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The London Underground: How ‘The Tube’ Became the First Modern Subway System

During the first half of the 19th century, London’s population grew faster than it ever had. By 1860, the city’s population had risen to almost 3.8 million, making it not only the most populated city in the world but also one of the most crowded and dirtiest urban locations you were ever likely to see at the time. 

The small, cramped streets were overflowing with carriages, horses, street sellers, pickpockets, mounds of rubbish, human and animal excrement and because we are talking about the UK after all, plenty of rain-induced mud. Britain may have been flexing its colonial muscles, but its capital was straining against such a rapid expansion. 

With chaos on the surface, there was only one place a new transportation system could go, and that was of course, underground. What opened in 1863 may have been just a fraction of what we call the London Underground today, but it revolutionized urban transportation and forever changed modern metropolises.   

The success of the London Underground led to countless other systems being introduced in cities around the world, and as of early 2021, there are roughly 185 finished underground systems across the globe, with several more nearing completion. As our lives have increasingly been boxed together in our modern mega-cities, underground railways have become almost the standardised system for reducing congestion on the surface. And it all began in 1863, with a 6 km (3.75-mile) stretch of line known as the Metropolitan Railway.  

The Tube

But before we jump back to the Dickensian squalor that was London in the early 19th Century, let’s have a look at the modern underground system, commonly known as the Tube. London’s Underground System today spans an area that sprawls much further than the traditional and always expanding boundaries of the English capital. The entire network spans around 400 km (249 miles) but interestingly, only 45% of that is underground. 

London Underground with Greater London map
London Underground with Greater London map.By authors of the above is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Today the Tube covers 270 separate stations, 11 of which lie outside the Greater London area, spread across its 11 lines. On a normal working day (pre-pandemic of course) it would have a daily ridership of roughly 5 million people and all of its trains combined travel around 69 million km (43 million miles) each year – around halfway to the sun. 

It may not be the biggest, newest or most reliable underground system in the world, but it is arguably the most iconic. This is a sprawling story that covers over 150 years and is still ongoing so we’re going to cherry-pick some of the key points here.    

19th Century London  

The early 19th Century saw the beginning of what has come to be known as Pax Britannica, which translates as British Peace. A lauded name that indicated a relative peace between major European nations, but with Britain continuing its role as colonial dominator in chief across the planet, the word peace was quite a stretch. 

Riches brought back from the Empire poured into Britain and particular London. The city was booming and by around 1825, it had overtaken Beijing as the most populated city in the world. But if you’ve ever been to London you’ll know full well that space comes at a premium and this was exactly the same 200 years ago, although the size of the city itself was much smaller. 

By 1850, there were seven major railway terminals in the city and there had been murmurings about building an underground system in London for at least two decades. But considering how normal we consider the Tube today, back in the mid-19th Century, this was a dangerously radical idea. One plan, which had been backed by the city in 1852, fell through because of a lack of interest from railway companies. Not only did many think it would never succeed, most doubted the idea could ever be profitable. 

The Metropolitan Railway     

In 1854, the Metropolitan Railway was granted permission to build the first underground railway between Farringdon Street and Paddington, two bustling railway stations. The cost of construction was estimated at £1 million (£142 million today) though because of the ongoing Crimean War at the time, the company initially struggled to raise the funds needed and construction on the line did not begin until March 1860. 

Today boring drills can chew through the ground beneath a city with relative ease and with minimum disruption, but things were far from that simple with the world’s first underground railway. Much of the Metropolitan Railway was created using a system called cut and cover, a technique where a trench was cut into the ground, then eventually covered by a supporting roof.  

Between King Cross and Paddington, a large trench, 10.2 metres ( 33 feet 6 inches) wide, was excavated with brick retaining walls eventually added along the entire route with elliptical brick arches or iron girders spanning 8.7 metres (28 feet 6 inches) covering the top of the trench. As you can imagine, you can’t exactly do this when there are buildings above, and almost all of the earliest sections of the London Underground were built beneath existing roads. 

From King Cross, the line passed through a 666 metres (728 yards) tunnel under Mount Pleasant in Clerkenwell before finishing with an open cutting – meaning the line was not underground but had raised banks on either side – near Smithfield meat market in Farringdon.  

The work was done almost exclusively by hand, though an early conveyor belt system was used to shift the vast amounts of Earth. Inside the trench, two railway lines were laid, with a gap of 1.8 metres (6 ft) between the two. By November 1961, the Metropolitan Railway had commenced trials and in May 1862, a group of visiting dignitaries became the first people to travel through the system. The line made stops at Paddington, Edgware Road, Baker Street, Portland Road, Gower Street, King’s Cross and Farringdon Street and officially opened to the public on 10th January 1863. 

Any doubts that remained over the railway’s financial potential quickly evaporated, as it was an immediate and enormous success. On the first day alone, the system carried 38,000 passengers and a total of 9.5 million passengers travelled on the Metropolitan Railway in the first year. 

