Network built on the greed and nerve of a robber baron

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Sir George Young's announcement that London Underground is to be privatised was met by a predictable chorus of opposition from Labour MPs, union leaders and commuter organisations.

Yet there is nothing new about developing the Tube with private money.

The modern electric underground network owes its origins to the greed and sheer nerve of an American buccaneer called Charles Tyson Yerkes, who arrived in London in 1900 to cash in on what he saw as the huge untapped monopoly of a modern transport system in a great city.

Yerkes, who had already served a jail term for embezzlement, was fleeing from the authorities in Chicago, where he ran the streetcar system for 15 years, but had also run into debt and the Mafia. His business maxim had proved to be his undoing: "The secret of success in my line of work," he would say, "is to buy old junk, fix it up a little, and unload it on to other fellows."

The "robber baron", as he was known, arrived in London at the age of 63, with a vision and a mistress. His vision was to take the capital out of the steam and horse age into the electric era, and to cash in on rising property values by extending his lines into the rapidly expanding suburbs.

Yerkes settled in the Waldorf hotel to drum up investment, while his 23-year-old mistress, for whom he had once bought a bed from the King of the Belgians costing $80,000, set up in the Savoy, where it is said that she became a model for more than one Henry James heroine.

Yerkes electrified the loss-making District Line, ordered new carriages modelled on American trams and cut back on the seating to cram in more passengers. Tube carriages are still known by the American name "cars" because of their Yerkes origins. His power station built at Lots Road in Chelsea is the one that still supplies (and frequently cuts off) the entire London Underground today.

He bullied and cajoled his backers into providing the cash to build the great Tube lines - the Bakerloo, the Piccadilly and the Northern line. The Piccadilly, opened in 1906, was his great glory - the longest in the capital and the first with an escalator. A man with a wooden leg was paid to ride it all day long to prove to a sceptical public that it was safe.

Before that the money had run out, and Yerkes did not live to see the heyday of the private Underground company, which eventually ran all the lines except the Metropolitan until nationalisation and merger with the buses in 1933.

The cost of burrowing under the Hampstead hills to build the Northern line had proved too great and he died in 1905. His creditors reclaimed his house in Park Avenue, New York City, and the Yerkes Observatory on Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, which he had ordained should contain the largest telescope in the world.

An eminent railway historian wrote of him: "His interest in railways as railways was absolutely nil. He neither knew nor cared about the day- to-day methods of operation, safety methods and such like. His sole and only concern was the accounts." It is on to Yerkes' railway, substantially unchanged in any of these respects, that MPs step every day at Westminster station as they make their way to and from the House.

Tube lines

The tube system's 11 lines carry more than 2.5 million people between 266 stations every day.

There are several redundant or "ghost" stations including Down Street between Hyde Park Corner and Green Park on the Piccadilly Line which was used by Winston Churchill's war cabinet.

In 1994, a blind person's guide to the Tube was produced by a veteran Underground traveller advising blind passengers to listen for specific wind noises and feel the sway of the train to pin-point their location.