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London Underground History

London Underground History - An Exemplary Achievement in Itself

London's underground passenger railway is an extraordinary engineering feat of the 19th century. Initially, it was thought of as a foolish idea, but has greatly eased the transport woes in London. Read on to know more about the past of this exemplary system...
Historyplex Staff
Last Updated: Mar 5, 2018
men waiting at underground platform
The quest for an alternative form of transport began in the 1830s. The steam engine was a relatively new invention then, and the idea of using it in some 'covered' transportation was being toyed around with by the government. However, it was only in the 1850s that the government became serious about constructing a subterranean transport to solve the heavy traffic problems of London. The first initiative was taken by a gentleman named Charles Pearson, whose initiative led to the passing of a bill in the House of Commons for an underground transport. The approval was granted for the first connecting line to be set up between the Paddington and Farringdon stations.

The Need

The central London area was out of bounds for all trains approaching the capital. Travelers had to get down or board a train from stations that were too far away. Therefore, the need for a rapid transport from different parts of the city to the main stations was increasingly being acknowledged. The first project for an underground station took a lot of convincing and appealing to the investors to lend money for the project. A cut-and-cover line was laid between Paddington and King's Cross station, and an open cutting line was built between King's Cross and Farringdon station. After undergoing a lot of trials and overcoming a lot of obstacles, the first line was thrown open for public use on January 10, 1863. Over 30,000 passengers used it on the first day. The Metropolitan line proved to be a huge hit.

Journey With The Passage of Time

The biggest beneficiaries of the system were the low-wage laborers who had to walk a great distance to their workplace in the city. The advent of the new commuting system meant that people could stay in the comparatively low-cost suburbs, and travel to work with more ease. It had a significant impact on London's neighboring districts. For instance, when the Northern Line of the Underground reached Morden village, it was inhabited by a mere 1000 people. Five years down the line, its population had leaped to 12,000. The Metropolitan Line was followed by the District Line, which operated on the other segment of the city. Both of these were joined by the Circle Line, which, in 1905, became the first electrified line.

However, there was a great deal of animosity between rival operators, who shunned each others network. A person who would have needed to pay for a seven-stop journey ended up paying for a 20-stop one, due to the separate travel requirements. The lines were out of sync in operation, and suffered from unfair management, such as haphazard timings of connecting trains, and two different stations at the same place for each line.

The completion of work on the Circle line was the last underground operation built by the cut-and-cover method. Engineering advances in electrified lines and the new-age boring and tunneling machines allowed deep-rail tracks to be built right below the most crowded London district. The first line to use the tunneling mechanism was the City and South London Line from City to the Elephant and Castle place.

There was a splurge of lines towards the end of the 19th century. Charles Tyson, an American financier, had invested a huge amount of money in the London Underground, and built the last four lines of the Circle segment. He financed the first major initiative to link its various segments. The Central Line provided the most sophisticated service to passengers at the time. It proved to be a landmark in the history of the London Underground, with 100,000 people being ferried up and down the city center with the best possible facilities.

Frank Pick, who began working for the Yerkes Underground Electric Railway Limited, (UERL) changed the face of the Underground in a big way. In tandem with the best designers, calligraphers, and architects, Pick modernized the entire network. By 1934, a whopping 410 million passengers traveled in the tube per year.

Recently, it has been subjected to criticism due to frequent repair works, a worn out line, and the soaring cost of travel. It has survived both the World Wars and the recent terrorist attacks to emerge as the lifeline of the city. It is both loved and hated by sections of the public, but there is no arguing the fact that it is an ingenious creation.