wharf in that time, it feels as if it’s been with us forever, like an unsightly mole. But the recent series of closures (to upgrade the signalling) have showed just how vital the line has become to this part of south-east London – for having to rely on mainline trains, and their absurdly early close-down times, feels like being grounded by an angry parent for something you haven’t done.
To make matters worse, the mainline trains were being run by Connex at the time and were woefully unreliable – a matter only fixed when the government belatedly took its franchise away four years later and it was run by state-backed troubleshooters for a time. I lived in Greenwich at the time, and immediately switched to the Jubilee Line, for even though going via Stratford (the link via central London hadn’t been opened yet) would add a few minutes to my journey, it was pretty much reliable in those very early days. In fact, I often used to travel to work via the East End anyway – 108 bus through the tunnel, Tube from Bromley-by-Bow.
But then one day the 108 was diverted to run via the building site which was the Millennium Dome and North Greenwich station, and for months passengers wasted time on a pointless diversion past a stop they weren’t allowed to get off at. It was a frustrating time – with the trains often packed up, the alternative route was now being toyed with just to suit a big government building site. Finally, things changed and we were allowed to see just what was inside this mysterious glass building next to the Dome.
Do I remember my first time? Of course I do. The line opened with little fanfare on a Friday afternoon – so I travelled home from work via Stratford. There were only a few genuine commuters on that first run – plenty were just transport enthusiasts and curious locals, riding up and down the line. I still remember my first impression of North Greenwich station – like an aquarium. Not just because most people were looking around, open-mouthed, at this huge cavernous space that’d been built under our noses, but its deep blue tiles made me think it was just like a giant fish tank. The futuristic design blended with optimism about the impending millennium – and the changes the Dome was supposed to bring to the area – to create a feeling that finally, we’d been put on the map, and moaning about transport was going to be a thing of the past.
The novelty of getting from Stratford to Greenwich in just a few minutes didn’t seem to wear off for months. The line was open for the weekend to allow people to take a look, then it resumed a daytime-only, weekday-only, North Greenwich to Stratford shuttle for a couple of months. It seemed a bit odd rushing back to Stratford for a last train which departed around 8pm.
Gradually, during 1999, the line was extended. First to Bermondsey, allowing us to see the extension’s other mega-station at Canary Wharf. Buses started to be extended to serve the new Tube. And the question kept being asked. Will it be open in time for the millennium? It finally was – a few weeks before Christmas, the two ends of the Jubilee were joined up, the old Charing Cross terminal was closed and once Westminster station belatedly opened, the line as we know it was with us.
That first year of the full extension provided the easiest commuting experiences of my life – with frequent, fast buses laid on from Charlton station to the Dome, it was easy to tumble out of bed, get on a bus, and five minutes later be sat in a seat on the Tube. The line wasn’t always reliable – I clocked up about £60 in refunds and had to learn the manual way to open the platform doors. But it was still better than being mucked around by Connex, and at least the Underground said sorry. The queues for the M1 bus, with their “welcome to the Millennium Transit service, route M1 – the next stop is at the Dome” announcements, snaked past Charlton station – the buses were a flop in terms of getting visitors to the Dome, but a success in aiding commuters.
But then, after that, it all went downhill. Under pressure from the press, who mocked it as a “ghost bus”, the M1 was withdrawn, despite the thousands of passengers who politely lined up to get on the buses. The replacement, route 486, was inadequate even for the numbers who used it from Charlton, never mind those getting on nearer Shooters Hill and Welling. Even now, there isn’t enough capacity on buses from Charlton to North Greenwich. Using the Jubilee Line extension to get to work became a stressful experience. Getting home was even worse. After about a year, I gave up and returned to using the trains. I wasn’t the only one.
Outside the rush hours, though, the Jubilee Line has given this part of south-east London greater freedom, transforming the quality of many people’s lives. Suddenly a part of London has been invented in many people’s minds called “North Greenwich” (strictly speaking, that’s an archaic name of the tip of the Isle of Dogs – the peninsula was home to East Greenwich Gas Works). No more milling around Charing Cross station, or trying to predict how long a train will be on the windswept platforms of London Bridge, or racing up escalators and vaulting ticket gates to make a “late” train at 11.40pm. And it continues to get busier. In 2003, 7.3 million journeys started or ended at North Greenwich. Last year, that figure was 17.7 million. And that figure can still only grow. Keeping up with that demand – even with new signals which should allow for more frequent trains – is going to be a challenge. It could be a bumpier ride yet.
Want to see what’s inside the old Charing Cross station? Here’s a series of Flickr photos taken last month…