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London's famous "tube" is 150-years-old

posted 9 Jan 2013, 08:49 by Mpelembe

The world's oldest underground rail network - London's 'tube' - is 150 years old. The Victorian artery of the British capital, which enabled the city to boom, served as shelter during World War II and has been copied around the world.

LONDON, ENGLAND, UK  (LONDON TRANSPORT MUSEUM) -  Loved and hated in equal measure, London's underground rail network, known as the "Tube" is a 150-years-old this week.

On January 9, 1863, London Underground opened the world's first underground railway in centralLondon. It opened to the public a day later on January 10.

Heavily overcrowded streets prompted Victorian engineers to dig underground rail tunnels in a feat of engineering which would eventually be copied around the world.

"London was very crowded in the 19th century, there were market stalls on the street....So the idea came to try to unblock the London streets with an underground railway," said railway historian Christian Wolmar.

Without the Tube London would never have turned into the metropolis it is today.

"Literally without the Tube London could not have grown to the size it is. Two hundred years ago there were only about a million people in London and you went to eight million. But you had to have a really high intense underground railway in order to be able to do that, that's why all the world's cities, likeBeijingShanghaiDelhi, are all now putting in tube systems," said former London Mayor Ken Livingstone.

He added that the advantage cities have which adopted underground railways later than Britain, was that they could learn from the UK's mistakes.

"Like so much the Victorians did, Britain found a solution and the rest of the world has copied it. The down side of that is because we went first, we weren't able to learn from mistakes of others, so almost all the other systems have got two tracks each way so you can keep one running through the night while you work on the other, so you don't have the problem we've got of always having to have a four or five hour shut down."

During World War II and the German bombing of London during the Blitz, the Tube's tunnels and platforms provided safe haven for those hiding from Adolf Hitler's bombs.

More than half a century later, in July 2005, the Tube became a place of terror, when Islamic fundamentalists blew themselves up on three trains and a bus in central London. Fifty two civilians were killed.

Today Londoners rely heavily on the tube and it carries more passengers in one day that the whole of the UK's other rail networks.

The transport network is taken so much for granted, which is doubtless why, when parts of the 150 year old system break down, commuters react with such fury.

Decades of underinvestment and political wranglings mean the Tube is still in need of vital repair and upgrade works.

Current London Mayor, Boris Johnson, has promised new technologies, partly funded by yearly ticket rises, but historian Wolmar says to continue to thrive as a world competitor the capital needs much more than that.

"London doesn't actually have enough tube lines, we are going to get Crossrail, we've got Thameslink improvements, but we really need to get cracking on devising at least two more tube lines to cope with the demand in the 21st century," he said.

This week London Underground will recreate the first Tube passenger journey on Sunday January 13. A series of specially restored steam trains, including the oldest operational carriage in existence, will travel part of the original route.