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The history of the London Underground is one of gradual evolution. One section of it was the first urban underground passenger-carrying railway in the world, for although the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel in New York, opened in 1844, is sometimes called the "world's oldest subway tunnel", this had no stations and was used for long-distance as well as suburban trains.

Initial development[]

Early schemes[]

The first half of the 19th century saw rapid development in train services to London, but many mainline terminals (particularly those whose railways came from the north, east and west) were situated some distance from the City of London. When the “New Road” (now Farringdon Street) was being constructed in the 1830s, the plan was formed to build a railway in a covered way along its route through the River Fleet valley. It was the time of the Railway Mania and many schemes for shallow underground railways, to counteract the ever-increasing traffic congestion in the capital, were put forward from 1844 onwards: few were successful.

In 1851, following the Great Exhibition, a revised Fleet valley scheme was proposed: this time a broad-gauge line to the Great Western Railway (GWR) at Paddington. The latter station suffered from being the furthest distance from the City of any of the main line termini: the completion of its line from Birmingham worsened the situation. At first the name chosen for the railway was the "Bayswater, Paddington and Holborn Bridge Railway": this was swiftly changed to the "North Metropolitan Railway". Meetings were held in 1853; the GWR pledged its support, on the understanding that the line was extended at both ends - into Paddington at the west and to the City at the east. The Great Northern Railway (GNR), near whose terminus at King's Cross the line was to pass, also backed the scheme. On 7 August 1854 the whole scheme was reincorporated, and the name "Metropolitan Railway" (MetR) was adopted.

Metropolitan Railway (1863)[]

The Metropolitan Railway in 1873.

The driving force behind the new railway was Charles Pearson (1793-1862). For some years the building of the railway lapsed as it proved impossible to raise the capital. When in 1858 Pearson advocated the provision of “cheap railway accommodation to enable working classes to reside in their adjacent country districts” the money at last became available, and work began. Between Paddington and King's Cross the form of construction was cut-and-cover; from there onwards the line was left in open cutting. Mixed-gauge (both standard- and broad-gauge) track was laid. The terminal station at Farringdon was originally called Farringdon Street: the road itself was Victoria Street, renamed Farringdon Road in 1863. After many delays caused by excavations falling in and by the Fleet Ditch Sewer bursting into the works at Farringdon, and by additional work required after a Board of Trade inspection, public service began on 10 January 1863. 40,000 passengers were carried over the line that day.

The railway was worked initially by the GWR with its broad-gauge locomotives: later Sir Daniel Gooch designed and built 22 outside-cylinder 2-4-0 locomotives for the line. Very soon, however, disagreement arose between the two railways, so much so that on 18 July 1863 the GWR gave notice that it would cease to work the railway at the end of the following month. The MetR was forced into making other arrangements for working the line: the GNR and the London and North Western Railway both loaned rolling stock. The GNR also loaned a few smoke-condensing locomotives, intended for its line from Kings Cross to Farringdon, and other locomotives that had been adapted. By 1 October the MetR were running its own services and the GNR suburban service had also begun. The GWR ran some broad-gauge trains from Windsor to Farringdon and between Addison Road (later Kensington Olympia) and the City later in the year.

At the outset the MetR banned smoking from its carriages, to avoid adding to the difficulties of steam operation in tunnel. Eventually it provided smoking carriages in response of public opinion in 1874. A pioneer of workmen's fares, the MetR introduced them on two early morning trains, at first for 3d return fare; this was later reduced to one penny single on one train each way daily. By 1880 the 'Met' was carrying 40 million passengers a year.

The MetR began expanding its network into the suburbs in 1868. Railways always had a great deal of influence on the areas through which they ran, not least in this case: in the 1920s the term "Metroland" was coined by the MetR to tempt house purchasers into their territory: it bought extra land adjacent to the railway and built houses in a spectacularly practical example of demand creation.

Metropolitan District Railway[]

The District Railway in Hounslow in the late 19th century. In 1886 Hounslow Town was replaced by Heston Hounslow.

