My heavenly experience of travelling by train under a river

5 min read…

Imagine coming out of your local train station and someone tells you’ve just ridden under the Thames river. Wait, what? How’s travelling under a river even possible, let alone on a train? Find your answer to this and lots more in this article. Welcome to the 21st episode of our book series – The Book Talk. It’s your first time here? Check our other posts. Today, we’ll discuss The story of the London underground, written by David Long and illustrated by Sarah McMenemy.

My wife surprised me with this book on my birthday. In her own words, “I couldn’t stop talking about it even weeks after our London trip”.

I first went to London to celebrate Christmas 2019. And I spent a week exploring all the major tourist attractions. But, I didn’t know then that I’d come and tell you that their underground railway system impressed me the most. I was so enticed that I returned to London again, in February 2020. What is it that is so extraordinary about a railway system, you may ask. Well, let’s see.

Every year in London, underground trains carry 1.4 billion passengers. That’s up to five million people a day. With 400 kilometres of track and 270 stations, it’s one of the largest underground networks in the world.

Why go underground?

In the early 1800s, horses played a major role in London’s transport system. There were around 300,000 horses carrying people on the horse-drawn carts, buses, and trams. Imagine feeding all these horses and managing their excrement. Sweepers cleaned up the mess to make way for people crossing the streets. But soon, the city realized it needed an alternative. So, they decided to build bridges and laid railway tracks high above roads and buildings. Still, this wasn’t enough to ease the overcrowding.

In the 1840s, a visionary lawyer called Charles Pearson suggested a daring idea. He hinted, “when the trains can carry passengers above the roads, why can’t we run them underground?” Pearson came up with a thorough layout. He claimed that this new system could carry 250,000 commuters a day in and out of London. Looking back, the man was a legend of sorts!

Pearson’s idea was to dig a huge trench in which the train tracks could be laid before building a roof over the top to create a tunnel. This method is called ‘cut and cover’.

Let’s dig under the river – The Thames Tunnel

Sir Marc Brunel and his son developed a brilliant idea of creating a tunnel under the river. But, it was easier said than done. The work started in 1825 and it was hard and dangerous. With no fresh air, harmful gases and frequent floods injured many of the workers. Ten of them even died. As years rolled on, the public got tired of hearing the same sob-story again and again. The newspapers even nicknamed the tunnel ‘Brunel’s big bore’.

But, the engineers were relentless. Despite several failures, the tunnel was ready in 1843. And by then, people had changed their minds too. Everyone wanted to go down and see what the Brunels had achieved. More than 50,000 people queued up on the first day to cross from one side of the river to the other through the tunnel.

At the beginning, no trains ran through the tunnel and passenger coaches had to be pulled by horses. It took another 26 years for a steam-engine to run through the tunnel.

As well as being dangerous, the project was enormously expensive. The Thames Tunnel work had cost what would be about £16 million today, and the work had taken almost twenty years. But, in hindsight, this costly experiment was a breakthrough.

Work begins for the world’s first underground railway

Apart from the success of The Thames Tunnel, Charles Pearson also worked hard to promote his idea. In 1860, work finally started on the excavations for London’s first underground line. Everything wasn’t rosy as thousands of locals were relocated to make way for the giant trench. Others worried if the vibrations would damage their homes.

While many were excited to try this new and faster means of transport, others found the dark tunnels terrifying. They disliked the noise and the choking atmosphere caused by smoke from the engines. Even the then Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, refused his invitation to travel underground!

Despite complaints about the smelly conditions, people got used to the underground. Soon, so many people wanted to use it that there weren’t enough seats. The London Underground, – or The Tube as it is now famously called – was a success!

How did the crew work in the tunnels?

The Brunels proved that it was possible to build a tunnel underground. But creating an entire underground railway network? That required miles and miles of tunnels. The crew used a device called the tunneling shield. It prevents the tunnel from collapsing until they could build a supporting structure. But, it was hard work because all these early tunnels had to be dug out by hand. The crew found fascinating items during their digging. How’d you feel if you found skeletons, graveyards, and dinosaur bones in your day’s work?

Today, they use tunnel-boring machines (TBM’s) to dig deep tunnels. These machines are not much faster than a snail, but it’s still faster than digging by hand.

TBMs are 150 metres long, and they cost around £10 million each. Every TBM has its own kitchen and bathroom so the crew can work down in the tunnel all day. Talk about technological advancements!

Okay, enough history. As a traveler, what’s in it for me?

Are you interested in designs that make people’s lives easier? Then, the London underground could well be your case-study.

The creators of the underground had to battle more than just the smelly and poisonous atmosphere. In its early days, many people were scared that travelling at such high speeds would make it impossible to breathe. Add to that, the superstitious beliefs that undergrounds are only meant for graveyards. To generate more footfall, the official team had to go beyond their creative imaginations.

By the early 1900s, more Underground railway lines not only made the travel quicker but also chaotic and cluttered. Different companies owned different routes. They used their own naming and ticketing system. In 1902, a new company was formed to sort out this mess. Today, it is called Transport for London (TfL)!

One Mr. Frank Pick reorganized all the different lines into a single interconnected network. This network now serves a city of 8 million people and this concept is also copied around the world. He introduced various measures, so it’s easy for a layman to travel from point A to B with little or no manual help.

Frank believed that good design was the key. So, he asked the country’s best architects to design stations, and challenged the artists and graphic designers to produce attractive ads. Better stations would attract more passengers. Clearer signs and improved maps would help people find their way around the whole city.

1. A new station style

Architect Charles Holden beautifully redesigned the stations. You’d be able to spot one from a fair distance. If you’d been to London, you know what I am talking about. If not, search ‘the most beautiful London underground stations‘ and you’ll see it for yourself.

2. Coloring the map lines

The map is my favorite. I’d call this the X-factor of the London underground. Frank decided to define routes by colors instead of names. The colors made it much easier for passengers to read the map and find their way around the stations. Central line or Red line? Northern line or Black line? Which ones would you rather remember?

Later, in 1933, Harry Beck – an electrical draughtsman – came up with a brilliant idea. His new map was minimal in design and easier to understand. His new map would only show stations and the sections of railway linking them. The stations were evenly spaced and the map only had horizontal, vertical, or diagonal lines. Today, this map is copied all around the globe.

Fun fact: Beck’s map was based on the electrical circuit diagrams he used in his job to make technical drawings for engineers.

Here’s a comparison of the London map then and now. Read the Wiki for more details.

3. Technology on the Tube

There are 451 escalators on the London Underground system. The first time I saw one of those, I felt it was stairway to the heaven. It was long and made one feel dizzy.

Also, in the earlier days, trains had a gateman in each car who opened and closed the carriage doors. He also called out the name of each station. Nowadays, there are automatic doors and recorded voices to call out station names. It makes journeys faster and safer.

Fun fact: Do you know you need to follow an escalator etiquette too? Always, stand on right walk on left. Try standing on left and let me know how many gave you a stern look.

I am ending my rambling now

Of course, the Tube is not the only way to travel around London. In fact, London buses are even more popular than the Tube. It accounts for 2.4 billion journeys a year. There are also trams, boats, taxis, and cable-cars. But, the London underground will always give me a nostalgic feeling. As a newcomer, if you can navigate through 270 stations with minimal effort, it’s got to be something.

The idea of digging a hole to transport people and the creative efforts to make the journey look seamless – the London underground is an engineering marvel.

No other city is as recognized by its transport system as London. You better experience it rather than being told. So, if you can, you should. Take a trip and see where your journey takes you!


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