London’s pioneering Tube system turns 150

Despite complaints from some riders, London’s subway system completes about 3.5 million journeys each day.
KAREL PRINSLOO/European Pressphoto Agency
Despite complaints from some riders, London’s subway system completes about 3.5 million journeys each day.

LONDON — Busy, congested, stressful. This is how the world’s first subway system was depicted by London newspapers in 1863. It is a situation that would be familiar to nail-biting passengers of the present as the Tube turned 150 years old Wednesday.

‘‘The constant cry, as the trains arrived, of ‘no room,’ appeared to have a very depressing effect upon those assembled,’’ The Guardian newspaper reported on the public opening of London’s Metropolitan Line on Jan. 10, 1863. The first stretch of rail had opened the day before, on Jan. 9.

The line — the first part of what is now an extensive London transport network that has shaped the British capital and its suburbs — ran 120 trains each way during the day, carrying up to 40,000 excited passengers. Extra steam locomotives and cars were called in to handle the crowds.


Architectural historian David Lawrence said the rapid expansion of the subway network — better known in London as the Tube — had a major impact on the city’s design. The Tube helped lure people away from the inner city into new areas where new housing was being built near the stations.

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The pioneering Metropolitan Line sparked a new wave of underground development which today has grown into a 249-mile system carrying 1.2 billion passenger journeys each year.

Although Londoners love to complain about its sometimes sketchy performance, the Tube and its related rail lines can be a remarkably efficient way to move vast numbers of people in and out of the city, with roughly 3.5 million journeys completed each day.

It provided nearly flawless transport during the recent London Olympics despite fears that it would buckle under the extra strain.

Charles Pearson, a lawyer who saw the line as a tool of social reform which would enable the poor to live in healthier surroundings on the perimeter of the city, began promoting the line in the 1850s.


Pearson made a crucial contribution by persuading the Corporation of the City of London to invest in the line.

For the anniversary celebrations, Transport for London will run old-style steam powered trains underground — but only on Sunday, so as not to disrupt its crucial people-moving function during the workweek.