"The District (Line) ... attracted considerable negative (press) coverage with various mechanical failures and, in particular, its primitive air-operated doors which apparently had a tendency to tear off ladies' skirts, something particularly shocking to the Edwardian psyche." - from THE SUBTERRANEAN RAILWAY
Disclaimer: If you've never visited London and/or fallen in love with the Underground, or at least have no interest in how such mass transportation evolves, then you're likely to find THE SUBTERRANEAN RAILWAY excruciatingly boring. So, as is advised at the stations, just "pass along the platform", so to speak.
Having had the good fortune to enjoy Britain's capital many times, I've found the Tube to be both indispensable and an inseparable adjunct to any visit. Thus, for me, Christian Wolmar's volume about the evolution of this below-ground railway, from its inception in the mind of visionary Charles Pearson in the first half of the 19th century to the present day, was as enthralling as any couldn't-put-it-down thriller. OK, so I need to get a life.
THE SUBTERRANEAN RAILWAY includes two sections of black and white illustrations and photographs of the Underground both then and now, but mostly then. There's also a color section that comprises two route maps of the system from the early 20th century that are geographically correct - something I've never seen before - plus the more familiar schematic rendering of the network conceived by Harry Beck in 1931 and based on an electric circuit diagram. The version of the latter, current as of about 2006, spreads over two pages. Unfortunately the central fold of the volume rests squarely on the route of the Northern Line from Camden Town to Kennington and several stations are lost in the crease. Nevermind, I just pulled out my London Street Atlas
to get my bearings. One thing Wolmar left unexplained, though, is the odd side-loop from Leytonstone to Woodford via Fairlop that the Central line takes near its eastern terminus. What's that all about? (The unredeemably curious must consult Wikipedia.)
The narrative focuses mainly on the construction, expansion and consolidation of the various lines - all originally under separate, private ownership - beginning with the opening of the Metropolitan on January 9, 1863 to the formation of the London Passenger Transport Board in the 1930s. The competition between the lines sometimes went to absurd length, e.g. the dispute between the Metropolitan and District over a siding at South Kensington, as reported in the West London Advertiser:
"The District ... have run and engine and train into a siding and have actually chained it to the spot ... A day or two ago, the Metropolitan sent three engines to pull away the train and a tug of war ensued in which the chained train came off the victor ..."
As a Yank, I was impressed by the hitherto unknown (to me) fact of the enormous influence U.S. entrepreneurship and money had on the final form of the Underground as we know it today. (Bleedin' Americans, "overpaid, overfed, oversexed and over here.") Well, you must admit that America's contribution was more substantive and useful than McDonalds.
Having finished THE SUBTERRANEAN RAILWAY, I'm inspired to contemplate further excesses, such as to go back to London, Travelcard in hand, and ride each of the thirteen lines from one end to the other visiting all 268 stations. Ah, now that would be a once-in-a-lifetime adventure!