Inner Tube

As the world's most iconic underground turns 150, Steve McKenna tracks down his inner trainspotter for this Tube tribute.

Beneath the glazed roof, wrought-iron arches and Big Ben-style station clock of London Paddington, I find myself caught between admiring this magisterial relic of Victorian England - designed in 1854 by the esteemed engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel - and swept up by a swarm of people trying to escape it.

A gateway to not just south-west England and Wales but the rest of the world - the Heathrow Express whistles to the airport in 15 minutes - the station is a frenzy of cosmopolitan voices and luggage-addled bodies that convey everything from dazed confusion to bloody-minded tunnel vision.

Platform 16, out on a limb on Paddington's north-eastern edges, oozes none of the grandeur of the main terminus. But this rather drab, functional spot, which services the Hammersmith & City line of the London Underground, offers a unique and beguiling opportunity. Board a white, red and blue Tube carriage here and you'll be retracing the route of the world's first underground rail journey. Today I'm boarding alongside a pair of old cockney geezers in West Ham United football scarves, an enormous Indian family, a couple of Japanese backpackers and a fashionista with turned-up skinny jeans and a perfectly groomed hi-top fade.

Iconic ... London's Baker Street Station.
Iconic ... London's Baker Street Station. 

It may sound like an odd thing to want to do, veering into nerdish trainspotter territory, perhaps, but 2013 is the year for this kind of nostalgia-driven stuff. It's the 150th anniversary of the birth of the London Underground.

All aboard

On January 9, 1863, after eight years of planning, parliamentary lobbying, financial and engineering headaches and the toil of more than 2000 navvies, the Metropolitan Railway, the maiden cog in what is now known as the Tube, was unveiled.

Chugging out of Paddington, a steam train plunged under the congested streets of central London, chuffed via the key mainline hubs of Gower Street (now Euston Square) and King's Cross, and rolled in at Farringdon, not far from the big banks and merchants' headquarters of the City of London, the financial heartbeat of the British Empire.

Party revellers enjoy the party atmosphere on the Circle Line on May 31 in 2008, the last night before alcohol was banned from public transport in the city.
Party revellers enjoy the party atmosphere on the Circle Line on May 31 in 2008, the last night before alcohol was banned from public transport in the city. Photo: Getty Images

Drawing 40,000 passengers on its first full day, it was hailed as "the most stupendous engineering undertaking yet achieved in the railway world" and provided the blueprint for other companies to dig through the bowels of London.

With half a dozen underground lines operating by the end of the 19th century, the British capital was the inspiration for other subterranean transport networks: Athens (1869), Budapest and Glasgow (both established in 1896) and, later, the famous metros of Boston (1897), Paris (1900), New York (1904), Buenos Aires (1913), Madrid (1919), Tokyo (1927) and Moscow (1935).

My ride from Paddington to Farringdon doesn't feel all that momentous, initially anyway. As the Tube rattles along, silent passengers twiddle with their smartphones, leaf through newspapers and books, and survey the Tube map (a fusion of crayon-coloured lines first drawn up by draughtsman Harry Beck in 1933 and tinkered with ever since).

Queen Elizabeth aboard a train during the opening of the Victoria Line in 1969.
Queen Elizabeth aboard a train during the opening of the Victoria Line in 1969. 

However, two stations east of Paddington, the carriage doors bolt open and a porthole into Victorian London appears. One of the original stops of the Metropolitan Railway, Baker Street station, is now a mind-boggling labyrinth at the confluence of five Tube lines (there are 11 in total, centrally managed by Transport for London).

Yet the Hammersmith & City line platform is bathed in antiquity: nestled in a gloomily lit, brick-arched tunnel lined by wooden benches stamped with black and white "Baker Street" signs and brick walls studded with old photographs and iron plaques embossed with "Metropolitan Railway 1863".

On a cool winter's night, you could imagine Sherlock Holmes, in his deerstalker cap, ambling down the platform, puffing away on his pipe. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's fictional character lived at 221b Baker Street and Holmes's pipe-smoking silhouette decorates some of the station's tiled walls.

Gathering steam

Baker Street's bygone atmosphere will heighten on January 20, when a restored, coal-fired, steam-billowing locomotive - built in 1898 - pulls in to complete one of a clutch of heritage journeys marking the 150th anniversary. Kicking off on Sunday January 13, with runs between Moorgate and Kensington (Olympia), they'll be the first underground steam passenger rides in central London since the network was completely electrified in 1905.

Fares as steep as £180 ($280) haven't deterred passengers, with seats on the gas-lit wooden carriages sold out within hours of the tickets being released. Spectators will be able to glimpse these surreal journeys from station platforms, and the restored old trains will be in action at other times of the year, notably May 25-27 (in a weekend dubbed "Steam back on the Met").

