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"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!
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VINE VOICEon 18 November 2007
Christian Wolmar has produced an excellent book with a fair sprinkling of characters, politics and high finance. Anyone who is seen to take the underground for granted should be handed a copy of this book to learn just how remarkable a thing it is. Similarly, as a history of the underground, this is an excellent start.

The only disappointment is the brevity of coverage of events post 1945. The building of the Victoria and Jubilee lines are covered, but nowhere to the depth of earlier lines. Some discussion of how these lines came about would have been an interesting study in allowing politicians to run a railway.

But such criticisms are small compared to a book on railways that doesn't require an anorak to enjoy.
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on 23 December 2004
Although there are many Underground histories, Christian Wolmar's Subterranean Railway brings it across in a very digestible and gripping read. Wolmar takes an interesting perspective, focusing on the social aspect of the Underground and the benefits it brought London, as well as recognising those great characters that gave the capital the pioneering Subterranean Railway.
A well recommended read by anyone with an interest in the railways, or indeed by ordinary commuters alike!
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on 22 March 2008
This book looks at the creation of the underground from all angles: political, technical, social - and is interesting throughout. The author's sense of humour and well chosen quotes brings a sense of reverie to the experience, as one imagines what it must have been like at the beginning, and in comparison to the present day. It's nice to see a book which really underlines what a remarkable achievement the London Underground, was how important a creation it has proved to be.
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on 28 July 2009
This is an excellent book. Mr Wolmar has the knack of presenting this important history in such a manner that the people and events seem to be real and current. There is nothing missed, from the efforts of the early pioneers to the (apparent) falling of scales from the eyes of 21st Century administrators. And it's all readable! The system began in 1864 and is still in full use today, so if you are inquisitive enough to want to how and why, buy this book and read all about it.
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on 15 November 2009
I was given this book as a present, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I am amazed how little I knew about a system I use regularly, and completely agree with the comments in the book that this history should be more prominently displayed on the Underground itself. I am sure many Londoners and tourists would find this interesting. The book emphasizes not only the haphazard growth of the system, but also the role it has played in the expansion of London and surrounding areas.

However, this book could do with some better editing: the first few chapters seem to repeat much of the information while not adding much to the story. It would be good to have a few more pictures and diagrams to show how the lines extended over the years. It is a pity that the modern map is split over two pages - but then again, you can have a much better tube map for free from your nearest London underground station.

In general, an excellent book, and worth buying.
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on 3 July 2005
This book deserves to be enjoyed well outside trainspotting or railway enthusiast circles. Charting the foundation and growth of one history's boldest engineering projects, it is full of fascinating revelations about London, its people, its politics, its demands and its ever-increasing needs. That sense of a secret world beneath our feet was never conveyed better. I read much of this book while travelling on the Underground itself, and emerged a good deal more appreciative of the visionary men who built it. Perhaps more commuters should do the same!
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on 28 September 2010
Popular railway writer/journalist Christian Wolmar is known for his readable and intelligent books on the British railways and their history. In "The Subterranean Railway", he has applied his skills to writing a history of the London Underground, its construction, development, companies and politics. In the best traditions of popular history the book covers all the aspects of the tube's history, from the first suggestions for underground rail to the modern extensions. It covers the technical aspects of constructing the tunnels, the fares policies through the century, the sequence of the lines' development and their oddities, the competition between the individual underground railway lines in the early stages, the politics of public transport, and the individual Victorian and Edwardian entrepreneurs who determined much of the Underground's current structure and functioning. Wolmar even pays attention to the design aspects of the tube stations and Harry Beck's famous map, to the development of 'Metroland' around the Metropolitan Line in the northwest of London, and to the central role played by London Transport's recruitment in the Caribbean for drawing West Indian workers to London in the first mass immigration of that kind to Britain.

The book is well-written, balanced, informative and accessible. It does help to have a basic knowledge of London and the geographical layout already, given the proliferation of names and places in the book, although the modern tube map is helpfully provided with the illustrations. Wolmar's book shows some interesting aspects of the railways' development, in particular the decisive role played by the fact that until relatively quite late the different Underground lines were run by individual companies aiming to make a profit and competing with each other, rather than a planned urban public transport service as in most other cities with major underground railways. This role, as Wolmar has also showed for the mainline railways in Britain in his celebrated book on the topic (Fire and Steam: A New History of the Railways in Britain), has mainly been negative. Although the activities of the underground railways allowed the construction of major projects for public transport at a time when it would have been politically impossible for the state to do so, it led to a great number of inefficiencies as competing stations and whole lines were built close to each other, as tickets valid for one company were not accepted on the other (gravely limiting the usefulness of the entire system), as companies failed to expand useful lines for years on end for want of capital, and so forth. It is no coincidence that until the 1990s, every single developed country had amalgamated its mainline and underground railway lines each into a single public company, as competition in this branch is simply not productive from a public point of view - if anything, public transport by rail in countries where space is significantly limited is a rare obvious example of a natural monopoly, just like healthcare.

Also interesting is Wolmar's emphasis on the importance the American investors such as Yerkes played in consolidating the underground lines into a more coherent system akin to what we know now, as well as the major significance of the structure of the bus system for the functioning of the Underground - the bus lines for the longest times were the main competitor and tended to 'poach' the customers rather than providing connecting services, as is the aim now. Add to this various interesting anecdotes about the oddities of the tube - such as the bizarre side line to Mill Hill East on the Northern line or the two directly proximate stations in New Cross - as well as small histories of individual stations interspersed in the main narrative and Wolmar's clear passion for the Underground, and you have a readable and impressive book. Wolmar wants us to realize how amazing it is the Underground exists at all and functions as well as it does, and he succeeds in this purpose. A small note: since the book was written in 2004, it does not cover the Underground bombings of 2005, nor does it mention the newest expansions such as the East London expansion of the overground and the plans for Crossrail.
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on 23 May 2010
A good read that takes you through the story of how the Underground began and developed. One of Christian Wolmar's great strengths is that he digs beyond the railway-related facts to bring in the financial and social context. Some of this gives particular food for thought, in particular that the Underground system in London largely evolved almost by accident, and that with a couple of exceptions none of the lines was profitable because of the huge capital cost involved.
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on 14 August 2006
Provides not only a brilliant coverage of the building of the Underground but a fascinating look into the affect of the railways on the City.

Well worth a read.
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