Tunnel visionaries: how the Victorians transformed public transport

Yet every line, and every station, has its own particular identity. The Northern Line is intense and moody, while the Central Line is filled with purpose and energy. The Circle Line is adventurous and breezy, while the Bakerloo Line is disconsolate and brooding. The sorrows of Lancaster Gate are preceded by the liveliness of Notting Hill Gate, while the comfort of Sloane Square is followed by the brisk anonymity of Victoria. Underground trains have a different tone, and atmosphere, at distinct times of day. In the afternoon, for example, when “everyone else” is at work they become more seductive and luxuriant places redolent of ease or even indolence. In the late evening they become more sinister, a haven for the drunk or the mad. Peter Ackroyd, London Under

The London Underground is 150 years old. In 1863 the United States was still in the throes of a horse-drawn civil war. Germany hadn’t been created, nor was Italy unified. Another 13 years would pass before Sitting Bull defeated Custer at the Battle of Little Big Horn. And Paris would have to wait another 37 years before it had its own underground. The London Underground may not be the best in the world now, and it is said to be the most expensive in the world, but we shouldn’t take anything away from the Victorians for their incredible feat of engineering.

The London Underground has become a symbol of the capital, a part of popular culture. In Alfred Hitchcock’s first feature, the 1926 film The Lodger, he makes a cameo appearance as a passenger on a tube train. In Keith Lowe’s novel Tunnel Vision, a young man has to travel through every Underground station in nineteen hours for a bizarre bet. In Down in the Tube Station at Midnight Paul Weller is assaulted by some men whose breath exuded an aroma of drinking establishments, a certain penal institution and fascistic political groupings. According to Otto (Kevin Kline) in the movie A Fish Called Wanda, the London Underground is a political movement.

It was in 1845 that Charles Pearson, Solicitor to the City of London, began championing the idea of an underground railway to bring passengers and freight services into the centre of the city. Less than twenty years later, on 9 January 1863, the first train pulled out of London’s Paddington Station for the five kilometre underground journey to Farringdon Street. Originally steam trains were used to pull the carriages.

The great and the good, the 700 dignitaries gathered at Paddington for the opening ceremony, were driven through the tunnels in a succession of trains. When they eventually emerged into the terminus at Farringdon Street, they were greeted by police bands. On the following day the line was opened to the general public. Before the opening there had been some doubts about the public’s reaction. What would be lurking down there in the depths of London’s underworld? The tunnels were not well lit because they only had gas lighting at the time. Would people really  risk their lives? The Times was sceptical that Londoners would want “to be driven amid palpable darkness through the foul sub-soil of London.” But the naysayers were proved wrong – on the first day it opened 30,000 people went down and the trains were completely full. One journalist compared the opening night of a West End play. This was indeed the greatest show on earth.

The early underground lines were built by a method called cut and cover. This involved cutting open a massive hole in the ground. The idea was to use an existing road rather than to demolish a lot of houses, though a few houses did have to be demolished. You put in the railway and then covered it over again. Then in the 1880s James Henry Greathead invented a tunnelling shield that let you go very deep underground. There had been tunnelling shields before, but Greathead perfected it. To this day, most tunnelling shields are still loosely based on the Greathead shield. The shield enabled the City and South London Railway to open the world’s first deep-level underground electric railway between Stockwell and King William Street in 1890.

Like London itself, the Underground grew in a haphazard and piecemeal way – just how I like it. There was no master plan. The system was developed by competing private operators. Money and power guided its development. In the first stage of its history it was administered by capitalist financiers of dubious reputation. Nevertheless, by the first decade of the 20th century what became the Northern line, the Piccadilly line, the Bakerloo line, Metropolitan and District were all in place.

The companies started to realise the potential benefits of mutual co-operation And gradually it started to happen. In 1908 a meeting was convened to find a common name for their enterprise for marketing purposes. The choice was between “Tube” and “Electric” and “Underground”, with the latter emerging the winner. Another distinctive symbol, the Roundel, a red circle crossed by a horizontal blue bar, was also introduced in this year.

