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The Subterranean Railway By Christian Wolmar. Atlantic Books, 2004. 351pp. £17.99

Metro: The Story of the Underground Railway By David Bennett. Mitchell Beazley, 2004. 176pp. £20

Christian Wolmar has earned an enviable reputation as both our best-informed and most readable author on the sheer complexities of the British railway system and the effects if its privatisation, with the inevitable shift in values that this implies. In his latest book, The Subterranean Railway, he explores the relationship between the development and extension of suburban railway lines and the growth of new urban settlements. Most additions to London's railway network were built privately and expected to show a profit from the start, writes Colin Ward.

Especially interesting in Wolmar's account is the way in which - despite its haphazard growth from a series of private ventures - London Transport (LT) as a coordinated body became a model for many of the world's cities. This was largely through the inspired leadership of its first chief executive, Frank Pick, who had a profound understanding of the message of good design.

As early as 1915 he had commissioned Edward Johnston's Underground typeface for all station signs, notices and posters, and he sought a series of architects, including Modern pioneers, for new stations. Wolmar remarks that: 'It is almost impossible to exaggerate the high regard in which LT was held during its alltoo-brief heyday, attracting official visitors from around the world eager to learn the lessons of its success and to apply them in their own countries.' But he also has to record the chronic lack of investment during the past 50 years, which he describes as half a century of neglect and muddle - despite which the London Underground remains 'the very life force of the capital'. Wolmar has written a book full of astute judgements, which deserves, and will repay, public attention.

The same is true of David Bennett's absorbing account of international comparisons. In Metro:

The Story of the Underground Railway, Bennett examines both trains and stations in a dozen world cities, as well as the Underground culture of maps, tickets, posters, graffiti, escalators and rolling stock, finding a remarkable global uniformity. Similar design tasks seem to evoke similar solutions, where the newer the system, the simpler the task becomes. Here, Harry Beck's London Underground map from 1933 has influenced urban railways throughout the world.

Colin Ward's Freedom to Go: After the Motor Age is still available from Freedom Press

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