Hampstead, our local underground station, is on the Edgware branch of the Northern line of the London Underground. Its one claim to fame is the fact that it has the deepest platform in all of London. The station was opened on 22 June 1907 by the Charing Cross, Euston & Hampstead Railway. Heath Street was the original name proposed for the station, and the original tiled station signs on the platform walls still read “Heath Street”. The platforms are 58.5 metres or 192 feet below ground level. It has the deepest lift shaft on the Underground at 181 feet, with two high speed lifts that always seem to work.


During the Blitz, tube stations like Hampstead were relatively safe places to sleep, and what began as an illegal solution to a growing problem eventually earned grudging acceptance from the authorities. Here’s Julia Smith’s childhood recollection of sleeping at Swiss Cottage station during the war. “The station was rather a magic place. It had a beautiful arcade which housed a good buffet, a chemist shop and, unusually, an umbrella repair shop…. Initially people used to lie on a blanket on the platforms, and passengers alighting from trains stepped over recumbent figures, but some time into the war, bunks were provided…. When the American forces first saw people in the Tube, they thought we were all homeless. In time, they realised that it was the only answer to getting a good night’s sleep….


Diana Thomson, another Hampstead resident, was an ambulance driver stationed at Parliament Hill during the War. She recalls being called to Hampstead station to rescue a large and heavy woman who had had a heart attack in the middle of the night. There are 320 steps from the platform to the street. “The lifts were cut off during the air raids, so she had to be got up. It was very crowded with people sheltering there. Luckily, we had help from a couple of strong men.” It would be hard enough hauling one’s own body up 320 steps, without the burden of a heavy person who had suffered a heart attack.


For ordinary visitors to London, taking the tube soon becomes a regular part of life. We turn into moles, hopping on trains from one hole to another. I suspect that most people take this enormous engineering miracle for granted. When that happens, a visit to London’s Transport Museum in Covent Garden is in order. It will renew your respect for all the expense and effort as well as the trial and error that went into creating this amazing network underfoot.



My flu has finally flown, so I decided to check out a brand new exhibition of Underground Posters and see the museum at the same time. I got there early, before the hordes of school groups and parents with toddlers took over the huge building. A ticket is good for an entire year, so I may make my way back to the museum during the quiet time from 10 to 12 noon. There is a lot to take in.


The Underground system is known colloquially as the Tube. The name originally applied only to the deep-level lines with trains of a smaller and more circular cross-section, distinguishing them from the earlier, sub-surface “cut-and-cover” lines that used steam locomotives. It is difficult to imagine how uncomfortable and unhealthy those early underground rides must have been, when people smoked in the passenger cars, behind the belching locomotives.

On January 13th, 2013, the very first train to travel on the Metropolitan line was commemorated with a new day of steam on the underground. A videographer named Ryan Skinner captured the event and put together a very elegantly edited version here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0yCOKb6KZZA. It is well worth a look.


The brilliant London Underground map is now synonymous with the Tube and may raise more revenues through sales of towels, shower curtains, etc. than tickets for actual transport. Its design has definitely been influential around the world. Early maps based on actual geographic location became increasingly cumbersome as the network grew. The first diagrammatic map, the one we know and love now, was designed in 1931 by Harry Beck, a London Underground employee.


Beck realised that because the railway ran mostly underground, the physical locations of the stations were irrelevant to the traveller — only the topology of the railway mattered. Beck streamlined the system, using straight lines, geometric angles, and clear differentiation of ordinary stations from interchanges. This approach is similar to that of electrical circuit diagrams; although these were not the inspiration for Beck’s maps. Beck was paid just ten pounds for his genius, which now seems a little stingy considering its popularity and influence on other underground mapmakers.


The Underground now serves 270 stations and has 402 kilometres (250 mi) of track, 45 per cent of which is underground. It is the fourth largest metro system in the world in terms of route miles, after the Seoul Metropolitan Subway, the Shanghai Metro and the Beijing Subway. It has one of the largest numbers of stations. In the year 2011/12, 1.2 billion passengers made use of the Tube, making it the third busiest metro system in Europe, after Moscow and Paris.


Although the Tube is generally considered safe, a terrible fire broke out on 18 November 1987 at King’s Cross St. Pancras a major interchange on the London Underground. It is believed to have been started by a match, dropped by someone who lit up a cigarette upon reaching the top of the escalator. Although smoking was forbidden underground, it was still not uncommon in the ticket buying halls. The escalators in use had wooden treads.

At 19:45, fifteen minutes after the fire started, a flashover occurred and a jet of flames came from the escalator shaft filling the ticket hall with intense heat and thick black smoke, killing or seriously injuring most of the people in the ticket hall. This trapped several hundred people below ground, who escaped on Victoria line trains. Thirty-one people died and over a hundred were injured.


The investigators found a build-up of grease under the tracks of the escalator, which was believed to be difficult to ignite and slow to burn once it started, but the grease was heavily impregnated with fibrous materials. As a test, a lit match dropped from the side of the escalator did ignite the contaminated grease and a small fire began spreading before it was extinguished. All wooden escalator treads have no been replaced and fire extinguishers installed.


Overcrowding on the Underground has been of concern for years and is very much the norm for most commuters during the morning and evening rush hours. In 2009, temperatures in the deep tunnels reached as high as 32 °C. It has been pointed out that, if animals were being transported, temperatures on the Tube would break European Commission animal welfare laws. Air quality is poor. According to a 2003 study, it is 73 times worse than at street level.


Two weeks ago, Prince Charles and Camila joined London’s commuters on the tube to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the underground. The prince had to be shown where to swipe his Oyster card as he and wife Camilla travelled one stop on the Metropolitan line. It was 17 years since Charles had last been on the tube and the first time the couple, who as Londoners over 60 would be entitled to free travel, had made a journey together.


But they didn’t have to battle with the capital’s typically packed trains as they were given their own carriage for the £2.10 journey from Farringdon to Kings Cross – the route of the underground’s first line in 1863. After eventually swiping his Oyster, topped up with £10, Charles seemed to enjoy the journey, saying “Just one stop?” when the train ground to a halt.

He may have enjoyed his little outing, but I doubt if he’s giving up his chauffeur driven Bentley any time soon.