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The London Underground – The World’s Oldest Metro System

Updated: Jan 14


The iconic bar-and-circle 'roundel' logo used by London Underground


Sunday was an important anniversary for the London Underground, the world’s oldest rapid transit system. In January 10th1863 the first section of the Underground opened, running between Paddington Station (then as Bishop’s Road) and Farringdon Street, making it the oldest section of underground railway in the world.


Farringdon Station, just outside the boundary of the City of London


Originally part of the Metropolitan Railway, the idea of an underground railway linking the City of London with the urban centre was proposed in the 1830s, and the Metropolitan Railway was granted permission to build such a line in 1854. The first trains used gas-lit wooden carriages hauled by steam locomotives and were quickly hailed as a success, carrying 38,000 passengers on the opening day, and borrowing trains from other railways to supplement the service. This was followed in December 1868 by the Metropolitan District Railway (commonly known as the District Railway) which ran from South Kensington to Westminster as part of a plan for an underground ‘inner circle’ connecting London's main-line stations. The Metropolitan and District railways completed the Circle line in 1884, and eventually both railways expanded, the District building five branches to the west reaching Ealing, Hounslow, Uxbridge, Richmond, and Wimbledon and the Metropolitan eventually extended as far as Verney Junction in Buckinghamshire, more than 50 miles from Baker Street and the centre of London.


Trains arrive every couple of minutes during peak times and travellers are constantly reminded to 'Mind The Gap'!


The carriages are normally much busier than this!


The first deep-level tube line, the City and South London Railway opened in 1890 with electric locomotives that hauled carriages with small opaque windows, nicknamed padded cells. The Waterloo and City Railway opened in 1898, followed by the Central London Railway in 1900, known as the ‘twopenny tube’. Until the complete electrification of the Underground in the early 20th century, steam trains were widely used, causing all sorts of problems. There were wide-spread instances of passengers collapsing whilst travelling, due to the heat and pollution. This led to many novel ideas being put forward to combat these problems. It was suggested that garden plants be installed, to help clean the air, and the Metropolitan Railway encouraged their staff to grow beards, which would act as air filters! Conversely, some experts claimed beneficial effects from travelling on the tube. Illnesses as diverse as tonsilitis and anorexia could be cured, and Great Portland Street Station was designated as a sanatorium for sufferers of asthma and bronchial complaints.


In 1933, most of London's underground railways, tramway and bus services were merged to form the London Passenger Transport Board, which saw the introduction of the iconic bar-and-circle 'roundel' logo, which is seen all over London today. In the same year that the London Passenger Transport Board was formed, Harry Beck's diagrammatic tube map first appeared. This is a schematic transport map of the lines, trains and services that London Underground provides. It was immediately popular, and the Underground has used similar topological (a type of map where vital information remains, and unnecessary detail has been removed) maps ever since.

The modern 'Tube' map


One of the entrances to Westminster Station


Piccadilly Circus


Today, the Underground has 270 stations and the 11 lines run for a total length of 250 miles, making it the fifth longest metro system in the world. The Tube handles 5 million passenger journeys a day and at peak times over 500 trains are whizzing around the capital at any one time. As a regular commuter, day to day travel on the Tube might have lost its appeal, but to the tourist it is an absolute delight, transporting us from one attraction to another. It is a marvel of organisation and engineering and London could literally not exist without it!


All photos courtesy of the public domain

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