150 years of the Tube

Old steam train at Baker Street station.

It has huffed and roared, whined and screamed it’s trough London carrying millions of passengers every day, to work or leisure. This week the London Underground, commonly known as the “Tube” will enter it’s 150th year of operation.

To have a metro network in it self does not make London any special, nearly all large cities with some self respect has one. What makes it stand out is that it was the world first underground railway, a pioneering project leading the way for so many others to follow in it’s tracks.

On the 10th of January 1863, the Metropolitan Railway opened to the public. The 6km long line ran from Paddington, via Euston and King’s Cross, to Farringdon Street, linking these important rail stations. The project was an immediate success, carrying 26,000 passengers a day. The line was soon extended in both ends, to Hammersmith and Moorgate.

The success of the underground railway venture was not always certain. The Times ran a campaign against the construction of the railway, arguing that no one in their right minds would use a dark railway running through the dirty soil of the city. Their fears has been proven false, and the “Tube” today forms the backbone of London’s transport network.

To construct the first underground railway lines, a crude cut-and-cover technique was used. Roads where teared open and deep trenches dug in them. Then track was laid down and tunnel segments placed. Finally the trench was filled and the road placed back on top, often with the tunnel running just feet below. The method caused havoc for residents and business along the affected streets.

Later lines where dug deep underground. Many new lines where added as railway companies wanted a pies of the pie and extensions into the hinterland soon followed. With railways running straight into the center of London, and even to the other side of town, an new urban sprawl was made possible. New tracks in the suburbs was mostly laid on the ground, not beneath. The Tube now runs more above ground than under ground.

A modern tube map

Rising populations and rivalry from cars and other modes of transport has been a challenge to underground railways all over the world. Although many cities has sacrificed their tram networks to give priority to cars and highways, the metro networks has remained a vital lifeline to prevent total deadlock.

The pressure is still on for the London Underground. Rising passenger numbers cause more crowding on already hard pressed lines and maintenance of it’s wast and sometimes more than a hundred years old infrastructure is indeed costly. Passengers moan over rush hour crowding and ticket prices rises above inflation level, politicians and Transport for London must make hard decisions and make priorities.

Despite all difficulties, the Tube and it’s sister networks all over the world will be essential to metropolitan public transport in all formidable future.

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