The MetR and the Metropolitan District Railway (District) are inextricably linked. Both were empowered to complete the Inner Circle line in the 1850s, although for a time there was competition between the two, the MetR in particular bearing the most animosity, probably because that line was in a deplorable financial situation by July 1871. Nevertheless the two railways ran the trains on the parts of the Circle then open: Kensington to Mansion House (District) and by the northern route (MetR) Paddington to Aldgate. It was not until 1884 that the District opened its "City Lines and Extensions", which completed the "Inner Circle, and provided a line to Whitechapel. The latter made connection with the East London Railway. Trains began to run around both parts of the Inner Circle: the District from Hammersmith to New Cross (now New Cross Gate) (London, Brighton and South Coast Railway) via the southern part of the Circle; and MetR trains to New Cross (South Eastern Railway) via the northern route. The trains used the Thames Tunnel.

Deep-level tube lines[]

Geographic route map of City & South London Railway. Geographic Map of the City & South London.

Geographic route map of the Baker Street & Waterloo Railway (1906-1933).

Geographic Map of the Great Northern, Piccadilly and Brompton Railway.

Advances in deep-level tunnel design came thick and fast. Tunnelling shields allowed stable tunnels to be constructed deep underground, and the world's first underground tube railway was the Tower Subway beneath the River Thames south of Tower Hill in 1870. While this was soon discontinued as a rail service because of poor patronage, better shields and electric locomotive traction appealed to engineers for more ambitious schemes.

The result was the City & South London Railway (C&SLR), which linked King William Street (close to today's Monument station) and Stockwell in 1890. The trains were small and cramped, the ride was unpleasantly rough and the lack of windows in the carriages seemed to have a detrimental psychological effect on passengers but the railway was a success. Following its opening, a host of railway schemes were promoted in parliament during the last decade of the 19th century and obtained consent for construction, few however were able to raise the investment to allow work to begin.

By 1900 only two new tube lines had opened:

  • Waterloo & City Railway (W&CR), opened in 1898 and operated by mainline company the London and South Western Railway from its terminal and Waterloo and later by British Rail until taken over by London Underground in 1994
  • Central London Railway (CLR), opened in 1900 (now the Central Line)

Other companies with permissions to build but without the finance included:

Charles Yerkes was an American tycoon with experience of operating electric tramways in Chicago. He was also an expert in arranging the complex financial structures necessary to raise the capital the railway companies needed. In 1900, he bought the powers of the CCE&HR company. The following year he secured effective control of the District with a view to its electrification. A few months later he formed the Metropolitan District Electric Traction Company (MDETC) with those two lines and arranged to build Lots Road power station. Having then acquired control of the GNP&BR and BS&WR railways the MDETC was reconstituted as the Underground Electric Railways Company of London Limited (UERL) on 9 April 1902. In time, the company also owned many tram lines and proceeded to buy the London General Omnibus Company, creating an organisation colloquially known as the Combine.

Yerkes raised the funds necessary to build the B&SWR, GNP&BR and the CCE&HR, mainly in the United States and much of the technology used on the railways was also American in origin. The independence of the railways initially led to competition and rivalry between operators, an inconvenience for passengers. From 1907 the four UERL lines and the C&SLR and CLR began to promote a common brand (the Underground) and began to integrate their ticketing arrangements so that through tickets for journeys on more than one line could be purchased. In 1913 the C&SLR and CLR were taken over and added to the UERL operation, leaving just the MetR, W&CR and the GN&CR as the remaining independent underground railway businesses in London. A proposal for a merger of the UERL and the MetR was considered in 1913, but it was not enacted. The GN&CR was taken over by the MetR in the same year.

Later changes[]

After the end of World War I, a parliamentary select committee recommended a single traffic authority to cover the whole of London in order to eliminate "acute and wasteful competition", poor services and high fares. The post of Minister of Transport was created in 1919 and discussion on the issue of a single authority continued for a decade. In 1929, Herbert Morrison, the Labour Minister of Transport, worked with the Chairman of the Underground Group, Lord Ashfield, to produce an acceptable solution to the transportation issue.

In 1933, a public corporation called the London Passenger Transport Board was created, which soon became known more commonly by its shortened title: "London Transport" (LT). The Underground Group, the Metropolitan Railway and all the bus and tram lines were incorporated in the Board, an organisation which approximated the type of scope of the current Transport for London.

In 1933 the Metropolitan Railway became the Metropolitan line of London Transport. On 1 June 1935 the LPTB gave the required six months' notice to the O&AT that it intended to terminate operations on the Brill Tramway and the Brill Tramway was closed in 1935 .

