10th January was the 149th anniversary of London's first underground line, and the first time in the world that trains had gone underground in a city. I rode the route yesterday, with commuters and tourists who, of course, had no idea that they were riding into history.
The route went from Paddington Station to Farringdon, and was intended to be an extension of the Metropolitan Railway right into the city. Even today the route has three rails in some cases so that tube trains and commuter trains can arrive at the same platforms. (Tube trains are wider.)
In the week that government announces the HS2 high speed line to Birmingham, I wanted to remind myself of how 19th Century travellers might have felt with their new high speed line. Of course the old trains were steam trains and it seems that passengers did complain about the steamyness of the underground platforms. The engineers went to great efforts to design a series of ducts that would dispel the steam. They designed beautiful brick chutes at Baker Street (as well as Great Portland St and Euston Square) which let steam out and let sunlight in. These have been blocked up now, but the refurb at Baker Street did put lights into the chutes, which gives something of the impression of the original platforms.
However many passengers were content to travel on the new steamy route. In the first few months 26,000 people used the line and in an attempt to relieve overcrowding extra rolling stock had to be brought in from the Great Western Railway.
Tunelling skills were not so advanced in those days. The line was built with cut and cover. The old drawings showing clearly how a trench was constructed and then temporary timber supports would be placed until the brick arches could be built.
The problem with this method of construction was that it was very dissruptive to those on the surface. People compained that the New Road, now Euston/Marylebone Road, was out of use for months. But it was only the fact that this road existed which allowed the route to be built. It would have been far too expensive to pull down great swathes of London houses to bring the line into Farringdon.
As it was the engineers went to great efforts to disguise the ventilation shafts. Supposedly, a five foot thick facade was constructed in Leinster Gradens to simulate a house, but which in fact masked a ventialtion duct.
Baker Street Station still has many of the original features. It was sensitively refurbished in 1982 and a set of interesting panels were erected in the advertising spaces which illustrate the construction.
So we haven't changed very much in 150 years. Opponents to HS2 want fast and efficient transport systems - as long as we can't see or hear them! And they certainly don't want the construction work to disturb them in any way. The headline on the Ham and High, Camden's local newspaper this week said, "HS2 will cause ten years of chaos to Camden." I expect that they said the same thing about that pesky new underground railway in 1863!