What do you call a group of trainspotters?
A herd, a gaggle, a drove? Whatever the correct plural, they were out in greying force today to glimpse the first steam engine to run on London Underground tracks in decades, armed with arrays of camera equipment and small sets of stepladders to ensure the best view onto the tracks.
Chatting among themselves as they awaited the train’s arrival at Kensington Olympia station, however, it turned out even the singular form of “trainspotter” is not their preferred title. “We get dubbed with it, but we like to be called ferroequinologists,” says Dennis Munday – referring to the Latinate term for “the study of the iron horse”.
But the celebrations for the 150th anniversary of the opening of the world’s first Tube line appeared to bring out the train lover in everyone across the capital today.
As the Met No 1 made its 36-minute journey to Moorgate, the route was lined with transport enthusiasts standing on walls and leaning over bridges to wave at the little maroon engine, built in 1898.
A few hungover passengers seated on regular trains which sped past the engine probably thought they were hallucinating - but train driver Geoff Phelps said he had experienced “every boy’s dream”.
Passing through 13 stations with good old-fashioned chug-chugs and toot-toots, plenty of tourists on the platforms were left bemused as they were dowsed in smoke – indeed, Transport for London commissioner Peter Hendy confided to The Independent that they had needed to override the smoke alarms on the route.
Inside, the wood-panelled compartments of the carriages were luxurious by comparison with today’s more functional rolling stock.
Seating eight people in comfort but with no standing room, the brass fittings and patterned carpet brought back the imperial grandeur that goes hand-in-hand with the raw industrial power of 19th century engineering.
Indeed, London mayor Boris Johnson said the “beautiful” journey “makes you understand all those Victorian novels and the romantic assignations that used to take place on the banquettes of the first-class seating”.
Many trainspotters believed this would be their last chance to see a coal-powered locomotive on the Tube tracks.
But the train will appear again next weekend - and after two years of work to get it back on the rails, Sam Mullins, director of the London Transport Museum, said there will be further runs in May and September. “We had to find it, fund it, restore it, test it, and test it endlessly,” he said. “We’re going to be using this a lot.”
Around 40,000 people crowded onto the line’s several trains back on the first day in 1863, with first-class tickets costing sixpence apiece.
Now more than three millions journeys are made on the network every day – and with 150-year-old infrastructure still in use, delays and engineering works means journies are not always as smooth as today’s carefully-choreographed steam train trip.
On the way back to The Independent’s office, three lines were partly closed and there was the inevitable 10-minute wait (an age in London rush-hour commuting terms) at Edgware Road.
If the Victorian wonder was how they built the Tube, perhaps the modern wonder is how they manage to keep the sometimes creaking thing moving.