Simanaitis Says

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HURRAH FOR the London Underground, 150 years old today! It was on January 10, 1863, a Saturday, that thousands of Londoners queued up to ride the Metropolitan Railway underground from Paddington Station to Farringdon Street, a distance of about 3 1/2 miles.


A familiar sight throughout London, its design dates from 1908.

At first, the coaches—First, Second and Third Class—were pulled by steam locomotives. Many of these were of the condensing variety with their steam recirculated through sidesaddle tanks, sort of a forerunner of modern cars’ EGR systems. Nonetheless, they spewed a fair amount of smoke.


The Underground’s Baker Street Station, circa 1887. Painting by Dennis Brown; this and others commissioned by the author for “Three Great Subterranean Transportation Systems,” R&T, April 1994.

By 1908, electric propulsion replaced steam for all passenger trains. Curiously, though, steam engines remained for freight and engineering service until 1971.

Wonderful stories abound, some of them even true. Escalators were installed at Earl’s Court Station in 1911; this, to supplement the station’s elevator service. It’s said a peg-leg man known as “Bumper” Harris was hired to travel up and down the new devices all day long, thus showing how safe these “moving staircases” were. (Alas, the London Transport Museum does not corroborate this tale.)

Similarly, Londoners swear that pigeons of Trafalgar Square amble down into Charing Cross Station, hop the Bakerloo Line one stop to the Embankment, then fly back to continue the game.

On rather more firm ground, during World War II air raids, people were initially discouraged access to the Underground. Later, they were permitted to occupy the tunnels for safety.


During the Nazi Blitz, 1940-1941, Londoners sought nightly shelter below ground. Image from the London Transport Museum.

It’s recorded that one night a total of 177,500 people did so. In fact, portions of tunnels yet to be used for transport were transformed into underground offices for government operations.


There are more than 3 million journeys each day on today’s Underground.

Technically speaking, the Tube refers to those lines of the Underground that travel through the deepest of the tunnels. The earliest Metropolitan Railway celebrating its 150th anniversary was constructed by cut-and-cover methods, its maximum depth 59 ft. below the street. The deepest Tube station today, Hampstead, is 192 ft. down.


The London Underground, an icon of transportation map design dating from 1931.

Through the genius of engineering draftsman Harry Beck, Underground routes are completely understandable. In 1931, Beck devised the first transport map that was—and remains—topological rather than geographic. That is, station connections are its key, not where these stations actually appear in London geography.

The Underground evolved into quite a complex system. For instance, its lines had to be detoured around Buckingham Palace and the vaults of the National History Museum. Some stations have rising gradients approaching stations and downhill slopes on exit; these, to aid braking and acceleration of the trains.


Camden Town junction is an engineering marvel. Image from Eagle Annual: The Best of the 1950s Comic, assembled by Daniel Tatarsky, Orion Books, 2007. Both and have this and its companion volume The Eagle Annual of the Cutaways.



The First Tube, the Story of the Northern Line, by Mike Horne and Bob Bayman, Capital Transport, 1990, contains this additional fine illustration of Camden Town junction.

The design of Camden Town junction is regarded as a major engineering achievement. Underground transport passes over, under and through the station with a maximum frequency of 110 trains an hour.

And don’t forget: Mind the Gap! ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2013

4 comments on “MIND THE GAP

  1. Bill Urban
    January 11, 2013

    That Camden Town junction image is in itself an artistic marvel. Over what period of years did it take to finish all the modifications? But recent “Superstorm Sandy” newscasts bring to mind the danger of flooding. I remember during Hurricane Agnes, in 1972, the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel was completely under water.

    • linyangchen
      January 12, 2013

      That’s an amazing illustration of Camden Town, first time seeing it. It must have been a devil to build without being able to see anything down there!

  2. simanaitissays
    January 11, 2013

    The London Underground has been a “work in progress” for 150 years now.
    By the way, this item is the first of three, with the Paris Metro and Tokyo Subway to come.

  3. linyangchen
    January 14, 2013

    Thanks for the second illustration of Camden Town. It looks like our circulatory system, and indeed it is a circulatory system in its own right!

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This entry was posted on January 10, 2013 by in Sci-Tech and tagged , .
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