Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Posts Tagged ‘tube

Cities in motion: transport is as key to urban character as buildings or accents

with 7 comments

I have been very pleased to see the Guardian add a section on Cities, and I am finding the articles posted there very informative. For instance Alex Steffen writing about affordability  and his prescription – build lots of houses. This morning there is a wide reaching review of how transportation defines cities which is written by Colin Marshall who hails from Seattle and thinks London is defined by The Tube. It is an easy mistake for an American to make, and is about as misguided as a Londoner thinking that New York is defined by its subway. He does have a very interesting overview and a wide range of samples, and makes some good points. But both London (and New York) rely very heavily on a much wider network than their inner urban mass transit systems.

The tube, in London, serves mostly the northwestern quadrant – as is apparent from Harry Beck’s geographically distorted diagram. This is the original from the 1930’s. Bank Station – at the centre of the City is over to the right. Note the position of the Thames relative to most of the network.  The District Line through East London is not shown as a line, merely a list of stations.

The historical reason for this is that the mainline railway that served this quadrant was initially not very interested in operating suburban services as it made much more money from long distance trains. Including boat trains to Liverpool that connected to liners to New York, as well as the premium Scottish expresses. The tube was originally built by entrepreneurs looking to make money, and what they found was that the short lines under the central area were not long enough to be profitable and cost a great deal to construct. The companies became profitable when they extended out into the fields which could then be built over with houses for commuters. The first underground line (The Metropolitan Railway) was extended in tunnels to Wembley and then out to Amersham and beyond on the surface. Many of the connections into Central London were made by tacking existing branch lines onto the tube. In Beck’s map above the Central Line stops at Liverpool Street. The service now goes out far into Essex on former GE branch lines – and a new tube under Wanstead built just before the war and uncompleted in 1939 which became a factory until hostilities ceased.

There is only one tube line through South London (the Northern Line). That is because the Southern Railway and its antecedents had much less long distance traffic but were early adopters of electrification for the dense network of lines that radiate out from the series of terminals built to serve both the City (to the East) and the West End. The even built their own tube to connect Waterloo to the City (known as the drain and only relatively recently incorporated into the Underground network).

The main line railways were not allowed to build into the City itself, and were kept in a ring along City Road (under which the Met was built). For the Great Eastern (the same company that built what became to be BC Rail) the need for a larger terminal nearer the City meant they wanted to redevelop a notorious slum called the Jago. As a condition of being allowed to demolish that warren of extremely dense – and very unhealthy – housing, they had to provide workmen’s fares at low cost to allow the displaced to relocate to new suburbs in places like Walthamstow and Leytonstone.

London began to sprawl long before there were motorcars. Development stretched out into the country along the railway lines, railway stations became the centre of towns that grew up around them. In the interwar period with the construction of new faster roads for cars and as unemployment relief – the Great West Road, Eastern Avenue – this development started filling in. Instead of the “beads on a string” pattern of the railway towns, there was “ribbon development’. In the period when people were tasked with thinking out what would happen to London after the Luftwaffe were stopped from flattening so much of it, the idea was to prevent this continuous urban area by specifying a Green Belt. The current boundary of Greater London lies within that Green Belt, which marks the limits of how far the ribbons of sprawl had reached by 1939. Post war there were to have been New Towns, that would be both free standing and self sufficient – providing employment to reduce the need for commuting. That did not work out. Basically the suburbs leapt over the Green Belt and kept on going. Boxmoor (see below) is in Hemel Hempstead – near the station – and has a very fast service into Euston that I used to commute on just before I left for Toronto.


One of the stupidest decisions made by the self serving Governor of New Jersey was cancelling the railway tunnel that would have relieved congestion between New Jersey and midtown Manhattan. Penn Station (now hidden beneath Madison Square Garden) is not just the busiest in New York – it is one of busiest passenger terminals in North America. Grand Central is not far behind. Manhattan lies at the heart of a huge megalopolis and depends on railway services to the surrounding region. It would be impossible for the downtown towers to work as employment centres if those people all tried to drive to work. Though Robert Moses did his best to try and accomplish that.

