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London Tube Turns 150 Years Old

When the London Underground Railway System opened 150 years ago, it would revolutionize city transportation and contribute to both the economy and the women’s suffrage movement. On the very first day of service some 40,000 members of the public caught one of the 20 trains that ran each hour.

This early service was run by steam powered trains, not surprisingly the soot, ash and steam made for a less than pleasant ride, despite the ventilation shafts. Another unfortunate design feature on the earliest trains was the lack of windows. The designers had seen no need for windows in an underground situation and it was only after passenger complaints of claustrophobia that the later cars were amended to include the windows.

The economy would benefit from shoppers now having the freedom to venture further afield for their shopping endeavors. Suddenly, shopping became a form of recreation, no so dissimilar from the drives to the mall we continue to make.

In 1875, ladies-only carriages were introduced to the system and just as quickly removed from service when women refused to ride them, opting instead for the unpredictable thrill of being seated next to a male stranger. The Times Newspaper warned male readers not to gaze at women on public transport, “Put not the unprotected lass to the blush.” But by the 1890’s sympathetic tips also had to be delivered to men who were embarrassed by the indecorous stares of women.

With their sliding doors, straps from which to hang and one class carriage service, the new transport ushered in the future.

What began as a solution to unblock crowded city streets, with the first short route of only 3 miles, expanded to service the entire metropolitan area and become an essential part of daily life. Even during the years of World War II it would play an important role. Initially, in 1939 it was declared that the underground stations must be used as air raid shelters, because the government worried that Londoners would huddle underground in fear and not go to work or about their business. Some stations that had fallen into disuse from low ridership would be converted into secret storage archives and could only be reached by special trains.

However, during the dark days of September 1940, when the blitz began in seriousness, people rushed to the underground stations for shelter and none were turned away by staff. It is estimated that 177,000 shelterers camped out in the deepest tube stations each night. The official ban on sheltering was lifted and bunk bed and sleeping bags were added to 76 stations.

Today, London’s underground transport system remains the life giving arteries of this magnificent city, and there are still sections where trains rattle through the tunnels originally dug by the Victorian workers. The carriages are modern, comfortable, and the system remains efficient and cost effective.

No journey to London would be complete without a ride on the “tube.” Truly, a ride through much of the city’s history.

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