diamond geezer

 Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Random borough (31): Hammersmith & Fulham (part 2½)
Sorry, this one's a cheat. The Earl's Court Exhibition Centre may be partly in Hammersmith & Fulham, but the tube station's a few hundred yards away in Kensington & Chelsea. Never mind, just this once, because TODAY IS THE 100th ANNIVERSARY OF ESCALATORS ON THE LONDON UNDERGROUND. Please stand on the right, and walk on the left.

Somewhere cheating: Earl's Court station's escalators
The first escalators on the London Underground were installed at Earl's Court station in 1911. They were tested in September, but first rolled for public use on Wednesday 4th October. Previously, if you wanted to change between the District and Piccadilly lines, you had to use the stairs or take the lift. But this important interchange had been specially selected for the first railway-based appearance of the motorised people-mover we all take for granted today. There had been a pioneering attempt at a "double spiral continuous moving track" escalator at Holloway Road five years earlier, but that prototype never really got off the ground. Diagonally speaking, Earl's Court was where it all began, starting 100 years ago today.

There were two wooden escalators, in parallel, constructed by the Otis Elevator Company of New York. They climbed at an angle of 26½°, raising passengers a total of 38 feet from the lower Piccadilly to just below the District. A row of decorative uplighters ran up the centre between the two, and a big sign had to be erected at the bottom warning riders not to sit on the handrails. When stopped there were 57 steps to climb; when running the ascent took 25 seconds. The steps were oak, because oak was fireproof, while the balustrades were a rather lovely slice of teak. And these weren't quite the escalators we know now, with safety combs at the end, but instead had a 'shunt' landing at the top which forced passengers to step off sideways. No, I can't quite picture that either, I'm merely duplicating the descriptive text from somewhere else.

Had you been at Earl's Court 100 years ago you'd probably have been very nervous of the new mechanical apparatus. Underground managers recognised this, and hired one of the most famous pub quiz answers in tube history. His name was Bumper Harris, a one-legged railway employee, and he was paid to ride the escalators up and down all day to show passengers how safe they were. Inspired marketing, you might think. Except that some people saw a man with an artificial limb and worried that he might have been horribly injured by the escalator mechanism itself, so shied off and took the lift instead. Not to worry, Earl's Court's escalators were a big hit with most other passengers - indeed some visited the station purely for the opportunity to change lines in a manner that had never been possible before.

These were "Type A" escalators, of which 22 were eventually installed across the network (mostly on the Bakerloo line). All ran at 26½°, unlike subsequent escalator shafts which ran at 30° to get passengers to the surface fractionally faster. The last Otis Type A continued in use on the Central line at Liverpool Street until 1953 when it was finally replaced. Meanwhile the terminating "comb", which stops your feet being swished into the mechanism, had first arrived in 1924 (at Clapham Common, if you must know). Cleated wooden escalators survived until the King's Cross disaster of 1987, and now there's only one, at Greenford (one of two stations on the London Underground where escalators take passengers up from street level to the platform) (the other, as of last year, being Stratford) (which also reputedly has the tube's shortest escalators, a mere 4m in height). But I digress. If deep-level escalator trivia appeals, then Clive's two pages should satisfy.
The tube's five longest escalators: Angel (27.4m), Leicester Square (24.6m), Holborn (23.4m), Green Park (22.7m), London Bridge (21.9m)

It is of course the done thing to celebrate 100th anniversaries early, so I've already been to Earl's Court for my celebratory ride. Two things struck me as nigh identical to 1911. One was the shaft itself - a bit narrow perhaps, but still rising at 26½°. And the other was Bumper Harris. OK, not exactly the great man himself, but it seems TfL still employ staff to ensure that the Earl's Court escalator is safe. One on duty at the bottom, another at the top, in case rush hour passenger numbers between District and Piccadilly get too great and throughflow has to be restricted. But the Otis Type A is long gone, after a century that's seen escalator usage climb from the unique to the commonplace.

My heart leapt a little when I saw TfL had issued a press release yesterday about escalators. Even better, about safety on escalators, with the news that specially-trained Guide Dogs will now be allowed to ride London's escalators without being carried. Surely they've announced this with the October 4th anniversary in mind, I thought, because cute dogs and one-legged historical characters are a PR match made in heaven. Not so. The copy mentions "disabled people" and "antiquated byelaws" but nothing of Bumper Harris or the Earl's Court centenary. Instead the press release is dated 3rd October and the new regulations come into effect on 5th October, with the actual 100th birthday falling limply inbetween. Positive and forward-looking, to be sure, but a wholly missed opportunity to celebrate the tube's pioneering heritage. Something to muse on this morning, a century on, as you ascend gracefully from the bowels to the surface.

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