Yet while it was certainly popular, it was a far cry from the modern system we see today. Passengers were transported via gas-lit wooden carriages hauled by steam locomotives, which meant you often exited the system coughing and smelling like you had been sat next to a bonfire for several hours. In 1869, the type of coal used was changed to the smokeless Welsh variety, which helped, but it remained far from a sedate experience – so pretty much like normal rush hour today. 

The District Line

The success of the Metropolitan Railway meant that there was no shortage of plans for further lines. The first to get going was a line that would eventually become the District and part of the Circle Line, although back then it was referred to as the Metropolitan District Railway. Roughly speaking, this would be the southern section that would link up with the existing Metropolitan line to the north to create an inner circle in the city.

Well, that was the plan. Due to a combination of high construction costs and compensation payments and later a dispute with the Metropolitan Railway (who operated the trains when the line opened and who took 55% of gate receipts) the construction of the Metropolitan District Railway was a hard slog. But slowly things took shape, with a 7.6 metres (25 ft) wide and 4.8 metres (15 feet 9 inches) deep cut and cover tunnel along the majority of the route, although west of Gloucester Road was open cuttings to help with ventilation. 

On Christmas Eve 1868, the first trains began to run from South Kensington to Westminster, with stations at South Kensington, Sloane Square, Victoria, St. James’s Park and Westminster Bridge. This section of the line, roughly two-thirds of the whole line when completed, cost £3 million (£347 million today), nearly three times that of the entire Metropolitan Railway. The line was eventually terminated at Mansion House in 1870, without connecting to the Metropolitan Line. 

By this point, the two underground lines had had a major falling out. As I mentioned, when the District Railway opened, it was serviced by trains from the Metropolitan Line. The huge costs of construction meant the new line was already struggling, and with what they considered an unfair division of gate receipts, they soon rebelled and decided to run their own services. This led to a spat that wasn’t finally ironed out for another twenty years. 

Additions and New Lines

As much as I would love to regale you with the details of each line extension I fear we might be here a while as a lot was going on in the final decades of the 19th Century, so let’s try to motor through a few. First up we had extensions to both the Metropolitan Line and District Railway, with both extending east and west with several track off-shoots appearing. 

But on top of this were a flurry of new lines that began appearing in London. In 1868, the Metropolitan & St John’s Wood Railway opened and quickly expanded northward to bring places like Hampstead Village into the line and eventually reaching as far as Buckinghamshire. 

It was however back within the hustle and bustle of Central London that the underground began to reach new depths with the introduction of deep-level tubes. Remember, by this point, almost everything included on the various lines were either cut and cover or open cutting, but this all changed with the City and South London Railway line that opened in 1890. 

The line which stretched from King William Street (near Monument Station today) to Stockwell in South London measured 5.1 km ( 3.2 miles) and was the first line to run underneath the River Thames. Two 3.10 metres (10-foot-2-inch) circular tunnels were dug between King William Street and Elephant and Castle, with a slightly larger tunnel continuing to Stockwell. This was an important line for another reason, as it became not only the first in London to use electric trains but the first anywhere in the world. The original plan to use cable cars was scrapped when the company producing them went bankrupt and instead the line began using an electric system with currents supplied by a third rail beneath the small cramped carriages, which came to have the unfortunate nickname, the padded cells.  

The Waterloo & City line opened in 1898 and linked Waterloo and Bank without any stops in between. That might sound like the world’s most useless railway, but with huge numbers of people coming into the city from the south terminal of Waterloo and heading to the financial district around Bank, it certainly made sense and helps to explain that the line has the nickname, the drain. 

The Central London Railway, which forms part of the modern central line opened in 1900 and ran from between Bank and Shepherds Bush in the west, servicing a total of 13 stations along the way. Two tunnels were dug parallel to one another 18 to 34 metres (60–110 feet ) below ground and ran for 9.14 kilometres (5.68 mi). This was later extended from both ends and today runs for a total length of 74 km (46 miles). 

Electrification 

If creating deep tunnels had changed the landscape of the London Underground System, then their full electrification forever changed the experience. As I mentioned earlier, a trip on one of the early lines certainly would have got you from A to B quite quickly, but it was far from an enjoyable journey. 

Often with poor ventilation, the early underground lines were an oppressive mixture of toxic smoke pouring from the locomotives and heat that during the summer could build up to deeply uncomfortable levels. One early passenger famously remarked that his journey had given him his first glimpse of Hades – the Greek god of death and the underworld. 

Things changed when electrification was added to the system in the early years of the 20th Century. By this point, both the City & South London Railway and Central London Railway had begun using a direct current (DC) system, with two conductor rails energised, one with a positive current and the other with a negative. This was very much cutting edge technology at the time and probably worked well initially because these were relatively short lines.    

