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A Brief History of the London Underground System


The Metropolitan - The District - Metropolitan Expansion - Electric Traction & the Tube - Tunnelling Methods - Electrification of the Circle - More Tube Lines and the LER - Improvement and Expansion - London Transport 

The Metropolitan

The first underground railway in the world started with the opening of the Metropolitan Railway between Bishops Road, Paddington and Farringdon on 10th January 1863.  At the Paddington end there was a connection to the Great Western Railway and, during the first few months of operation, the Great Western loaned locomotives and rolling stock to the Metropolitan.  Within a few months, after one of the many disputes which characterised the relationship between the two companies over the years, the Great Western withdrew its rolling stock and the Metropolitan prevailed upon the Great Northern Railway company to help it out until stock of its own could be built.  By July 1864 the Metropolitan had enough of its own locomotives and coaches to operate the service without assistance.

Specially designed steam locomotives were purchased by the Metropolitan for working in their tunnels.  They were built by Beyer Peacock of Manchester and were fitted with a system for condensing the exhaust steam to reduce the smoke appearing in the tunnels.  The locomotives were of the 4-4-0 tank engine type and they became the standard for both the Metropolitan and District Railways.   An example of one of them has survived to be preserved in the London Transport Museum, Covent Garden.

After the opening of the initial section in 1863, there were various extensions to the east and the line reached Aldgate in 1876.   It was further extended round to a station called Tower of London (on the site of the present Tower Hill) in 1882.  A westward projection was started from a junction at Praed Street between the stations at Paddington and Edgware Road.  This line passed through a new Paddington station built exclusively for the Metropolitan (the present Circle/District Line station), proceeded south to High Street Kensington and then curved east to South Kensington which was reached in 1868.

The District

At this point a second underground railway company entered the story.  This was the Metropolitan District Railway, usually referred to as the District.  The District built the southern section of the Circle Line between South Kensington and Mansion House, opening it in stages between 1868 and 1871.  The present embankment along the north shore of the Thames was built during this period as part of the construction of the District's tunnels between Westminster and Temple.

The final part of the Circle was opened in 1884 when the joint construction by the Metropolitan and District of the link between Mansion House and the Tower was completed.  The project included an extension to Whitechapel and a triangular junction with the present-day Circle Line between Liverpool Street, Aldgate East and the Tower.

Both the District and Metropolitan became involved in the construction or operation of extensions radiating from the Circle Line.   Jointly with the Great Western, the Metropolitan operated a branch to Hammersmith which was opened in 1864.  This line, like the first section of the Circle to Farringdon, was constructed to take the Great Western's broad gauge rolling stock.   The track was laid to mixed gauge to allow both 4 ft. 8 in. and 7 ft .0 in. gauge rolling stock to operate.  Traces of this can still be seen today in the wide gaps between tracks on the Hammersmith branch and the generous tunnel clearances still available along much of the line between Paddington and Farringdon.   No other Underground line has these features.

The District expanded westwards.  It opened a line between Gloucester Road and West Brompton in 1869 and put in a connection between High Street Kensington and Earls Court.  Between Gloucester Road and South Kensington it built its own pair of tracks parallel to those of the Metropolitan Railway.   The two pairs merged to one pair just east of South Kensington station.

The District reached Hammersmith in 1874 and then built a another short extension to a junction with the London and South Western Railway at Studland Road near what is now Ravenscourt Park station.  This gave the District access to Richmond to which place it began running trains in 1877.  In 1879 it opened an extension from Turnham Green to Ealing Broadway.

In the following year the West Brompton branch was extended to Putney Bridge and, following the construction of a bridge across the river to allow a connection with the London and South Western Railway at East Putney, District trains were allowed running powers to Wimbledon in 1889.  A branch from Mill Hill Park, now called Acton Town, to Hounslow was also added to the District map in 1883-84.

