Gravy train that’s run for 100 years

Subterranean Railway Review

The London Underground needs a fortune spent on it. The Government doesn’t want to know but the fat cats of the private sector are enthusiastic. The Tube even tempts executives from the US to cross the Atlantic.

The press and public are sceptical. However, and all the more so when one of the boosters of the Underground outlines his code of business practice – ‘Buy up old junk, fix it up a little and unload it upon other fellows.’

No, not 2004 but 1904. In the get-rich-quick philosophy of Charles Tyson Yerkes, the brash American pioneer of the District Line, we see New Labour’s public private partnership anticipated by a hundred years.

Don’t take my word for it. In the Subterranean Railway, Christian Wolmar quotes a sober-sided source from the City of London who compares Yerkes way of raising money with the PPP. ‘Bearing in mind Yerkes’s crookedness, that is hardly a compliment to its architects, ‘ adds Wolmar dryly.

We’ve been led to believe that Chancellor Gordon Brown agonises over the price of a pint of milk and a packet of Gypsy Creams before ordering his elevenses, but this book reminds us that the Treasury’s preferred scheme for overhauling the Underground enriched lawyers, consultants and engineers to the tune of £500m ‘before a single improvement had been made’.

His book reveals extraordinary parallels between the original Tube boom of a century ago and the modern Underground, even down to the coincidence that the top leisure attraction for London’s early straphangers was The Big Wheel at Earl’s Court, which drew 2.5 million visitors between 1895 and 1907, and was the London Eye of its day. A recurring theme in this enjoyably scandalising account is of the Underground being developed and run chiefly for the benefit of private interests rather than for any social good. Indeed, the longest running service on the Tube has been the gravy train.

The first subterranean railroad anywhere in the world, the Metropolitan Line, was hacked out by speculators who thought there was money to be made from City gents alighting at Brunel’s Paddington station and facing a long and muddy haul through the streets to their offices on the other side of London.

The pattern was repeated a century later when, according to Wolmar, ‘the Tory government’s obsession with regenerating Docklands’ meant that the Jubilee Line extension was given preference over a route linking Chelsea and Hackney which offered ‘far greater community benefits’. Mrs Thatcher’s ministers had been lobbied by the men behind the Canary Wharf project, who promised to chip in towards the cost of the railway. In the event, the company went bust and the taxpayer ended up footing the entire bill of £3.5billion.

The great irony of the Tube is that, while the men who hoped to make their fortunes from it often came to grief, their network has provided many boons to Londoners. The working classes, exhausted by their labours, were spared the further exertion of a long walk to and from their places of work and were grateful to the Underground for enabling them to spend time with their children.

And it may console the commuters who curse the Tube as they struggle home that nothing does more to enhance the value of their properties than an Underground station on their doorsteps.

I recommend the Subterranean Railway to them – it is guaranteed to give any commuter some wry amusement, always assuming, of course, that the other passengers aren’t pressing so hard on his ribcage that he can’t raise a laugh.

Review by Stephen Smith, November 26 2004

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