LONDON'S UNDERGROUND HISTORY
The tube is an engineering marvel: 150 years in the making, with 253 miles of passageway snaking under the capital, carrying millions of people every day. It's crowded, uncomfortable and expensive - but it defined London. And it's ours. Time Out champions one of the true wonders of the Western World, and pioneers who built it.
Yerkes left an extraordinary legacy. While lines such as City & South London never proved popular with the public – something that had much to do with the fact that the trains, or ‘padded cells’, were built without windows because the manufacturers figured there was nothing to see down there – his Central Line was a hit. This was largely because, like the Metropolitan half a century before, it served major transport routes, relieving strain on crowded streets above. There were drawbacks – the line followed the road pattern because the tunnellers didn’t want to pay compensation to surface landowners, so there were unnecessary kinks – but the Central Line was a groundbreaking service, attracting 100,000 passengers daily. For a start, it only had one class of travel, and one price, hence the nickname the d d Twopenny Tube. It also had some innovative engineering aspects (each station was built atop a slight incline, meaning trains naturally slowed when entering stations and sped up when leaving, while the flat face of the train pushing air in front of it provided much-need ventilation) and carriages were considerably plusher than on the City & South London. Yerkes’ desire for a unified service also led to the introduction of what can be seen as the first attempt at branding on the tube – the Leslie Green-designed distinctive dried-blood-coloured tiles of the surface stations – something pursued by the man who followed.
Frank Pick began working for Yerkes’ Underground Electric Railway Limited (UERL), which owned all the underground lines other than the Metropolitan and the Waterloo & City, in 1906. Over the next 30 years, in partnership with Lord Ashfield, general manager of UERL and future chairman of London Transport, he helped make the tube the ‘most famous and respected transport system in the world’. Historian Nikolaus Pevsner believes Pick’s accomplishments to be greater still: in 1942 he described him as ‘the greatest patron of the arts whom this century has so far produced in England and indeed the ideal patron of our age’. He is certainly one of the few transport gurus to have met Stalin, Hitler and Churchill.
Pick’s reputation was based on his eye for design. He introduced the roundel, borrowed from the London General Omnibus Company, but made famous by the tube; he asked calligrapher Edward Johnston to design the tube’s unique font; commissioned beautiful posters by Man Ray, Graham Sutherland and Edward Nash; introduced each line’s distinctive patterned seat-covers or moquettes; appointed architect Charles Holden to design modernist stations, most famously at Arnos Grove; and in 1931 he paid Harry Beck five guineas to come up with a new kind of map that would simplify the most complicated transport system in the world. All the while, the tube continued to spread east, west, north and even – occasionally – south, and was by 1934 carrying 410 million passengers a year. Pick can be said to be as responsible for the image London projects around the world as Christopher Wren, George Gilbert Scott or Norman Foster. Even today, Transport for London is well aware of the value of the brand, and jealously guards icons such as the roundel and Beck’s map from even the most loving of imitators.
Pick’s definition of the tube did not end there. In tandem with Lord Ashfield, he also arranged the integration of London’s various transport systems in 1933 under the umbrella London Transport, ensuring that an underground network that had hitherto been privately funded and unprofitable became publicly supported, thanks in part to Leader of London County Council (and Peter Mandelson’s grandfather) Herbert Morrison.
inance has always been the failing of the tube, largely because, as Wolmar astutely points out, the early railwaymen ‘were building a fantastic resource for Londoners whose value could never be adequately reflected through the fare box which was their only source of income’. This was as true in the days of private entrepreneur and public ownership as it is with today’s uncomfortable mish-mash, the great experiment of the Public Private Partnership. All too briefly London Transport papered over this failing through a combination of Ashfield and Pick’s acumen and the fact that, following the depression, there was greater confidence in public ownership, and more skill in the manner with which it was executed. But this was soon diluted with the World War II (in which the tube played its own valuable role), after which, rebuilding the country took precedence.
Which, more or less, is where we are today. The tube has acquired only two new lines since Yerkes’ frenzy: the Victoria, which took 20 years from planning to opening in 1968, and the Jubilee, hewn in part from the Bakerloo Line and extended magnificently in 2000. Years of under-investment have taken their toll, and the system looks haggard and worn. Recent years have seen some improvement, but the cost to users has soared. Even the ongoing improvements leave the system, temporarily at least, worse off – with stations closed for months and entire lines closed weekend after weekend, reinforcing the public’s lack of sympathy for this ancient marvel.
So it’s no wonder that we look upon the city’s mighty works and despair. But perhaps we should, every now and then at least, reflect on what the city would be like if the tube had never existed, be thankful for the visionaries of the past, and hopeful that their legacy will once more receive the attention and adulation it deserves.