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Going underground Martin Pawley looks at the significance and history of London's underground

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‘Pick someone who will deliver on the big three issues - transport, crime and jobs - and you will have your first elected mayor.’ So wrote the Minister for London in a letter to the Times after last October’s Paddington train crash.

Even without the train crash, his choice of issues would have been faultless. As London ventures into the twenty-first century, transport, crime and jobs are its stations of the cross, with transport the most crucial of all. Over the last 30 years the threat to the economic future of the city from deteriorating transport infrastructure has grown until its shadow darkens everything from new air-traffic control systems to the metropolitan vision of Lord Rogers’ Urban Task Force. Ever since the first 350-seat wide-body jet flew into Heathrow and the coffin lid finally closed on the London motorway box, traffic multiplied by tourism multiplied by employment has steadily raised the betting on the likelihood of transport paralysis. The result is that the word transport has become synonymous with survival, and urban survival is now being sought beneath city streets.

No matter where a transport analyst starts in the Bermuda Triangle of bus, car and train, sooner or later he or she will end up staring at the familiar but hypnotic diagram of London’s underground railways. Outdated, incomplete and neglected as it may be, London’s underground network is the city’s only passenger transport system capable of enlargement without creating crises of congestion, delay and public opposition in the process.

Even today, in its sorry and neglected state, the 390km underground network is capable of carrying a record three million passengers a day. A figure taken too much for granted, for no feasible combination of cars, buses, taxis, trams or light-rail systems - all elbowing one another out of the same intractable road space - will ever rise far above the hundreds of thousands. As for the river, that pre-industrial waterway, endlessly born again in the fevered imagination of politicians, it has difficulty in topping four figures.

Realisation of these facts of transport life has come hard to the government. Under present conditions no discouragement of car commuting, however savage, can reduce the road attenuation caused by legal on-street parking. Nor can any feasible proliferation of bus lanes enable surface passenger transport to thread its way through crowded streets as fast as electric trains can move in dedicated tunnels beneath them. As for cycling, walking and river navigation, these are no more than Green Agenda pipe dreams. No means of transport occupies more road space per passenger than a bicycle, and few city-dwellers in a sedentary age would voluntarily contemplate a 3km stroll from the Mansion House to Number One Canada Square - even if the whole route were to be cleared of traffic. As for the river, not only is too much of London too far from it, but the ruthless regime of its tides is always underestimated.

The irreducible supremacy of the underground has never been more clearly expressed than by the railway engineer John Day, author of The Story of London’s Underground, the official history of the system published in 1963: ‘Underground railways will always remain the most rapid practical means of moving masses of people in crowded London,’ he wrote. ‘They can do it without occupying valuable land, without causing obstruction or damage, and with no loss of amenity’. Day allowed only one qualification to this rule - ‘that new underground extensions be built at a steady rate, year by year, with a regular programme of manpower, materials and finance, rather than completing one project and then allowing the expertise and specialised labour force so laboriously built up to be dispersed.’

Unfortunately this important caveat, endlessly repeated over the next 40 years, is the one that has proved impossible to adhere to.

Because it was a late offshoot of the Victorian railway boom, which was an exclusively private-sector phenomenon, London’s underground grew at first as a loose collection of separate lines, most of them intended to connect new areas of development in distant suburban locations, mostly to the west, north and north-east, with employment in the city. For ease of construction, and because steam locomotives were the only source of power available to the pioneers, the earliest lines were little more than roofed-in cuttings with plentiful openings for ventilation. These lines followed the street pattern in built-up areas, resulting in tortuous curves, some of which remain to bedevil the system today. But as the separate lines became a network following the completion of the Circle Line in 1884, deeper tunnelling became necessary. Over time the combination of different levels, different approaches and the necessity for a separate power supply for every line, created a three-dimensional matrix in the central area whose complexity threatened to cut off its own room for expansion. By 1914 there were a dozen lines with different tunnel diameters, different platform lengths, non-standard rail gauges and, in some cases, complete isolation from original routes, as was the case with the Waterloo and City Line, which was not connected to the tracks of any other line.

