Going underground

I love the London Underground. The map, the posters, the slightly unnerving feeling that the Central Line train is coming into the station a little bit too fast and the relief that no one has thrown themselves on the tracks. My love for the network is not sullied by having to use it all the time – I don’t use the Tube to get to work. It is hard to love something you regularly travel in conditions that would be unacceptable for the transportation of cattle.

Fortunately, I’m not alone in my love for LU (as it is affectionately called by Tube nerds). The Underground has spawned a publishing empire and you could easily accommodate a small library of books on this surprisingly wide subject. Once in a while, a non-fiction book comes along that is an absolute joy to read. Once in a longer while, this book will be about the Tube.

Andrew Martin’s new book ‘Underground Overground’ is such a book. It is lucid, informative and joyfully, even giddily, fascinated in the subject. Mr Martin knows his stuff – he wrote the Evening Standard’s ‘Tube Talk’ column for years. This is not the book’s selling point, as Tube enthusiasts often know their stuff. You should buy Underground Overground (and you should buy it) because it is written with such verve, wit and revelation that my copy is already heavily tabbed, pencil marked and annotated.

My absolute favourite description is an utterly spot on account of the Northern City Line. The Northern City what? Exactly. You might have seen it if you’ve used the Victoria Line at Highbury & Islington – it is the line running alongside with its platforms closed and shuttered off at weekends. Martin describes the curious experience of using the line thus:

“The train enters the tunnel, and it is definitely not a Tube train. It is a full-size electrical main-line train, and it might well be rain-smeared and filthy, bearing all the battle scars of main-line operation. There is the sense of something that should be outdoors being indoors, like a horse in a living room.

We have entered the dreamlike world of what was officially called the Great Northern & City Railway, but which would come to be nicknamed, with a mixture of awe and pity, as with the kid at school who has a glandular problem, “The Big Tube”.

I’m only two-thirds into the book – I did only buy it two days ago, but already there are enough vaguely interesting observations to fill a couple of columns. I expect there will be at least one more by the time I’ve finished the book.

So, enough with the book review and on to the facts!

Of all the superlatives that used to apply to London Underground, only one major one remains. It is and, barring utter destruction of the city and its Tube, will remain the world’s oldest Metro (i.e. urban underground railway). Other superlatives that used to apply to LU are now attached to newer systems. For years London’s network was the longest in the world – now Shanghai has more track is still expanding explosively. London is still in second place, but will undoubtedly fall further when expansions to the Seoul Metro and Beijing Subway are completed.

London Underground is only the 11th busiest Metro system (the Tokyo Subway had 3.161 billion passenger rides in 2011 compared with London’s 1.17 billion). Its 285 stations only put it sixth when comparing number of stations (New York City Subway has 421 stations).

But the Underground is still an exceptional network. According to Mr Martin, the Underground carried more passengers a year than the rest of the UK’s rail network. Because of its age, unregulated origins and subsequent lack of investment it almost a miraculous network. Plenty is being is spent now, but much of that is running simply to stand still.

Coming in a future post – Brunel and the war winning boots, the Americanisation of the lexicon of travel, state funerals on the Tube and more.

Underground, Overground: A Passenger’s History of the Tube by Andrew Martin