Which is older, the London Underground or Budapest Metro?

Many in Budapest will tell you that their metro is the oldest in Europe, how true is that? It’s complicated. Mick O'Hare tells the story

<p>A driver in the cockpit of one of Budapest Metro’s line M4 automatic trains</p>

A driver in the cockpit of one of Budapest Metro’s line M4 automatic trains

Don that anorak and steel yourself for a heated debate. “It’s the oldest underground railway in the world.” That’s a statement you’ll sometimes hear from locals in Budapest talking about the city’s metro, which opened 125 years ago in 1896. Not so, say aficionados of the London Underground, it’s demonstrably untrue, ours predates it by 33 years. Yet still the story seems to persist, at least among Hungarians. It’s the oldest on the mainland continent of Europe for sure but even its electrification lagged six years behind the first electric line in London. Maybe it is just one of those myths from communist propaganda that has hung around. After all, the Great Soviet Encyclopedia insisted for decades that the first international football match was played by the USSR in 1930, ignoring the preceding 58 years of fixtures.

“No, no. It’s not that at all,” argues Zsombor Varga, a knowledgeable daily commuter who is passing through the system’s Astoria station. “It’s because Budapest was built solely as a metro, London wasn’t. The Metropolitan Line was just a railway that happened to run in tunnels at one end but branched out for many kilometres outside. Budapest was never a railway line, always a metro.” His countryman Gabor Molnár disagrees with his reasoning but still says Budapest was the first. “Ours was the first because it was wholly electric. In 1896 London still used steam on parts of the network,” (he’s right too but now we are arguing over what defines an underground railway). Is it all nitpicking? Presumably it depends on who is picking the nits.

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