Rail 714 extra: Tube 150, the Underground pioneers

The London Underground is unique. That is not just because it was the world’s first subterranean railway, built more than 30 years ahead of any other. Nor is it because the system is the largest or the most heavily used, which actually is no longer the case. No, the reason that the London Underground is different from any other subway system is that it has become the very emblem of city it serves, something to which no other system can lay claim.

What other transport network has two absolutely iconic features that define not only the system itself, but the very city itself? First there is the roundel, one of the world’s first logos and still one of the most famous, which was devised before the First World War and then there was the Harry Beck map, now the standard design for any transport system which was first created between the wars. Both are immediately recognisable symbols of not just the London Underground, but London itself and, indeed, on January 10th, the day of the 150th anniversary, it was telling that Google used a colour representation of the map, without station names or explanation, as its graphic.

Actually, there is a third iconic feature of the Tube, one that is perhaps less noticed by passengers, the Johnston typeface (now TfL New Johnston) used for all the signage and notices in the system. Again, that demonstrates the uniqueness of the system – few organisations have their own typeface (one other example is the LNER’s Gill Sans by Johnston’s pupil, Eric Gill, although that was more of an adaptation than a commission) and it is a demonstration of the confidence in the Underground’s place in London, and indeed in the world, that there was so much emphasis on its image.

What other rail system, too has actually a whole section of its city named after it as the London Underground does with Metroland, a string of suburbs which owes its existence to the railway network which serves it? And, also, what other system has three utterly different but all remarkable series of stations that are, in themselves, a significant part of London’s architectural heritage. First there were the Leslie Green stations built in the first decade of the 20th century. There are 43 of them in all, some of which have been abandoned, and they are classically proportioned stations using the characteristic ruby red tiles; then there are the Art Deco stations built on the extensions in the 1930s designed by Charles Holden who gave each their own features within a clearly defined style of the period; and finally there is the remarkably eclectic series of stations built in the 1990s for the Jubilee Line Extension by different architects, each a masterpiece in its own right. And soon, with Crossrail, a new generation of stations will be created with the recently completed Farringdon leading the way. Few subway system in the world have notable stations, and certainly none has as many as London.

The pioneering nature of the system and these various unique features owe their existence to a group of very different innovators who each helped establish its success and its heritage. The first pioneer was Charles Pearson who, oddly of railway promoters, was a solicitor working for the City of London. It was Pearson who first came up with the idea for an underground railway and let’s just admire that for a moment. The date was 1845 and Pearson, who was troubled by the terrible traffic on the roads and the insalubrious state of the housing in which many people lived, published a pamphlet setting out the advantages of a railway running down the Fleet valley to Farringdon. Although his original conception of a train pulled by vacuum power never materialised, Pearson beavered away, persuading two railway companies and even the City of London to put up the £1m needed to build that famous inaugural section of the Metropolitan Railway, between Paddington and Farringdon,. Pearson, sadly, died just before it opened but lived long enough to see test trains running along much of the track.

The first line can be likened to a long tunnel linking various railways as trains from as far afield as Windsor used the new underground section, but it was always envisaged that there would be an underground railway around the built up area of the city, linking the main line railway stations as, a Commission which reported in 1846, had banned any main line tracks from entering the City boundaries. Within a couple of decades, the system stretched miles into the outskirts of London, creating new communities and suburbs wherever there was a station. The rapid expansion of the system in the remainder of the 19th century was largely the achievement of two other heroes of the Underground, James Staats Forbes, who ran the Metropolitan District Railway and Edward Watkin, the chairman of the Metropolitan Railway. The two hated each other and were already rivals when they set out their respective schemes to expand the Underground system as Forbes ran the London, Chatham & Dover Railway while Watkin was a director of its rival in Kent, the South Eastern Railway.

They had different conceptions of how to extent the railway, which is why the Metropolitan extends much further beyond central London, creating the Metroland that was developed between the wars,  than the District which only goes as far as places like Wimbledon and Ealing. Nevertheless, thanks to the dynamism of this duo, the Underground was extended well beyond the boundaries of the existing city and, crucially, after much argument and controversy, the Circle Line was completed in 1884.

Here, there is another unique aspect of the London Underground, the emphasis on competition. Until the First World War, the lines were built by the private sector and the authorities were concerned about allowing a particular company to have a monopoly. Consequently Forbes and the District Railway were brought in as rivals to the Metropolitan and the consequences were, at times, rather amusing. At first, the relationship between the two companies was so bad, that there was even speculation about bringing in a third one to complete the Circle. Eventually, the two agreed to do the job, but when the line opened, there were two ticket booths at each station, since one company operated the clockwise trains and the other the anti-clockwise ones. Moreover, woe betide the unknowing person who went to the wrong booth, not knowing the other company offered a shorter way around. Other cities relied on co-operation and planned blueprints to develop their underground systems while London favoured competition and rivalry.