Events celebrating the landmark are planned throughout 2013, including a series of theatrical, Underground-themed shows at the disused Aldwych Tube station. Founded in 1907 as Strand station, Aldwych was used as a bunker during the two world wars. Its supposedly haunted tunnels and shafts have starred in hit British movies such as V for Vendetta, Atonement and 28 Weeks Later.

Action stations

Close by, at the heart of Covent Garden, the London Transport Museum is the co-ordinator of the 150th anniversary events, lectures and exhibitions.

Housed in a striking iron-and-glass Victorian building, the museum boasts a sparkling array of classic modes of transport: horse-drawn omnibuses, electric street trams, red double-decker buses, shiny black cabs, steam locomotives and a Tube carriage circa 1938. You can clamber around and inside some of these beautifully preserved relics and also tackle a Tube driving simulator.

Other displays detail the technical and engineering aspects of the Tube's development, accounts of what it was like to travel underground before electrification (an 1884 Times newspaper editorial decries a smoke-filled trip from King's Cross to Baker Street as "a form of mild torture, which no person would undergo if he could conveniently help it"), and the challenges of upgrading a creaking network that carries 1.1 billion passengers annually. Of the eye-catching multimedia attractions, I'm drawn to a digital screen showing the evolution of the Tube map - year by year - revealing how lines and stations have appeared and disappeared.

The best of the museum's 3300 archive posters will be showcased in an exhibition, Poster Art 150, between February 15 and October 27. Replica posters can be bought in a museum gift shop jam-packed with souvenirs, along with a raft of engaging books, including Underground: How the Tube Shaped London. This superbly illustrated coffee-table tome was published to mark the 150th anniversary and investigates how the venerable network not only tunnelled through London's soft bed of clay, but also became a global cultural icon.

You could liken the Tube to Vegemite - you either love it or hate it. But, for me - and arguably most travellers - it's something in between. While braving the Underground at peak times can be a hellish, claustrophobic experience that turns even the cheeriest soul into a tense, grim-faced drone, it also provides uplifting moments, such as off-peak periods, when you scale the escalators, passing a flicker of advertisements for new shows, books, holidays and exhibitions, while the buoyant sounds of busker music reverberate around the station.

Or when the masses of commuters and shoppers have dispersed and you can find a seat on the train, people-watch to your heart's content, and dreamily cast your eye over a Tube map whose colourful tangle of lines and peculiar station names (Shepherd's Bush, Swiss Cottage, Elephant & Castle) hide a feast of possibilities. Or simply when a fellow passenger makes eye contact and smiles. It happens, you know. Every now and then, anyway.

Trip notes

Getting there: Qantas flies Sydney to London. qantas.com.au.

Staying there: Formerly the Great Western Royal Hotel, the Hilton London Paddington effectively forms the facade of Paddington station. 146 Praed Street; doubles from £129 ($200). +44 207 850 0500, hilton.com

See+do: London Transport Museum. Covent Garden Piazza; adults £15 (tickets provide unlimited museum entry for 12 months), under-16s are free. +44 20 7379 6344, ltmuseum.co.uk.

Transport for London (including Tube fares, maps, timetables and service updates). tfl.gov.uk.

More information: visitbritain.com

Five Tube-riding tips

  1. Mind the gap. It's not just a slogan. Last year, 164 people suffered injuries getting on and off trains, so do follow the advice from that automated voice over the public address system.
  2. Stay right. If you're not in a rush, don't dawdle on the left side of the escalators. This will block — and enrage — those who are.
  3. Etiquette. Another custom that Londoners doggedly try to stick to is to let passengers off the train before boarding. Tourists ignoring this should expect tut-tuts and dirty looks.
  4. Oyster it. Single fares on the Tube are expensive (from £4.30 [$6.70] a pop), so if you're planning to use the Tube regularly, get an Oyster card. Available from all stations (for a £5 refundable deposit), it runs on a pre-paid top-up basis, with Oyster users enjoying discounted fares. If you would prefer to buy in advance of your trip, see visitbritainshop.com/australia/travel-transport.html.
  5. Watch the time. Don't miss the last Tube — unless you fancy a tedious bus ride (or two) or a potentially eye-watering cab fare. The Underground shuts down from about 12.30am or 1am until 5-5.30am.

Tube trivia

4.5 million: The number of Tube users on August 7 during the 2012 Olympics — a record for a day's travel on the network.

82 million: The number of passengers using Waterloo, the busiest Underground station, annually.

40 kilometres: The distance, as the crow flies, between Charing Cross and Chesham, the furthest Tube station from Central London.

55 metres: The depth, in metres, of Hampstead, the deepest-lying of the 270 Underground stations.

89 minutes: The longest journey without change on the Tube (between West Ruislip and Epping), on its longest line, the Central Line.

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