A Brief History of the London Underground System
- The District - Metropolitan
Expansion - Electric Traction & the Tube - Tunnelling Methods - Electrification of
the Circle - More Tube Lines and the LER - Improvement and Expansion - London
The first underground railway in the world started with the
opening of the Metropolitan Railway between Bishops Road, Paddington and Farringdon on
10th January 1863. At the Paddington end there was a connection to the Great Western
Railway and, during the first few months of operation, the Great Western loaned
locomotives and rolling stock to the Metropolitan. Within a few months, after one of
the many disputes which characterised the relationship between the two companies over the
years, the Great Western withdrew its rolling stock and the Metropolitan prevailed upon
the Great Northern Railway company to help it out until stock of its own could be
built. By July 1864 the Metropolitan had enough of its own locomotives and coaches
to operate the service without assistance.
Specially designed steam locomotives were purchased by the
Metropolitan for working in their tunnels. They were built by Beyer Peacock of
Manchester and were fitted with a system for condensing the exhaust steam to reduce the
smoke appearing in the tunnels. The locomotives were of the 4-4-0 tank engine type
and they became the standard for both the Metropolitan and District Railways. An
example of one of them has survived to be preserved in the London Transport Museum, Covent
After the opening of the initial section in 1863, there were
various extensions to the east and the line reached Aldgate in 1876. It was further
extended round to a station called Tower of London (on the site of the present Tower Hill)
in 1882. A westward projection was started from a junction at Praed Street between
the stations at Paddington and Edgware Road. This line passed through a new
Paddington station built exclusively for the Metropolitan (the present Circle/District
Line station), proceeded south to High Street Kensington and then curved east to South
Kensington which was reached in 1868.
At this point a second underground railway company entered
the story. This was the Metropolitan District Railway, usually referred to as the
District. The District built the southern section of the Circle Line between South
Kensington and Mansion House, opening it in stages between 1868 and 1871. The
present embankment along the north shore of the Thames was built during this period as
part of the construction of the District's tunnels between Westminster and Temple.
The final part of the Circle was opened in 1884 when the
joint construction by the Metropolitan and District of the link between Mansion House and
the Tower was completed. The project included an extension to Whitechapel and a
triangular junction with the present-day Circle Line between Liverpool Street, Aldgate
East and the Tower.
Both the District and Metropolitan became involved in the
construction or operation of extensions radiating from the Circle Line. Jointly
with the Great Western, the Metropolitan operated a branch to Hammersmith which was opened
in 1864. This line, like the first section of the Circle to Farringdon, was
constructed to take the Great Western's broad gauge rolling stock. The track was
laid to mixed gauge to allow both 4 ft. 8½ in. and 7 ft .0¼ in. gauge rolling stock to
operate. Traces of this can still be seen today in the wide gaps between tracks on
the Hammersmith branch and the generous tunnel clearances still available along much of
the line between Paddington and Farringdon. No other Underground line has
The District expanded westwards. It opened a line
between Gloucester Road and West Brompton in 1869 and put in a connection between High
Street Kensington and Earls Court. Between Gloucester Road and South Kensington it
built its own pair of tracks parallel to those of the Metropolitan Railway. The two
pairs merged to one pair just east of South Kensington station.
The District reached Hammersmith in 1874 and then built a
another short extension to a junction with the London and South Western Railway at
Studland Road near what is now Ravenscourt Park station. This gave the District
access to Richmond to which place it began running trains in 1877. In 1879 it opened
an extension from Turnham Green to Ealing Broadway.
In the following year the West Brompton branch was extended
to Putney Bridge and, following the construction of a bridge across the river to allow a
connection with the London and South Western Railway at East Putney, District trains were
allowed running powers to Wimbledon in 1889. A branch from Mill Hill Park, now
called Acton Town, to Hounslow was also added to the District map in 1883-84.
During this period the Metropolitan was also expanding.
Apart from the line to Hammersmith already mentioned, a branch from Baker Street to Swiss
Cottage was opened in 1868. It was originally called the St John's Wood Railway and
was always referred to by the staff as "the Wood Line", so as to distinguish it
from the "Main Line" between Hammersmith and Farringdon. It was also
variously referred to as "the branch" or "the extension".
