Underground Overground: A Passenger's History of the Tube, By Andrew Martin
However taxing for users, London's buried railways deserve a history that celebrates their role.
Saturday 05 May 2012
"Sonia" was the nickname given to the Central Line's automated in-train announcements, because "her voice gets on your nerves". Speaking as a resident of South London, which boasts only a handful of Underground stations, I can merely retort that the spoilt denizens north of the Thames should be so be lucky as to have all those trains, irritating voices or no irritating voices.
Andrew Martin takes the Tube, but not for granted, having been the Underground correspondent of the Evening Standard. He travels not to arrive but to travel, savouring often overlooked highlights such as the brick arch over the oldest platform in Baker Street.
Underground Overground is a highly engaging journey through the history and geography of the Tube. He takes us from the first steam trains of the Metropolitan Line in 1863 to the Tube Upgrade with its 2018 completion date. He guides us from Epping in the north-east to Wimbledon in the south-west. He reminds us that when we say "Underground", we should be aware that just over half of the system is in fact overground. And when we say "Tube", we should know that traditionally this applied only to the lines in deep tunnels like the Piccadilly, as opposed to the District and other "cut-and-cover" lines.
Even Harry Beck's stylised Underground map could not mould the Circle Line into a proper circle. The actual wobbly shape is unsurprising, since it was designed from the fitting-together of sections of different lines owned by competing Fat Controllers burrowing around like moles on acid. It wasn't until the final section of three stations between Mansion House and Aldgate was joined up that you could avoid going the long way round via 20-plus stops. Either that or walk.
The task of planning routes was not helped by the fact that, to avoid paying for the freehold of buildings under which they tunnelled, designers preferred to follow the roads. This accounts for all those tight bends in the track and the need to mind the gap between carriage and platform.
Train companies came and went, swallowed up by competitors. Stations were opened and closed, in the case of the Bull & Bush, deep under Hampstead Heath, without actually being in use. Some parts of this subterranean saga show what it must feel like to be a Japanese tourist dumped in the Euston complex for the first time.
Incidentally, the Northern ("Misery") Line, whose two branches go through there, deserves some credit for its tunnel between Morden and Finchley: 17.5 miles, for decades the world's longest. Yes, the line is absurdly overcrowded, but you shouldn't complain too much about a system which whisks commuters below the traffic from suburban home to central London office. Mind you, there has to be a station near you in the first place.
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