I spend probably 40 minutes a day crammed cheek to sweaty jowl with other London commuters, some of them drunks, farters, and shovers, in a swiftly moving cylinder hundreds of feet underground. It’s usually hot, and despite the fact that we are Tetrised in there, all of us are trying desperately to pretend that we are completely alone.
And rarely do I give thanks for the experience.
But last week, I did, because it marked the 150th anniversary of the London Underground, that efficient marvel of public transport. On January 9, 1863, the world’s first-ever underground railway train, steam-operated, pulled out of Paddington Station, and rumbled 3.5 miles down the tubular tunnel to Farringdon Station. The line, which was financed by Metropolitan Railway, was an instant success: More than 40,000 people queued up for the novelty of riding a train underground. Within six months, 26,000 people were riding the train each day. The private company had been formed in 1854 with the express purpose of linking the main railway stations of Paddington, Euston, and King’s Cross; the man behind the idea and who pushed approval for it through Parliament, reformer Charles Pearson, sadly died one year before it was completed.
Six years later, the East London Railway, another private company, ran its steam-operated trains under the Thames, through a tunnel that took nearly 20 years to complete and was the first ever tunnel to run under a navigable river, between Rotherhithe and Wapping. Other lines, each operated by a separate private company, began popping up, sometimes overlapping, sometimes linking with one another; this organic growth is the reason why some stations are only blocks apart, yet can take 45 minutes to move between via train.
By 1884, there were more than 800 trains in operation in what was called the Inner Circle, a circular line that enclosed central London and that is now just the Circle Line. And now, with more than five times that number of trains operating and millions of people safely and swiftly reaching their destinations every day, the London Underground is truly a modern miracle of efficient transport.
1. The entire London Underground network is 249 miles long, employing 4134 trains and linking 270 stations. Only around 45 percent of those miles are underground.
2. Each Tube train travels an average of 114,500 miles a year, or 4.6 times around the world. The longest distance between stations is the 6.3 kilometers (3.9 miles) between Chesham to Chalfont & Latimer, out in Zone 8 on the Metropolitan Line. The shortest distance is the 300 meters (.19 miles) between Leicester Square and Covent Garden on the Picadilly Line—and since Covent Garden is usually mobbed, you’re better off getting out at Leicester Square and walking.
3. Each year, 1,107,000,000 journeys are made on the London Underground or, according to TimeOut, about 135 trips for every man, woman and child in London. The busiest station in the network is Waterloo, which sees some 82 million passengers a year, with some 57,000 traveling through during the three-hour morning peak each day; the least used is Roding Valley, which is somewhere out in Zone 4 on the Central Line and is probably a lovely place to visit.
4. The average Londoner spends 11.5 days each year on the Underground, 5.2 of those days in the Underground’s underground tunnels. What’s unknown is how many hours of those days are spent stopped underground, waiting for a signal failure to be resolved, another train to move along, or for whatever bit of rubbish that has been thrown on the tracks at the station ahead of you to be cleared.
5. The fastest line is the Metropolitan, which can reach speeds of up to 60 miles per hour, but the average speed of a London Underground train is only around 20.5 miles per hour.
6. The deepest Underground station is Hampstead, on the Northern Line, which is nearly 60 meters (192 feet) below street level. There’s an elevator, of course, but also an emergency spiral stair of more than 320 steps. In a fit of exercise mania, I tried it. It was dizzying.
7. The longest escalator at any Underground station is the 60-meter (197 foot) moving stair at Angel, in Islington, on the Northern line. I once tripped going up this engineering wonder and barked my shins something fierce.
8. The chances of being involved in a fatal accident on the Tube are 1 in 300 million, according to The Guardian. Excluding terrorist attacks, such as the horrifying 7/7 bombings in 2005, and natural deaths, only 265 people have died on the Tube in the last 10 years. That statistic, however, is difficult to reconcile with The Independent’s claim that around 50 people each year commit suicide on the Underground, and the Transport for London figures released in 2011, showing that 80 people threw themselves in front of trains in 2010, a 74 percent increase since 2000.