Whatever it was called, the St John's Wood Line was extended to Willesden Green in 1879
and to Harrow-on-the-Hill in 1880. Pinner was reached in 1885, Rickmansworth in 1887
and Chesham in 1889. The Metropolitan service to Aylesbury began in 1892 and this
centenary was celebrated during 1992 with special, steam-hauled services being operated
over the line with privately preserved locomotives.
All the services on the Metropolitan and District Railways
were originally steam operated, the District using the same type of 4-4-0 condensing tank
locomotives as the Metropolitan. The District had 4-wheeled wooden carriages,
usually formed into 9-coach sets, for its trains. The Metropolitan also had some
4-wheeled stock but the bulk of its trains had 8-wheeled coaches, the four axles being on
a rigid wheelbase. Bogie stock did not appear until 1898. However, by this
time, a new form of motive power had come to the Underground for, in 1890, electric
traction was introduced with the opening of the City & South London Railway.
The City and South London Railway was officially opened on
4th November 1890 by the then Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, between Stockwell
and King William Street in the City of London. It was the first circular tube tunnel
railway in the world and the first underground railway to be operated by
electricity. When work on the tunnelling of the line was started, it was envisaged
that the system of traction would be cable haulage. It was to have been based on the
system introduced in San Francisco for the now world-famous cable cars. By the time
the C & SLR was opened however, electric traction had been substituted and the company
led the way for future urban rapid transit systems.
In 1900 the C & SLR opened extensions to Clapham Common
in the south and to Moorgate in the North. The Moorgate extension allowed the
original terminus at King William Street to be abandoned, being replaced by a station at
Bank. The King William Street terminus had been positioned at the top of a steep
gradient and was at the opposite end of the line from the power station at
Stockwell. Trains struggled up this gradient and current losses often used to reduce
the interior electric lamps of the carriages to a dull red glow. The terminus was
further restricted by having only a single track between two platforms. The
diversion of the line to Bank and Moorgate enabled these restrictions to be abandoned.
A further extension to Angel was opened in 1901 and another to Euston in 1907.
The C & SLR was opened with electric locomotives hauling
trains consisting of three small carriages. The locomotives were only fourteen feet
long. They collected direct current (dc) from an extra rail laid between the usual
running rails and used the running rails to complete the circuit. Eventually over
50 locomotives were built to the same basic design for the C & SLR but with
improvements introduced as the technology of electric traction developed.
The carriages were specially designed to fit in the 10ft 2in
diameter of the original tunnels. They were 27ft long and weighed only 7 tons.
Since they were only to run in tunnels, it was thought that they did not need full-size
windows, so only small glazed panels were fitted to the bodysides just below gutter
level. There were no other windows. Inside, there were longitudinal benches
fitted with buttoned upholstery up to the base of the glazed panels. Entrances for
the cars were provided at the ends, where double sliding door gave access to open
platforms. The platforms had gates which were closed between stations and opened by
"gatemen" to allow passengers to board and alight. The lack of proper
windows meant that the gatemen had to announce the stations to the passengers and the
noise level was such that the names had to be shouted if people were to hear them.
The interiors of the cars with their tiny windows and
buttoned upholstery were so claustrophobic that they were nicknamed "padded
cells" by the public. Later, cars were much improved by the provision of proper
windows and the original cars were modified to match. One of the original cars was
restored to its original condition in 1924 and is now preserved in the London Transport
Museum. It makes an interesting comparison with the fluorescently lit interiors of
modern Underground rolling stock.
In spite of its primitive technology, the C & SLR, which
is now part of the Northern (via Bank) Line, was regarded as a success and it encouraged
the building of other tube lines. In 1900 the Central London Railway was opened
between Shepherds Bush and Bank, cutting right across the central area within the Circle
Line and connecting the shopping district of Oxford Street with the financial district in
the City. It also provided access to the then fashionable suburb of Shepherds
Bush. Like the C & SLR, this line opened with electric locomotives hauling
passenger cars but the trains were up to seven cars long. However, after only three
years of operation, the locomotives were replaced by motor cars because of excessive
vibration. Multiple unit traction then became the standard system of
operation. With a service frequency of up to 30 trains per hour, the CLR became
London's first tube rapid transit railway. The Central London Railway gave its name
to the present Central Line.
