150 years of the London underground

17 January 2013

Railway construction in Great Britain began in the early 19th Century. A network of lines crisscrossed over the country and six terminals were built on the outskirts of London’s city centre. Permission to build a central terminal was refused and just one terminal, Fenchurch Street, serving the counties east of London, was ever built within the city limits.

The London terminals were a statement of grandeur by the competing railway companies and little was done to promote integration.

Passengers wanting to travel through London, for example, arriving at Paddington on the Great Western Railway and wanting to continue from Kings Cross on the Great Northern Railway, would have to disembark at their arrival terminal, take a carriage across London and restart their journey.

As passenger numbers grew, central London became gridlocked, caused at least in part by these commuters.

In 1855 an act of parliament gave the go ahead to the construction of the world's first underground railway, the Metropolitan line. The line was dug using cut and cover through largely slum areas. The residents of the slums were offered new housing in the suburbs to be served by the new line. In 1863, 150 years ago this month, the Metropolitan line opened, linking Paddington with Farringdon via Kings Cross. With seven stations, the line initially served 26,000 passengers a day.

London remained at the forefront of underground railways as the world's first deep level electric railway was opened in 1890 by the City & South London Railway. Developments in the tunnelling shield, first used on the Thames Tunnel in London, made possible the construction of the deep tunnels. The 5.1km-line ran from Stockwell under the river Thames, and on to the City of London. James Henry Greathead promoted and engineered the railway. He had earlier developed the Greathead shield and cast iron lining for construction of the Tower Subway.

These first deep level lines gave the London Underground its name, the 'tube'.

Since opening on 10 January 1863 the London Underground has grown to serve 270 stations using 402km of track over 11 lines and carrying 3.6M passengers a day. The latest development, Crossrail, will again tackle the route from Paddington to Farringdon but the annual demand increase of nearly 7 per cent will mean greater and greater developments and expansions will be needed in the years to come. The challenges for future promoters, designers and tunnellers will include squeezing new projects into an ever congested underground space