January 21, 2013

London Underground Steam Revival


David Ellis

ONE hundred and fifty years ago this month when a small steam engine hauled a handful of VIP-packed rail carriages 5.6km under the streets of London from Paddington to Kings Cross and Farrington Street, it made history as the world's first-ever underground railway.

And so fascinated were Londoners – and others who flocked from across the country to marvel at this wondrous innovation – that next day 40,000 formed queues kilometres long in streets surrounding the line's seven stations, to ride the train and go down in history as rail transport pioneers.

Because so many turned up, the London Metropolitan Railway had to bring in extra engines and carriages from other companies, and ran 120 subterranean trips at 2-pence, 3-pence and 6-pence per passenger in three classes in each direction… earning itself 850-pounds for the day.

Yet those first day passenger-numbers pale into insignificance when compared with patronage of today's London Underground: in 2012 the network carried almost four-million passengers daily, for around 1.17-billion passenger-journeys for the year.

And in 150 years its tracks have extended far beyond under Central London, to stretch out now like vast steel tentacles under much of Greater London, as well as under the River Thames, and into the suburbs and countryside of Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire, Essex, Surrey, Kent and Middlesex – some 402km of tracks in all.

And while it's all generally referred to as "the Tube" after the deeper tube-like tunnels and smaller, "snugger" carriages that came with electrification of the system in the late 1890s, only around 45% of its tracks are underground, and it's added 263 stations to those original seven of 1863.

Equally interesting is how the first "underground" tracks were created. Rather than tunnelling under London, more than 2000 workers demolished blocks of houses, slums and other buildings, and hand-dug shallow trenches where these buildings had previously stood.

Rail tracks were laid in these trenches, which were then roofed over and new streets, parks and modern buildings created above them, while stations were fashioned in larger domed areas that had shafts down which natural light could enter the stations – and up which smoke and steam could hopefully escape.

But when these shafts proved forlornly unsuccessful in easing the discomfort of so much smoke and steam for rail-users, some sections of the Underground were uncovered, allowing vaster amounts of polluted air to escape directly into the atmosphere.

As the underground network expanded, horrified Londoners complained of the unsightliness, noxious fumes, and noise of these caverns located amid rows of prestigious terrace apartments in some of the finer parts of the city. Authorities then dreamed-up the bizarre idea of hiding these exhaust-holes behind fake facades of elegant-looking buildings, several of which are still fully-maintained and can be seen today along such streets as Leinster Gardens in Bayswater, where fake windows are painted black and doors that lead to nowhere securely sealed, as well as on Queensway and in Craven Hill Gardens.

The advent of the first electric locomotive in 1890 brought with it a much-welcome smoke- and steam-free environment and quieter running on narrower-gauge lines in tunnels that could be built much deeper below London – as one newspaper columnist quipped at the time, "below grave level," and today as much as 58m below street level (at Hampstead.)

In celebration of the first trains that ran with dignitaries-only aboard on January 9 1863 – the line opened to the public next day – celebrations planned throughout 2013 include restored-train trips, special Commemoration Coins to be issued by the Royal Mint, stamps by Royal Mail, talks and historic-rail presentations, and theatrical performances.

Restored-train excursions have already included the original London Metropolitan Railway's No 1 locomotive that was rescued by enthusiasts after modern-day bureaucrats extraordinarily sold it for scrap in 1963, together with the oldest surviving carriage made of teak in 1892 and which was restored by craftsmen and apprentices at Wales' Festiniog Railway Workshops after spending 34 years as a work building on a dairy farm, complete with makeshift loo tacked on the end.

Four other historic carriages dating back to the 19th century and one of the world's oldest still-working electric locomotives from the earliest days of the Tube – named Sarah Siddons after the 18th century Shakespearean actress – completed the train.

Celebration details: London Transport Museum www.ltmuseum.co.uk/whats-on/tube150



[] STEAMY times: restored Engine No 1 shows what Londoners had to put up with in days of yore.
[] ONE of the earliest Underground carriages found on a farm and restored.
[] TRIAL run in 1860 on London's Underground.
[] MODERN day Tube train's tight fit.
[] BIZARRE fake buildings facades: Note black door on right has no handle, no mailbox, and the ground floor "windows" are painted on.
[] WHAT the fake fa├žade conceals.

(Photos in order: Transport for London; Festiniog Railway; National Portrait Gallery; Wikimedia; Jamie Barrass FlickR; Ian Mansfield/IanVisits)

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