The North London Line (timetables here) is one of London’s marvelous oddities – it doesn’t go anywhere. Or at least not in the purposeful, busy sort of way that the main lines do. It sort of idly wanders through North London, going all the way from Kew by the river at the Western end to North Woolwich, also by the river, at the Eastern end. It doesn’t pretend to a giant Central London shed like the great 19th Century lines, all of which point urgently out into the provinces from their expensive land on the edge of the West End. It’s more modest. When I first lived on the North London Line (in West Hampstead), it was a very shabby affair – creaky slam-door trains, run down stations and never a ticket collector to be seen. Later Ken’s GLC annexed the line to his grand transport strategy – it even made it onto the tube map –?and then rail privatisation brought new trains and video cameras and a new name (Silverlink – everyone still calls it the North London Line).
The line still occasionally makes it into the news when nuclear waste is moved along it from the docks to a junction somewhere in North London for the journey to Sellafield but the big time was never really going to arrive. The North London Line is never grander than two tracks wide and the embankments and cuttings are so thickly lined with vegetation that you could easily be in the Cotswolds for most of its route – church spires glimpsed through trees, men leaning on shovels in their allotments – all observed at approximately walking pace. It’s this dilatory, not-at-all thrusting progress that always makes me wonder where passengers on the North London Line are actually going. I fantasise that they’re all flaneurs, poets (lots of them seem to be reading Blake, Auden) – or at least on their way to auditions. Of course, this is silly. They’re doing the same as me – going to work – but this is my reverie.
Anyway, to get to the point, standing on the platform at West Hampstead the other day – watching the guy who stands on the platform edge singing, as if the people waiting on the other platform were his audience – a train going in the opposite direction pulled in and I noticed that it had a name – one of those heavy-looking plaques (reserved, surely, for the grander cross country Express trains, not sliding door locals). The plaque said ‘Nikola Tesla’. For some reason I found this collision: electrical visionary – inventor and engineer of genuinely mythic stature (Google him if you don’t believe me) – and the ever-so-humble, hidden-away North London Line mind-blowing (I’ll leave the irony of the fact that the train carrying the name of this practically religious pioneer of alternating current is powered by direct current to someone who knows what they’re talking about). Whose idea was it? Are all the trains named after pioneers of electricity? Or famous Serbians? Or inventors? Did someone pay for the inscription? Did I imagine it? If I carried my camera around with me for the next five years would I ever see that train again? London still has the power to amaze.