150 years of service, or thereabouts.

This year we are invited to celebrate 150 years of the London Underground. I shall certainly be reflecting deeply on the theme, particularly as I have become familiar with so much of it for over a third of its existence, including a twenty-year period during which I worked for it and had the privilege of playing with it (they must have been mad). When one works for a firm that has already had a long life, and has a secure but endless future, it is as well to be realistic about what one can achieve during one’s tenure. A wise senior manager once summed up his view that you can only hope to leave the railway in your care a better place than it was when you found it, a view I came to subscribe to, especially when I see a few things I started still going. It sounds a straightforward enough objective but anyone who has worked in large organizations will know how hard it is to get anything done at all!

My main criticism of the new order relates to the vast bureaucracy that has entrenched itself that was once unnecessary and was certainly not there when I started. Today this often serves to slow decision making, inhibit innovation and confuse responsibilities. I also regret the loss of system knowledge of many of today’s managers who lack even basic knowledge of the network, and just occasionally do not seem very interested either. Information once in someone’s head, owing to their training, background and attitude, now has to be hunted down, if it is realized that it is needed at all. This is a very expensive way of doing things, a new facet of the management machine, and is partly due to the large number of outsiders passing through (“milking the cow”, we called it), especially in the area of projects. Nevertheless, at the front end of things, where the trains and passengers are, I don’t have to try very hard to see how much better things have got since the dark days of the 1970s and 1980s. It is as well to celebrate a 150th anniversary on a high, and I think we can.

I shall take a special interest in it as I was just a little too young to take part in the centenary celebrations of 1963, though the publications by London Transport of two books that year rank high in my recollection of the things that got me interested in the system. One of these was ‘The Story of London’s Underground’, by LT press officer John Day, an excellent compaction and good value for the five shillings it cost my father. This book is still in print as part of the Capital Transport portfolio and it is a privilege to be the book’s updater and the publisher’s historical adviser as I believe the book to be the only reliable and non technical work that gives a reasonably wide grounding of the subject. I’ve just finished the revisions for a new edition that will be out later this year, though I’m afraid it costs more than five shillings. A few years after the centenary I began to feel cheated by missing out on the experience, a matter I was able to make up for when I worked on the Northern Line and (apparently) volunteered to organize the line’s response to the centenary of the City & South London Railway, the first tube line, which took place in 1990. This involved a range of events including a huge open day at Morden depot and the construction of a temporary platform there, which had to be approved by HM Railway Inspectorate. A special train service of 1938 stock was to operate between the platform and Morden, requiring some signalling adjustments, amongst much else.

I do recall at 11pm the previous night my exhausted team looking at each other amidst muttering of why are we doing this? And we’re never, ever going to do this again! I came to understand that this was a fairly normal response on occasions like this. There are a number of things about that day I recall, some of which make me shudder even now. What do you mean the steam loco won’t come off the lorry? What do you mean we can’t run the special train? That kind of thing. Nothing trivial. But on the whole we got everything working and the visitors came in droves and enjoyed themselves over two days.  A huge number of people pulled together, and we managed to get Chris Green (Director of new Network SouthEast) to come and give the opening speech. He bought back a number of standard stock cars from the Isle of Wight, and somehow we got them to Morden and put them on display. I recall him saying he was pleased to return them: we had flung them away in 1964 as life expired but he’d managed to get another million miles out of them and returned them with thanks. Sadly, grand plans for their preservation came to nothing.

We wanted to use the Northern Line centenary partly as something to try and bring the staff together, but more so as a PR opportunity to get some messages across to our public, the Northern Line was not then the pinnacle of reliability and faith was being placed into the possibility of a whole line modernization when the Central Line had been done (a project that did not go well and caused the Northern Line modernization to be abandoned). We certainly achieved some of this, and it was an opportunity to say we were doing the best we could with a decrepit system in a positive way. One would like to think that the 150 celebrations will be calculated to get some equally important key messages across.

We are to celebrate ‘150 years of the Underground’ and it is worth a moment’s thought to what that means, given half of it is not underground. The nearest I can get is the celebration of ‘Metro’ type services in London, services that are fast(-ish), frequent and predominantly local in character and that grow and interact with the fabric of London itself. Until the First World War the distinction between the Underground (which already behaved as a single network) and the main lines was fairly clear. As it pushed into the open air, and as the main lines electrified and provided nearly indistinguishable services, the position has become blurred. I think we are celebrating the results of the anomaly that some London local services for reasons of history happen to be on the Underground map and others are not. My conjecture of blurring is heightened by the arrival of the DLR and Overground and the forcing of Oyster ticketing onto the main line local services (which the London mayor wants to control, and probably will).

