The London Underground: a wonder of the modern world

Andrew Martin does a fine job in celebrating the history and experience of the Tube, a pioneering railway that embodies all the characteristics - good and bad - of our capital city.

Neil Davenport

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The closing ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics was notable for its groaning reliance on tourist-shop icons – all black cabs, bowler hats, Houses of Parliament, red pillar-boxes and Mini Coopers. In a dreary way, what could we expect? A tourist-shop portrayal of Britain is still internationally recognisable and, for the organisers, safe enough to avoid party-pooping controversy. Curiously, though, one famous figure of the capital was noticeable by its absence: the London Underground. With its roundel logo, distinctive trains and elegantly functional map, few landmarks of London are as richly iconic as this. Indeed, as a character player in umpteen films, novels and pop songs, no London setting would be complete without the Underground.

Throughout the network’s history, though, Londoners’ relationship with the Tube has often been uneasy and aggravating: overcrowding, delays, cancellations, the fare’s dent on the wallet and, for the middle classes, striking tube workers and their ‘inflated’ salary. Nevertheless, it is only when the Tube is not working properly that we become aware of its magnitude. Unlike Tower Bridge or Beefeaters, the Tube isn’t a remote or mythical symbol of London. It’s the living, working and organic lifeblood of the capital. It is the way in which millions of Londoners are able to work and play and thus, unlike Parliament, has meaning to ordinary people’s lives.

The boons and banes of the tube for Londoners (and visitors) are warmly captured in Andrew Martin’s Underground, Overground: A Passenger’s History of the Tube. A novelist and former ‘Tube Talk’ columnist for the London Evening Standard, Yorkshireman Martin pithily combines an authoritative history of the network’s development with personal reflections on his daily journeys. People can say they have become Londoners when they can navigate the vast system and reflect on its highs and lows, quirks and anomalies. Whether we admit it or not, Londoners will have their favourite stations and lines (the author’s is the Central line, mine the Victoria). They will notice the art décor splendour of Arnos Grove station or the beautifully rich tiles at Baker Street. They will curse themselves for falling asleep on the last tube (it’s that gentle rocking motion that sends you off to the Land of Nod) and waking up, as I have on numerous occasions, in High Barnet.

For Martin, the Tube network is a mess of contradictions. It is a pioneering transport system firmly associated with London, but would never have developed without American expertise and finance. It is called the Underground when, in fact, the majority of the lines are the ‘cut and cover’ overground variety. The average maximum speed of the trains is a leisurely 25 miles per hour (except Victoria line trains, which can go twice that fast), but it’s often the quickest way of getting round London. It was the world’s first underground transport system, but passengers tend to argue that the New York and Paris systems are much, much better. ‘The Underground’, says Martin, ‘generally begs a lot of questions. Why is there a Mill Hill East but no Mill Hill West? Why are the Metropolitan line tunnels between Baker Street and Finchley Road so much smaller than the other tunnels on that line? And why do the westbound Piccadilly and southbound Victoria line platforms at Finsbury Park occupy spaces much bigger than the other platforms on those lines?’

The above anomalies are partly down to the piecemeal way in which the Underground was built. The stretch of the railway that ran under the Euston Road opened 150 years ago, in January 1863. It went from Paddington Bishop’s Road station, now called simply Paddington, to Farringdon Street station, now called Farringdon. Since then, the London Underground was ‘never properly planned but just sort of sprawled, and because it was built over the course of 140 years, it is far more revealing of the history and character of the city it serves’. This, of course, is true. The major tube upgrades, facelifts and new stations of the past decade, including the incorporation of London Overground, are simply grafted on to an old existing system.

The lack of uniformity, the historical development beneath the cosmetic changes, is part of the Tube’s appeal. While the gleaming high-tech stations of the new Jubilee-line extension are impressive, the marble house station at Mornington Crescent is a thing of peerless beauty. Even the trains are distinctive to each line’s development. The relatively modern Victoria Line trains have a cosy interior to them, while the Metropolitan Line trains offer luxurious, spacious carriages (a hangover from when there were first-class carriages). The strength of Underground, Overground is that Martin explains how and why these inconsistencies have occurred during the Tube’s tumultuous development. Every page offers fresh revelations.

