Commuting hell on the underground steam railway

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What happened when steam engines were placed in the tunnels of the world’s first underground railway? The Metropolitan Railway opened in 1863 and, for the first 45 years, it ran steam trains.

There are few sounds as emotive as the chug, clatter and whistle of a steam train. Now that the national network is powered by diesel and electricity, we are free to romanticise the age of steam.

Whether you think of the elegant and streamlined profile of the record-breaking Mallard or imagine an old but trusty engine working the remoter corners of an almost forgotten branch line, steam breeds nostalgia.

Metropolitan Railway E Class No 1 - a steam hauled underground service would have been an infernal experience! By IXIA at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

But steam trains were not perfect engines of a halcyon age. They were noisy, dirty and hazardous to health and clothing. Locomotives belched plumes of thick, acrid steam. Passengers opened windows at their own risk, avoiding flying pieces of sharp grit and flickering embers.

All of this was bad enough in the open air. So what happened when steam engines were placed in the tunnels of the world’s first underground railway? The Metropolitan Railway opened in 1863 and, for the first 45 years, it ran steam trains.

Crest of the Metropolitan Underground Railway By Oxyman (Own work) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC-BY-2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

What did the Victorians make of the new invention? In particular, what was it like for passengers on the platforms, in the stations and on the trains when a full timetable of steam belching locomotives was in action?

The choice of words and phrases used to describe the early days of the Underground give a sense of the hell that had been created beneath the city streets. Sulphurous fumes, sooty smuts, noisome tunnels, acid gas, smoke cinders, black smoke, coughing and spluttering, an experience of Hades and the dangers of ‘choke damp’.

On the first day alone, a railway porter was hospitalised due to the ‘vitiated atmosphere’. He was not the only casualty of the concentrated smoke, with several other people left ‘insensible’ from fumes. One journalist described riding in the driver’s cab leaving him: “coughing and spluttering like a boy on his first cigar.”

Another reporter dispatched to cover the first day of service described how a local publican had told him he had treated several insensible porters and had to: “Bathe their heads and temples with vinegar, as they were exhausted and suffering from the effects of bad air”.

This was surprising to many of the Victorian pioneers. The Metropolitan Railway had been at pains to celebrate its smokeless technology. On 11 January 1863, the day after general service had started, the Manchester Guardian wrote that: “it was understood that there was to be no steam or smoke from the engines used in working this tunnel railway.”

The Guardian’s journalist was disappointed and wrote, somewhat sniffily, that: “on one of the journeys between Portland-road and Baker-street, not only were the passengers enveloped in steam, but it is extremely doubtful if they were not subjected to the unpleasantness of smoke also.”

Fowler's Ghost by Unknown photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The dreams of a smokeless railway engine were to be confounded, as ‘Fowler’s Ghost’, the experimental fireless locomotive, failed to produce enough power to be useful. After nearly exploding on its first trial run, the engine never overcame problems with emissions of steam and pressure retention, and was quietly removed from service just two years after the line had opened.

Concentrating the discharge from a standard steam powered locomotive within the tight confines of the Underground would inevitably create a distinctive, if not toxic, atmosphere. A Board of Trade study in 1897 found high concentrations of carbon dioxide and sulphur. This scientific finding was in line with anecdotal accounts that had likened travel on the railway to be like “chewing Lucifer matches” or, as Elizabeth Pennell had written, “choked and stifled beyond endurance”.

Perhaps some use could be found for this punishing method of transportation? The Pall Mall Gazette had famously suggested that “prisoners will be condemned to so many continuous ’round trips’ as they are now to so many weeks in jail”, thereby freeing expensive prison beds but delivering just as sharp a punishment to miscreants.

Not everyone complained: a Gower Street chemist boasted a roaring trade in sales of his patent ‘Metropolitan Mixture’, a concoction that was designed to ease the coughing fits that travel on the Metropolitan Railway induced in its regular passengers. Another passenger testified to the curative effects of travel on the Underground, praising the ‘disinfecting’ properties of the noxious fumes and its positive impact on his quinsy (a complication of tonsillitis).

So what did contemporary passengers make of the railway? Some of the descriptions left by writers, diarists and journalists provide the most vivid accounts of what travel was like on the steam powered Underground.

The American-born journalist Ralph David Blumenfeld wrote in his diary on 23 June 1887 that:

“I had my first experience of Hades to-day, and if the real thing is to be like that I shall never again do anything wrong … The compartment in which I sat was filled with passengers who were smoking pipes, as is the British habit, and as the smoke and sulphur from the engine fill the tunnel, all the windows have to be closed. The atmosphere was a mixture of sulphur, coal dust and foul fumes from the oil lamp above; so that by the time we reached Moorgate Street I was near dead of asphyxiation and heat.”

Blumenfeld predicted that steam engines would soon be discontinued as a menace to health. He was, of course, wrong, which enabled Mark Twain to describe his experiences of using the Underground in 1896:

“The engine goes blustering and squittering along, puking smoke cinders in at the window, which someone has opened in pursuance of his right to make the whole cigar box uncomfortable if his comfort requires it; the fog of black smoke smothers the lamp and dims its light, and the double row of jammed people sit there and bark at each other, and the righteous and the unrighteous pray, each after his own fashion.”

Twain’s account demonstrates that the numerous attempts of the Metropolitan Railway to improve air quality had largely failed. Christopher Woolmer, in his authoritative book ‘The Subterranean Railway’, notes how ventilation shafts had been sunk, coal had been pre-cooked in an attempt to remove impurities and drivers had been allowed to grow beards (on the assumption that the hair would absorb some of the soot and sulphur).

Mark Twain’s own comfort would have been improved greatly had he travelled just nine years later. The Metropolitan Line was electrified in 1905, dispelling steam, smoke and choke and changing the atmosphere below ground forever.

Although it is impossible to recreate the steam, fumes, smells and tastes of the early railway, it is possible to get a sense of what the original stations would have been like. If you are in London, and want to experience it for yourself, Baker Street station boasts the best preserved platforms from those pioneering days.

Baker Street Station, Metropolitan Railway, late Victorian lithograph by Samuel J. Hodson (Jackson, Alan (1986) London's Metropolitan Railway, David & Charles ISBN: 0-7153-8839-8. ) Hodson, Samuel John, born 1831 - died 1908 V&A Collections accessed 20 May 2012 (Bonhams) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The most evocative are the platforms that today serve the Hammersmith & City and Circle lines – the line to Paddington and thus part of the original Paddington to Farringdon Metropolitan Railway. The station has the broad, brick and gently curving roof of the original railway – a single vault spanning two platforms and both lines (the ‘up’ line to Paddington and the ‘down’ line to the City).

Plenty of period features are retained, including lights encased in large glass globes (which would originally have been lit by gas light), wooden benches and a series of recesses in the roof to let in natural light. This glimpse into the past is enhanced by a series of informative panels set in each of the recesses.

There are, of course, modern intrusions – it would be more ‘authentic’ to have featured the station’s name in the red lozenge signs of the Metropolitan Railway, but the Underground’s ubiquitous roundel prevails. Electronic platform indicators take the place of a guard’s shout and adverts are for jarringly modern products.

With its evocative series of early drawings and photographs and plenty of information on the early years of the service, it is well worth missing a couple of services to properly experience this historic station and imagine what it would have been like in the days of steam.

It might even make you feel a little bit better about your own commute.