From Steam to Electric: The Evolution of the Victorian London Underground Railway | History Hit

From Steam to Electric: The Evolution of the Victorian London Underground Railway

Celeste Neill

21 Jun 2023

The City and South London Railway holds the distinction of being the world’s first deep-level underground “tube” railway and the pioneering electric traction railway. Its grand inauguration took place on 4 November 1890, marking a monumental moment in transportation history.

This groundbreaking railway system operated through two tunnels, connecting a total of 6 strategically located stations over a length of 3.2 miles. The line seamlessly linked the bustling City of London with the vibrant district of Stockwell, providing a swift and efficient mode of transportation for the rapidly growing population of the city.

The Tube – Victorian style

The Metropolitan Railway became the world’s first underground railway when it opened between Bishop’s Road (Paddington) and Farringdon Street in 1863. It was built using the “cut and cover” method where a deep trench is dug and the tunnel built in to it before being covered over.

The Metropolitan Railway was established first, while the City and South London Railway came into operation in 1890. The MR had a head start of almost 3 decades.

Metropolitan Railway

Metropolitan Railway, Praed Street Junction

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The City and South London Railway was excavated using a tunnelling shield, as proposed by South African engineer James Henry Greathead. The tunnelling shield protected workers while they dug out and supported the tunnels using pre-cut sections of tunnel wall.

This method was first developed in 1818 by Sir Marc Isambard Brunel. Brunel and his son Isambard Kingdom Brunel used a tunnelling shield in the construction of the Thames Tunnel in 1825.

Given the difficulty of providing sufficient ventilation for the deep-level tunnels, the use of steam locomotives to haul trains was unfeasible.

Instead Greathead initially intended to use a cable haulage system to pull the carriages through the tunnels. But when the Patent Cable Tramway Corporation went bankrupt in 1888 electric traction became the favoured method. The carriages would be pulled by electric locomotives powered through a third rail supplied by a generating station at Stockwell.

Uncomfortable carriages

The Metropolitan Railway initially used steam locomotives, which led to issues such as noise, smoke, and discomfort for passengers. In contrast, the City and South London Railway was the world’s first electric traction railway. Electric trains provided a smoother, cleaner, and more comfortable journey, enhancing the passenger experience.

The Victorian London underground carriages consisted of 3 interconnected cars, each with a capacity to accommodate up to 32 passengers. Unlike previous train systems, this innovative design brought together passengers of all classes, eliminating the separation between First and Second Class compartments. The carriages featured small, slender windows positioned high up on the walls.

Initially, it seemed puzzling to have windows in a tunnel where there was little to see. However, the passengers quickly discovered that these windows contributed to a sense of claustrophobia, leading to them humorously dubbing the carriages “padded cells.”

The official inauguration of the Victorian London underground carriages, known as the City and South London line, took place on 18 December 1890. On the day of its official inauguration, the railway was ceremoniously opened by Edward, Prince of Wales (later known as Edward VII). With the flick of a golden key, he activated the electric current that powered the system. The line’s inaugural year witnessed an impressive 5.1 million passengers utilising this new mode of transportation.

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The Metropolitan Railway covered a larger area, connecting Bishop’s Road (Paddington) and Farringdon Street in its initial stretch. Over time, it expanded to serve various destinations, ultimately becoming part of the extensive London Underground network. The City and South London Railway, on the other hand, had a more localised route, running from the City of London to Stockwell.

Urban transformation

Over time, the City and South London line underwent several extensions, ultimately transforming into what is known today as the Bank Branch of the Northern Line.

The introduction of this underground railway brought about a paradigm shift in urban transportation, revolutionising the way people traveled within the city. It paved the way for the development of similar underground networks worldwide, shaping the future of urban planning and transportation engineering.

The success of the City and South London Railway prompted the expansion and evolution of the London Underground system, creating a comprehensive network of interconnected lines that continue to serve millions of commuters and tourists to this day.

Celeste Neill