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London Underground Essay

History Of The London Underground



The London Underground, or Tube, is an iconic symbol of the city, much the same as the New York Subway is.  The Underground has been in operation for a very long time, and serves to help residents, visitors and business people get around the city, without fighting the congestion on the surface streets.

The London Underground contains 270 stations and serves approximately 3.4 million people on a daily basis (weekdays).  The system actually started in 1863, though it has grown immensely since that time, and has become an integral part of London’s transportation network.

For those seeking a rewarding career, the choice to become a London Underground train driver can be a remarkable one.  The job offers plenty of stability, excellent earning potential and numerous other benefits.  How do you go about getting started?  What sort of career path can you look forward to?  What sort of education is required to enter this field? This book will give you all the information you need to know about embarking on a rewarding career as a train driver on the London Underground.  You will learn more about the history of this iconic, vital transportation system, how to get the selection process started and even how to pass the interview for the job.

The history of the London Underground is one of gradual changes, as the system evolved from its simple beginnings into the modern transport system, which has become so important to Londoners.  In fact, you might even call the beginning of this monolithic system “inauspicious”.

A Need for Change

Before we delve into the history of the Underground, it is important to touch on the subject of why such a system was even begun.  While London has always been a hub of activity, dating back to pre-Roman Britain, an increase in traffic is what spurred the development of the Underground.  It was actually a combination of foot, road and train traffic that necessitated the beginning of the Underground system.

In the first half of the 1800s, train travel boomed.  In fact, there were numerous train lines that led to London.  However, many of these terminated relatively far from the city centre, making it difficult for passengers to reach their destination if it was in town.  This time was called “the Railway Mania”, and saw explosive growth of railways all around the world, not just in England.

During the 1830s, the need for alterations to the current train terminus system was noted.  In fact, an early plan was to bring a cut and cover type of track through the River Fleet valley toward the city.  However, the plan was never acted on, though it was revived in later years, and there were many different plans proposed and subsequently abandoned.

The plan that was eventually adopted was to run a broad-gauge line from Paddington Station on the Great Western Railway toward the city.  Paddington was, at the time, the furthest station from the city, and the completion of new stations only served to make the situation worse.  The plan was adopted by the GWR, as well as vouched for by the Great Northern Railway (GNR).  The entire plan was adopted as the Metropolitan Railway on the 7th of August, 1854.

Problems in the Early Years

Of course, the best-laid plans can often come to nothing.  For a long time, it seemed that the Metropolitan Railway would be one of those, as no progress was made for several years after the formal adoption of the plan.  This was due to the simple fact that there was little or no funding available.  Without funding to pay the workers, there was simply no way to build the railway.

However, in 1858, Charles Pearson (the driving force behind construction of the railway) announced that the system would provide working class people with affordable, simple transportation from the outlying areas into the heart of the city for work.  After this announcement, funding became available and construction continued.

Construction of the system advanced relatively quickly after that point, though there were still many problems that would crop up.  The line from Paddington to King’s Cross was completed as a cut and cover style, while the line after that point was simply open cut.  Throughout the process, excavations collapsed, causing a tremendous amount of additional work.  Later, the Fleet Ditch Sewer actually burst and flooded the entire system with sewage.  Finally, when the Board of Trade inspected the system, it required that the owners make additional changes.

With all the changes, problems and hurdles, the line finally opened in January of 1863.  The first day, more than 40,000 passengers were carried.  This set the tone for the rest of the development.  During the first year, the MetR faced another problem when GWR backed out of its decision to operate the line.  The MetR turned to GNR and LNW for locomotives, though, and GWR eventually began running a handful of trains again, as well.

It also took some time for the system to settle on fares.  Early on, the line charged 3d per return fare.  Later, though, this fare was reduced to a single penny per train.  With affordable transport fees, the MetR became an enormous hit.  In fact, by 1880, it was carrying 40 million passengers per year to and from the city and the Inner Circle was under construction.

Additional Growth Comes to Town

By 1871, the MetR line was in deep financial trouble, but it continued to serve the portion of the city’s Inner Circle that had been completed, in conjunction with the Metropolitan District Railway.  It was in 1884 that the MDR finally opened the City Lines and Extensions.  This completed the Inner Circle and passengers were able to ride the District trains throughout the southern half, or the MetR trains through the northern half of the circle.

Deep Tubes – The Beginning

Until the development of the deep tubes, the entire system was either open cuts or cut and cover.  However, in the 1890s, the first successful deep tube line was opened to the public.  This ran from King William Street to Stockwell.  Technically, the first deep tube system was located beneath the River Thames, but it was not successful and was closed shortly after opening.

However, the story was very different with the City and South London Railway (the one linking King William Street to Stockwell).  While the system was not particularly comfortable or spacious, it was popular.  The success of this line spurred a host of other plans for similar lines, many of which were approved.  However, a lack of funding kept almost all of them from even the beginning stages of construction.

By the end of the decade, only two new tube lines had come into existence.  These were the Waterloo and City Railway, which opened in 1898, and the Central London Railway, which opened in 1900.  The Waterloo and City Railway operated from Waterloo to Bank Station within the city, and the Central London Railway served what would become the Central Line in modern times.

However, there were other changes coming in 1900 – the birth of the Underground Electric Railways Company of London (UERL) was near at hand.  The power behind this process was Charles Yerkes, an American with experience operating electric trains and trams in the city of Chicago.  By 1902, he had purchased several lines and built a power station to supply electricity to deep trains.  This same year, the UERL launched.

Soon, UERL controlled many of the once-independent companies.  The only ones to remain out of the conglomeration were MetR, W&CR and the GN&CR lines.  However, things were to change after the end of WWI.

