Last updated: April 28, 2012 12:57 am

Lines of beauty

A clear-eyed history of the London Underground and its peculiarities

Underground, Overground: A Passenger’s History of the Tube, by Andrew Martin, Profile, RRP£14.99, 320 pages

 

If you were looking for the quintessential London Underground experience, you could do worse than take a Waterloo & City train from Waterloo Station to Bank.

Granted, “The Drain” – as the line is known – consists of just two stations, and by riding the only completely subsurface line on the system you would miss out on one of its contradictory pleasures: that moment when light pours into the train as it emerges from a tunnel on to a stretch of dusky Zone 3 track.

But on less romantic measures, it ticks all the boxes. The two stops serve commuters bound for the City, just as the earliest Underground lines were created to do, and it ploughs its way through a tunnel more than 20ft below ground, thus earning the moniker “Tube” (unlike the “cut-and-cover” lines closer to the surface).

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IN Non-Fiction

In Underground, Overground, Andrew Martin celebrates the Waterloo & City line, along with the rest of the Tube network. Using history, engineering for dummies and personal anecdote, he shows how London’s expansion was driven by the Underground, and how the Underground was driven by a succession of hard-headed visionaries, whom he calls the Tube Martyrs.

From Charles Pearson (1793-1862), who hoped an underground rail system would improve the lives of the poor by letting them live on London’s greener outskirts and work in the centre; to Charles Yerkes (1837-1905), the American rapscallion of the Victorian period who wooed women and railway investors alike, leaving the former rather happier than the latter; to Frank Pick (1878-1941), a dour-seeming aesthete who designed the Tube’s roundel, that bisected bull’s eye recognised the world over: none was quite satisfied with what he had wrought.

Nor are the Tube’s passengers entirely happy; they’ve been complaining about hot and crowded trains for more than a century. At least today’s carriages have large windows, unlike the coffin-like cars of the City & South London line (now the Bank branch of the Northern Line).

Martin, an author and a journalist who wrote a column for the Evening Standard about the Tube in the late 1990s, is no Underground apologist. He earns the lay reader’s trust by dismissing as awful a number of novels and films set on the Tube, and keeps it by admitting the foibles of this cobbled-together system, on which we creak around sharp bends because the private companies that built the lines tried to run them under public streets, to avoid paying landowners for their freeholds.

Seeing Martin puzzle his way through the history is half the fun, as are his lively interlocutors. When he asks a platform guard at Bank why the two moving walkways next to the Waterloo & City line work in parallel in the mornings, taking passengers to the street, but not in the evenings, when only one switches to run in the opposite direction, the response is sharp: “Because there’d be an almighty bloody pile-up at the barriers, wouldn’t there?”

The book suffers from the occasional descent into the style of a ramblers’ guide, complete with the terror it inspires of taking a wrong turn and finding yourself utterly lost. “Let us follow a London, Chatham & Dover train over that bridge in 1865,” Martin writes. “On reaching Ludgate Hill it descends into a tunnel and runs north through the new Snow Hill Tunnel to connect with the Metropolitan at Farringdon.”

Elsewhere, the language is beautiful. In describing the origins of Euston, St Pancras and King’s Cross, the termini of overground railways barred from driving further south into central London, he writes, “the railways were alighting on the New Road like birds perching on a branch”.

Now, as Crossrail and the Thameslink do away with those old mainline railway restrictions, how will Charles Pearson’s solution – the Underground – fare? Crossrail will ease capacity on an overloaded network, but that could be undone by population growth.

Martin is not dewy-eyed. His answer to the capacity crunch? “The Tube made [London] too big and it remains too big ... Get everyone who hasn’t got a good excuse for being in London out of it.”

Rose Jacobs is an FT Companies reporter

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