There was time, not long ago, before the bombshell of Brexit and the bluster of “levelling up”, when London was recognised by governments of all persuasions for what it is – a global city economic powerhouse on which the entire United Kingdom depends. Few national politicians mention that these days, unless they’re Michael Gove taking a swing at Sadiq Khan. But in spite of everything, including Covid, London continues to grow, especially the eastern side of it. That’s why Stratford station needs a revamp.
Consider some large numbers. In 2006, after the Olympics bid was won but before the Westfield shopping centre was built, about 40 million “passenger movements” took place through the station, meaning flows in and out of and within it, from platform to platform and line to line: Underground, Overground-to-be, Docklands Light Railway, National Rail. In 2019, with the Games gloriously hosted, the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in legacy mode and the retail cathedral booming, that figure hit 128 million.
It dropped during the pandemic, but rose in relation to other big London stations, making it the busiest in the country for a spell. Now with Elizabeth line services too, it is still one of the busiest and in danger of bursting at the seams. If, like me, you frequently set off the Overground at Stratford you will be familiar with passenger tailbacks on the platform delaying your descent to the subway. Transport for London is predicting that passenger movements will have increased by 60 per cent by 2041 – or rather lack of passenger movements, because there simply won’t be room to move.
Plans for easing such discomfort have been the taking shape, the joint endeavour of Newham Council, Network Rail, TfL and the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC), custodian of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and its environs. The latter, as planning authority for the area, held a public consultation last October and the four partners’ outline business case, for national government attention, followed last month.
It presents three different options – “minimum”, “medium” and “significant”. The “minimum” is the cheap one, something Whitehall always likes to have these days. It would see the Elizabeth line platform widened and some control rooms moved around, making a bit more space inside the station’s confines without any wider redesign. It would help a bit, but not for long.
The other two options are more ambitious, combining larger station improvements with adjacent development which would help to pay for them. “Medium” includes a new bridge joining the Carpenters housing estate at the edge of the Park – a long-contested settlement that is finally to undergo a big regeneration – with Stratford town centre, augmenting what some call the “rusty bridge”, a pre-Games engineering feat and “street in the sky” which carries pedestrians between the old Stratford shopping centre, fronted by the gorgeous Stratford Shoal, and the new Stratford City across the ranks of railway tracks.
“Significant” is a perhaps self-effacing label for a still larger rejuvenation that also would see tracks and platform realigned and the Jubilee line decked over, creating space for a public realm solution to the site’s uncompromising fragmentation by road and rail infrastructure. The station’s southern ticket hall would be rebuilt and built on top of. There would be development upon, over and around the busy Stratford bus station and stand, opened in 1994. Designers 5th Studio argue that “infrastructure should be better integrated” into a coherent urban space that is agreeable to move around.
This scenario would produce up to 2,000 new homes, half of them affordable, along with commercial space. It would create potential for funding the station enhancements – a combination of selling land and retaining business rates would, the four partners hope, cover two-thirds of the ambitious station works costs, leaving a gap of perhaps £1 billion-plus for public funds to fill. That’s a lot of money, but a lot less than it could be for a project that aspires to addressing mayoral, borough and national goals all at once.
The London Plan sees Stratford, along with Old Oak Common, as a “reserve location” for Central Activities Zone office functions, supplementing the City, West End and Canary Wharf.
The partners are encouraged that two lobby groups, the Great Eastern Rail Campaign and the West Anglia Taskforce, are very interested in their work. Trains in and out of Stratford serve their areas, providing crucial links to London and interchange connections to Liverpool Street, Canary Wharf and, for that matter, 25 of the 32 boroughs. Stansted, City and Southend airports also come with its passenger orbit, as does freight heading for Felixstowe.
The Stratford hub’s international dimension is already apparent from the name of the Lendlease International Quarter London project (IQL), which stands between Westfield and the Park and, next to Stratford International station at the other end of Westfield, IQL North, where a Hadley Group scheme is evolving. The day may finally come when international trains actually stop at the international station. Conversations to that end are taking place.
Stratford first had a railway station in 1839, connecting the town to Hertfordshire. New buildings and new lines followed as East End industries migrated up the Lea Valley in what today might be called a start-up corridor. From 1903, the station was linked to the Monopoly board interchanges of Liverpool Street and Fenchurch Street and to suburbs to the east. The Central line arrived in 1946.
There was a post-war lull, when government policy was to discourage London’s growth: Sir Patrick Abercrombie, in his Greater London Plan, described the station and its environs as “beyond salvage, cluttered up with heavy industry, gasworks and a network of railway sidings”. Stratford became regarded by some local people as a locus of disrepute, as railway station neighbourhoods can be.
But as the end of the 20th Century neared, London began to grow again. Neither it nor Stratford station have stopped since. The DLR started there in 1987. The Jubilee line was extended there in 1999. The growth of the station and its web of connections has been astounding, a yardstick for the transformation of that part of London as a whole.
Upgrades were accelerated by the needs of the Olympics, described by the then TfL commissioner Peter Hendy, now Lord Hendy and chair of Network Rail, as “the first public transport games”. The combination of political willpower and negotiating skill that forced the pace of change on the bitterly dysfunctional developer consortium behind what eventually became Westfield is one of the most remarkable chapters of the Olympic Park story.
A drawback with these incremental upgrades has been to make change rather piecemeal within a constrained site. The new plans would seek to bring coherence. And they come at pivotal time for the area.
The planning powers of the LLDC, set up under the mayoralty of Boris Johnson, will, in December 2024, revert to the original four “Olympic boroughs” – Tower Hamlets, Waltham Forest, Hackney and Newham. The latter’s boundary takes in the largest amount of Park land, encompassing the London Stadium, home of West Ham United, and East Bank, the ambitious education and culture cluster, which will be the most substantial legacy of Johnson’s time as Mayor.
Part of its UCL East component, next to the London Aquatics Centre, is already open. The Marshgate section, on the other side of the Waterworks River beside the Orbit Tower, will officially open later this month. The new home of the London College of Fashion, part of the University of the Arts, London, will follow suit in November on East Bank’s Stratford Waterfront section. V&A East, Sadlers Wells and the BBC will follow. Separately, on the Stratford side, the MSG Globe music venue may rise.
Newham Council is less enthusiastic about that. But in May it celebrated work getting underway on a new entrance to the station from the Carpenters – all part of responding to the needs and aspirations of a fast-growing, young and largely low-income population. A whole new piece of London is continuing to form in part of the city devastated by post-war deindustrialisation. Stratford station is absolutely central to it. As options for changing it progress, getting left behind cannot be among them.