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Britain has been a global leader in the development of transport and London has often been at the centre of it. Whether it is the evolution of rail, underground rail, roads, maritime transport or aviation, London's rich history has plenty for the visitor to see. For a list of website and links of interest please scroll to the bottom of this article.
Underground Rail: In 1863, something happened in London which the world had never seen before. On Saturday, January 10, a steam train took off from Paddington Station in the west of the city, and made its way, not out of the city, as was the case with every railway both in London and any other city served by rail, but into the city, underneath the road surface and in a "covered way" (not a tunnel except between Kings Cross and Farringdon) which had taken several years of total chaos on the surface to construct. The first underground railway was born. It was called the Metropolitan Railway. It terminated at Farringdon Station,on the very boundary of the City of London. Being pulled by a steam train, the atmosphere down there must have been, um, challenging. Several of the original stations survive. Take a moment to wait on the platform of Baker Street Station, the Circle Line. Look up, and the old vents can still be seen. The venture was a huge success, as people could now get to work and back again in a fraction of the time it took by surface transport, the congestion of which had provided the spur to dig down. Construction was the "cut and cover" technique: the street was cleared, a trench was dug, and a tunnel roof was put in place on top of which the road was replaced (hence "covered way").. Nice and simple, but hugely expensive and very disruptive and it took almost three years. to complete The technique was adopted in other parts of the world, once they noted the success of the London adventure. This took some time, but the penny eventually dropped in 1896 in Budapest, the second oldest undergound system in the world, followed by Boston in 1898. That was also the year London electrified this system.
Those early stations, including the stations on the 1869 extension down to High Street Kensington from Paddington, were deliberately high-arched to dissipate the smoke. Notting Hill Gate is the best surviving example, but elements can still be seen in other stations, such as Paddington (Circle Line) Station. The development of the electric motor allowed a second type of underground railway in London. This did not invlove the disruption involved in the cut-and-cover method. London is built on clay (the reason why there were so few tall buildings until recently). That meant deep level boring was possible as there was now a non-polluting method of locomotion: electricity. So, in December 1890, the world's first deep-level underground railway was inaugurated, and London also pioneered the engineering method which created the round, cast-iron tunnels thereafter nicknamed the Tube. There was another innovative thought in this creation, however, which did not survive. Seeking, no doubt, to save a few pounds, the cars had narrow, glazed windows, so it was impossible to see where you were. Train attendants yelled out the station names, so it was therefore unecessary to install full windows. This was not well received by the traveling public who quickly named the claustrophobic cars "padded cells". Things changed thereafter.
The section between Paddington and Farringdon is not the oldest part of the Underground network. That hounour falls to the section of the Central Line between Leyton and Loughton , which was a surface branch line opened in 1856, taken over after WW2.
There is a love-hate relationship between London's transport and Londoners. They are convinced that their system is worse than, say, the New York subway. They are very proud of the Underground map, another world innovation born in 1933. They buy weird videotapes and DVDs taken from the driving seat of various Underground lines in order to see what the tunnels look like from the driver's point of view. (New Yorkers have it over the Londoners here, many subway trains have windows in the front car looking forward, something the DLR now offers). Many have their favorite lines: the Metropolitan is classy compared to the District. The Central has it over the Northern, and so on. But, in the end, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. All the world's great cities now have undergound railways. The oldest systems have the cut-and-cover type, and the more recent the deep-level tunnels. Many have diagrammatic system maps similar to London's. But above all, perhaps, is the ubiquity of the term "metro" for such systems. London's first line was the Metropolitan Railway Company. Paris, when it got round to building its system in 1900, took that name for itself, the Métropolitain, or Métro. And from there, the rest of the world took the name, thinking how French and fashionable it sounded. Little do they know....
Visiting London's Transport History:
London has a wealth of places for tourists and locals to visit that provide insight into the City's role in transport.
(1) The London Transport Museum in Covent Garden provides broad coverage of London's transport history.
(2) Transport-related sites to visit 'off the beaten path' that are less touristy.
(3) A website focusing on disused and lost underground stations.
(4) The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.