Between 1st April 2019 and 31st March 2020, Gatwick Airport made the list of the top twenty busiest stations in Great Britain, having taken the final place with an estimated 21,050,640 passenger entries/exits during that period. The London terminal with which the airport enjoys an excellent series of direct services, Victoria, was the country’s second busiest station over the same period, an estimated 73,559,158 entries/exits being made. Linking both stations is one of the most intensively-worked stretches of main line in the country. To cope with ever-burgeoning trains of airline passengers (at least pre-pandemic) to and from the country’s second busiest airport, a long overdue upgrade of the station at Gatwick commenced in May 2020. A new high-level concourse, widened platforms, additional lift shafts, more escalators, and improved circulation room will hopefully make the station more suited to 21st Century traffic levels. The new works will indeed add to an already motley collection of structures which have emerged over the platforms in decades gone by, some of which date back to the opening of the station in 1958.
The first station within the area today known as Gatwick was commissioned as far back as 1891 to serve a racecourse. In spring 1890, it was announced in the press that a racecourse at Gatwick would replace an existing track at Croydon:
The layout here was extensive: two island platforms, about 560-feet-long, were separated by four tracks; a fifth platform face was evident on the station’s western side and was separated from the adjacent island by a single track. A pair of lattice footbridges linked the two islands and side platform and, as noted in the article extract above, period maps show four distinct walkways leading from the station to the Grand Stand. A pair of signal boxes were located on the eastern side of the line, one positioned beyond the northern limits of the platforms, the second to the south of the site. Today’s Gatwick Airport station partially stands on the site of these platforms.
In 1905, quadrupling of the Brighton Main Line, which sought to provide four tracks from the capital to as far south as Balcome Tunnel in Sussex, was finalised with contractors. The opening of the double-track “Quarry Line” between Coulsdon and Earlswood on 8th February 1899, initially to freight traffic only, had set the ball rolling on widening the main line. The contract to convert that section between Earlswood and Three Bridges was awarded to “Thomas Oliver and Son” of Victoria Street, Westminster, in 1905, and involved alterations to the then comparatively recent station at Gatwick. The revised station retained two island platforms, but these were separated from each other by two, rather than four, tracks. A fifth platform face on the western side of the station, as per the 1891 site, remained a feature, but two tracks now separated this from the adjacent island platform. Two footbridges continued to link all platforms, but a signal box emerged upon the lower half of the reconstructed western island platform. The signal box replaced the previous pair of cabins opened with the 1891 station; it comprised an unusually tall and slim brick base, upon which sat the timber cabin with gabled slated roof, taking it to a height of three storeys. It is likely that such a high structure was required to afford a clear view over both footbridges which sat north of the cabin. The quadrupling works to Three Bridges were completed in 1907 and, as per the 1891 platforms, the revised Gatwick station completely lacked canopies.
The revised layout from 1907 included extensive rolling stock sidings south of the platforms. Click the above for a larger version.
© David Glasspool
The earliest reference your author can find to a “Gatwick Aerodrome”, the predecessor to today’s airport, is from October 1930, when the inaugural meeting of the flying club was mentioned in the press:
The Mayor announced that an invitation had been received for members of the Corporation [Reigate Town Council] to attend the inaugural meeting of Gatwick Aerodrome on Saturday, October 4th. [Surrey Mirror and County Post, Friday, 3rd October 1930]
This was no ordinary meeting; rather, it was an airshow (or, to use the period term, “air pageant”), which involved stunt flying, parachute drops, and flypasts by then modern aircraft. The aerodrome resided on the western side of the Brighton Main Line, about 800-yards south of the racecourse’s southern border, and at that stage was home to a private flying club.
In October 1929, the SR announced plans to electrify the Brighton Main Line on the 660 volts DC third rail system, in addition to the stretch westwards from that town to Worthing, and to Reigate. In the Daily Mirror on Monday, 19th January 1931, the cost of the works was stated to be £2,770,660, exclusive of new or converted rolling stock, and covered 52-track miles. Work commenced in that year and the first scheduled electric passenger services started to run as far south as Three Bridges from 17th July 1932. On 5th of the previous month, three-aspect colour light signalling had come into use between Coulsdon North, on the Quarry Line, and Balcombe Tunnel Junction (31¾-miles from London Bridge), and in stages was completed through to Brighton, the last section between the latter and Preston Park coming into use on 16th October 1932. From Coulsdon North to Norwood Junction, and between Coulsdon South and Earlswood, semaphores were retained, and the accelerated electric timetable came into use on the full length of the Brighton Main Line on 1st January 1933. This was the first main line in the country to be electrified and at the time comprised the longest continuous stretch of colour light signalling in the world.
During the Brighton electrification works, an electricity substation was built on the eastern side of Gatwick station. This was of the all-concrete type, built to the same design as that still in evidence today at Chelsfield.
This view depicting the then new terminal building, located on the western side of the tracks, was taken from a train approaching platform 2 upon what was once the "up" local line. The latter had been resignalled for reversible running as part of the station reconstruction; the replacement "up" local line is on the left, serving platform 1. Underneath the terminal building can be seen the A23, then called "Brighton Road", but today named "London Road".
© David Glasspool Collection
2nd September 1970
We're coming into land, looking south towards Three Bridges, and in the right background can be seen the original Gatwick Airport site, complete with "Beehive" terminal in the corner of the photograph. By that time the site was known as "Gatwick Airport South", even though it was completely cut-off from the 1958 airport by roads and had no access to the runway. The kink in the tracks in the distance marks the site of the then closed Gatwick Airport station (formerly Tinsley Green) of 1935, the platforms of which were still in existence at that time. An Electro-Diesel (later Class 73) in "Electric Blue" livery can be seen proceeding north on the "up" local line with four vans in tow, whilst in the adjacent siding are stabled two 4-SUB units. The outer pairs of sidings on each side of the main line were not electrified.
© David Glasspool Collection