The crowds lining the platforms of every station on the route would not have been outnumbered had the Duchess of Cambridge been going for a ride. Metropolitan No 1, a steam engine that first saw service in 1898, was hauling a set of beautifully refurbished carriages and the much publicised event had brought large numbers to City stations that are normally empty on a Sunday evening.
People clambered over each other to get snaps of the train as it thundered past, at all of 25mph, through the stations on its journey from Moorgate to Edgware Road and back. The steam locomotive was, it is true, being helped by an electric one, Sarah Siddons, built in 1923, which also proved an attraction to the crowds of rail enthusiasts.
On the train itself, every compartment, designed for eight people, was full and despite safety instructions to the contrary, the temptation to open the windows was irresistible. It was the smell of steam and smoke that was perhaps most evocative for those who were old enough to remember the sight of steam engines on the tracks. There was, too, the swirl of smoke in the tunnels that must have been the daily experience for Victorian commuters on the line which was operated by steam power for more than 40 years after its opening in 1863.
Passengers had paid up to £180 for a first class ticket on the train, though, in fact, the third class carriages, once fitted with hard wooden seats for the workers, were now just as comfortable as the coaches designed to carry the better off, having been fitted with upholstery during the refurbishment.
Next weekend, there will be a series of further trips but after that there may be some time before steam returns to the Underground, though it definitely will, according to Howard Collins, London Underground’s Chief Operating Officer. He said: “This has been a fantastic success and the work we put into it means we will now be able to run future events like this. Transport for London is considering running them every year. The engine has a certificate for 10 years, so it should be back”. He confirmed the engine would be on the Epping-Ongar former Underground section in the summer, and he hoped, too, that other steam engines would now make special visits to the Underground system in the future.
Christian Wolmar’s history of the Underground, The Subterranean Railways, has been updated and revised for the 150 anniversary and is published by Atlantic, £9 99.