The Facts (just a few)
1. The Underground’s first real escalator was built in 1911 at Earl’s Court, but four years before that, a spiral escalator was installed at Holloway Road Station. It didn’t last very long—in fact, it only lasted a day of testing and never actually saw public use. Its remains are held at the London Transport Museum’s Depot, which is only open to the public twice a year. And if you ever get a chance to go, don’t hesitate.
2. Most amusing station names: Barking, West Ham, East Ham, and, of course, Cockfosters.
3. An estimated 500,000 mice live in the tunnels, but they’re not the only pests—the mosquitoes that live in the Tube are of a different and somewhat more vicious species than their aboveground cousins. Called Culex pipiens molestus, they’re supposedly known for their voracious appetites (full disclosure: as far as I know, I have never been bitten by a mosquito on the Underground).
4. The London Underground is also supposedly home to a group of subterranean Londoners, who, just like the Mole People of New York’s Subway, took to the tunnels and mutated. The Tube is also reportedly home to a host of ghostly apparitions, including the Faceless Woman of Beacontree Station, the Toothy Man of Channelsea Depot, and the Screaming Spectre of Farringdon Station.
5. Among the strangest things left on the Underground and collected by the Lost Property Office: A jar of bull semen; outboard motor; three dead bats in a container; a vasectomy kit; a harpoon gun, which may have gone with the 14-foot long boat; a stuffed eagle; breast implants; false teeth and a surprising number of prosthetic limbs; a four-foot tall Mickey Mouse; six full-sized mannequins; and an urn containing a dead man’s ashes, which was reunited with his brother five years after it was lost.
6. Another thing lost on the Underground—daytime television’s dignity, with the birth of trash talk-show host Jerry Springer! The indomitable Springer was born at Highgate Station on the Northern Line on February 13, 1944, when his mother sought shelter during a Luftwaffe raid.
7. And speaking of air raids: At the start of the London Blitz, Germany’s nightly bombing raids on the British capital in September 1939, the government banned people from using the Tube stations as air raid shelters, claiming that the stations should be reserved only for transport. People got around the ban by simply buying a ticket and refusing to the leave the platform. A month later, the government realized that the ban was unenforceable at best and cruel at worst, and gave the go-ahead for stations to be used as shelters. By the end of the war, sheltering in the Underground had became so regular that a ticketing scheme was introduced to keep people from panicking at the queues, and more than 22,000 bunk beds were installed in stations across the system to provide places for them to sleep. But the shelters weren’t failsafe: Between September 1940 and May 1941, 198 people were killed in direct hits to Tube stations; one of the worst was when Bank Station, the only station to be fully underground, was hit, resulting in the deaths of 56 people on January 13, 1941.
8. In 1969, Queen Elizabeth II commemorated the opening of the Victoria Line by driving one of the new trains from Green Park to Oxford Circus. It was her second ride ever on a London Underground train, the first being when she was 13 and accompanied by her sister and governess. Presumably her stint as Tube driver was without incident as eight years later, the Queen was again allowed in the cab of a Picadilly Line train when she presided over the opening of the line’s extension.
9. There is a shocking number of disused ghost stations scattered across the lines, which are sometimes used for TV and movie sets. And, because they can, some intrepid souls like to sneak down into them to have a look around and take creepy pictures. That’s not exactly legal or safe, but in 2011, The London Transport Museum, in conjunction with the Underground, took some 2500 lucky people on tours of the abandoned Aldwych Station on the Strand.
10. The London Underground’s iconic map, which bears no relationship to actual topographical or geographical features, was designed in 1931 by HC Beck. Beck, an engineering draughtsman who worked in London Underground’s signals office, was supposedly inspired by electronic circuit boards, and saw ways of tidying up the lines. But the department rejected the initial proposal, claiming it was too radical, and Beck was paid a paltry £10.50 for his work. Two years and some modifications later, however, the Underground adopted the map and has used it ever since.