In 1933, all public transport in London became integrated into an unsubsidised public corporation ultimately known as London Transport which, after World War II, was nationalised, bringing the Underground under the direct control of central government for the first time in its history. During the post-war period, the electrification of the network was completed, the last steam locomotive disappearing in 1961.

Harry Beck’s London underground map was revolutionary. Beck, an engineering draftsman had a key insight. Geographical accuracy was not really important. What mattered to passengers how to get from one station to another, and where to change. Simplicity is genius. It reminds some of Mondrian, and social historian Eric Hobsbawm called it “the most original work of avant-garde art in Britain between the wars.” Beck took his inspiration from electrical circuit diagrams where there are straight lines and if you have to have a curve, it is a 45° one. It did meet with some resistance from the bosses, but when it was finally published in 1933, it was a huge hit with the public. In fact, London Underground have now made more money from the Tube map than they have from running trains.

The Underground is a popular venue for suicides. Of the three attempts each week, one is successful. “Jumpers”, as they are known to staff, prefer to die below ground; more deaths occur in underground than in overground stations. Apparently most deaths are caused by being crushed by the train, and not by electrocution. Those who survive may well be charged with offenses such as “endangering safety on the railway” and “obstruction of trains with intent“.  11:00 a.m. is the favoured time.

According to statistics for the nougties released by Transport for London (TfL) in 2011 the rate had gone up to 80 per year, as compared with 46 in the year 2000. This was put down to the global financial crisis. The worst-affected station was King’s Cross St. Pancras while the numbers for the decade by line were as follows:

145 Northern Line

99 Central Line

92 Piccadilly Line

81 District Line

27 Jubilee Line

When there is a suicide a certain Inspector Sands may be called. It may sound like the protagonist of an English detective series, but it is actually a code phrase used by public transport authorities in the United Kingdom, including Network Rail and London Underground, to alert staff and other agencies, such as the police, to an emergency or potential emergency situation without creating panic among the public. The emergency might be a death on the track, a fire or bomb scare The automated public address announcement can be generated automatically by the station’s fire warning system, or can be activated from the station control. “Mr Sands” has long been used as a code for “fire” in theatres, where “Mr Sands is in the foyer” means that a fire has broken out in the foyer.

The role that Underground stations played in the Second World War is well known. We have all seen images of Londoners sheltering from The Blitz in tube stations. But, at first the government hadn’t wanted to let the public to take refuge in its platforms and tunnels during air raids. However, the heavy raids of September, 1940 eventually forced them to relent.  The conditions in the tunnels could be pretty unpleasant, and safety was not assured even within the bowels of London. The most horrific incident on the tube took place at Bethnal Green on 3 March, 1943 during an air raid. A woman with a child tripped at the bottom of a spiral staircase leading to the Central line platforms, and in the ensuing panic many others fell and were crushed to death by the sheer force of those trying to get down the staircase. It was later found that 173 people had died from suffocation. Since the end of the war the Underground has been marked by tragedy on many other occasions. The three most famous incidents are:

The Moorgate crash (1975)

King’s Cross Fire (1987)

July 7 Bombings (2005)

While the Tube may not be growing now, we are seeing the growth of complementary systems. The Docklands Light Railway, which is almost entirely unmanned, serves Canary Wharf. And then there’s Crossrail. This massive project, due to open in 2018, will link Berkshire and Buckinghamshire via Greater London to Essex and Kent. If it’s like the commuter trains in Madrid, it will also be a handy alternative to the tube in central London. In the Spanish capital a journey from Nuevos Ministerios to Sol, which used to take half an hour, can now be done in just three minutes. It’s going to be difficult to represent all these new services on a map. Boris Johnson got back to London after one of his foreign jaunts to discover that the river Thames had been removed. Boris sprang into action and London’s artery was rapidly reinstated. Let’s hope that it can continue for another 150 years.

One Response to Tunnel visionaries: how the Victorians transformed public transport

  1. Lester says:

    A cracking read Martin. Spanish speaking anoraks may like to try http://www.anden1.org/

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