London Underground celebrates 150 years


The London Underground, the world’s oldest metro system, celebrates its 150th anniversary this week, still rumbling along and carrying 4 million passengers a day across the British capital.

On Jan. 10, 1863, after three years of privately funded construction work, London’s first underground railway line opened to the public. Long queues formed at each of the seven stations for the chance to ride the line, in carriages lit by gas lamps and pulled by a steam locomotive.

“For the first time in the history of the world men can ride in pleasant carriages, and with considerable comfort, lower down than gas pipes and water pipes . . . lower than the graveyards,” The Daily News newspaper enthused at the time.

William Hardman, one of the first passengers, said: “We experienced no disagreeable odor, beyond the smell common to tunnels. The carriages . . . are so lofty that a six-footer (a 182-cm-tall person) may stand erect with his hat on.”

That first line, designed to relieve congestion in what was then the world’s biggest city, linked three of London’s railway terminuses — Paddington, Euston and King’s Cross — with the heart of the city.

The Metropolitan Railway ran for 5 km and had seven stops. A century and a half later, the Tube runs for 400 km, linking 270 stations and carrying passengers on 1.1 billion journeys per year.

“It became the lifeblood of London,” said David Waboso, director of capital programs at Transport for London.

The Tube has had to adapt to the rhythm of London life and live through some of the British capital’s defining moments. During the Blitz — the World War II Nazi bombardment of London and other cities — tens of thousands of Londoners slept in Tube stations to shelter from the air raids.

Throughout its history, the Tube has been cherished and derided — a tourist may have a very different view from a commuter who has just spent half an hour sweating in a crammed carriage held up by signal failures.

“There is a love-hate relationship between Londoners and the Underground,” author Oliver Green said. “They all complain about it” due to its breakdowns, endless upgrade works and costly fares — £116.80 ($187.60) a month to cover only the central zone — “but they have to use it.”

Due to chronic underinvestment over several decades, the Underground has become a “monster, sclerotic and tangle-limbed,” according to The Daily Telegraph newspaper, struggling to respond to the ever-increasing growth in passenger numbers.

The government began to reinvest in the Tube in the 1990s and a big modernization program got under way in 2003. Due to take until 2020, it is costing £1.4 billion ($2.2 billion) per year. The other side of the coin is that lines are often partially closed at weekends as work is carried out, and getting around becomes a test of endurance.