In brief: The history of the London Underground over its first 150 years.
The good: Comprehensive, fascinating and detailed – it’s a lesson for other cities and countries (HELLO AUSTRALIA) on how to provide a public transport system.
The not-so-good: It’s heavy!
Why I chose it: I am fascinated by the London Tube and this book fuelled my interest even further.
Publisher: Allen Lane (Penguin)
Setting: London, United Kingdom
My rating: 9.5 out of 10
Underground: How the Tube Shaped London is an amazing book about what is probably the best known public transport system in the world, the London Underground (aka the ‘Tube’). It is a fascinating history of the first 150 years of the underground (and some overground) trains that have run through London, day in and day out during both war and peacetime. David Bownes, Oliver Green and Sam Mullins should be commended on making this book a fascinating and interesting read. It’s not just for trainspotters or tube buffs, but provides an insight into how London has grown alongside the Tube. I believe it should be recommended reading for all politicians and transport planners – other cities are making fundamental errors when it comes to public transport spending and infrastructure, yet the Underground has made those mistakes (sometimes decades ago) and learned from the problem. Think of extending rail lines into the suburbs – the Underground was expanding train routes before the houses were built. They even had a magazine (Metroland) to tell prospective homebuyers where to go for new housing and where the estates were in relation to the Tube and bus network. Oh, and this was in the 1930s. Public-private partnership? The Tube’s done that and learned.
The book is divided into six chapters, starting from the earliest days when railways were new and privately owned. The Underground railway was built using the ‘cut and cover’ method (cut a deep trench, then build the tunnel and put the soil back over) before tunnelling techniques were developed in the late 1800s. Some of those techniques are still used today in slightly modified format, such as in the development of Crossrail, the latest addition to London’s trains. The story extends up to the early days of Crossrail, but there’s not a lot of detail on it understandably. (I’d recommend Crossrail’s website, where you can see a lot about the tunnelling machines). There is also a lot of detail about the platforms, stations and the different eras – I love how so much effort was put into the design and building of the suburban stations in particular. The book also discusses how Londoners used Tube stations as bomb shelters during World War II (did you know initially access to stations was refused?). It also doesn’t shy away from the decline of the system during the 1970s and 1980s – there are some fascinating photos included not only for this section but all chapters of the book.
What really amazed me about Underground: How the Tube Shaped London is how progressive the railways were. Steam engines being used underground was cause for complaint of fumes, so the trains went electric, starting in 1905. Electronic ticket machines were introduced alongside electronic ticketing barriers in the 1960s. In comparison, the city where I live changed to electric trains in the late 1980s and electronic ticketing in the 1990s! Escalators were another new tool introduced early by the Underground (including the spiral escalator, which was said to induce giddiness and never made it to a second build).
I think this book will appeal to anyone with an interest in London’s history, transport or social history. It’s an excellent book, celebrating many great achievements, but not shying away from the dark events either.