An agreement between the Metropolitan and District Lines in 1901 appeared to set the system on course to use an AC system with overhead wires, but after an American businessman invested in the District Line, things switched to a DC system, similar to what was already in operation on other lines. Both lines began using the new DC system in 1905 and I think it’s fair to say we haven’t looked back since. 

Integration

The early years of the new century were some of the busiest in terms of construction the city has ever seen. Lines were being extended in all directions, but the system itself was still very much fragmented. This was not so much a network as a series of separate companies often trying to outdo each other for profit, while not passing up the opportunity to undercut their competitors. 

While nationalisation didn’t occur until 1948, the establishment of the Underground Electric Railways Company of London Limited (UERL) in 1902, was the first effort to bring several lines under the same umbrella company. In its early days it effectively controlled four lines; the Baker Street and Waterloo Railway, the Charing Cross, Euston and Hampstead Railway, the Great Northern, Piccadilly and Brompton Railway and the District Railway.    

The Map

Of course, no discussion regarding the London Underground System would be complete without discussing its most iconic image – the map. The Tube map has become one of the most widely reproduced maps anywhere in the world, but its orderly lines and the close distances between stations are not quite what you would see in real life.

The problem was, how do you provide a map that is pleasing to the eye while also giving the relevant information? In the early days, before it was an integrated system, there was no official map of all of the separate railways. Each service would provide its own route maps but it wasn’t until 1921 that a complete map appeared. But the station names were often squashed and difficult to read, while the chaotic lines were enough to eventually persuade you to just give up and walk.

In 1931, an ex-railway employee, Harry Beck, completed his own version of the map but his submission was initially rejected. Two years later, he gave it another go and while alterations have occurred over time, our modern map is roughly the same as Beck’s second attempt. He was said to have been paid £10 (£650 today) for the map at the time and received zero royalties after that, even though it eventually became a global hit selling millions of copies around the world.    

World War II 

As the British found themselves at war in 1939, the London Underground System would go on to be used for a very different purpose than it had been designed for. When German bombers began hitting London in 1940, underground stations were soon being used as bomb shelters. 

During the day, train service would continue as normal, but by night, an estimated 130,000 Londoners would cram into the tube stations across the city. As the Blitz dragged on, amenities within the tunnels and stations greatly improved with dinner and breakfast sometimes on offer. And a quick fun fact for you, ex-talk show host Jerry Springer, was born in Highgate Station on the Northern Line when his mother sought refuge during a bombing raid in 1944. 

But being in a tube station there was still no guaranteeing safety. In March 1943, a panic in Bethnal Green station led to 173 people dying in the single worst incident to occur in the underground system. 

Modern Lines

As Britain, and London, began to slowly clamber back to their feet after World War II, it didn’t take long until the idea of building additional underground lines was raised. The Victoria Line, which today stretches from Brixton in the south to Walthamstow in the northeast, was the first line that didn’t have to follow the road system above. 

After some trial tunnelling in 1959, work began in 1963 and the new line finally opened in 1968. You might well know the first “driver” to take a train along the line as it was none other than her majesty Queen Elizabeth II. It was said to be only her second-ever ride on the underground at age 42. That might be surprising, but can you really imagine the Queen slogging through rush hour on the Central Line crammed below a sweaty armpit? No, me neither. 

The Jubilee Line, stretching from Stratford in the east to Stanmore in the west, was the second of the ‘new lines’ to open in 1979. Technically it is colour coded silver to mark the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, but it’s always looked more greyish to me. 

The Tube Today   

We probably take systems like these for granted today as they have become the norm in many large-scale cities, but when you take a step back and think about how many people, trains, and computer systems are working in conjunction, usually fairly smoothly, it is quite mind-blowing.

Lancaster Gate tube
Lancaster Gate tube.BY tompagenet, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

As any Londoner can attest, the system is far from perfect, but that often has more to do with the fact that we’re using an underground railway first constructed over 150 years ago rather than any overarching failings. And like many capital city dwellers, Londoners can be a fickle bunch and it’s not uncommon to see somebody rolling their eyes in annoyance because they need to wait 6 minutes. Ah, first world problems.   

If you’ve been following Megaprojects since the early days you might remember a video we did on the Crossrail Project – London’s seemingly cursed new line which is going to bisect London. With most construction work finished it now seems only a matter of testing but this saga has been dragging on for so long I think many have given up trying to predict when it’ll be finished. If you’ve enjoyed this video on the London Underground Line and are interested in what’s coming next for London, why not give that watch after. 

Our complex underground railway systems rarely get the plaudits they deserve. Too often we spend time moaning about delays and cramped conditions rather than appreciating the extraordinary ingenuity needed to build a system so complex which generally speaking works well most of the time. Modern cities would be incomprehensible without underground systems and because of that, the London Underground has to be considered one of the most revolutionary transportation networks the world has ever seen.     

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