Metropolitan Expansion

During this period the Metropolitan was also expanding.  Apart from the line to Hammersmith already mentioned, a branch from Baker Street to Swiss Cottage was opened in 1868.  It was originally called the St John's Wood Railway and was always referred to by the staff as "the Wood Line", so as to distinguish it from the "Main Line" between Hammersmith and Farringdon.   It was also variously referred to as "the branch" or "the extension".  Whatever it was called, the St John's Wood Line was extended to Willesden Green in 1879 and to Harrow-on-the-Hill in 1880.  Pinner was reached in 1885, Rickmansworth in 1887 and Chesham in 1889.  The Metropolitan service to Aylesbury began in 1892 and this centenary was celebrated during 1992 with special, steam-hauled services being operated over the line with privately preserved locomotives.

All the services on the Metropolitan and District Railways were originally steam operated, the District using the same type of 4-4-0 condensing tank locomotives as the Metropolitan.  The District had 4-wheeled wooden carriages, usually formed into 9-coach sets, for its trains.  The Metropolitan also had some 4-wheeled stock but the bulk of its trains had 8-wheeled coaches, the four axles being on a rigid wheelbase.  Bogie stock did not appear until 1898.   However, by this time, a new form of motive power had come to the Underground for, in 1890, electric traction was introduced with the opening of the City & South London Railway.

Electric Traction and the Tube

The City and South London Railway was officially opened on 4th November 1890 by the then Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, between Stockwell and King William Street in the City of London.  It was the first circular tube tunnel railway in the world and the first underground railway to be operated by electricity.  When work on the tunnelling of the line was started, it was envisaged that the system of traction would be cable haulage.  It was to have been based on the system introduced in San Francisco for the now world-famous cable cars.   By the time the C & SLR was opened however, electric traction had been substituted and the company led the way for future urban rapid transit systems. 

In 1900 the C & SLR opened extensions to Clapham Common in the south and to Moorgate in the North.  The Moorgate extension allowed the original terminus at King William Street to be abandoned, being replaced by a station at Bank.  The King William Street terminus had been positioned at the top of a steep gradient and was at the opposite end of the line from the power station at Stockwell.  Trains struggled up this gradient and current losses often used to reduce the interior electric lamps of the carriages to a dull red glow.  The terminus was further restricted by having only a single track between two platforms.  The diversion of the line to Bank and Moorgate enabled these restrictions to be abandoned.   A further extension to Angel was opened in 1901 and another to Euston in 1907.

The C & SLR was opened with electric locomotives hauling trains consisting of three small carriages.  The locomotives were only fourteen feet long.  They collected direct current (dc) from an extra rail laid between the usual running rails and used the running rails to complete the circuit.   Eventually over 50 locomotives were built to the same basic design for the C & SLR but with improvements introduced as the technology of electric traction developed.

The carriages were specially designed to fit in the 10ft 2in diameter of the original tunnels.  They were 27ft long and weighed only 7 tons.  Since they were only to run in tunnels, it was thought that they did not need full-size windows, so only small glazed panels were fitted to the bodysides just below gutter level.  There were no other windows.  Inside, there were longitudinal benches fitted with buttoned upholstery up to the base of the glazed panels.   Entrances for the cars were provided at the ends, where double sliding door gave access to open platforms.  The platforms had gates which were closed between stations and opened by "gatemen" to allow passengers to board and alight.  The lack of proper windows meant that the gatemen had to announce the stations to the passengers and the noise level was such that the names had to be shouted if people were to hear them.

The interiors of the cars with their tiny windows and buttoned upholstery were so claustrophobic that they were nicknamed "padded cells" by the public.  Later, cars were much improved by the provision of proper windows and the original cars were modified to match.  One of the original cars was restored to its original condition in 1924 and is now preserved in the London Transport Museum.  It makes an interesting comparison with the fluorescently lit interiors of modern Underground rolling stock.

In spite of its primitive technology, the C & SLR, which is now part of the Northern (via Bank) Line, was regarded as a success and it encouraged the building of other tube lines.  In 1900 the Central London Railway was opened between Shepherds Bush and Bank, cutting right across the central area within the Circle Line and connecting the shopping district of Oxford Street with the financial district in the City.  It also provided access to the then fashionable suburb of Shepherds Bush.  Like the C & SLR, this line opened with electric locomotives hauling passenger cars but the trains were up to seven cars long.   However, after only three years of operation, the locomotives were replaced by motor cars because of excessive vibration.  Multiple unit traction then became the standard system of operation.  With a service frequency of up to 30 trains per hour, the CLR became London's first tube rapid transit railway.  The Central London Railway gave its name to the present Central Line.

