Beset by lines, slow in its uptake and often at the mercy of signal failure: yes, the tube is certainly starting to show the signs of old age. And why shouldn’t it? Today marks its 150th birthday.
It all started back in the 1830s. London was wracked by terrible traffic, with workers having to complete their journeys into the industrial capital along the same, congested roads. The idea of constructing an underground railway to link mainline trains to the City centre of London had been introduced early on, yet it took a fair amount of time and convincing for Parliament to really take notice. And so it did, approving the construction of a railway between Paddington and Farringdon via King’s Cross in 1855, which was to be called the Metropolitan Railway.
Eight years later, on 10 January 1863, the world’s first underground passenger line made its maiden voyage. Transporting the public along a 6km route, the Metropolitan Locomotive steamed underground. Built by a private company, the line had been dug by 2,000 workers, mostly by hand. Within months, it was carrying the commute of 26,000 passengers a day.
Meanwhile, the tube quickly found its niche, marking itself as an effective means of transport that everyone used, but hated in equal measure. So said one newspaper at the time, complaining that the pioneering system was: “suggestive of dank, noisome tunnels…passages inhabited by rats, soaked with sewer drippings and poisoned by the escape of gas mains.”
Nevertheless, it’s certainly stood the test of time, though undergoing many stages of transformation throughout the years. Around the turn of the 20th century, new deep tunneling techniques enabled the construction of the Piccadilly, Northern and Bakerloo lines. In the 1930s, the growing network was completely electrified, while in World War II the tube stations proved invaluable as air-raid shelters. By the 1940s, it had single-handedly sparked the expansion of London, with commuters able to travel to work from the suburbs, rather than inhabit the city’s dirty slums.
150 years after its creation, the tube generates £2.18bn in revenues. It’s indispensable for most working Londoners and, as our Mayor so eloquently put it: “It annihilates distances, liquidates traffic and is the throbbing cardiovascular system of the greatest city on Earth.”
We love to hate it, but it gets us places – and has done for a very long time. So today we wish it a very Happy Birthday. And pray some lunatic doesn’t light 150 candles on today’s commute.
To see a condensed history timeline of London Underground, click here