Certainly, the next rival was the sort of aggressive business personality who thrived in such an atmosphere. This was Charles Yerkes, (rhymes with Turkeys) an American with a dodgy reputation and a prison record who had once run Chicago’s tramways, but he was, too, a transport visionary. He brought together several existing and proposed lines under the auspices of the Underground Electric Railways Ltd, the precursor to London Transport, then began the process of electrifying the sub-surface lines and, remarkably, built three deep tube lines in the space of five years – the Piccadilly, the Bakerloo (a name invented by a newspaper) and the Hampstead section of the Northern. Yerkes managed to find the funding for all three lines and they all opened within a year of each other in 1906/7. That meant that by 1907, all the Tube lines through central London, except the Victoria (opened from 1968) and the Jubilee (opened 1979 and 1999) had been built and, sadly, no new Tube station has opened in central London since the Yerkes lines were completed as neither of these two lines had any new stations in the area bounded by the Circle Line (although there have been a few rearrangements of existing stations such as the Trafalgar Square/Strand/Charing Cross complex).

The progress after Yerkes, therefore was not so much in engineering but more in marketing. It consisted of creating the image of the Underground, which was largely the work of Frank Pick, who, starting in 1906, worked for and then ran the Underground in its various guises for more than 30 years along with Lord Ashfield, who was effectively chairman of the organisation in that same period. This was a partnership made in heaven, the assiduous hardworking obsessive Pick along with the more strategic and political figure of Ashfield. What they created lives on today, an example of a successful public organisation whose achievements were recognised across the world. Not only did Pick instigate the creation of both the roundel and the Beck map, together with Ashfield they built up the Underground Electric Railways company into a vast combine encompassing buses and all the Underground apart from the Metropolitan line. They, did, too,  extend several lines into the fields beyond London and then ran the combined London Transport between its creation in 1933 and the war, a period widely regarded as its heyday.

After the war, the system declined significantly with little investment and no one to champion it in the face of competition from the car. However, let me add one recent addition to this list of heroes – Ken Livingstone. That might be controversial as Livingstone is a deeply flawed and not entirely successful individual – as are several of the other heroes – but his commitment to the Underground greatly helped its development. It was Livingstone, who is in his first guise as leader of the GLC, pushed through the zonal system that allowed a much simpler fare structure and it was he, in his second incarnation as mayor, who lobbied strongly for Crossrail. Certainly, he is one of the few politicians – Herbert Morrison was another – who understood the importance of the Underground to London. There are too, people I have missed out notably engineers like Marc Brunel, who built the first tunnel under the Thames and James Greathead, whose shield enabled tunnels to be bored out of the London clay.

Built by people with vision and, indeed, great engineering expertise, the London Underground, therefore, is more than a transport system. It is the mechanism which allowed London to grow in the way it did. Without it, the very structure of London would have had to be different. The planners would have created dual carriageways and ring roads that would have driven barriers through the very heart of the city which, in turn, would have been cluttered with rows of multi storey car parks. The Underground, therefore, may have allowed people to live further out, as Pearson wanted, but ironically it also enabled the centre to remain more compact and accessible without motorised transport. Londoners, therefore, have much reason to be grateful for the Tube, even if they rarely appreciate it.

Obviously, over a 150 year period, it has not all been steady progress. The system has gone through some rough patches. In the Edwardian period, it was thought that London had too many Underground lines and there was a danger that the network would go bust. In the 1950s, the car was king and the system declined to such an extent that there was virtually no investment and closures were mooted. The very centre of London was declining and the work of the Location of Office Bureau was reducing the numbers working in inner London, the very commuters who are the lifeblood of the system. Then there were the doubts raised about the safety of the system following the Underground’s only two major accidents, Moorgate in 1975 which killed 43 people and the King’s Cross fire in 1987 when 31 died. And, the blackest day of all,  the 7/7 bombing in 2005 when 41 people (plus three bombers) died in simultaneous attacks at three stations which demonstrated that a busy transport network like the Underground with 270 stations, can never be made safe against terrorist attacks.

Yet, now the Underground is attracting record numbers of passengers and will soon benefit from the addition of Crossrail, built on a larger scale and not really a Tube line, but nevertheless will greatly relieve pressure on the system. When Crossrail is completed, incidentally, it will partly realise one of Pearson’s dreams which was to have a single railway station at Farringdon in the centre of London serving the whole country. In 2019, with the refurbished Thameslink and Crossrail, it will become the only station in Britain to be sending trains in the direction of all four points of the compass. Pearson would have appreciated that.

The enduring success of the Underground is easy to understand in the context of this history. London and its Underground are symbiotic, built as a joint enterprise dependent on each other. London is booming, despite the recession, and so consequently is the Underground. On the other hand, the renewed interest in investing in the Underground is a result of London’s economic pre-eminence.

The next 150 years are impossible to predict. Ultimately, if growth and employment patterns continue in the same vein as over the past quarter of a century, the main constraint in the system, the size of the tunnels on the Tube lines, will have to be addressed. Driverless trains in the existing tunnels are a political fantasy, and so, unfortunately, is air-conditioning on the Tube, rather than the sub-surface,  lines. There will, too, be new lines although sadly, apart from vague aspirations about a Crossrail Two, the old Chelsea – Hackney route, Transport for London, under its mayor Boris Johnson, is not preparing for this future by developing new potential routes. Nevertheless, one thing is pretty certain Unless we are overrun by barbarians or teleportation has become viable, the Underground will still be a vital force in the capital in 2163.