The London Underground Comes to New York

The World's Oldest Public Underground Railway

Work Continues in 2014 on The Crossrail Railway Project, London's Underground
Work Continues in 2014 on The Crossrail Railway Project, London's Underground. Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images News Collection/Getty Images

Because it was the first, London Underground technology and engineering had a head start on other countries, including the United States. American civil engineer William John Wilgus is credited with bringing electric rail technology from the shores of Britain to the US—electric transit had worked in London for a decade before becoming a centerpiece for Building Grand Central Terminal in New York City.

Before the London Underground:

Civil engineers had long searched for ways to provide speedy transportation by using underground tunnels. In about 1798, Ralph Todd tried to build a tunnel under the Thames River in London. He encountered quicksand and his plan failed. Over the next hundred years, other engineers and developers attempted to create underground transportation, without success.

London's First Successful Subway:

The London Underground is the world's oldest public underground railway. The noisy, steam rail system opened January 9, 1863. With trains running every ten minutes, the new underground rails carried 40,000 passengers between Paddington and Farringdon that day.

Construction Methods Change:

The first system was built by a cut and cover method—streets were dug up, rails were placed in the trenches, and brick ceilings became the base of the road surface. This disruptive method soon was replaced with a tunnel excavation method similar to the way coal was being mined.

The London Underground Expands:

Over the years, the system expanded. Today's London Underground is an electric rail system that runs both above and below ground through a dozen deep bore tunnels, or "tubes." Known as "the Underground" or (more familiarly) "the Tube," the rail system serves over two hundred stations, covers more than 253 miles (408 kilometers), and carries more than three million passengers every day.

The system also has about 40 abandoned "ghost" stations and platforms.

Is Public Transportation a Target?

The London Underground has had its share of mishaps, from car derailments to collisions from missed signals. Fires are especially dangerous in underground structures. The Kings Cross blaze in 1987 killed 27 people after a machine room under a wooden escalator caught fire. Emergency procedures were overhauled as a result.

The London Blitz during World War II also took its toll on the city's infrastructure, including its underground architecture. German bombs from the air not only destroyed buildings above ground, but the explosions disrupted water and sewer lines underground, which added damage to the London Underground system.

Bombs have been a part of the history of the London Underground almost from its beginnings. The Euston Square tube station, then called Gower Street, was the target of a bombing way back in 1885. The entire 20th century is filled with terrorist incidents attributed to Irish nationalists and the Irish Republican Army.

In the 21st century the terrorists changed, but the targets did not. On July 7, 2005 al Qaeda-inspired suicide bombers struck several points in the mass transit system, killing several dozen people and injuring many more.

The first explosion occurred on the underground between Liverpool Street and Aldg?ate East Stations. A second explosion occurred between the King's Cross and Russell Square stations. A third explosion occurred at Edgware Road station. Then, a bus exploded in Woburn Place.

If history shows us anything, it's that underground structures may always be an appealing target for attention seekers. Is there a more economic and safe alternative to moving people from here to there in a city? Let's invent one.

Learn More:

  • The Subterranean Railway by Christian Wolmar, Atlantic, 2012
    Buy on Amazon
  • London Underground by Design by Mark Ovenden, 2013
    Buy on Amazon

Sources: Transport for London History at www.tfl.gov.uk/corporate/modesoftransport/londonunderground/1604.aspx [accessed Jan. 7, 2013]; July 7 2005 London Bombings Fast Facts, CNN Library [accessed January 4, 2016]