An Engineering Marvel: The London Underground Celebrates 150th Anniversary

POSTED BY Heather Johnson, UPDATED ON July 21st, 2022

The London Underground Celebrates 150th Anniversary

It’s not an overstatement to say that public transportation played an enormous role in how major cities today are currently constructed. Imagine what trying to move across town would be like in major metropolises like New York, Chicago, Tokyo, or London if everybody had to drive. Instead, public transportation has provided hundreds of millions of people with the opportunity to stay mobile, and have access to employment, community resources, medical treatment, and recreational opportunities. Public transportation offers an alternative to those who drive and provides the only opportunity for transport for those with no other means of travel. In the U.S. alone, over 90 percent of individuals who receive public assistance do not own a vehicle and rely on buses, subways, and streetcars as their sole means of transportation, according to the Federal Highway Administration. Considering how public transportation has changed the course of history, it’s only fitting to stop and appreciate London Underground’s 150th anniversary, the world’s first underground railway system. Colloquially referred to as “the Tube”, the London Underground first opened on January 9, 1863, and within a few months started transporting over 26,000 people a day. Today, the Tube carries an estimated 3 million-plus passengers a day to 270 stations along the railway’s 250 miles of track.




Industrial Gridlock

The boom of the Industrial Revolution in London at the end of the 18th and early 19th centuries transformed the city from the nation’s capital to one of the most overcrowded cities in the world. The increasing demand for factory workers caused mass migration from the nation’s agrarian communities, as workers descended onto London looking for better-paying jobs. By the start of the 19th century, one-fifth of England’s entire population lived in London.



No city could handle the kind of population explosion London underwent in just a 20-year period, and the city became a mass of gridlock. To elevate this congestion, Parliament voted to approve a construction project for an underground railway system that would run between Farringdon Street and Paddington Station in 1855. This marked the beginning of the London Underground.


A Marvel of Engineering

The earliest sections of the Tube were created using an engineering technique referred to as cut and cover. This practice involved cutting a deep trench along an already existing roadway.

Once the trench had been cut, engineers would lay railroad track, and then proceed to build a cover over the track, relaying the road once complete. Since early trains were steam-powered, ventilation shafts had to be cut into the tunnels to allow fresh air in and steam out.

Digging tunnels deep underground was a monumental task for engineers during the 19th century, especially considering the scale of such a project had never been attempted before in history. Constructing tunnels under the River Thames, bisects the city, resulting in several failed attempts and cost the lives of dozens of construction workers.

A need for safer ways to dig gave way to the invention of new engineering techniques, such as the use of tunneling shields. First used in the construction of the Thames Tunnel in 1870, tunneling shields provided a protective structure engineers could use to support soil that was too soft or unstable to remain intact during construction.

The shield, generally made from either concrete, steel, or cast iron would provide temporary shelter for workers as they excavated a tunnel.

While effective, cut and cover construction proved to be a massive problem for London’s infrastructure, as major roadways were basically demolished until tunnels could be built underneath.

However, as construction on the Tube continued, advancements in engineering techniques enabled construction to take place much deeper underground, which allowed existing roadways to stay intact as lines were being built.

As engineering techniques continued to advance, so to did the progress of the Tube. What started out as small sections of track running between a few stations quickly became a network of interconnecting tunnels that encompassed the entire city.

By 1890, the city’s first electric train line was opened between Stockwell and the original King William Street station. On July 30, 1900, the London Underground’s Central Line was opened, marking the beginning of an integration process that would create the Tube millions of people ride still to this day.


Legacy of the Tube

The construction of the London Underground had a profound effect on the way the rest of the world viewed public transportation. The New York subway system, which first opened in 1904, relied heavily on construction techniques developed by London engineers during the creation of the Tube.

Other subway systems built in major cities such as Tokyo, Moscow, Beijing, Seoul, and Shanghai all based their construction, in part, on the engineering practices first used in London.



While the London Underground might not transport as many passengers daily as some of these other cities, its place as the world’s first underground railway system and modern engineering marvel shouldn’t go overlooked the next time you step on a subway, no matter where you’re heading.

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