The knitting of this random collection of railways into what was eventually to become the London Underground was principally brought about by the advent of electricity. As with tv, video and cassette systems at the end of the twentieth century, at the beginning systems-compatibility counted for a great deal. Since each line was responsible for its own electrification, as far as London’s underground railways were concerned, problems immediately arose in the central area, where trains from different operating companies ran over each others’ lines. The situation was a textbook case for the emergence of a monopoly and in due course one arrived on the back of the issue of the control and choice of electrification systems. After a short battle the winner was a four-rail low-voltage dc system already in extensive use in America. Administrative and operational control inevitably followed in the wake of technical harmonisation. After the Great War all the lines were amalgamated and became part of the public sector, with the formation of the London Passenger Transport Board in 1933 marking the beginning of integrated planning and expansion. As a result, throughout the Depression years of the 1930s and well into World War II, new Tube lines were constructed and opened so as to rationalise the operation of the whole system. So successful was this process that, for example, a journey on the Piccadilly Line between Hammersmith and Finsbury Park, which took 40 minutes in 1906, took only half as long by 1939.

In almost all respects the decade to 1943 represented the apogee of integrated underground management, vision and technical leadership. Despite the war, tunnel construction continued in order to provide secure accommodation for munitions production. Future planning never ceased. The contrast between the large-scale construction programme envisaged by the 1943 County of London Plan, and the actual performance of London Transport in the years of austerity after the war, is instructive. Post-war Britain was dogged by shortages of resources and labour and a tremendous backlog of neglected maintenance. Even after the end of building licensing in the 1950s a stop-go regime mirroring the performance of the national economy ensured that every long-term strategic plan sooner or later fell victim to a short-term economic or political need.

As a result of this regime, by the end of the 1990s the whole system was plainly overloaded and underfinanced. The oldest parts of the network, including some cut-and-cover lines dating back to before German unification, were in a state of collapse. At the same time relations between government, management and trades unions reached crisis point. The incidence of stoppages was increasing. Urgently needed investment to the value of £1.5 billion was not forthcoming. Drivers were threatening damaging one-day strikes over pay and, over and above everything else, there was the uncertainty created by the impending end of 80 years of public ownership in a bout of privatisation that still may break up the network, sell different lines to different operating companies, a nd place regulatory powers in the hands of an as yet unelected mayor.

Only 36 years before, in 1963, the twinkle in the eye of London Transport had been the coming of the Victoria Line - ‘the most highly automated underground line in the world’ - which was finally completed six years later. Fresh from this achievement, London Transport unveiled more plans. The Aldwych branch line was to be extended to Waterloo; the Piccadilly Line was to run west to Heathrow; the Victoria Line was to lance south to Brixton; and the Fleet Line was to penetrate east to south-east London. The extensions to Heathrow and Brixton were completed in the 1970s, but the Waterloo link and the Fleet Line were to remain out of reach, with the last always the most ambitious.

The original 1969 version of the Fleet Line was intended to start at Baker Street, run southward via Bond Street and Green Park to a new Trafalgar Square station (now Charing Cross), then to turn eastward along the line of the Strand as far as the City and thence across the river to New Cross or Lewisham. Over the next 30 years, this project was to inch itself into reality. The first stage, to Charing Cross, was opened in 1979, but the last 17km, changing its purpose and parts of its route according to changing circumstances, was destined to become the £3 billion, 11- station Jubilee Line Extension opened in the closing months of 1999. Because of chronic delays and cost overruns, the occasion was low-key, but it was portentous nonetheless, for when the Jubilee extension was finally connected to the rest of the underground system, the impact of east meeting west was almost palpable.

The most remarkable realisation that completion of the line brought about was that the Jubilee Line Extension, despite its name, was not so much a way of travelling east from central London, as a rapier thrust from new Docklands into the heart of the old city. This new railway came from Docklands, from Canary Wharf, whose winking lights atop the tallest building in the country still signalled on the horizon. Canary Wharf, a place so new that it seemed like part of another country - one that barely existed a decade earlier. From this new land new trains arrived at a place so old that its inhabitants were barely recognisable. Unlike new Docklands, old London was a city that faced a multi-faceted crisis of growth. Perpetually face-lifted but ultimately served by the infrastructure of another age, it had streets that were too narrow, buildings that were too old or, if new, stood upon pilings that were too deep. Worst of all it had a vastly exaggerated idea of its own value, an important failing, for it lay at the heart of its seemingly unbreakable spiral of decline.