The London "tube" tunnels were unique. They
were bored through the ground rather than being constructed by the "cut and
cover" method used by the Metropolitan and District Railways. The boring was
carried out by using a "shield" at the tunnelling face. This was
originally a circular scaffolding which supported the tunnel while the soil was dug away
from the face. As work progressed, the tunnel sides were supported by cast iron
segments bolted together to form a ring. The method was particularly suited to
London because of the clay soil which predominates in the London basin.
The method was not without its problems, particularly when
wet ground was encountered and it became necessary to use compressed air in the working
area to restrain the water. Occasionally work was halted by inundation of wet soil
and even flooding. Accidents were common and lives were lost. However,
experience with the method showed that it was possible to do it efficiently and mechanical
boring was introduced for the construction of the Central London Railway.
Even with all the risks, the deep level tube tunnels were
considered a better way of building the tunnels compared with the disruption to road
traffic, buildings, shops and houses which had occurred with the cut and cover method
adopted for the Metropolitan and District Railways. Here the line of route was
chosen to be along streets wherever possible, which were dug up to create a 25 foot deep
cutting with vertical, brick lined walls. A brick arch was built over the top and
the roadway restored on top of that. The line were only a few feet below street
level and stations could be accessed by stairs. Many are to this day.
The tube lines were much deeper - at an average of 70 feet
below street level - and, right from the beginning, they had lifts to get people between
the street and the platforms. The tunnels were also smaller than those of the
"cut and cover" lines; now called the subsurface lines. The small diameter
helped to keep down costs.
The opening of the CLR threatened the Metropolitan Railway's
traffic along the northern half of the Circle and the District's along the southern half
and encouraged both railways to get together to electrify their lines. They began
with an experimental DC voltage electric service between Earls Court and High Street
Kensington in 1900. Following the experiment, they agreed between themselves to use
a system of overhead electrification to be provided by the Hungarian company Ganz. Shortly
after this decision however, the District was taken over by the American financier Charles
Yerkes who wanted to introduce track level DC supplies instead. Eventually, after
having to go to arbitration to settle the dispute, the Metropolitan and District agreed on
the 630 Volt DC supply system with 3rd and 4th rails which is still in use today.
More tube lines appeared following the opening of the Central
London. Three, the Bakerloo, Piccadilly and Hampstead Lines, were all opened during
1906-7. They formed the cores of the much longer lines now seen today, with the
Hampstead Line eventually being absorbed into the present Northern Line. The
Bakerloo was the first of the three to open, on 10th March 1906. It was originally
known as the Baker Street and Waterloo Railway, although it ran from Baker Street to the
station now known as Lambeth North and was extended to Elephant and Castle in August
1906. Extensions of the line to the north west were opened in stages over the next
ten years, reaching Edgware Road in June 1907, Queens Park and Willesden Junction in 1915
and Watford in 1917. Between Queens Park and Watford the Bakerloo trains ran over
new tracks specially constructed by the London and North Western Railway next to its main
line for its own suburban electric service. At that time the Bakerloo was the
longest of the tube lines and remained so until the opening of the Piccadilly Line
extensions in 1932-33.
The Piccadilly Line was opened as the Great Northern,
Piccadilly and Brompton Railway in December 1906. It ran between Finsbury Park and
Hammersmith and had a small branch from the main route at Holborn to Aldwych, which was
opened in November 1907. For many years the Aldwych service has consisted of a
single shuttle train operating between there and Holborn. It was closed in 1994.
The Hampstead Line was the last of the lines to be opened as
a result of the tube railway boom of the 1900s. It opened between Charing Cross and
Golders Green (with a branch to Highgate) in 1907. It was extended to Edgware in
1924 and was combined with the C & SLR in 1922-4. These routes later became
known as the Northern Line.
By the time they were opened, the Bakerloo, Piccadilly and
Hampstead were all owned by Yerkes' holding company, which was known as the Underground
Electric Railways of London Ltd. (UERL) which, by that time, also owned the
District. The three tubes were formed into a common company called the London
Electric Railway (LER). The UERL also absorbed the Central London and the C &
SLR in 1913, although they retained their own names.