The LPTB aimed to move away from freight operations, and saw no way in which the rural parts of the MR could be made into viable passenger routes.  

From 1936 Underground trains were withdrawn north of Aylesbury, leaving the London and North Eastern Railway (successor to the GCR) as the only operator using the station, although Underground services were restored for a short period in the 1940s.

London Transport set in motion a scheme for the expansion of the network, the 1935–1940 New Works Programme. This consisted of plans to extend some lines, to take over the operation of others from the main-line railway companies, and to electrify the entire network. Expansion took place at a rapid pace, driving the Northern and Piccadilly Lines out into the suburbs of northern London. Architect Charles Holden's memorable station designs brightened commuters' journeys both on these lines and elsewhere with a style which still looks fresh today. A number of extension schemes were in progress on the Northern and Central Lines at the outbreak of World War II in 1939, which lead to their interruption or abandonment.

World War II[]

The bombing of London during the war and especially The Blitz led to the use of many tube stations as air-raid shelters. Closed stations and unfinished sections of new line were also used. The shelters were well suited to their purpose, but some stations could still be breached by a direct hit; a small number of attacks did result in serious loss of life, most notably at Balham and Bounds Green in October 1940 and Bank in January 1941. A still worse disaster was a crowd crush accident at the unfinished Bethnal Green in March 1943.

Gants Hill tube station was began to be built in the 1930s but was suspended during the Second World War. During the war, the station was used as an air raid shelter and the tunnels as a munitions factory for Plessey electronics. The station was finally completed and opened on 14 December 1947. During planning, the names "Ilford North" and "Cranbrook" were considered.

As well as public shelters, stations and sections of line were given other similar uses:

  • An unfinished stretch of the Central Line extension, between Redbridge and Gants Hill, was turned into an underground aircraft factory.
  • The closed Brompton Road station was used as an anti-aircraft control centre.
  • The closed Down Street station was used by Winston Churchill until the Cabinet War Rooms were built, after which it was used by the Railway Emergency Committee.

Post-war developments[]


Up London Transport Metropolitan Line electric train at Neasden. View NW from North Circular Road bridge, towards Harrow-on-the-Hill, Uxbridge, Rickmansworth, Watford, Amersham and Aylesbury, on the LPTB Metropolitan line from Baker Street and the City. The train Series T compartment stock and will have come from Uxbridge or Watford. Behind it is the Neasden (Metropolitan) Works and Depot. Off to the left is the ex-GC line from Marylebone to Northolt Junction, High Wycombe and Princes Risborough. Date- 2 May 1959.

G/Q23 stock at London Transport Museum. In service- 1923–1971. The London Underground Q23 (ex District Railway G Stock) at London Transport Museum at Covert Garden.

London Transport was nationalised on 1st January 1948. It was renamed the London Transport Executive and this was placed under the authority of the British Transport Commission (BTC). The BTC prioritised the reconstruction of its main-line railways, which had also been nationalised, over the maintenance of the Underground. Most of the unfinished plans of the 1935-40 New Works Programme were shelved or postponed. The Central Line extensions in east and west London opened in the late 1940s but this was the only real accomplishment of the BTC in terms of the expansion of the network, and most of this had already been completed by the time the BTC took over.

The BTC oversaw the completion of the electrification of the network. By 1948 most of the system was run using electric trains. It was only the distant outposts of the Central Line and the Metropolitan Line that still required steam locomotives. The electrification of the Central Line was completed on 18th November 1957, when the Epping-Ongar section was electrified. And the electrification of the Metropolitan Line was completed in August 1960. London Transport fully withdrew steam locomotives from passenger services on 9th September 1961 when British Rail (BR) took over the operations of the Metropolitan Line between Amersham and Aylesbury. Remarkably, steam locomotives continued to be used on Underground engineering trains on some surface sections of the Metropolitan Line until 1971, several years after steam had been phased out on the BR network.

The BTC was abolished in 1963 and the Ministry of Transport created a separate Board to run London Transport. This period saw the construction of the carefully planned Victoria Line on a northeast-southwest alignment beneath central London which helped to absorb much of the extra traffic caused by expansion after the war. It was designed so that almost all of the stations along its length allowed interchange with other lines, and it was the first underground line to use automatic train operation (ATO) on the entire route.

