London celebrates 150 years of the Tube

Iconic: Harry Beck’s London Underground map (1936 version), used as a model for transport maps worldwide.

On January 9th 1863, the London Underground opened for the first time. An ambitious venture in engineering and social vision, the Tube is now a central part of life in the British capital.

On January 9th, 1863, a steam-powered train left London’s Paddington Station. Packed with passengers, it snaked three and a half miles under the soil of London to Farringdon, a station close to the city’s financial heartland.

Today, the same journey takes place thousands of times every year. Then, it was a remarkable milestone. ‘For the first time in the history of the world,’ the Daily News gushed, ‘men can ride in pleasant carriages, and with considerable comfort, lower down than gas pipes and water pipes… lower than the graveyards.’

The first half of the 19th century was a boom period for industrialisation, and London was changing radically: trade traffic packed the streets, pollution filled the air and the population more than doubled. Enter Charles Pearson: to alleviate the heaving inner city slums, he proposed an affordable railway line that would allow working-class people to live in the suburbs.

Within years, the first underground line was being built. The Metropolitan was constructed using the ‘cut and cover’ method: huge trenches were dug in streets, then steel girders constructed to support roads that were rebuilt above the tunnels. Later, technological developments meant the lines would be built deep under the ground.

Now, as it celebrates its 150th anniversary, the Tube incorporates eleven lines and 270 stations. Some 527 trains each travel 114,500 miles every year, carrying over one billion passengers.

The maze-like network of tunnels has been central to life in the UK capital in more ways than one. During World War Two, platforms and stations functioned as makeshift bunkers, where nearly 200,000 slept as bombs rained down on London. By the middle of the Blitz, 2,400 gallons of tea and cocoa were served underground every night, and washrooms, libraries and 22,000 bunk beds had been installed.

But the Tube is not always regarded with affection. When the Circle Line opened in 1884, The Times newspaper claimed a journey on it was ‘a form of mild torture which no person would undergo if he could conveniently help it.’ Today, temperatures in some parts of the network can reach 32°C – too hot to legally transport animals – and the air quality is so bad that one twenty minute journey is deemed the equivalent of smoking a cigarette.

Going underground

Some commuters will always seek to avoid the London Underground. Deep below the earth, packed with sweaty people and always frustratingly delayed, they say, it is not a humane place.

But is this fair? The Tube, after all, is a feat both of engineering and vision. Without it, London would not be the economic capital, cultural powerhouse and buzzing city that millions recognise and love.

You Decide

  1. Does the London Underground make a positive contribution to people’s quality of life?
  2. What makes something a ‘national icon’?


  1. Write a biography of the London Underground.
  2. The Tube Challenge: competitors attempt to visit every tube station in the quickest time possible. Using all the information you can find, plan what you think the fastest route would be.

Some People Say...

“Humans belong under the sky, not under the ground.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What about this kind of system elsewhere in the world?
There are some 160 undergrounds globally, of which the London Underground is the oldest. The thinking behind the Tube, the engineering it pioneered, and even the design and logistics it utilises today, blaze a trail for transport in cities everywhere.
I don’t use the Tube though!
Even if you don’t use underground systems yourself, you might rely on them indirectly. The London Underground keeps the capital – and everything that happens in it – going. During the Olympics, for example, trains had to run on time to get workers and spectators to events. And every day of the year, millions of commuters travel on subway systems to workplaces that provide vital services and keep the wheels of the economy turning.

Word Watch

The Industrial Revolution was a period of accelerated technological development and urbanisation, particularly in areas like transport, manufacture and mining. As a result, people flocked to cities where work in factories was available. In many ways, quality of life was improved by advances like high employment, electricity and trains, but the swift progress brought problems, too: slums, exploitation, overcrowding and pollution.
Working-class people
One of the major purposes of the Underground was to provide a cheaper means of travel than overground railways, and in order to allow lower paid workers to use the Underground, cheaper tickets were provided. In the mid-19th century a special cut-price fare was introduced for working men travelling on early trains.
Technological developments
Deeper tunnels were excavated using tunnelling shields, which allowed the earth above tunnels to remain stable while the concrete ‘tubes’ were being installed. London’s soft, clay soil made it possible for tunnels to be dug deep below the ground. In South London, where the soil is less pliable, it is more difficult to tunnel – this is why less than 10% of the system is south of the River Thames.

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