Here in Britain, we have been celebrating a birthday. Not the birthday of a person, however, but the birthday of a railway. One hundred and fifty years ago, in January 1863, the first underground railway in the world carried its first passengers. It ran for 6 kilometres from Paddington in London to a place close to the City, which is the name we call London’s main business district.
The new railway was controversial and unpopular with many people. The men building the railway dug up the streets and knocked down houses and other buildings. They dug a deep trench and put the railway track at the bottom. Then theycovered over the new railway and remade the surface of the street. Not surprisingly, the construction work caused chaos in London for many months.
Steam engines pulled the first underground trains. Although the tunnels had vents in the roof to let the smoke escape, they were still full of soot and steam. The railway company bravely said that the atmosphere was invigorating and particularly good for people with asthma. I think that it must have been very unpleasant. Nonetheless, from the very first day the railway was popular with people who needed to travel to their work in London. About 26,000 people used the railway every day in its first six months of operation.
More underground railway lines opened in the following years. The railway companies found new ways to build and operate them. Instead of digging huge trenches in the streets, they bored holes deep under the city. People called these deep underground lines “tubes” because the tunnels had a circular shape like tubes. Nowadays, we say “the Tube” to mean all of the London underground system. It was of course impossible to use steam engines on the deep Tube lines; they had electric trains instead. By the beginning of the 20th century, electricity had replaced steam on all the underground lines.