Happy Birthday to Ya – London Underground turns 150

 Underground 1908
On January 9th 1863 a series of dignitaries, engineers and politicians took a very short journey from Farringdon to Paddington (no buffet car) in the first of the Metropolitan Railway’s underground experience.  Next week Transport for London, who took the helm for controlling our many lined network in 2003, will kick off their celebrations for the 150th birthday of the Tube.   The nature of these range from talks on the history of the tube and heritage steam trains chuckling up and down the much-rarified rural edge of the Chesham branch of the Metropolitan.  The shop at the Transport Museum has gone mental in the mug department.   The University of London is holding a two day conference on the Victorian and Edwardian Underground, with sizeable breaks in between the lectures for tea and lunch (academics are always so very very hungry and must feed their ginormous brains). The evocative poster art of the London Underground will be exhibiting at Covent Garden from February to October this year, and if it’s slowly steaming stacks you’re after, the Museum Depot out at Acton will have a series of Open Days complete with engine displays and London Underground influenced photography, art and design. 
At 150, it makes our system the oldest in the world but – against popular forecasts in the 1970s and 1980s – it is now in the best nick.  Post-war decades of under-funding nearly made the system flatline utterly thirty years ago.  Remember when the Northern Line was called the Misery Line?  Delays were so frequent you allowed time for them.  Trains startlingly would halt in destinations half way along the line.  Those dubious black plastic balls that hung from spiral straps on the conical ceilings of the District Line burnt West London’s hands in the summer.  The tube was a sad sack of maligned, wooden-slatted austerity.  The ancient escalators weren’t replaced until over thirty people died in a fire at Kings Cross in 1987.  Following on from the abolition of the GLC in 1986, an extraordinary act of personal revenge mainly against one Mr K Livingstone of London N.W.2, the network bounced about between Transport ministries, annoying the stretched public sector purses of the early 1990s.  It wasn’t under the Mayorality was established in 2000, and Transport for London not long after, that the Underground, along with all of our city’s transport networks, came under a civic-led London body of its own again.   This brought about major refurbishment works and two enormous government-led cash injections which bring us to the tube today, an astonishingly clean, plastic haven of special seats for the infirm, of super-quick speedways, of trains so sophisticated they’ve started to talk to us to remind us where we are, what lines we can change for at the next station, and whether or not we should alight here for the British Library or Buckingham Palace.  This to us is the most significant and swift mode of transport our city has ever produced,  although it is hardly accurate to call it the London Underground when 55% of it is above ground.
What emerges from the debates surrounding the London Underground is that the tube network operates as a microcosm of the anxieties of the city as a whole : will there be enough room for us all?  Will it operate sufficiently?  Will the system face its economic difficulties with success?  Will we all die in a hole in the ground?  Will someone jump in front of my train today?  What is the actual chance of anyone giving up their seat for anyone?  How close are we to the rats?  When shall we all have our annual moan about the 4% cost increase?   Will I get flashed at?  Again? Since July 2005 of course, our anxieties about the London Underground have been characterized by a darker hue.  However, we are safer than we have ever been and cleaner than we have ever been under the London ground.  Soon you’ll be able to make telephone calls from there.  Soon I’ll be drafting my blog from the depths of the square mile and click “Publish” and voila.  A note from the wi-fi’d underground.  The tunnels will liberate us and underground will be just as accessible as overground.  
The first air conditioned tubes were rolled out in 2010, but unfortunately focused on sections of lines that were above ground anyway – on the Metropolitan and Hammersmith & City Lines.  Solving the problem of creating air cooling on some of the deeper lines of the network, such as the Piccadilly and the Northern, is a longer, more complex project.  Ken Livingstone offered a £100,000 prize to anyone who could produce a successful air-cooling prototype for the deeper tube lines back in 2003, but none of the proposals were workable.  Suggestions have been made for the trains to carry enormous blocks of ice in refrigeration coolers, which is peculiar.   It was also once seriously recommended that bags of frozen peas be attached to tube train roofs.  It took the New York subway 20 years to successfully devise its air conditioning technology, and air cooling is one of the major issues that concern travellers, which is hardly surprising as temperatures on the Northern Line hit 116 degrees in the 2006 heatwave. 
As regular readers will know, I slightly worship the tube.  As a child, and not a city native, the sound and smell of exciting London was always the diesel scented Northern Line platform at Euston.  There was always something wonderful and secretive, and oddly Alice-in-Wonderland, about the trains emerging from the tunnel, as if from space, as if from nowhere.  Tube trains have never stopped looking like animals to me.  The roar of one and the blast of the air in the face never fails to thrill.  I even watch for the small mice that labour up and down the platform at Charing Cross and Leicester Square, looking for remnants from your Chinese takeaways.   But it’s not all electric thrills, you know.   Last year 4,000 people were injured on the tube, including over 50 fractures, 30 cases of dislocated joints, 15 electric shocks and 6 heart attacks.  However, to put this into context, the London Underground has a safety record fifteen times better than the European average and I don’t know about you, but I’d rather keel over with a cardiac arrest at Tottenham Court Road station than some inscrutable, ugly outpost of the Moscow underground train network.   
When it comes to injuries it’s amazing that more people don’t tumble down escalators. When I was a small child I was told my Aunt had fallen down an escalator. She probably just tripped and slipped, but in my imagination I saw a colourful woman with big hair turning cartwheels over and over for about three minutes, down the escalator until she landed in a glamorous pile of high heels and shopping bags at the bottom. However, whilst it takes a huge amount of talent to not fall down the escalators, it takes something of a deeper talent to fall up them.  Here is a lady who wasn’t at all drunk (No) doing just that.   Even eventually getting to the top of the escalator proved something of a Pyrrhic victory, because her shoe was still at the bottom, so she was still defeated.  And, despite being at a station, it wasn’t even a platform shoe. 