The three Yerkes or LER tubes began their operations with
multiple unit trains. As on the older tubes, the cars had open end entrances
protected by iron lattice or grille gates. The first Metropolitan and District electric
stock also had open ends but they quickly introduced enclosed entrances and middle doors
to both improve weather protection and speed up station stops. The tube lines began
introducing these improvements from 1915 and, from the early 1920s, they introduced air
operated, side sliding doors on all new tube cars.
Both the Central London and the C & SLR had slightly
smaller tunnels than the three LER tubes. A start was made towards standardisation
during the early 1920s when the C & SLR was enlarged to match the LER tunnel size and
was extended south to Morden.
The improvements to the C & SLR were designed to combine
the line with the Hampstead tube line. The two lines were connected at Kennington
and Camden Town and the Hampstead was extended from Golders Green to Edgware. Trains
began running through the new junction at Camden Town in 1924 to allow Hampstead trains to
run to Clapham via the City and, in 1926, the new line to Morden was opened. At the
same time, the Hampstead Line was extended south from Charing Cross to Kennington and
connected to the Morden line.
The Central London was extended eastwards from Bank to
Liverpool Street in 1912 and westwards to Ealing in 1920 over a line built in partnership
with the Great Western Railway but it had to wait until 1938 for its tunnels to be
enlarged to normal tube size. This was done as part of the plans for long eastern
and western extensions to Epping, Hainault, Ongar and West Ruislip. The second world
war delayed this work and they were eventually opened in stages between 1946 and 1957.
In the period from 1932 to 1933, the Piccadilly Line was
extended westwards over some of the routes already covered by the District Line and north
from Finsbury Park to Cockfosters. The Cockfosters extension was mostly in new tube
The idea of extending the tube lines to create suburbs, and
thus to generate traffic, had begun in 1907 with the opening of the Hampstead Tube to the
then open countryside at Golders Green. It was thought, rightly, that residential
development would occur if good transport was provided. The idea had been imported
from the United States with Yerkes and his engineers, who had seen the same phenomenon in
cities like New York and Chicago. However, the idea was carried too far in London in
the 1930s and 40s so that the tube lines became suburban railways at their extremities,
whilst remaining rapid transit lines in the central area. The result has produced
difficulties in operation which cannot easily be resolved.
In 1933 the London Passenger Transport Board was appointed by
the national government to take over the operation of the Metropolitan, District, tube
railways and bus services in what is now the greater London area. The name London
Transport appeared for the first time on buses and trains to mark the passing of the
Underground and bus companies from private to public ownership.
The LPTB immediately began a programme of government funded
new works which included a new tube line between Baker Street and Finchley Road to relieve
the Metropolitan's worst bottleneck, the extension of the Northern Line north of Highgate
and the Central Line extensions already mentioned. Much new rolling stock was
acquired, including the 1938 tube stock, which survived for almost 50years and was only
withdrawn from the Underground in 1988 but some of which is still used on the Isle of
Following the second world war there was a change of
government and virtually all the railways in Britain were nationalised in 1948.
London Transport remained much the same as before as far as the public was concerned
except that it had become the LT Executive. It became the London Transport Board in
1963 and reverted to an Executive in 1970 when political control passed to the Greater
London Council. Control reverted to the government from June 1984 when London
Regional Transport was set up. London Underground Ltd. was formed as a subsidiary of
LRT on 1st April 1985. Control will pass back to London local government towards the
end of 2003 when Transport for London takes over control of LUL.
The principal technical event during the post war period was
the opening of the Victoria Line, the first Underground line in the world to be fully
equipped for automatic train operation (ATO). It was opened in stages between 1968
and 1971. Another new line has also appeared in central London - the Jubilee Line -
formed from the Stanmore branch of the Bakerloo and a new tube line built between Baker
Street and Charing Cross. This opened in 1979 and was recently extended by 11 kms to
Stratford, the last section opening in December 1999.
In 1977 the Piccadilly Line extension to Heathrow Airport was
opened. Since then the building of a new terminal (Terminal 4) has become necessary
and it was decided to include a link for the Underground. A loop extension to the
Piccadilly Line was therefore constructed and it opened in 1986. Should a fifth
terminal be built, a further extension of the line would be necessary.