Tunnelling Methods

The London "tube" tunnels were unique.  They were bored through the ground rather than being constructed by the "cut and cover" method used by the Metropolitan and District Railways.  The boring was carried out by using a "shield" at the tunnelling face.  This was originally a circular scaffolding which supported the tunnel while the soil was dug away from the face.  As work progressed, the tunnel sides were supported by cast iron segments bolted together to form a ring.  The method was particularly suited to London because of the clay soil which predominates in the London basin. 

The method was not without its problems, particularly when wet ground was encountered and it became necessary to use compressed air in the working area to restrain the water.  Occasionally work was halted by inundation of wet soil and even flooding.  Accidents were common and lives were lost.   However, experience with the method showed that it was possible to do it efficiently and mechanical boring was introduced for the construction of the Central London Railway.

Even with all the risks, the deep level tube tunnels were considered a better way of building the tunnels compared with the disruption to road traffic, buildings, shops and houses which had occurred with the cut and cover method adopted for the Metropolitan and District Railways.  Here the line of route was chosen to be along streets wherever possible, which were dug up to create a 25 foot deep cutting with vertical, brick lined walls.  A brick arch was built over the top and the roadway restored on top of that.  The line were only a few feet below street level and stations could be accessed by stairs.  Many are to this day.

The tube lines were much deeper - at an average of 70 feet below street level - and, right from the beginning, they had lifts to get people between the street and the platforms.  The tunnels were also smaller than those of the "cut and cover" lines; now called the subsurface lines.  The small diameter helped to keep down costs.

Electrification of the Circle

The opening of the CLR threatened the Metropolitan Railway's traffic along the northern half of the Circle and the District's along the southern half and encouraged both railways to get together to electrify their lines.  They began with an experimental DC voltage electric service between Earls Court and High Street Kensington in 1900.  Following the experiment, they agreed between themselves to use a system of overhead electrification to be provided by the Hungarian company Ganz. Shortly after this decision however, the District was taken over by the American financier Charles Yerkes who wanted to introduce track level DC supplies instead.  Eventually, after having to go to arbitration to settle the dispute, the Metropolitan and District agreed on the 630 Volt DC supply system with 3rd and 4th rails which is still in use today.

More Tube Lines - the LER

More tube lines appeared following the opening of the Central London.  Three, the Bakerloo, Piccadilly and Hampstead Lines, were all opened during 1906-7.  They formed the cores of the much longer lines now seen today, with the Hampstead Line eventually being absorbed into the present Northern Line.   The Bakerloo was the first of the three to open, on 10th March 1906.  It was originally known as the Baker Street and Waterloo Railway, although it ran from Baker Street to the station now known as Lambeth North and was extended to Elephant and Castle in August 1906.  Extensions of the line to the north west were opened in stages over the next ten years, reaching Edgware Road in June 1907, Queens Park and Willesden Junction in 1915 and Watford in 1917.  Between Queens Park and Watford the Bakerloo trains ran over new tracks specially constructed by the London and North Western Railway next to its main line for its own suburban electric service.  At that time the Bakerloo was the longest of the tube lines and remained so until the opening of the Piccadilly Line extensions in 1932-33.

The Piccadilly Line was opened as the Great Northern, Piccadilly and Brompton Railway in December 1906.  It ran between Finsbury Park and Hammersmith and had a small branch from the main route at Holborn to Aldwych, which was opened in November 1907.  For many years the Aldwych service has consisted of a single shuttle train operating between there and Holborn.  It was closed in 1994.

The Hampstead Line was the last of the lines to be opened as a result of the tube railway boom of the 1900s.  It opened between Charing Cross and Golders Green (with a branch to Highgate) in 1907.  It was extended to Edgware in 1924 and was combined with the C & SLR in 1922-4.  These routes later became known as the Northern Line.

By the time they were opened, the Bakerloo, Piccadilly and Hampstead were all owned by Yerkes' holding company, which was known as the Underground Electric Railways of London Ltd. (UERL) which, by that time, also owned the District.  The three tubes were formed into a common company called the London Electric Railway (LER).  The UERL also absorbed the Central London and the C & SLR in 1913, although they retained their own names.