The Birth of the Underground

While UERL had been making headway by using the name Underground to promote the many lines under its control, a recognisable modern Underground system had to wait for the aftermath of WWI to evolve.  It was during this time that Parliament recommended that the city of London have a single traffic authority.  This was enacted to reduce high fares, unfair competition and ease the burden on the city’s passengers.  The post of Minister of Transport was created in 1919.

The London Passenger Transport Board (LT) was created during this time, and was actually an amalgamation of MetR, the Underground Group and the city’s bus and tramlines, as well.  The new board set several plans in motion for expansion and modification of the city’s subway system.  In fact, the entire system saw new growth, with lines being extended, new stations designed and built, and a number of other elements, until the outbreak of WWII caused it to halt.

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What makes a design “classic”? That it stands the test of time through continued use, critical recognition and popular approval? Or is it simply that its vision and innovation results in it being regarded as the basis or benchmark for all future designs?

In evaluating innovation it is often difficult to comprehend the quantum leap certain designs made when first created, when in their continued use they are so ubiquitous and accepted as part of the visual culture of everyday life.

The London Underground map is a classic design – however, probably few people question why. Certainly the fact that it has stood the test of time through its adaptability, and its ease of use are factors in its success. But its impact beyond its original setting should also be considered as a factor, for despite its humble beginnings, it can undoubtedly claim to have influenced information design on a global scale.

In understanding its design, the first thing to realise is that its popular description as “The Underground Map” is misleading, for it is actually a diagram (or schematic), not a map. Technically it could be claimed that the term “underground” is also erroneous, with 55% of the network’s 270 stations and 402km of track being above, not underground.

Designed and sketched in 1931 upon the double-page spread of an exercise book by the 29-year-old electrical draftsman Harry Beck, the diagram was initially rejected as too radical a departure from traditional mapping and too revolutionary for public adoption.

Reconsidered by London Underground a year later, the design was bought for a small sum (reputedly between 5-10 guineas) and publicly released in 1933. For the last 81 years it has formed the basis of all London Underground diagrams, and despite the expansion of the network to accommodate double the lines than the original seven that Beck designed for, the original design has enabled adaptation to occur without significant compromise.

It can be claimed that Beck’s career as an electrical draftsman influenced his design by enabling him to perceive of the individual rail lines as wires, the interchange stations as connectors and to conceive of the entire network as an integrated and interconnected diagrammatic system much like an electrical circuit board.

Beck’s desire to create a “common sense device” relied upon simplification, legibility and ease of use by not only the local population, but also its constant influx of visitors. The conceptual shift from map to diagram essentially created an ease of navigation and connection through graphic rationalisation rather than the tradition of geographic accuracy.

The innovation of this is evident when comparing Beck’s initial diagram to F.H. Stingemore’s map released one year earlier, that whilst geographically accurate, lacked the ease of connection across the system and was as difficult to navigate as a plate of spaghetti.

Seven steps to heaven

Beck understood that his aim was a conceptual diagram, where the clear purpose of ease of navigation to destination was crucial, but above ground features were not.

To achieve this, a modern logical system was created that has proved stylistically ageless with functionality and aesthetics equally balanced, enabling passengers to not only make visual sense of their isolated subterranean journey, but also importantly to memorise it.

To understand the graphic and conceptual impact of Beck’s thinking and design, consider the following design steps – taken from Beck – and applied to most other metro systems in the world in a way that now seems intuitive:

1) Create an octagonal grid that enables connections to be established between lines, and a clear balance between the lines, stations, connections and the space in between them.

2) Simplify the geographical mapping of meandering train tracks into a system of three linear variants: horizontal and vertical lines and 45-degree diagonals.

3) Develop a clear system of graphic devices to clarify line interchanges.

4) Suppress all topographical features other than a graphic representation of the River Thames (in the case of London) that defines the north-south divide of the city. With the central section of the network being underground and majority of stations named after locations (eg. Oxford Street, Piccadilly Circus) and landmarks (eg. Westminster, St. Pauls etc.), geographic locations are unnecessary.

5) Prioritise order over distance. When differences in distances between central stations are minimal (the shortest being the 20 second journey between Leicester Square and Covent Garden), accurate representation is unnecessary.

6) Recognise and address the need for clarity in a network where the central stations are geographically congested within a small area, compared to the relationships of outer suburban stations over greater distances. Beck did this by applying a graphic magnifying glass, enlarging the centralised area and compressing the distances between outer stations, enabling ease of use over physical accuracy. This of course was of benefit to London Underground, by subliminally enhancing the perception that central London was quickly and easily accessible.

7) Apply colour coding to each rail line. Although this had already occurred in other London mapping systems from at least 1911 (and even earlier in other above ground railway networks), the creation of the defining colours and graphic shapes of each line facilitated an ease of recognition, navigation and interchange not previously achieved.

These all seem so obvious now. To consider that there ever was or might ever be another way of designing a metro map is akin to questioning the design of the paperclip.

In designing a schematic alternative to the map, in 1931 Beck created a design template for the vast majority of metro maps that exist throughout the world in 2014 … if still unconvinced, simply select a major city and Google its metro “map”.

For 8 million Londoners, the underground “map” is embedded within them, like the name of a seaside town through a stick of rock. It is their blueprint, their organiser, their connector: the subterranean guide to the arteries of the body of the city. I suspect more Londoners could successfully produce a fair approximation of the underground map, than an accurate drawing of the outline of their country.

If asked to draw a map of London and its districts, many would do so not based on any geographical knowledge, but simply from a schematic coding of the proximal relationships between the neighbourhoods based on the vision of Harry Beck.

Read more articles in the Sublime Design series.

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