London Underground

Year:1863

Duration:154 years and counting

Cost:Unknown

Country: London, UK

What did this project achieve?

Create an efficient rapid transport system for Londoners

London's underground rail network – known as the Tube – opened in 1863. Then called the Metropolitan railway and privately owned, it ran for 3 miles from Paddington in the west up to Farringdon. The 2 stations were at either end of the first underground railway in the world.

154 years on, the Tube has 270 stations. It has over 402km of track across a network that stretches from Heathrow airport in the west to the Essex town of Upminster in the east.

Construction of the Metropolitan line was followed in 1890 by the capital's first deep level tunnel. It ran from the now-disused King William Street station near London Bridge to Stockwell in the south.

Attracted by the potential profits, other private companies built underground railways which are now part of the Tube network. By 1914 most of these companies had merged.

The railways were nationalised in 1948 along with the capital's bus and tram services. The new body was called the London Transport Executive.

Later reorganisation brought the capital's underground trains under the control of Transport for London (TfL), the agency currently in charge of the Tube and bus network.

Difference the tube network has made

There are 5 million journeys on the Tube every day. The network gets London's workers to where they need to be every morning and then gets them home in the evening.

The Tube underpins London's industries and businesses. It's also the transport backbone that makes socialising possible for most Londoners, as well as moving around tourists and daily visitors.

The Tube brings major economic benefits to the city. It's difficult to see how London would function as a world capital without it.

How the London underground was built

Engineers building the Metropolitan line in 1863 used the 'cut and cover' method to dig tunnels.

This meant workers dug a trench, built the sides and then roofed it over.

Roads had to be closed for weeks on end causing disruption in an already-crowded city.

Engineers later adopted the more successful shield method. This was used to build much of what is now the Tube. This method used a large circular iron frame with pockets. Within each pocket there was a man with a spade.

As each section was dug out, timbers were used to support the earth. Hydraulic jacks then pushed the frame forward and workers lined the tunnel behind with bricks.

Modern tunnel boring machines work in the same way but replacing manpower with a rotating cutting head.

"​‌

Mind the gap.

Oswald Laurence

Recording used on the Tube since 1968 to warn about spaces between trains and platform.

Fascinating facts

The word 'underground' made its first appearance at stations in 1908.

Many tube station platforms were used as air raid shelters during World War 2. Some disused tube tunnels have been used to store exhibits from the British Museum.

Trains on the Victoria line have been fully automatic since it opened in 1969. The 'drivers' you see in the front cabs are actually guards. They sit there to reassure passengers.

The Circle line hasn't been a circle since 2009. Changes that year mean it's not possible to go all the way round the line anymore and passengers must change at Edgeware Road.

People who made it happen

  • Chief engineer of the Metropolitan line (the first stretch of what became the Tube): John Fowler. In 1865 Fowler was the youngest president of ICE.
  • Engineer James Henry Greathead oversaw the construction of the City & South London Railway – the second underground railway to be built, now part of the Tube's Northern Line.
  • Over the next 150 years, hundreds of engineers followed in the footsteps of these 2 Tube pioneers.

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