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The London Tube, a symbol of daring

London Underground carriage
London Underground
London Underground tunnel
Mind the gap

Four million passengers travel on the London Underground every day. The famous Tube is more than a method of transport. Now over 150 years old, it’s a symbol of the city.
The construction work only took three years and it was financed by a private company. As a result of technological advances, the initial steam engines were soon replaced by electric trains, while at the same time, the engineers of the period designed new tunnelling methods. Both coinciding at the same time led to the oldest underground system in the world. Construction of the first line, known as the North Metropolitan Railway, started in 185,1 coinciding with the Great Exhibition.

To understand its origins, we also need to think back to the time of the Industrial Revolution. The rural population was starting to emigrate to cities in search of a better life with fewer hardships than in the countryside. And, as now, thousands arrived in London hoping to escape misery. While London became one of the most populated cities worldwide, logistical problems prevented the expected development of communication routes from the outskirts of the city so the roads were constantly congested. Given this scenario, a forward-thinking councilman called Charles Pearson, driven by a modern vision of cities, proposed an underground train system comprising carriages propelled by compressed air. Imagine the faces of the other members of the City of London Corporation! And yet he had come up with the right idea.

On 10 January 1863 the first line of the London Underground opened its carriage doors. The train was pulled by a steam engine and lit with gas lamps. There were long queues, and, as was the custom at the time on public transport, travellers were separated by class. The Daily News summed up the revolution marked by this opening: “For the first time in the history of the world, men can ride in pleasant carriages (…) lower down than gas pipes and water pipes… lower than the graveyards.” The carriages, the newspaper went on to say, are “so lofty that a six footer may stand erect with his hat on”. This first line connected Paddington and Farringdon and linked three train stations. After it opened, congestion started to ease in London. Twenty-six years after Queen Victoria came to the throne, the monarch was reigning in a country with the most modern capital of the age.

During the Blitz, the sustained bombing of London by the Germans during World War II, around 175,000 Londoners sought refuge every night in the heart of the underground. Nursing stations were set up at Tube stations, and the tunnels and platforms that had become war shelters were organised to prevent chaos with the common sense the British are renowned for by dividing the passengers from the shelter seekers so the system could continue to perform its original purpose when needed.

Today the London Underground is 250 miles long and has 275 stations. Its red, blue and white circle has become an iconic symbol of the British capital over the past 150 years and the “mind the gap” message announcing that users should take care when getting on and off the trains is recognisable anywhere in the world.

“Mind the gap”, a message of love…

A recently premiered short film tells us the moving story of Oswald Laurence and his wife. Laurence was the voice of the famous “mind the gap” message for 40 years until a digital version gradually took over and it could only be heard at Embankment station. After he died in 2007, his widow, Margaret, would sit in this station every day to remember her husband and listen to his voice. But on 1 November 2013, the digital version also started playing at Embankment and Margaret no longer had the comfort of listening to the voice of her beloved every day.

… with a happy ending

The underground managers heard about the story and one day Margaret received a CD with her husband’s voice. The London underground also decided to ignore the new carefully selected professional recording and return Laurence to Embankment station, where his wife and any other traveller paying some attention can listen to his wise advice: “Mind the gap”.