The three Yerkes or LER tubes began their operations with multiple unit trains.  As on the older tubes, the cars had open end entrances protected by iron lattice or grille gates. The first Metropolitan and District electric stock also had open ends but they quickly introduced enclosed entrances and middle doors to both improve weather protection and speed up station stops.  The tube lines began introducing these improvements from 1915 and, from the early 1920s, they introduced air operated, side sliding doors on all new tube cars.

Improvement and Expansion

Both the Central London and the C & SLR had slightly smaller tunnels than the three LER tubes.  A start was made towards standardisation during the early 1920s when the C & SLR was enlarged to match the LER tunnel size and was extended south to Morden.

The improvements to the C & SLR were designed to combine the line with the Hampstead tube line.  The two lines were connected at Kennington and Camden Town and the Hampstead was extended from Golders Green to Edgware.  Trains began running through the new junction at Camden Town in 1924 to allow Hampstead trains to run to Clapham via the City and, in 1926, the new line to Morden was opened.  At the same time, the Hampstead Line was extended south from Charing Cross to Kennington and connected to the Morden line.

The Central London was extended eastwards from Bank to Liverpool Street in 1912 and westwards to Ealing in 1920 over a line built in partnership with the Great Western Railway but it had to wait until 1938 for its tunnels to be enlarged to normal tube size.  This was done as part of the plans for long eastern and western extensions to Epping, Hainault, Ongar and West Ruislip.  The second world war delayed this work and they were eventually opened in stages between 1946 and 1957.

In the period from 1932 to 1933, the Piccadilly Line was extended westwards over some of the routes already covered by the District Line and north from Finsbury Park to Cockfosters.  The Cockfosters extension was mostly in new tube tunnels.

The idea of extending the tube lines to create suburbs, and thus to generate traffic, had begun in 1907 with the opening of the Hampstead Tube to the then open countryside at Golders Green.  It was thought, rightly, that residential development would occur if good transport was provided.  The idea had been imported from the United States with Yerkes and his engineers, who had seen the same phenomenon in cities like New York and Chicago.  However, the idea was carried too far in London in the 1930s and 40s so that the tube lines became suburban railways at their extremities, whilst remaining rapid transit lines in the central area.  The result has produced difficulties in operation which cannot easily be resolved.

London Transport

In 1933 the London Passenger Transport Board was appointed by the national government to take over the operation of the Metropolitan, District, tube railways and bus services in what is now the greater London area.  The name London Transport appeared for the first time on buses and trains to mark the passing of the Underground and bus companies from private to public ownership.

The LPTB immediately began a programme of government funded new works which included a new tube line between Baker Street and Finchley Road to relieve the Metropolitan's worst bottleneck, the extension of the Northern Line north of Highgate and the Central Line extensions already mentioned.  Much new rolling stock was acquired, including the 1938 tube stock, which survived for almost 50years and was only withdrawn from the Underground in 1988 but some of which is still used on the Isle of Wight.

Following the second world war there was a change of government and virtually all the railways in Britain were nationalised in 1948.   London Transport remained much the same as before as far as the public was concerned except that it had become the LT Executive.  It became the London Transport Board in 1963 and reverted to an Executive in 1970 when political control passed to the Greater London Council.  Control reverted to the government from June 1984 when London Regional Transport was set up.  London Underground Ltd. was formed as a subsidiary of LRT on 1st April 1985.  Control will pass back to London local government towards the end of 2003 when Transport for London takes over control of LUL.

The principal technical event during the post war period was the opening of the Victoria Line, the first Underground line in the world to be fully equipped for automatic train operation (ATO).  It was opened in stages between 1968 and 1971.  Another new line has also appeared in central London - the Jubilee Line - formed from the Stanmore branch of the Bakerloo and a new tube line built between Baker Street and Charing Cross.  This opened in 1979 and was recently extended by 11 kms to Stratford, the last section opening in December 1999. 

In 1977 the Piccadilly Line extension to Heathrow Airport was opened.  Since then the building of a new terminal (Terminal 4) has become necessary and it was decided to include a link for the Underground.  A loop extension to the Piccadilly Line was therefore constructed and it opened in 1986.   Should a fifth terminal be built, a further extension of the line would be necessary.


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