Love it or hate it, the London Underground or the ‘Tube’ as it is known due to its trains being shaped to fit the subterranean tunnels, is an essential part of the British capital.
Its opening 150 years ago was a feat of innovative Victorian engineering which went on to be copied around the world.
It changed the way Londoners, only one million of them back then, got around, and enabled the city to prosper.
“London was very crowded in the 19th century, you know, there were market stalls on the street, there were costermongers or whatever. So the idea came to try to unblock the London streets with an underground railway,” explained railway historian Christian Wolmar.
The silver stairways or escalators have become famous along with some of the stations – Euston, Paddington and Waterloo – and today the system carries as many passengers as the whole of the UK’s other rail networks.
Former London Mayor Ken Livingstone credits the system with the British capital’s growth: “Literally without the Tube London could not have grown to the size it is. Two hundred years ago there were only about one million people in London and you went to eight million. But you had to have a really high intense underground railway in order to be able to do that, that’s why all the world’s cities, like Beijing, Shanghai, Delhi, are all now putting in tube systems.”
Current London Mayor, Boris Johnson, has promised new technologies, partly funded by yearly ticket price rises, but historian Wolmar says to continue to thrive as a world competitor the capital needs much more than that.
“London doesn’t actually have enough tube lines, we are going to get Crossrail, we’ve got Thameslink improvements, but we really need to get cracking on devising at least two more tube lines to cope with the demand in the 21st century,” he said.
This week London Underground will recreate the first Tube passenger journey on Sunday January 13. A series of specially restored steam trains, including the oldest operational carriage in existence, will travel part of the original route.