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Beyond the end of the line

London's decrepit Tube system could do with a dose of Victorian vision.

Sean Topham

Topics Politics

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When I first moved to London I lived in East Finchley and was really taken by the dynamic appearance of the local Tube station. Sitting on its roof was an heroic archer who seemed to take pride in firing commuters into the guts of the city. I must admit I enjoyed my earliest journeys as a commuter. It felt great to be surrounded by all that progressive imagery, although there was quite a gap between it and my day-to-day experience of riding the Tube.

I still have mixed feelings about the Tube. I find it amazing that I can hop on the Jubilee line, change at Waterloo and be in Paris or Brussels within a few hours. Perhaps even more incredible is that I can take a Piccadilly line train, change at Heathrow and take a plane to LA, Hong Kong, Sydney or Tokyo. To be hooked into such a global network is spectacular. That said, if I did hop on the Jubilee line I would not feel confident in reaching Waterloo in time to catch the Eurostar to Paris. I’m even less confident in the Piccadilly line. After all, there’s a lot of track to cover between Baron’s Court and Hatton Cross – and who knows what trouble lies out there?

It is this lack of confidence in the system that I find most worrying. I just can’t wake up in the morning and feel at ease with the idea that I’m going to be at work on time. I’m a very calm person but I’ve often found myself shouting obscenities into those long, dark tunnels that make up London’s Tube system. If Transport for London is going to portray itself with such powerful images as a muscle-bound archer it should at least find one that can hit its targets.

Eventually I gave up on public transport and began cycling. Life improved immediately. I set out each morning knowing I would reach my destination on time and as a result I felt much more relaxed. To date I know of no more reliable method of getting around London, which is a pretty miserable state of affairs in a city with such a high reputation.

A recent move has put me back on public transport and I am experiencing stations that I never used before. Canary Wharf, for instance, is a really pleasant space. The atmosphere in the place makes me feel like I’m a valued customer. It is open, welcoming and the staff seem very polite. There are a few other areas of the Tube network where I can see where my money is being spent, but these are all too rare. I go to a station like Tottenham Court Road or Finsbury Park and I feel as if I’ve done something wrong. The price of the ticket in such stations seems more like a fine than a fare.

The worst offender has to be the North London Line, which is now called the Silverlink Metro. It’s a useful and well-used route, but the stations look like they are falling apart and the trains are not much better. I’m always amazed that the station buildings can be neglected for so long yet on the advent of any fare increase all the ticket machines on the whole network are transformed overnight. It gives the impression that the providers of public transport in London are only keen to show their powerful and dynamic side when it comes to taking money from passengers.

A look back to the Victorian era shows that the problems facing transport in London today are not radically different from those of 150 years ago. London is a big, overcrowded city and has been for a long time. However, it is refreshing to consider some of the harebrained schemes put forward in the 1850s as solutions to the problems of travel in London. Respected gentlemen including the architect William Moseley, the engineer Sir Joseph Paxton, and City solicitor Charles Pearson all proposed outrageous concepts that laid the foundations for London’s underground railway system. Their ideas were bold and radical.

Pearson was especially committed to his proposal for a railway enclosed in a great arcade that would run between Kings Cross and Farringdon. He tirelessly promoted the scheme through pamphlets and public meetings. He even went as far as posting leaflets to 15,000 London citizens inviting them to take out shares in his Arcade Railway. Pearson was an enterprising individual and demonstrated great conviction in his way-out proposal. The Arcade Railway was never realised but it played a major role in shaping the Tube network as we know it today.

The idea of building an underground railway in the mid-nineteenth century was almost as far fetched as planning a trip to the moon. In 1861, when work had started on the first stretch of the Metropolitan line, The Times doubted that the scheme would ever be completed and lumped it together with ‘plans for flying machines, warfare by balloons, tunnels under the channel and other bold but hazardous propositions of the same kind’. The newspaper suggested that it was ‘an insult to common sense to suppose that people would ever prefer to be driven amid palpable darkness through the foul sub soil of London’.

Others, including a preacher named Dr Cuming, were even more suspicious of the idea. Cuming claimed that ‘the forthcoming end of the world would be hastened by the construction of underground railways burrowing into the infernal regions and thereby disturbing the devil’. The Times shifted its position when the first stretch of the Metropolitan line opened in 1863 and proclaimed it to be ‘the great engineering triumph of the day’.

We are sadly lacking in such harebrained schemes today. Could this be the fault of the lumbering institutions that run our city and public transport systems? They appear almost as opposed to innovation and change as the God fearing Dr Cuming. Or is it that people with vision and ideas lack the conviction to put them forward and risk sounding stupid? Whatever the reason, London needs plenty more crackpot ideas to keep it moving. Anyone for hovercrafts on the Thames?

Sean Topham is a writer and documentary maker. His books include Move House, Prestel Publishing, 2004 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); Where’s My Space Age?: The Rise and Fall of Futuristic Design, Prestel Publishing, 2003 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); and Blow-up: Inflatable Art, Architecture and Design, Prestel Publishing, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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Topics Politics

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