Steam Fills London Tube Tunnels As Underground Celebrates 150 Years

Category: Society / Jan 14, 2013 3:45PM EDT
It may have led to a cough or two, but the acidic taste of steam in the air left smiles among passengers and passers by as it bellowed from a steam train running through London's underground railway network on Sunday (January 13). One hundred and fifty years ago London became the first city in the world to dig tunnels and run railways underneath the ground, in an effort to quicken transport that was painfully slow above ground. On January 9, 1863, London Underground opened the world's first underground railway, opening to the public a day later on January 10. A century and a half later, more than a billion people a year use London's so-called "tube", which is loved and hated in equal measure. A special commemorative service is being run by London Underground Ltd. Dozens watched the Met Locomotive One draw into its platform at Moorgate alongside one of the brand new stock of trains that are part of the London Underground upgrade, providing a stark contrast. Some at the event dressed up to try and give the evening a more authentic feel, though some costumes were more authentic than others. The train's journey took it from Kensington Olympia in west London to Moorgate in the east of the city -- a journey that would now require more than one change. Passengers travelling on the service said that this particular journey might perhaps bring new meaning to the term "time-travel". "It's like it was 150 years ago, isn't it? I'm used to going on the modern trains, so it's nice to see how it was," said one passenger after the journey. "I was on the very last carriage, it was a much smoother ride than I expected actually, for such an old train. It was very good," added another. "You could smell the smoke as you came past, you saw it going past the doors, and yeah, it was good nostalgia. Just nostalgia," a third passenger said. Broadcaster Robert Elms was left grinning from the experience. "Why aren't all trains like that? I mean in some aspects of life, clearly modernity is not an improvement. I mean it's elegant, it's comfortable, it's handsome, it's... it was great. And to see the steam from the train in the tunnels, and to see the looks on the faces of the people at the station, some of whom just weren't expecting that was great," he said. Speaking above the din of the steam engine next to him, London Underground's Chief Operating Officer Howard Collins said it was a celebration of how far the network had come in a century and a half. "We were the first in the world, the first subterranean railway, and of course it's not only about the history of 150 years, it's also about the tube system. We're so proud to do this, we've attracted so many people who have enjoyed today, and of course we've got more trains this evening, plus also next week." "We're the grandmother of all railways, at the end of the day we were the first. There are some more swish, modern, but who else could do this? To bring back 150 years of history, put it underground, and run it so successfully?," he added. During World War II and the German bombing of London during the Blitz, the tube's tunnels and platforms provided safe haven for those hiding from the bombs. More than half a century later, in July 2005, the Tube became a place of terror, when Islamic fundamentalists blew themselves up on three trains and a bus in central London. Fifty two civilians were killed. Today Londoners rely heavily on the tube and it carries more passengers in one day that the whole of the UK's other rail networks. The transport network is taken so much for granted, which is doubtless why, when parts of the 150 year old system break down, commuters react with such fury. Decades of underinvestment and political wranglings mean the tube is still in need of vital repair and upgrade works. London Underground is currently undergoing significant improvements, including tunnelling work as part of the Crossrail project due for completion in 2018.