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150 years of the London Underground

With the oldest subway system in the world celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, Michal Zuk examines how the long history of the London Underground has transformed the city


For the London Underground, more affectionately known as the Tube, 2013 marks 150 years of existence. With few Londoners driving to work, it has become indispensible to the functioning of the city – without it, a population of more than seven million would
be left stranded.

But it’s more than just a means of transportation for the citizens of the sprawling metropolis; the Tube has been woven into the fabric of London, shaping its identity and development for generations. Their fates intertwined, as the Tube expanded, the city grew with it. It now carries over a billion passengers every year over a 402km long network, which serves 270 stations.

Going underground
The story of the world’s first underground passenger railway begins in the 1860s when an increasingly populous city was facing traffic gridlock. Thousands of commuters arrived into King’s Cross railway station every day to find there was no form of public transport into the city centre. Inevitably, roads were overwhelmed with a dangerous crowding of people, carriages and unruly livestock.

Charles Pearson, a solicitor by trade, formulated a bold solution – an underground railway ferrying people deep beneath the capital. He hoped the system would also put an end to London’s slums by allowing more people to live outside the city centre and commute
to work. The Metropolitan Railway was soon born and on opening day in 1863, its steam
stock carried 40,000 passengers, divided into cars by class, between King’s Cross and Farringdon stations.

Pearson’s idea was a success. London grew and the system expanded as other railway companies moved to get in on the underground action. A new circle line was soon constructed and jointly operated by the District Railway and Metropolitan Railway, providing an even greater transport range for Londoners. In 1890, the City and South London Railway began operations, becoming the first underground railway to use electric traction. This technology rendered the old stock obsolete, although steam locomotives stubbornly remained until 1961.

The railway companies soon realised the profitability of expanding their operations beyond the old London borders. As fresh Tube stations popped up, entire suburbs developed in the newly accessible areas. In 1930, control of all the underground railways was taken over by the London Passenger Transport Board uniting the various lines under a single system.

Through its storied history, the Tube has served Londoners in ways other than transportation. During the Second World War, stations became shelters for people fleeing the German bombing campaign, factories for munitions and even meeting places between Churchill and his cabinet. Its iconic logo – white lettering in a blue plate imposed over a red disk – has become an internationally recognised symbol of London. Tourists regularly snap pictures of Tube station signs and buy up souvenirs featuring the famous roundel.

A bumpy ride
Like London, the Tube has also had its dark days. A Nazi bomb destroyed Bank station in 1941, killing over 100 people who had sought shelter there. In 1987, fire tore through King’s Cross, costing 31 people their lives and less than a decade ago, terrorists struck the transport network. But like the successes, these terrible memories have helped to shape the conscience and identity of one of the world’s most famous cities.

To celebrate this anniversary, the London Transport Authority brought back a Victorian steam train for a special trip, taking passengers along the original Metropolitan line. The throwback gave Londoners a glimpse into the humble beginnings of the transport system that helped the city grow into an international, cultural and commercial powerhouse. And at 150, the system which Mayor of London Boris Johnson recently dubbed “trains in drains” shows no sign of slowing down.

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