FDR Drive

FDR Drive midtown Manhattan
my picture on flickr

In both Central London and Manhattan most of the people there during the day got there on trains. In the case of London those trains come from an ever widening ring of urban areas – as train speeds have been increased and services improved. I used to think that getting a seat for a 25minute ride into Waterloo so that I could read on my commute was about optimal. Many others travel further and longer. Lord Olivier famously commuted from Brighton (about an hour – and at one time you could get kippers for breakfast on a Pullman train).  Those commuters might need to add a short tube ride from a terminal like Paddington (as you will need to if you decide to use Heathrow Express to get into town from the airport) or Liverpool Street. The current construction of CrossRail is designed to reduce the congestion on that route.

For many people the tube is something to avoid. You do not have to suffer from claustrophobia to find the crowding and depth of the station platforms a deterrent. Fortunately there are always alternatives. In fact in Central London it is nearly always quicker to walk than travel between adjacent stations – or even three or four stops. Especially if a change of lines is needed. The need for a rapid increase in transit capacity created by the congestion charge lead to a huge improvement in bus services. For visitors, I would recommend that using a combination of Boris Bikes, buses and walking is going to be a much nicer experience than the tube – especially at Rush Hour (actually several hours).

When I wrote this I had not seen this article in The Independent ” twice as many people ride the bus each day as the Tube” by the Labour spokesperson on infrastructure.

Written by Stephen Rees

February 17, 2014 at 10:32 am

London Transport

leave a comment »

Jon Henley left London in July 1987. That’s a bit before I did in October 1988 but I recognize his reasons for leaving. He has now returned and is living in London and writes in the Guardian about what has changed – and what hasn’t. One of the interesting aspects of yesterday’s Transit Camp was how often London was held up as example. Mr Henley is unimpressed by the Underground but likes the buses

Why is the London Underground still such utter shite?

Twenty years ago the District line was diabolical; the Northern line was a nightmare; the Central line was OK, except when it wasn’t, in which case it just stopped; and the Piccadilly line was fast, but felt like travelling in a badly overcrowded sauna. These days, amazingly, the District line is diabolical; the Northern line is a nightmare; the Central line is OK, except when it isn’t, in which case it just stops; and the Piccadilly line is fast, but like travelling in a badly overcrowded sauna.

Why do Londoners put up with this? In any other major European city there would be a massed and bloody uprising. A protest movement would be launched; tens of thousands of commuters would collectively refuse to pay for their tickets; the offices of TfL (who?) would be comprehensively trashed and effigies of its so-called managers burned on bonfires lit on that gruesome stretch of track where the Hammersmith & City, Circle and Metropolitan lines merge, and trains take, on average, four long and agonising days to pass through five stations.

When you have waited 22 minutes for a District line train, spent three-quarters of an hour on the Piccadilly line (where temperatures regularly reach 147C), changed platforms four times at Camden because no one knows where the hell the next train is coming from (or whether it will come at all); when, above all, you have paid £4 (versus Paris, €1.50, ie £1; New York, $1,50, ie 75p) for the privilege, you have to wonder. For the Parisienne in my life, this is beyond even Gallic sarcasm. (“Hah!” I thrust. “At least in London the whole Underground doesn’t simply come to a halt because the drivers are defending their right to retire at 50.” “No,” she ripostes, “but that’s mainly because in London they won’t be able to afford to retire till they’re 80.”)

Hey, but guess what: the buses are brilliant!

I love London’s buses! There are so many of them! You never have to wait more than five minutes! When did that happen? (I know, actually; it was to do with the congestion charge, wasn’t it?) Well, it’s worked. In 1987, if you suggested someone take the bus, they would look at you as if you’d suggested they take a blunt knife to a particularly treasured body part. Then, buses were like an endangered species; for days on end you’d see none, then all of a sudden along would come eight. Now they are everywhere. So that’s excitingly new and different.

A minor caveat to the above

My friend Caroline, who left Britain in 1993, came back last summer after spells in Berlin, Moscow and Paris and furnished several fine ideas for this article, would like to point out that there is one bad thing about the buses (and in fact it also applies to the tube) and it’s the fact that these days, people eat burgers in them. Also kebabs, and yes, even classic pan-baked pizzas with BBQ sauce, bacon, chicken, cherry tomatoes, red onions and an extra drizzle of rich authentic-tasting sauce from the farm of our, etc. Just when did it become socially acceptable, I often wonder, to eat your main meal of the day on the top of the number 43?

Written by Stephen Rees

December 9, 2007 at 5:27 pm

Posted in transit, Transportation

Tagged with , ,