The distinction between London Transport railways and the main lines was probably still clear in 1963, but I think is rather less so now.  We are celebrating the home lines on the Underground diagram, surely now a piece of self-indulgent, backward-looking and now poorly-executed publicity that more than anything else has held back the concept of transport integration in the capital, sought so eagerly since 1933 but only now really getting the necessary attention [discuss!]. In any event, the 150 years celebrations, whilst rightly reviewing how it all started and developed, must not be perceived as solely backward looking and must look forward to a new world where a separate London Underground just could be increasingly anachronistic outside its role as an alternative infrastructure manager to Network Rail. It is hard to conceive of this historical separation enduring for another century, at least in today’s form.

Returning to the subject of getting messages across, I have noted some ambiguity about what is the date we are celebrating. TfL is quoting two dates, depending on where one looks; the 9th January predominates, but 10th January can be found too. The LT Museum website reads “On 9 January 2013, London Underground will celebrate 150 years since the first underground journey took place between Paddington and Farringdon on the Metropolitan Railway.”, or, at least it did so when I checked it on 3rd January. I think it is settled territory that the formal opening was on Friday 9th January 1863, and that public services began at 6am on Saturday 10th January. In other words the speeches and formal lunch were on the 9th, but the train service began on 10th.

Until fairly recent times, it was very much the usual thing for the formal opening to take place on an earlier date, occasionally days (and in some cases weeks) ahead of the service starting. Those who record those events regard the first day that fare paying passengers could travel as the opening day, as that is what the public perceived and, strictly, it is when ‘revenue-earning-service’ began, an important factor in railway accounting. It is unusual, bordering on eccentric, to quote dates of mere ‘official’ openings, and to go down that route would require rewriting a lot of history and creating a lot of confusion. When quoting railway dates, one is lost without consistency. In any event the sentence is materially wrong: it was not the first trip for visiting dignitaries (that was on 24th May 1862, though there had been part trips earlier) and public journeys started the following day. Trains had in fact been running every day since at least 4th January in the form of a ghost service to train and familiarize the staff and test everything. By the way, the 1963 official plaque at Baker Street unsurprisingly quotes 10th January 1863, carefully noting this was first day of public service, a testimony to the clarity of communication that used to be London Transport’s hallmark.

Presumably, quoting 9th January is merely an error perpetrated by someone with no subject knowledge. It may be the same person who on the Met No 1 website page suggests that the Metropolitan Railway passed to London Transport on 13th April 1933 (the generally accepted date is 1st July, the date given is when the Royal Assent was given to the bill).* I also query the suggestion that the Metropolitan Railway was ‘a private company which had been formed in 1854’; the route, name and financial structure were indeed changed in 1854, but in essence it was a continuation of, and the same people as, the company formed in 1853 and the minute books form a single continuous series from this earlier date.

Personally, I think a museum, especially the in-house museum, really ought to be able to get the basics right if it is not to encourage the asking of certain awkward questions, but I may be alone here! Doesn’t anyone ever check anything? Apologies for getting cross about this, but when a wrong date gets out then people quote it and it propagates, causing mischief everywhere that I and others end up trying to get corrected. When an official museum quotes a wrong date the job gets harder because it is assumed the museum speaks with authority.  There is enough new history to discover without having constantly correct territory that is already settled and just needed looking up.

So, I will be raising a glass on the 10th January to 150 years of public service to London, not always under the most favourable circumstances, and for some years by people who became good friends. We should not forget, though, the customers who have used and paid for the services for 150 years, again sometimes in difficult circumstances, and as I’m now one of them I may be raising a second glass to them.

* The offending page has now disappeared (as of 9th January), but another eccentricity is the ‘timeline’ page of 40 entries or so where the creation of London Transport is evidently not regarded as worthy of note at all.

About machorne

I have always lived in London and taken a great interest in its history and ongoing development. This extended into the history of its transport services, about which I have written a number of books - I have spent most of my working life working in the industry and observing changes from within, mostly to the good, but not always so. I continue to write, and have a website with half finished stuff in it so that it is at least available, if not complete. Several new books are in hand. I have many 'works in progress' and some of these can be found on my website; the we address is http://www.metadyne.co.uk
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2 Responses to 150 years of service, or thereabouts.

  1. Anonymous says:

    Alas, your forecast that “when a wrong date gets out then people quote it and it propagates” was confirmed today (9th January) when the BBC local television news at lunchtime for London & the SE announced the anniversary. To compound the misdirection, the whole slant of the report was on the Metropolitan's expansion into 'Metroland' rather than the significance of achieving a successful underground railway in the middle of a great city 150 years ago.


  2. Doug Rose says:

    Having taken up this very matter, before the 10th January, with LT Museum's director (and by he to his staff as a result), the response I received strongly suggested they didn't think it mattered and was just fine. My own view is that people who don't care about historical accuracy shouldn't be involved in it and do something more in line with their own aspirations.


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