Profit Made The Trains Run On Time

Subterranean Railway Review

Christian Wolmar is a Pullman among story tellers. It helps that he is personally involved – ‘when I was a child’ he writes, ‘I used to be haunted by the sound of ghostly horns echoing through the night near Campden Hill where I lived…It was the Underground which used to keep me awake’.

The remarkably rapid development of the Metropolitan, Circle and District lines in the late 19th century solved the chronic congestion that had held back the city’s economic growth. Just as important –as Wolmar deftly shows – was the way in which the outward growth of the line annexed the villages and countryside round the capital to create suburbia. In 1871, the District Line reached Earl’s Court, then a quiet market garden. 20 years later the Metropolitan got to Aylesbury, enabling the finest and freshest duck eggs to be whisked to central London 50 miles away.

Wolmar does full honour to the pioneers, including Charles Yerkes, an American who gained control of most of the network in the first few years of the 20th century by methods described by JP Morgan – no angel himself – as ‘the greatest rascality and conspiracy I ever heard of’. But Wolmar argues persuasively that the Underground’s golden age did not arrive until the consolidation of the system between the two World Wars, under the leadership of London Transport’s first chairman, Lord Ashfield and his even more remarkable chief executive, Frank Pick.

Pick’s genius was to see that the Underground had to more than just a way of getting people from home to work and back again. It had to offer safety and dependability and to be tied in spiritually with the way of life it supported. One fruit of this perception was the series of posters advertising golf, gardening, clean air and the other joys of the suburban existence; another, famously, was Harry Beck’s immortal map of the network.

Pick and Ashfield  were under government control but largely free of government interference. Post 1945, of course, all that changed. The Treasury took charge, vision and foresight went out of the window, stinginess, stupidity, vindictiveness and mediocrity held sway. Wolmar tells the dispiriting tale with great fairness and without too much depressing detail. Mercifully, he is also sparing about the horrendous complexities of the current Public Private Partnership scheme, even though he is probably one of the few people in Britain who understands it.

Despite the provocation, Wolmar does not despair. It is one of his strengths that he remains proud of the network, and of the city it has done so much to create. ‘The Underground’, he writes, ‘is still a wonder, a fantastic achievement of what is a credit to its pioneers.’ His pride and passion carry his story along and, offhand, I can think of few better ways to while away those elastic periods awaiting the arrival of the next eastbound Circle Line than by reading it.

Review by Tom Fort, November 14 2004

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