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Book Review: Subterranean Railway by Christian Wolmer

subterranean railway

The Subterranean Railway by Christian Wolmar

This month we look at The Subterranean Railway by Christian Wolmar: a book that forms part of a larger five-part series covering the history of the railways in Britain, all written by the same author. The Subterranean Railway describes how the London Underground system was built and the far reaching effects its development has had on the character of the city.

None can quibble that London’s Underground has played a vital role in the daily life of generations of commuters, visitors and residents. Its presence is something we generally take for granted nowadays and, as much as we complain about the overcrowding and the scheduled and unscheduled closures, it is something we love to hate about our capital. Less is known about how and why it came to crawl beneath our feet.

Wolmar charts the history of the tube network, from the germ of a Victorian era idea to the scope of the Cross Rail project [2012 updated edition]. He celebrates the vision and determination of the nineteenth century pioneers, engineers, campaigners and entrepreneurs, who made the world’s first underground passenger railway possible. He unpicks the administrative bungles that inevitably occurred along the way and he gently adjudicates on the spats and compromises that were made. The demise of the network in the second half of the twentieth century due to a lack of investment is openly critiqued and the resuscitation of the East London Line / Overground part of the network is applauded.

Although obviously a book that will appeal to transport enthusiasts the interest of the book is really not restricted to that niche reader. The Subterranean Railway is published for the mass market and holds an interest for all people interested in recent London history. It is not exclusively the expected tracks, tunnels and trains which adorn the book’s chapters. Of equal importance to the development of the tube are politics and economics, art, architecture and design, socio-geography and modern-day type guru leaders and motivators. The book is written with a pace and verve of enthusiasm and its style goes some way to capturing the contemporary excitement that these underground snakes must have created at the dawn of a new era.

Many know that parts of the Underground network were used as bomb shelters during the 2nd World War but did you know that they were also used to house returning evacuees made homeless by the bombing? Here are some more facts for you:

1863: On 10 January, The Metropolitan Railway opens the world’s first underground railway, between Paddington (then called Bishop’s Road) and Farringdon Street

1905: District and Circle first lines to become electrified
1908: The name ‘Underground’ makes its first appearance in stations. First electric ticket machine is introduced. First appearance of roundel symbol
1911: London’s first escalators installed at Earl’s Court station
1933: Harry Beck presents first diagram of Underground map

1983: Dot matrix train destination indicators introduced on platforms
2003: Oyster card introduced
2007: The Tube carries 1 billion passengers in a year for the first time

[courtesy of www.tfl.gov.uk]

As those of you living in Muswell Hill and Crouch End are aware, the Underground does not extend to all parts of London; even Highgate station is not in the area most people call Highgate proper. We can only speculate on what the neighbourhood might have looked like had a post 1st World War proposal to extend the tube line from Highgate along to Muswell Hill come to fruition…what’s that I hear? A sigh of relief?