Subterranean Railway Review
Newcomers to London life can’t help but be struck by Londoners’ love-hate relationship with the Underground. You meet people from Muswell Hill who boast that it’s great because the tube doesn’t go there, and people from Hackney who moan that Hackney is rubbish… er, because the tube doesn’t go there. You meet strap-hanging commuters at the end of their tethers, for whom the thought of one more day underground is enough to make them want to hurl themselves under a train; and you’ll meet lots of Underground buffs, hip young professionals who hang Simon Patterson’s Great Bear on their walls and spend their spare time going to open days at Neasden depot or on “Steam on the Met” jollies. Most railway enthusiasts, like swingers, keep their enthusiasm secret. The Underground is different; the Underground is cool, and the people who love it are quite happy to be outed. In order to satisfy their needs and desires there are hundreds of books, beautifully and expensively produced, that tell the story of the Underground from any number of possible angles. Into this crowded market comes a new book from Christian Wolmar.
Wolmar is Britain’s foremost expert on public transport issues, and he has ventured underground before, in his excellent Down the Tube, a devastating attack on what went wrong with the tube and why. This new book is an entry-level history of the Underground, and it becomes clear from reading it that the faults of the system were built into it from the moment the first sod was turned. Rivalries between companies meant that lines often duplicated one another without providing proper interchanges (next time you change at Hammersmith from the District to the Hammersmith and City line, curse Victorian laissez-faire economics as you try to cross Hammersmith Broadway); lack of capital meant that the lines were not built large enough (this is why the underground shuts down at night; if London’s system had allowed for four tracks instead of two, like in New York, the trains could run at night on some tracks while engineers worked on others); delays are caused by timorous tube builders, who followed the crooked line of streets when they could have tunnelled safely straight under buildings, avoiding the need for slow running on curves. Wolmar’s book will tell you, too, why the Underground, like black cabs, barely ventures south of the river.
The world’s first underground railway, the Metropolitan, was opened from Praed Street, near Paddington, to Farringdon Street on the outskirts of the City, in 1863. It proved popular from the first; 11.8 million people used the line in its first year of operation. It was not built very deep underground, as the engineers used a method known as “cut and cover”: they dug up a street, laid a railway line in a trench, and then covered it back up again. For the first 40 years of its existence, all the trains were steam-hauled, and if you think the atmosphere is a bit stuffy now, imagine the tunnels full of smoke and steam. In 1867, three people died from the fumes; the Metropolitan, brilliant at PR, claimed that their line was “a health resort for those with asthma”.
PR has always been one of the strengths of the Underground. Wolmar argues that it has been at the cutting edge of industrial design, and that the posters, the roundel logo, Harry Beck’s map, Charles Holden’s futuristic stations for the Piccadilly line extension, have all been key to the development of London’s identity. Wolmar also claims that London Transport was godfather to multicultural Britain, as it sought to overcome the postwar labour shortage by recruiting from the Caribbean (between 1956 and 1965, 4,000 workers were recruited from Barbados alone).
But it is the growth of the suburbs which is the Underground’s most striking legacy, and on this Wolmar’s book is particularly strong. Golders Green, for example, was not even a village in 1907, the year the Northern line arrived; it was a farm by a crossroads. Seven years later, nearly 500 houses had appeared, and Hampstead Garden Suburb was under construction. “Metroland”, the post-1918 covering over of Middlesex with houses for the “clerkly classes”, is directly attributable to the Metropolitan Railway developing its surplus land for housing. If it weren’t for the Underground, Pinner would never have existed. No Elton John. No George Michael.
Wolmar’s excellent introduction to this history is full of telling details. I particularly liked the fact that on the City and South London – the first of the deep-level tubes, now part of the Northern line – passengers who travelled on the roof were liable to a £2 fine; “a penalty,” as Wolmar points out, “that clearly would only ever be levied posthumously”. If you’re thinking of coming out as a tubehead, The Subterranean Railway is the best place to start.
Review by Ian Marchant, 8 January 2005