No more transports of delight

London's well-designed buses, trains and tube stations once inspired the world. This legacy has been squandered, and the capital is left with a miserable, bumpy ride, writes Jonathan Glancey
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Indy Lifestyle Online
For the frazzled commuter fuming inside a filthy Fifties Northern Line carriage, or bumped at speed out of chewing-gummed moquette on an ancient, bucking Metropolitan Line racer, it is hard to believe that all Europe's public transport systems once looked to London Transport to set the pace.

This golden past is harder still to imagine if you travel to and from work on one of the capital's growing number of "pirate" buses - the rotten fruit of a dogmatic government's degenerate lust for deregulation and privatisation. London's buses were once considered among the world's finest examples of industrial design. Toughest of all is a trip on gleaming new Metro systems in, say, Lille or Lyon. Try not to recall that the Underground led the way.

Today's LT is a perfect example of what happens when the responsibility for the public realm falls into unsympathetic political hands. The results are crass and dysfunctional.

Only 30 years ago, this "civilising agent", as Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, the great architectural historian, called LT, was famous for its integrated and efficient fleet of red buses and red and silver tube trains. Not only did these work in the physical or functional sense, but they also connected on a visual level that made sense of the chaos of London, and, if commuters cared to look up from their newspapers, paperbacks and knitting, delighted the eye.

At its peak in the late Thirties, LT was a mainspring of modern design, a showcase of contemporary architecture, a pop-up book made real of forward- looking engineering. Under the aegis of its legendary chief executive, Frank Pick (1878-1941), it was both an integrated public transport system that held the city in necessary and comfortable check, like some well- styled if voluminous corset, and a public art gallery built on a colossal, yet humane and popular scale.

Sadly, the LT that inspired the world, in particular the Moscow metro during the Thirties, is now the stuff of memory, heritage for handsome, lavishly illustrated histories, such as Designed for London (Laurence King, pounds 19.95), a perceptive celebration of 150 of years of capital transport design by Oliver Green, the first curator of the London Transport Museum in Covent Garden, and Jeremy Rewse-Davies, co-designer of the Daleks for BBC TV's Dr Who and design director of LT.

Frank Pick, in whose mental image LT was shaped between 1933 and 1940, would have been proud of this book, even if he might have shuddered to experience a Nineties rush-hour. Pick, an extraordinary Fenman who made the ordinary shine, believed that nothing - no tube station or train, double-decker, poster or public lavatory - was too good for Londoners and visitors to the capital.

In Pick's hands, design was a discipline to be used generously, but economically and effectively, to transform the grind of everyday city life into something approximating art. Of course, this deeply civilised man was fighting an uphill struggle, but his achievement, increasingly recognised, deserves to be the stuff of legend. (Green and Rewse-Davies have dedicated their book to him.)

Pick brought the whole pantheon of art, architecture, design and engineering to a peak in the service of everyman, and asked (save his pounds 10,000 salary, the equivalent of half of what Cedric Price, the privatised gasman, will earn this year) for precious little in return. One of the greatest businessmen of our century, he refused knighthood and peerage and went to the grave plain Frank Pick, two syllables representing everything decent about a straightforward and picky man who wanted the best not only for himself but for those who lives were measured by season tickets.

Rewse-Davies has done what he can as design director of what remains of LT to keep up standards. You will welcome his input if you use the new Angel tube station or ride on one of the refurbished A60-stock trains on the Metropolitan Line (to Uxbridge and Amersham). But where Frank Pick was given a brief to integrate all aspects of London's public transport - buses, trams, trains and trolley buses - Rewse-Davies struggles to bring good design to a transport system that has been torn to pieces.

You can see this in London's streets, abused by privatised buses in their trashy liveries, and in the rash of near-illegible typefaces that deface Routemaster buses today. Where seat fabrics in buses and tube trains were once fashioned by artists and designers of the calibre of Paul Nash, Marion Dorn and Enid Marx, now they look as if they have been bought in a job lot from a dodgy car boot sale.

The London Underground, good in parts today, has suffered slightly less than the buses. Even then, some recent cost-cutting designs have been astonishingly ugly. Compare the superb 1938 rolling stock that ran up until 1988 on the Bakerloo, Piccadilly and Northern lines with the latest Mad Max meets Lego trains running on the Central Line. The 1938 design was resolved at every stage, no part could be taken away without upsetting the balance of the whole. The new design is such an ad hoc assemblage that only by stripping the thing back to its core aluminium shell could a half-decent shape be discernable.

Pick was able to choose the best artists of his day, not only because he had adequate resources, but because he had a vision of London and its transport system that is quite beyond the weasely daydreams of today's politicians.

Fortunately, there are some signals showing a clear road ahead for good design. The new station at Hillingdon on the Uxbridge branch of the Metropolitan Line, Chris Wilkinson's bravura Stratford depot designed for trains operating the Jubilee Line extension (due to open in 1998) and Sir Norman Foster's London Underground station at Canary Wharf all promise to be special.

What Green and Rewse-Davies do not say in Designed for London is that the legendary standards of design reached by LT in the Thirties cannot be repeated because the system has been pulled to pieces and allowed to fester. Perhaps this reflects the pluralistic city we live in; perhaps it reflects cheap politics, car mania, superstore culture (where everything is available, but nothing very good) and the fall of public transport.

Are Margaret Thatcher and John Major proud of what they destroyed? They have squandered Pick's legacy for a mess of public transport potage. What was once a public virtue has been turned into private squalor. Even when the political agenda in Britain changes and public transport is perceived as a good thing, the ascent to the design standards of 60 years ago will be hard - like climbing one of the out-of-order escalators at Leicester Square.

'Designed for London', an exhibition of LT design, is at the London Transport Museum, Covent Garden, London WC1, until June 1996.