Steam engine returns to London Tube, celebrating Underground's 150 years in service
LONDON Busy, congested, stressful. This is how the world's first subway system was depicted by London newspapers in 1863. It's a situation that would be familiar to nail-biting passengers of the present as the Tube turned 150 years old last week.
"The constant cry, as the trains arrived, of 'no room,' appeared to have a very depressing effect upon those assembled," The Guardian newspaper reported on the public opening of London's Metropolitan Line on Jan. 10, 1863. The first stretch of rail had opened the day before, on Jan. 9.
World's oldest subway turns 150
On Sunday, to mark the anniversary, Transport for London brought back into service just one of the old steam-powered trains, running from Kensington Olympia in west London to Moorgate, east London.
"We're the grandmother of all railways, at the end of the day we were the first," said London Underground Chief Operating Officer, Howard Collins. "There are some more swish, modern, but who else could do this? To bring back 150 years of history, put it underground, and run it so successfully?"
Bemused passengers waiting on the platform at Kensington Olympia station pulled out phones to snap pictures as steam billowed out of a tunnel ahead of the approaching locomotive, which pulled to a stop alongside one of its contemporaries on the next track.
"Why aren't all trains like that?" said grinning passenger, Robert Elms. "I mean in some aspects of life, clearly modernity is not an improvement."
The London Underground has played a key role in Britain's history. The tunnels provided frequent cover for thousands of civilians during the Blitz of World War II, and were the target of a terrorist attack in 2005 which left 52 people dead.
The advent of the London subway had as much to do with housing as it did with offering an alternative to slow transportation above-ground.
Architectural historian David Lawrence said the rapid expansion of the subway network better known in London as the Tube had a major impact on the city's design. The Tube helped lure people away from the inner city into new areas where new housing was being built near the stations.
In 1919, the Metropolitan company became directly involved in developing what came to be called "Metro-land" on surplus land. One of the company's promotional posters displayed drab rows of inner city terrace houses and urged people to, "Leave this and move to Edgware."
However, they were also selling the dual benefit of a quiet, unpolluted suburban life paired with rapid access to the cultural and economic benefits of the metropolis, Lawrence said.
Today the Metropolitan Line has grown into a 249-mile system carrying 1.2 billion passenger journeys each year. It provided nearly flawless transport during the recent London Olympics despite fears that it would buckle under the extra strain.
Like many an innovation, the 19th century proposal to build a three-mile underground rail line from Paddington Station in central London to Farringdon on the edge of the financial district in the east aroused great skepticism and criticism when it was first proposed.
An editorial in The Times of London at the time found the concept repulsive: "A subterranean railway under London was awfully suggestive of dank, noisome tunnels buried many fathoms deep beyond the reach of light or life; passages inhabited by rats, soaked with sewer drippings, and poisoned by the escape of gas mains," the newspaper declared.
"It seemed an insult to common sense to suppose that people who could travel as cheaply on the outside of a Paddington bus would prefer, as a merely quicker medium, to be driven amid palpable darkness through the foul subsoil of London."
London's Daily News took a more macabre view: "For the first time in the history of the world men can ride in pleasant carriages, and with considerable comfort, lower down than gas pipes and water pipes," the newspaper said, adding, "lower down than graveyards."
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