In 1861, two years before the very first subterranean railway system in the world opened, the Times commented that it was insane to imagine that horse-drawn omnibus passengers would instead choose “to be driven amid palpable darkness through the foul subsoil of London”, and the very notion of this railway would in the future be associated with other absurdities such as plans for “tunnels under the Channel”. To this day, there are millions of aggrieved commuters – not just in London but packed in carriages, with their faces squashed against the doors, from Tokyo to Moscow – who still feel that traveling underground is a daily form of madness.
In 1863, there were a few apprehensive Victorians who imagined that those initial tunnels from Praed Street in west London to Farringdon in the City, filled with smoke and the shrieks of steam engines, were uncomfortably close to the infernal visions of Dante.
But just the other week, along those very same tunnels, a vintage steam locomotive drew through Baker Street station as a prelude to a year of celebrations, clouds billowing down the platform. In the coming year, we should be treated to many sights such as this, together with the sharp pang of nostalgic yearning that antique trains always evoke.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of that pioneering underground railway system, and it is an opportunity to reflect not merely on the ingenuity but also on the unexpected splendors of underground life. For all the complaints about claustrophobia and sub-surface overcrowding, from Liverpool to Glasgow, Prague to New York, these railways through the Stygian gloom also bid us – if we keep our eyes open – to briefly enter an altogether different world. And unlike other modes of travel, from the jet to the hybrid car, this is one that Victorians would still instantly recognize today. We take it so much for granted that we forget just what an extraordinary feat these old Underground tunnels represent.
...For details of the London Underground’s 150th anniversary celebrations, visit www.ltmuseum.co.uk/whats-on/tube150.
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