Clapham Junction has long held the reputation of being the busiest railway station in Britain – indeed, there are signs on the platforms stating so. It's not the busiest in terms of passenger numbers – Waterloo holds that particular claim to fame – but it is the busiest in terms of rail traffic. Apart from the Waterloo services, trains from Victoria – the third busiest station in the UK – pass through, along with trains from the West London line.
This week, however, a new distinction was conferred upon this writhing knot of steel and sleepers. It came second bottom on an official list of Britain's worst stations; identified as being in urgent need of cash to improve conditions and services for passengers.
The list was compiled by Chris Green, non-executive director of Network Rail, and the urban planning expert Sir Peter Hall who are advising the Government on station improvements and minimum standards. It has been put forward to Transport Secretary Lord Adonis, who said that following a recent national rail tour, he was shocked by the state of many stations. I suspect there speaks a man who normally travels by chauffeur-driven car.
I wouldn't quarrel with the findings. Clapham Junction must be a nightmare to negotiate for anyone who is disabled. Dropping off or picking up friends or family by car requires the skills of a getaway driver. Parents with pushchairs or small children, pregnant women and the elderly have to negotiate endless steps, while being buffeted by a Scylla and Charybdis of commuters rushing to and from the platforms.
But before everyone joins the chorus of what a terrible place it is, I'd like to state that I'm rather fond of Clapham Junction. It has possibilities – dozens of destinations. It offers alternatives if your normal route is subject to delay. If you can get to Clapham Junction, you can get almost anywhere in the British Isles. Or, in my case, home.
This is ironic because most people who use the station on a daily basis don't actually know where it is. They think it's in Clapham. Actually, it's in Battersea. When the station was opened in 1863 to accommodate a burgeoning rail network, the genteel village of Clapham, a mile to the east, had a much more attractive image than Battersea, which had a more, shall we say, industrial tradition. Clapham Junction was a name that would reassure the affluent middle-class clientele the railway companies were hoping to attract.
They'd be shocked if they could see it today. There are no flowers, no fresh green paint, no porters. There are loads and loads of trains, though – 110 per hour. Who needs a hanging basket when you can get to the flower market at New Covent Garden at a moment's notice? Who's bothered about a bit of peeling paint or a leaking roof when – whether you want the seaside, the City or the suburbs – there'll be a train along in a couple of minutes?
We should celebrate the fact that Clapham Junction manages to get what seems like half of London on its way to work every day without mishap, not carp because it hasn't won Britain in Bloom.
It's all very well having cycle parking (one of Lord Adonis's priorities, apparently: that'll come as good news for the disabled). Sure, most sensible people would like clean public loos, lifts and somewhere to get a hot drink. But what you really want from a railway station – and what Clapham Junction delivers with jaw-dropping efficiency – is a good rail service.