This is one of a series of short Penguin paperbacks, commissioned to celebrate 150 years of the London Underground. Lanchester was assigned the District LIne, and his elegantly written 87 pages are an engaging mix of the historical, the personal and the journalistic. He books himself a ride with a train driver all the way from Upminster to Richmond and back, a three and half hour trip, noting that the driver's job is so solitary that it makes even being a writer seem sociable.
Here's some of what I learnt:
1. The Tube is properly the name of the lines that were tunnelled - so not the earliest, which used the 'cut and cover' method for those parts near the centre of London where they had to go underground.
2. So "the Tube is a tube, but the Underground is by no means all underground." In fact, only 45% of the whole network is underground, including more than half the stations on the District Line.
3. The various lines were originally run by different companies, often hostile to each other. A ticket for one line could not be used on the others.
4. The District LIne is the only line that crosses the Thames by bridge (at both Kew and Putney). It also goes under a river: the Westbourne (no, I hadn't heard of it either) runs above the platform at Sloane Square station, through a pipe.
5. The driver has to keep a hand on the lever to make the train move, twisting it to a horizontal angle: once let go, it springs back to the vertical and the train stops. This is the famous 'dead man's handle'.
6. Underground drivers are given their work schedule 110 weeks in advance: they know when they'll be on and off shift two years ahead.
7. At its busiest, the Underground network carries more than 600,000 people - more than the population of Glasgow, the fourth biggest city in the UK.
8. The earliest line, the Metropolitan, opened in 1863. This was before electrification, so steam trains went through the tunnels. It was followed by the District (1868) and the Circle (1884).
9. The Paris Metro didn't open until 1900, and was a more centrally planned system, with everywhere in the centre of the city deliberately within range of a station. But London's more chaotic early start kept the city's lead over Paris in population and prosperity.
10. The tunnels in the tube have a diameter of 11 foot 8 and a half inches. There is no room for air conditioning so if the train stops on a hot day, the temperature in the carriages can quickly exceed the 35 degrees Centigrade, which is the legal limit for the transport of livestock. If the train is really stuck, the power in the line will be switched off, the lights in the tunnel switched on and the passengers led to the next station through an opening in the front of the driver's cab.
There's a lot to be said for finding out a bit of basic information about the world that's around you every day. Perhaps earlier generations were more aware of the wonder of the Underground, as we are today with the Internet. Here's a small piece of evidence of that, quoted by Lanchester: T.S.Eliot's acknowledgment of the difference between the tube and the Underground, in his poem East Coker:
Or as, when an underground train, in the tube,
stops too long between stations
And the conversation rises and slowly fades
The underground, not in the tube: the Central Line on the way to South Ruislip
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