Between 1970 and 1984, London Transport was run by the Greater London Council (GLC). In 1977, the Piccadilly Line was extended from Hounslow to Heathrow Airport.

Jubilee Line[]

The Jubilee Line was named in honour of Queen Elizabeth's Silver Jubilee in 1977, but did not open until two years later. During design and into initial construction it was known as the Fleet Line, as it was planned to follow much of London's hidden River Fleet along The Strand and Fleet Street to Bank. At the end of the 1990s it was diverted from the original route through Charing Cross to a new tunnel via Westminster and Docklands to Stratford in East London. The stations on the Jubilee Line Extension are particularly spacious and stylish, each designed by a leading architect. London Underground states that North Greenwich station "is large enough to contain 3,000 double-decker buses or an ocean liner the size of the RMS "Queen Mary" within its walls." Canary Wharf station is larger in volume than One Canada Square, one of the huge towers that dominates the Docklands area; it was built at the bottom of a former dock which was drained and sealed off for the purpose. Canary Wharf is also notable for being the first London Underground station to play host to a wedding; this event took place in 2003. All platforms between North Greenwich and Westminster incorporate automated platform-edge doors which are designed to minimise the wind resistance of the train and for noise abatement; as a side benefit they also assist in the prevention of suicides. There are no plans at present to extend their installation to the rest of the line or the rest of the system. These stations include lifts to ease access to all parts of the station complex and were the first stations on the London system to be fully wheelchair accessible.

London Regional Transport (LRT)[]

In 1984, Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government removed London Transport from the GLC's control, replacing it with London Regional Transport (LRT) - a statutory corporation for which the Secretary of State for Transport was directly responsible. The government planned to modernise the system whilst slashing its subsidy from taxpayers and ratepayers at the same time. As part of this strategy London Underground Limited (LUL) was set up in 1985, as a wholly owned subsidiary of LRT, to run the network on LRT's behalf. This made the London Underground network a single entity for the first time.

Into the 21st century[]

The route of the District line through the London Boroughs (2013).

Transport for London[]

Main article: Transport for London

In 2000, LRT was replaced by Transport for London (TfL), a statutory corporation that it is part of the Greater London Authority. TfL is run by a board that is appointed by and chaired by the Mayor of London. The entire organisation, including the Mayor, is held to account by the Greater London Assembly (GLA).

Public-Private Partnership[]

Since January 2003, LUL has been operated as a Public-Private Partnership (PPP), where all the infrastructure is maintained by private companies but the Underground is owned and operated by TfL. The network was split into three parts—JNP (Jubilee, Northern and Piccadilly Lines), BCV (Bakerloo, Central and Victoria Lines) and SSL (the sub-surface lines—District, Metropolitan, East London, Circle and Hammersmith & City Lines). The BCV and SSL contracts were won by Metronet, while JNP was won by Tube Lines. These companies are known as Infracos—Infrastructure Companies—and are made up of consortia of companies: Metronet, for example, is a consortium of Balfour Beatty, WS Atkins, Bombardier, EDF Energy and Thames Water.


The first Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, was sceptical about the practicality of the PPP plan, and brought in the American Bob Kiley to repeat his success with the New York City Subway using public bond finance. Taking office in 2000 as London's first directly elected mayor, it was difficult for Livingstone to block the PPP process, which was entirely in the national Government's hands as it still owned London Transport. Livingstone mounted a legal challenge, but eventually dropped it as it was unlikely to succeed, and Metronet and Tube Lines began operations in January 2003. It was later revealed that the legal challenge had cost £4.2 million directly, as well as £36 million reimbursed to the bidders for costs incurred because of the six-month delay.

In March 2005, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, charged with ensuring value for money in public spending, published a report concluding that this remained to be demonstrated, primarily because of the untested structure of the 30-year contracts. These are to be revised every 7.5 years, meaning that the ultimate price for the promised £15.7 billion of investment is still unknown. It notes that using public bond finance would have saved £90 million a year in financing costs, even though the Government guaranteed repayment of 95% of costs in the event of premature termination, and the contracts place limits and exemptions on financial risk transferred to the infrastructure companies. The system still receives an annual public subsidy of £1 billion, but its spending is now determined entirely by the infracos' interpretation of their 2000-page PPP contracts. Although the private operators are expected to receive 18–20% returns on capital, for the type of risk associated with major upgrades, most of the work is low-risk maintenance and replacement. The public sector procurement option (using private companies for specific major projects) would also have saved the £455 million cost of concluding the PPP contracts, not to mention the five years' delay the contract negotiations caused.


