Why is the London Underground So Confusing? Part 1

Love it or loathe it, the underground is a huge part of the London experience, for locals and visitors alike.  People new to the city often find it overwhelming, while Londoners dread the daily commute in crowded carriages, shoved up against someone’s sweaty armpit.

Strong feelings about the Tube are nothing new.  When the idea of an underground railway was proposed in the 1840s, the Times newspaper described it as “an insult to common sense”, and when it opened, the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, flatly refused to go anywhere near it.  Meanwhile, a preacher in Smithfield foretold that it would bring about the End Times as we tunnelled into hell.  Passengers during rush hour these days might not disagree.

Lord Palmeston

In the mid-nineteenth century, the narrow streets of London were a seething mess of open sewers, horse manure, and horrendous traffic jams of carriages and carts.  Something had to be done to keep the city moving, so in 1854 a government commission decided that underground was the way to go.

The Metropolitan Railway was created by digging trenches along the city streets (causing even more traffic chaos, no doubt), laying track down, and covering it over again.  They didn’t see the need to make new rolling-stock, so the line was built wide enough to accommodate steam-trains already in use above ground. 

Unsurprisingly, the public were a little concerned about breathing in the smoke and soot particles in such a confined space, but the Metropolitan Railway assured them that it would be no worse than entering a steam room, and may even be beneficial if you have asthma…

The first stretch of underground railway anywhere in the world, running between Paddington and Farringdon, opened in January 1863, and was a huge success.  On the very first day, 30,000 people travelled under the city streets.  So, the government wanted more.  

A separate company was founded to construct a railway through the south side of central London, along the river.  Confusingly named The Metropolitan and District Railway, it had several board members from the Metropolitan Railway and the intention was that these two companies would cooperate to build a circular railway under London, and then merge.  The initial stretch of the new line opened between South Kensington and Westminster in 1868.

However, as both companies ran into financial difficulties in the early 1870s, they were taken over by two railway magnates who hated each other’s guts.  James Forbes became chairman of the Metropolitan and District Railway at the turn of the decade, while a couple of years later, his arch-nemesis, Edward Watkin took over the Metropolitan Railway. 

Edward Watkin
James Forbes

Both were already bitter rivals in the rail transport business, and instead of cooperating to build a circle line, they literally took their railways in opposite directions to each other.

James Forbes expanded what we now call the District Line south-westward, connecting the towns of Ealing, Richmond and Wimbledon to Westminster by 1879.  As much of the land was not heavily developed, it was significantly cheaper to build above ground out west than to go underground in central London.  For one thing, they didn’t have to compensate for damaging wealthy city-dwellers’ property, or deal with the bad press of demolishing poorer people’s homes.  The expansion was hugely popular, and facilitated London’s growth to encompass many once separate towns and villages. Continue to Part Two

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