Going Underground

Subterranean Railway Review

There is a reproduction in this book of an 1868 etching by Gustave DorĂ©, which illustrates beautifully the kind of problem Londoners had to face in the very early days of the underground. DorĂ© is, of course, the natural choice of artist for the tube: his most celebrated work is, after all, his series of illustrations for Dante’s Inferno.

The picture isn’t of the tube: it’s a view of Ludgate Hill, very much above ground. But it still looks subterranean, and indeed looks like hell. If TS Eliot was amazed, over half a century later, at the tide of commuters flowing over London Bridge, he would have been more amazed in 1868 – only there wouldn’t have been space for him to get his notebook out. The crush and chaos are overwhelming. You look at the image and cannot see how anyone could cross the street, let alone get from one end of it to the other. The only moving thing in the picture is a steam train puffing over an ugly bridge which has been placed exactly so as to ruin the view of St Paul’s Cathedral.

This was the situation five years after the first fledgling underground line was opened, and commuters who bemoan the system’s inadequacies today should bear in mind that without it, London would have choked to death long before. On horse manure.

Wolmar is an enthusiast for the tube, and would seek to remind us of the achievements of its best architects and the way it helped to shape and extend the city it served. For a start, there is the primary vision of a railway beneath the streets: a counterintuitive one, you might have thought, when all trains were coal-powered and the only thing that travelled in a network underground was effluent. But work began, in the face of almost complete lack of precedent. The engineering achievements became ever more astonishing, helped by the fact that London is built on clay, not on rock like New York.

Wolmar is not unaware of the tube’s worst failings, though. The greatest shaping force for the underground was money – for good and ill. Money may have supplied the project with its life-blood but it could also distort and fracture the system. Before it had even been conceived, property owners had prevented large mainline stations from being constructed in the centre of town (Charing Cross, the most central, is rather tiddly); and the competing claims of different railway operators oblige us, to this day, to get out of the station and cross the road when changing from the Hammersmith and City line to the District. (Ditto the duplication of Shepherd’s Bush stations, both with the same name but about 500 yards apart and on non-connected lines. It adds an extra two minutes of explanation when I give directions to non-Londoners who want to take public transport to my home.) The underinvestment of the postwar years is truly scandalous – that the system survived at all was down to the durable foundations laid in earlier days. After the deaths of Frank Pick and Lord Ashfield, two of its most dynamic and visionary chief executives, in 1941 and 1947 respectively, “with the occasional exception, [London Transport] was to be led by a series of nonentities and placemen for the next 50 years”. Ken Livingstone tried to revitalise the system in 1981 with his “Fares Fair” campaign, slashing ticket prices by a third; the result was the abolition of the GLC.

As you might expect, this is a book that can be usefully mined for fascinating factoids. The temperature on the system is notionally fixed at 23C; in Edwardian times Londoners were hardier and the temperature was kept at 13C. As Wolmar explains, people wore more clothes then (and also weren’t such namby-pambies). If 13C strikes you as chilly, imagine how pleasant it would have been in a heat wave. The Circle line was not given its present-day name until Harry Beck’s famous map first appeared. It was actually, if my squinting at the 1932 map reproduced here is accurate, an amalgamation of the District and Hampstead and Highgate lines, and had it been one line described by shape alone, would have been called the Amoeba line.

The only question Wolmar does not address, but which arose when he mentioned the Sherlock Holmes tourist tat at Baker Street (an otherwise beautifully restored station), is: given that the tube was so popular among all classes, why did the detective himself never use it?

Review by Nicholas Lezard, October 2005