The recorded slips, trips and falls at our railway stations from April 2011 to March 2012 from Rail Safety and Standards Board are substantial:

1.   Total: 3,118

2.   On escalators: 512

3.   On stairs: 1,120

4.   On the concourse: 1,488

5.   On a platform: 899

6.   Involved people running: 425

7.   Person intoxicated: 437

8.   Major/Minor: 19 major injuries (only 5 involving intoxication) and 1 fatality (person who fell on an escalator at London Bridge station)

9.   Time: 1,158 incidents were recorded between 5pm and 2.30am (37%)

10.   Day: Incident peak on Fridays: 569 (18%)

11.   Luggage: 614 reported injuries involved luggage. This is up from 362 in 2004/05

Obviously, no surprise regarding the Friday peak.  This is the time of week where the delirium of weekend freedom has kicked in and usually so has those small molecules within beer bottles that so frequently clutter a young estate agent’s brain.  Up, up, up go the little molecules, and down, down, down goes a junior sales negotiator from the Holborn branch.   What is the differentiation above between a platform and a concourse?  And has any distinction been made for the possibilty of one accident that does in fact incorporate 4 of the above?  For example, I am certain that at Warwick Avenue tube I carried out the hatrick of 2, 6 and 7 in one swoop.  And if it happened on a Friday, I could probably shove a 10 in there as well. 
I am truly astonished that when it comes to the British temperament that the number on No 11 exceeds that of No 7.  No mention is made of dogs or cats, unwisely taken on tube journeys on leads, and who inevitably must be carried up and down escalators lest their paws be caught.  They sustain injuries on the tube because so few people are aware that dogs cannot walk on the escalators.  Presumably the statistics above are only for humans.   The result of someone under the influence (no 7), on a Friday (no 10) on an escalator (no 2) who then falls over with a dog in their arms doesn’t bear thinking about. 

There are 270 stations and 402 kilometres that make up the London Underground, so there’s quite a sizeable opportunity for ending up arse over elbow in it. If you are out celebrating London Underground’s 150th birthday, perhaps by wearing an 1860s stovepipe hat or doing a cheery Victorian London dance, do be careful and mind the gap. Many happy returns, London Underground. I might not raise a glass to you, but I will be celebrating by getting stuck at Victoria, stapling frozen peas to my head in an attempt to aircool my flat, sitting on three damp editions of this morning’s Metro and falling over a German Shepherd. Happy Birthday.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this. This blog is updated every other Thursday. Thank you!


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