So it is that we find that the reason south-east London is largely absent of Tube lines is because of the inhospitable geology below. The Metropolitan line sprawls way out into Buckinghamshire because developer Sir Edward Watkin had promised the Met shareholders that Baker Street would be connected with ‘many important towns’ in the Midlands and the North of England. (Paris’ underground network, the Métropolitain, was also an imitation of its Metropolitan namesake). Although Mornington Crescent is on the Charing Cross side of the neck between Euston and Camden, it ought to be on the Bank side of the neck, even though Bank trains do not call there. The underground railway network that runs through Old Street and Essex Road to Highbury & Islington was part of a big Tube project that never saw completion. As such, the cancellation of this project, due to the Second World War, is why Crouch End currently lacks a Tube station.

Alongside the exhaustive historical note-taking, Martin sticks to the passenger’s part of the book’s promise. There’s an entertaining, witty chapter called ‘The Notches on the Travel Card’ (the pre-Oyster Tube pass) detailing the ‘rites of passages’ for newcomers to London: witnessing a suicide (something thankfully I haven’t seen); running down the up escalator when young and drunk; leaving an umbrella or bag on a train; having to pull a passenger safety alarm; waking up at an ‘end of the line’ station; noticing a pigeon boarding a Tube train (often at Baron’s Court, I remember) or spotting a famous face on the Underground. When I lived in Archway, I frequently saw the author and broadcaster Paul Morley striding up the station’s escalator. Last October, the American R’n’B singer, Rihanna, took the Tube to the O2 arena where she was performing. It was something she had always wanted to experience, proving the author’s contention that ‘a Tube journey is an end in itself’.

It’s not only passengers that are mentioned, but importantly Tube workers, too. There is an excellent chapter on how London Underground draughtsman Harry Beck developed the iconic Tube map and how he was ripped off too. Beck is one of many examples where a worker’s on-the-ground knowledge has heightened efficiency and innovation. And he was determined to have control over the evolution of the map as, instinctively, he knew his designs resonated with the public in a way that clueless management’s didn’t. Despite all the petty battles with Underground management, it is Beck’s original concept – albeit evolved – that has won through. So much so that at Finchley Central station (near where Beck lived), there is a monument to his groundbreaking work.

Despite there being a chapter called ‘A Class Conscious Railway’ (which examined workers’ fares in the 1900s), there’s nothing on the Tube worker’s relatively successful bargaining power. Of course, their token strike actions these days are a shadow of union militancy. Nevertheless, the fact that Tube workers can throw their weight around still infuriates the middle classes. Time and again it’s stated, quite bluntly, that these oiks don’t know their place and should ‘be grateful’ they have a paid job at all. Curiously, ‘anti-capitalist’ radicals are either silent whenever Tube workers go on strike or attack them for being greedy. As the environmentalist activist Bibi van der Zee once said, unions represent the ‘I’m Alright Jack’ tendencies of the British working classes (if only they did!). And unlike ‘the poor’ or the unemployed youth that liberals blub into their organic juice about, Tube workers are no objects of pity either. As the RMT union leader, Bob Crow, once said ‘we don’t seek pity or ask to be treated like victims. We just threaten them with strike action’.

Thankfully, Martin avoids any dubious mentions of ‘therapeutic damage’ to workers on the Underground or destruction of the environment. The title of his summary chapter, ‘Modern Wonders’, says it all – because the London Underground is indeed a modern wonder.

Something like 1.1 billion passenger journeys are made on the Underground every year and more people use the Tube than the rest of the national rail network. As an essential feature of Londoner’s lives, it can’t entirely be chipped away on health and safety or environmental grounds as much as other areas of our lives have been (although Transport for London and the Mayor do their best to make the Tube experience as miserable as everything else). Historically, the London Underground is a living reminder of how visionary and technically brilliant Victorian pioneers were and the magnitude of the Industrial Revolution that laid its tracks.

Forget the National Health Service. If anything deserved to be celebrated as a revolutionising, modern wonder in the Olympic 2012 ceremonies, it’s the London Underground.

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics teacher based in London (Finchley Central). He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

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