Down the Tube

This year is the 150th anniversary of the London Underground Rail, affectionately know as the tube. I went on a short and sweet tour with Mark Mason who authored the book Walk the Lines. He walked all 249 miles of tube lines writing about the history of each line and the streets and neighborhoods they travel through. He is one of those people who is filled with all kinds of trivia, some interesting and some just weird.

The first part of the Underground was open in 1863 and was only 15 feet below street level. At that time they used steam trains and ventilation had to be provided for the steam to escape. Newer lines are often 60-70 feet below ground and in some areas where the lines travel beneath buildings, their depth can be greater. Bank Station in central London is 134 feet below ground.

underground sign
The British rail system and the tube have been a nice treat for us. It is an efficiently run system and we will miss the convenience when we return to the U.S. The only draw back is the cost. Tickets are not cheap and people who use the tube and the trains to commute each day can spend thousands of dollars each year on transportation. Perhaps when you calculate not buying fuel for a car, it all balances out.

A few interesting facts… Throughout the history of London, the city has endured several bouts of extreme disease where thousands of people have perished. It was customary for large pits to be dug in the country outside the city to bury the large numbers of deceased. These were called plague pits. (Yuck, I know this is a gruesome fact.) These country-side locations are now in the heart of London and as the underground rail expanded they had to try to avoid these pits. There is one located near Harrods and one also in Green Park that was discovered by error as the Underground was being dug through that area … The underground tunnels were also used to shelter people, usually at night, during World War II. For Christmas 1940, London Transport staff distributed over 11,000 toys, presented by America’s Air Raid Relief Fund to children sheltering in stations. By the end of the war there were over 22,000 beds installed in Underground 020 stations … “Mind the Gap” can be heard every time you ride the tube. In some areas the space between the train and the platform can be as much as a foot wide … The longest escalator on the network is 196 feet long … The busiest station in London is Waterloo, which has 57,000 people entering during the three-hour morning peak.

For the anniversary celebration earlier this year, Prince Charles and Camilla rode one ceremonious stop on the underground. Just from one station to another, then they returned to their car. It had been many, many years since either of them had rode the tube. For the rest of us commoners, we wouldn’t want to live without it.