diamond geezer

 Tuesday, January 10, 2023

160 years ago the world's first underground railway opened between Paddington and Farringdon. It still operates today, though with less steamy trains and a few minutes faster. Expect a mild volley of celebratory activity to mark the anniversary, though not as much as there was for the 150th anniversary when a steam train chuffed along the route.

I'm marking the occasion with a visit to the original seven stations and with a particular eye on seven big changes that have taken place between the 150th and 160th anniversaries. Because the Underground never stands still, it continues to make our lives that little bit better.

Since January 2013: step-free access

Ten years ago the only way onto a tube train at Paddington was via stairs or escalators. Accessibility wasn't top of the list of Victorian engineering requirements and trying to squeeze lifts into complex heritage buildings is neither cheap nor easy. The first step-free access arrived on the Hammersmith & City line platforms in December 2013 as part of the station's first major upgrade since 1933. It delivered a new entrance from Paddington Basin, a couple of new staircases and a lengthened platform to cope with new air-conditioned trains. These days it's hard to imagine the station without lifts to assist the luggage-wielding hordes, but we often have short memories as far as station improvements are concerned. It took until last year for the Bakerloo line platforms to finally gain step-free access, if only to Crossrail, with lift access to street level due in a few months time when the new Praed Street entrance opens. Just don't expect the District line platforms to gain helpful lifts (or even nicer staircases and a wider footbridge) any time soon, because finance has its limits.

Edgware Road
Since January 2013: more art

This is the station where I had the most trouble finding an improvement TfL had made since 2013. The giant vinyl artwork covering an internal wall, called Wrapper, is actually a couple of months over ten years old, and although the shonky red Next Train Indicators should have been upgraded ages back they still never have been. What is technically new is the Labyrinth artwork in the ticket hall, created by Turner Prize-winning artist Mark Wallinger, which went up in the summer of 2013. Every station has one (except Nine Elms and Battersea Power Station) and Edgware Road's is number 239. Alas it's located in an off-piste part of the ticket hall so quite hard to study without lots of staff thinking you're behaving suspiciously and asking if you're OK. It does feel like TfL do less Art on the Underground than they once used to, but watch out for major installations at Gloucester Road and Aldgate East later this year.

Baker Street
Since January 2013: the Night Tube

I had to descend into the depths at Baker Street to find any mention of the Night Tube because the original Metropolitan line platforms remain bereft. They still get sealed off around 1am at the weekend whereas the Jubilee line continues to operate a regular service whisking travellers to Stanmore and Stratford. The Night Tube stalled at the planning stage for many years and only limped into existence in August 2016 restricted to a limited number of lines. Baker Street is served by as many as five different tube lines but only one runs through the night, although in this respect it is at least luckier than Paddington whose four lines (plus Crossrail) all shut down. Plans originally existed to extend the service to the subsurface lines on some far-distant date, but seven years on those plans appear to have been silently dropped because TfL can't justify burning money.

Great Portland Street
Since January 2013: station wi-fi

Many passengers now rely on wifi to keep themselves occupied on the tube. Some are even too young to remember a time when you had to bring your own reading material and watching a video was out of the question. When the 150th anniversary came round only 100 stations had been fitted with wifi and Great Portland Street was still a connectivity black hole. Admittedly it joined the list just three weeks later as Virgin's slow rollout progressed, but that was also the sad moment when access was suddenly no longer free unless you were on the right networks. The next big thing will be 4G in the tunnels, a pleasure not yet available on the Hammersmith & City line, although full rollout to all lines is promised by the end of 2024. Meanwhile there are still three tube stations not yet enabled with wifi, and in case this ever comes up in a pub quiz these are Heathrow Terminal 5, Kensington Olympia and Willesden Junction.

Euston Square
Since January 2013: automatic signalling

In 2013 TfL's attempt to introduce new signalling to the subsurface lines - the Four Lines Modernisation programme - was already massively behind schedule and stupendously over budget. It took until March 2019 before the first short section of line out of Hammersmith was automated, meaning the trains drove themselves and the drivers got to focus more on opening the doors and making announcements. Euston Square was the boundary station between the second and third zones, SMA2 and SM3, with final switchover not implemented until March 2021. Passengers probably haven't noticed that their journeys are now timetabled to be 10% faster, nor that the signals on the platforms are redundant so have been covered over, in what's easily the most significant improvement to the 1863 Tube in recent years. Excitingly this weekend sees the delayed introduction of SMA6 - that's Stepney Green to Becontree - which means the Next Train Indicators at Bow Road might finally tell the truth next week! Bring it on.

King's Cross St Pancras
Since January 2013: closure of ticket offices

Ten years ago most stations on the tube still had ticket offices but the Mayor decided they should all be closed and today we cope without. The big year of ticket office extinguishment was 2015, bringing remaining staff out into more public-facing areas and saving a shedload of money in the process. At King's Cross St Pancras their work is now done by 43 ticket machines across three locations where staff assist occasionally lengthy queues of tourists in purchasing the correct product. Additionally a garish pink Visitor Centre exists at the top of the stairs but mainly to flog tickets to tourist attractions, plus it's closed on Sundays and Mondays because this isn't genuinely about serving customers. Look around the network and you'll see that multiple ticket machines are now being removed to save even more money, and by the tube's 170th anniversary even King's Cross might be down to single figures.

Since January 2013: Crossrail

The biggest change to the tube network over the last decade isn't even a tube line, it's the multibillion pound introduction of speedy purple trains. Crossrail was due to open five years ago but eventually opened last year, easing whatever east-west overcrowding Covid hadn't yet destroyed. Farringdon isn't the easiest place to hop aboard, especially from the tube platforms, indeed any time you might save through speed is often wasted trekking down and up from the platforms. But it is probably significant that the new line shadows the very first Underground railway by yet again linking Paddington to Farringdon, almost as if the original engineers knew exactly what they were doing. If you don't mind making the journey in twelve minutes rather than eight, why not pop down today for an 160th anniversary ride?

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