In April 2005, Bob Kiley pressed for an urgent review of the PPP, describing its performance as "bordering on disaster". A week later the chief executive of Metronet was sacked, after complaints that it had made £50m profit despite being behind on all its major works. By April 2005, it had started work on only 13 station refurbishments (instead of 32 as scheduled), and was more than a year behind on the refurbishment of 78 District Line trains. It was also behind on its track replacement programme, having completed 28 km instead of the anticipated 48 km. TfL commented in April 2005 that new equipment promised by Metronet had failed to materialise—"We were supposed to be getting private sector expertise and technology with the PPP (Public Private Partnership) but instead they are just using the same old kit." A TfL spokesman said that Tube Lines was performing much better than Metronet because it had competitively tendered contracts for its capital programme. Metronet, by contrast, had handed the work to its shareholders.

In March 2005, the House of Commons Transport Select Committee noted that "Availability is the most important factor for Tube travellers. All the infracos needed to do to meet their availability benchmarks was to perform only a little worse than in the past. On most lines, they did not even manage that."

Metronet was also declared at fault by an accident investigators' report into a May 2004 derailment at White City, for failing to implement sufficient safety checks despite being ordered to do so by TfL.


Metronet was placed into administration on 18 July 2007.[7] TfL has taken over Metronet's outstanding commitments.

The UK government has made concerted efforts to find another private firm to fill the vacuum left by the liquidation of Metronet. However only TfL has expressed a viable interest in taking over Metronet's responsibilities so far. Even though Tube Lines appears to be stable, this has put the long-term future of the PPP scheme in doubt. The case for PPP was also weakened in 2008 when it was revealed that the demise of Metronet had cost the UK government £2bn. The five private companies that made up the Metronet alliance had to pay £70m each towards paying off the debts acquired by the consortium. But due to a deal struck with the government in 2003, when the PPP scheme began operating, the companies were protected from any further liability. The UK taxpayer therefore had to foot the rest of the bill. This undermined the argument that PPP would place the risks involved in running the network into the hands of the private sector.[8]


Flooding is an increasing problem for the system. The ground water of London has been rising since the 1960s, after the closing of industries such as breweries and paper mills that had previously extracted large volumes of water. By mid 2001, London Underground was pumping 30,000 cubic metres of water out of its tunnels each day.

Until the completion of the Thames flood barrier in 1986, there was also a strong danger of flooding from the Thames itself. A series of floodgates were erected in the tunnels such that they would seal the affected sections of tunnel, allowing services to continue to run either side. The floodgates are not thought necessary since the Thames flood barrier came into service, but they remain in place and are tested three times a year.

Many stations have to be shut for a day due to flooding from cloudbursts.


Adequate airflow and ventilation is also a concern for management of London Underground. Currently, there are various ventilation shafts around the London area which open out onto street level and were built during the Victorian era to provide some airflow, while a 'piston effect' of trains entering tunnels and exiting into stations is relied on to pull in fresher air to platforms and extract stale air.

All these measures have proved to be insufficient for providing the kind of clean and cool airflow required for the network of today, particularly in summer months, with rising temperatures and lack of ventilation becoming an increasing challenge.

Currently, several ideas are being considered by London Underground for upgrading ventilation and possibly providing some degree of air conditioning on trains themselves, but these are all still in experimental stages.

Station improvements[]

A fragrance called "Madeleine" was introduced at St James's Park, Euston and Piccadilly Circus stations on 23 March 2001, in an effort to make the Underground smell better. It was discontinued the next day as it was making people feel sick.

In January 2005, London Underground announced that it would play classical music at stations prone to loitering by youths. A trial had shown a 33% drop in abuse against staff. This had been first tried, with success, on the Tyne and Wear Metro.


  • 1 Ben Webster, The Times, 14 April 2005, "Metronet behind schedule on all of its main Tube projects"
  • 29th May 2007 - Metro net are reported as being 10,000 days behind schedule on the upgrade of 25 tube stations making the project a total of 27 years late.