Because of the illusory value conferred upon it by its own past, this old city refused to see its infrastructural obsolescence as a technological threshold to be crossed. Instead it invested it with cultural significance and romantic drama, its planners talking ceaselessly about ‘saving’ this and ‘saving’ that instead of replacing it with something that works. As a result, new technologies were obliged to enter this city by stealth, as did the Jubilee Line Extension, instead of being handed the keys in a grand ceremony of welcome.

The myth of this old London as a ‘treasure city’ of untold riches is inextricably entwined with the mythology of the Jubilee Line Extension and its magnificent fairytale stations. The line completed, the peddlers of the urban myth regain their old courage and start to talk again about spending £4 billion on the CrossRail project, and why stop there? Why, says old London, it could, if it wanted to, divert £1.5 billion a year for 10 years to mod-ernising its own giant share of the ramshackle underground system. It could thoughtfully set aside another £10 billion for new bus lanes, if it so pleased, and it could donate another £10 billion to slum clearance and social housing. If London felt like it, at a cost of only £60 billion and 10 years of chaotic disruption, it could easily afford to do these things.

Alas, this choice is a myth. The old city cannot be saved in this way. The money is not there because the value is not there. The estimates would undoubtedly double or triple and the government would be bankrupted and, anyway, the disruption would be unacceptable because it would be endless. To resolve this situation without a descent into chaos, it is necessary to skip a generation and visualise a city without transport infrastructure of any kind. A ‘London’ whose boundaries are defined by ‘short wave’ simulation and information technologies, as opposed to the old fashioned ‘long wave’ technologies that produce railways, bus lanes and ancient street patterns that already exist.

Underground railways may represent the highest development of the old ‘long wave’ technologies - they do, after all, operate three dimensionally in a subterranean medium, imitating the freedom of the ether, albeit with agonising slowness and at enormous cost - but for many reasons they are far more expensive to rebuild than they were to build, and the issue for the old city today is ‘browntunnel’ rebuilding, not ‘greentunnel’ building, as in Docklands.

What we can’t do easily or cheaply at all is replicate nineteenth-century technology because there is a one-way cycle of progress. We have been there, we have done that. We cannot do it again.

In considering the great cost and controversy surrounding the jle, most Londoners fail to understand what a phenomenal enterprise it was. For this the word ‘extension’ may be partly to blame. It suggests a minor work, an afterthought, whereas nothing could be further from the truth. With the abandonment of the Pool of London in the 1960s in favour of a new container port downstream, a 2200ha tract of land was opened up for redevelopment - the largest slice of inner London to fall vacant since the Great Fire of 1666. The problem was that its entire transport infrastructure was waterbound and so, in effect, did not exist.

So fundamental was this problem that the issue of access to Docklands smouldered for 20 years before the decision to go ahead with a fully fledged underground railway was taken. Before then transport planners thought in terms of low-cost surface systems such as buses or even trams, using old dockyard railway lines. Finally they settled upon the Docklands Light Railway, a modest overground light-rail system that really did foray from the east of the City into Docklands, rather than the reverse. In a perverse way, it was the Docklands Light Railway that struck a gold mine at Canary Wharf that fathered the Jubilee Line Extension. The Docklands Light Railway had been billed as being quick, automatic and cheap. In the event it was simply inadequate. There was a new enterprise-zone city building out there, and it was supposed to be served by stations assembled from kits of parts, unmanned, minimal and ill-equipped with only two escalators in the entire system.

Whether there is a direct connection between the poor impression these austerity stations made and the infinitely more generous provision that was to be written into the specification of the stations of the Jubilee Line Extension may be open to question. What is certain is that the enormous Canary Wharf development with its projected 65,000 jobs raised the transport stakes to a level where no alternative to a full-size underground railway would do. Within three years of the opening of the Docklands Light Railway in 1987, the construction of the Jubilee Line Extension was approved, effectively to replace it. The rest, as they say, is history.

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