24 Subterranean homesick blues

by Malcolm Redfellow

Just once, some years ago, Malcolm came across an .mp3 of some obscure C&W combo telling the world:

Only Johnny Cash can sing a song about a train.

How true. How very true.

Similarly, if one wants a proper account of why railways are important, how so much of our modern society derives from them, and still relies on them, Christian Wolmar is your only man.

Two of his polemics, Broken Rails and On the Wrong Line, detailed the murderous disaster that John Major’s government wished upon the British with the privatisation experiment. Yes: murderous.

His Fire and Steam was, surprisingly, “the first comprehensive general history of Britain’s railways for over 30 years”. It is also highly readable, and wholly relevant.

What Malcolm found himself picking off the shelf was something nearer home: Subterranean Railway — Wolmar’s “social history of the tube”.

Prominent in the back-cover blurb (Malcolm’s is the 2005 revised paperback) is Ken Livingstone’s plaudit:

An astonishing account of one of the world’s most amazing feats of engineering.

That seems mistaken — not for the essential admiration, but for the emphasis on “engineering”. On the contrary, the book is concerned more with the finance and management (the slippery Charles Tyson Yerkes, from Philadelphia via Chicago, being something of a heroic figure), the selling and all social aspects. In all that, we see a deliberate and “engineered” (to allow the word in this context) expansion of what was “London”.

For example, here is Wolmer on the Hampstead line’s arrival at Golders Green:

The terminus, Golders Green, was an interesting portent for the future in showing how the Tube helped the expansion of London. It was the first station on the Yerkes tube lines built in the open air and it showed that such new transport links could quickly transform sleepy outlying villages into thriving London suburbs. Indeed, Golders Green had not even been a village when the Tube arrived, merely, according to contemporary photographs, a farm with a crossroads and a wooden signpost. The first house was completed in October 1905, less than two years before the station opened, and in the following year the place was already a boom town according to a visitor: ‘Within sight of the Golders Green terminus of the Hampstead Tube, half a dozen estate agents’ pavilions may be counted dotted about the fields’.

That Indeed is a Wolmar favourite, even to the point of being a tiresome enclitic.

As for half a dozen estate agents’ pavilions, nothing much has changed — except today one can probably count twice as many from the forecourt of Golders Green station.

The wonder is that the London Underground network, conceived and built in discrete penny (well, multi-million pound) packages actually works as well as it does. We are still stuck with embuggerances such as Euston Square (originally, and probably more correctly Gower Street) on the Metropolitan and Circle Lines, and damnably inconvenient for anyone attempting a swift transfer between Euston and Paddington main-line stations. And equally inconvenient for those, like Malcolm, who debouch from the 134 bus with luggage.

Where such stations remain less-than-well integrated, that’s where the system is least effective.

So considerable credit, which Wolmar accords, goes to (Sir) George Gibb and Albert Stanley (afterwards, Lord Ashfield) for stitching together the separate companies into the pre-WW1 “Combine”:

Both Gibb and, particularly, Stanley understood that there was a a great need for better interchanges, which would improve the service for passengers and boost revenue for operators. This was to be the start of a long process of knitting together the disparate lines, which often ran over and underneath each other without connection or were linked only at the surface level so that passengers had to leave the system, walk to the other station and buy another ticket… The most chaotic situation was at Charing Cross and Embankment, where the Bakerloo, Hampstead and District lines all had separate stations within a couple of hundred yards of each other despite being owned by the same company. In 1914, the Hampstead line was extended underneath the District and the two lines were connected by escalators. A further set of escalators was built to link the District with the Bakerloo, reducing the time to make a connection from three minutes and fifteen seconds to one minute and forty-five seconds. A new station — then called Charing Cross but now Embankment — was built on the surface; John Betjeman described it as ‘the most charming of all the Edwardian and neo-Georgian Renaissance stations’. The Hampstead line retained a station underneath Charing Cross station, and over the decades the various stations around Charing Cross have been called Embankment, Strand, Charing Cross and Trafalgar Square, with the same name on occasion being transferred from one station to another in a way that has confused many Londoners.

Those twin processes, of “improvement” and confusion, continue to the present day, as anyone who has experienced the present state of Kings Cross-St Pancras will testify.

After tracing his history, Wolmar takes aim at the current moment. His conclusion is powerful, and an indictment of the fudging and dithering that derives from political interference:

The Underground is still a wonder, a fantastic achievement that is a credit to its pioneers, but it is set to remain undervalued as it has done through its 140-year history. Perhaps its subterranean nature means it will never get the credit and the money it needs.

Since that was written, half-a-decade ago, Ken Livingstone, as Mayor of London, knocked hard and long at the doors of the Treasury. What we got was the abortion of the public-private partnership, which was so complex it delayed the inevitable upgrades for five years, then went spectacularly and expensively adrift. As a result the present refurbishment will run to the end of the present decade. By then, too, we should have Crossrail finally creating a semi-express east-west link.

Doubtless the Tories will be looking for political credit they do not deserve.

Long may Wolmar point out such lunacies.