ANY bleary-eyed Londoner overlooking exposed stretches of the District or Circle underground lines in the small hours of Sunday must have pinched themselves. For the first time in more than 100 years, a steam train was carrying passengers on the tube.
In a test run for London Underground’s 150-year anniversary celebrations, a restored original locomotive hauled a Victorian first-class carriage — all wood and gas light fittings — from Earl’s Court to Moorgate, billowing clouds through the capital’s oldest tunnels.
As on the very first journey in 1863, railwaymen, enthusiasts and a few dignitaries and press were aboard. But this time an audience of overnight tube maintenance workers in orange hi-vis jackets were lining the route with cameraphones at the ready.
Riding inside the restored Metropolitan 353 carriage was Peter Hendy, the commissioner of Transport for London (TfL), a key player in making this bizarre vision a reality.
The event has been three years in the making, via fundraising campaigns, a lottery grant, and painstaking restoration of the teak carriage’s crimson upholstered seats, large windows, leather panels and gas light fittings — the height of Victorian luxury in 1892.
The original plan was for a “light steam” simulation — where an electric locomotive did the pushing — but TfL insisted on “doing it properly” with a full working locomotive, which burned approximately one tonne of coal for Sunday morning’s journey. Not everything went smoothly — a valve that blew at Baker Street rendered much of the station invisible from the carriage. A soaked, sooty and bedraggled — but delighted — station supervisor eventually appeared through the clouds to help wave the party on.
The weekend’s recreation followed some of the route of the world’s first underground journey, across central London from Paddington to Farringdon on Jan 9, 1863.
With familiar echoes of modern grand construction projects such as Crossrail, it took a decade of lobbying before parliamentary assent was given for the tube in 1854, and construction only started in 1860.
The underground opened to the public at 6am the following day — early enough, as the Observer reported, to “accommodate workmen, and there was a goodly muster of that class of the public, who availed themselves of the advantages of the line in reaching their respective employment”. By 8am there was a first morning rush-hour crush, with would-be commuters unable to board at King’s Cross.
The Observer of 1863 was impressed by the “general comfort”, noting that the “novel introduction of gas [lighting] into the carriages is calculated to dispel any unpleasant feelings which passengers, especially ladies, might entertain against riding for so long a distance through a tunnel”.
While the steam-powered trains are an immense draw now — £180 seats on January’s celebratory services sold by the London Transport Museum went instantly — passengers on the original underground trains were not so keen, complaining about the “sulphurous atmosphere” in the tube.
Electric alternatives were pioneered in the later Victorian era, and the last regular steam services ended in 1905. Now, as part of a series of exhibitions and events for the anniversary, the public can witness this extraordinary spectacle again next year. — The Guardian, London