The London Underground Celebrates its 150th Anniversary

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REUTERS/Paul Curtis/Transport for London/Handout

A restored steam engine travels into Baker Street underground station in central London December 16, 2012. The engine, known as the Metropolitan Steam Locomotive No. 1 and built in 1898, was on a practice run in advance of celebrations to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the first underground railway journey on January 9, 1863.

A hundred and fifty years ago on January 9, the world’s first underground railway took its first trip. The journey was exclusive (by invitation only) and relatively short — between the stations of Paddington and Farringdon, a roughly three-mile journey today covered by the Circle and Hammersmith & City Lines. Since then, the city’s famous Underground has grown to include 11 lines covering 250 miles of track, serving 270 stations and carrying some 1 billion passengers every year.

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The Tube, as it is colloquially known, is the oldest underground railway in the world, celebrated for connecting Londoners across the sprawling capital. Charles Pearson, a solicitor to the City of London Corporation, was one of the key figures pushing for a radical new transport system to ease the burden on London’s congested roads during the mid 1800’s. Back then, the idea of a subterranean railway did not immediately gain traction: in an editorial in the Times newspaper two years prior to the eventual opening of the Metropolitan Railway in 1863, the writer noted: “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.” Yet the ambitious plans were pushed through by an act of Parliament in 1855. Indeed, when it was first envisioned, the line’s owners “planned to extend it out…ultimately, through a channel tunnel, to Paris,” according to David Lawrence, a consultant to London Underground, who spoke to Science Daily.

Pearson passed away before the opening of the railway, but the vision he campaigned for was an immediate success. According to the London Transport Museum, on the first day of travel — January 10, 1863 — the steam-powered trains carried some 40,000 people. Success came rapidly: within its first year of operation, the number of passengers grew to 9 million. By the turn of the 20th century, the Underground had grown to include several new lines, and, owing in part to the work of American entrepreneur Charles Tyson Yerkes, many lines had shifted to using electricity rather than steam-powered trains. The first deep level underground trains operated on what is now known as the northern line in 1890, which passengers accessed by hydraulic lifts. Victorian commentators at the time remarked upon how this now allowed Londoners to travel “below the level of graveyards.” The descent from street level to underground has become fortunately easier; today there are more than 400 escalators across the network. Every week these escalators travel a distance equal to twice around the world.

The Tube was eventually nationalized in 1948, and the current network, as befits its lengthy history, isn’t without its downsides: commuters complain about the overcrowding, poor ventilation, steep ticket prices and general lack of reliability. Tourists have been baffled by its complex layout,  which direction the Circle line is running, and indeed which side of the escalator to stand on (the right, if you’re wondering).

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Despite the grumbles however, the Tube has played a significant role in the economic, social and cultural development of London.  During the Second World War, Underground stations were used as shelters; tunnels were utilized for military purposes or to store valuable artworks. In July 2005, a series of terrorist bombings killed 52 people and injured 700 aboard three London trains and one bus. For the population of London, currently 8 million strong and expected to grow by a further million in the next 20 years, the Tube remains as invaluable as ever. According to the city’s eccentric Mayor, Boris Johnson, in a not-at-all hyperbolic statement: “It annihilates distance, liquidates traffic and is the throbbing cardiovascular system of the greatest city on Earth.”

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Google has marked the anniversary of its opening on January 9 with a modest doodle, playing on the iconic color-coded circuit map by Harry Beck of the London Underground. (Unfaithfully to the original, the doodle splits the Victoria line into two to spell out the second ‘g’.)

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London Underground, run by Transport for London, the organization responsible for the city’s transport system, has teamed up with the London Transport Museum to celebrate this anniversary through a series of events and activities. These include special anniversary posters and rides on a beautiful old steam train (the Met Locomotive No. 1). For those not willing to pay the $240 fare for the steam train ride, you can instead spend $17 on a one-day Tube pass to journey on whichever historic line you wish.

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