The Metropolitan Railway – The World’s First Urban Underground Railway

The Metropolitan Railway first opened to the public with a 3 mile long stretch between Paddington and Farringdon Street in 1863, costing roughly £1.3 million. It was the world’s first urban underground railway and was developed by Sir John Fowler using the cut-and-cover method.

Before the railway was built the City of London was suffering increased congestion from horse-drawn carriages. Charles Pearson (1793-1862), a solicitor for the City of London and campaigner of penal reform and the abolition of capital punishment, saw this rise in congestion and was a supporter of producing an underground railway system as early as 1845.

Through the 40’s and 50’s Pearson lobbied for various new railways and stations to be constructed as a method of countering the rise of congestion entering from the city’s suburbs, all of which were rejected. Finally, on the 7th August 1854 a proposal for a railway between Paddington and Farringdon Street was accepted. Although Pearson didn’t hold shares in the new railway company he continued to promote the line and eventually convinced the City of London to fund a major proportion of the project. When the line was operational the once skeptical city sold the shares for a profit.

Charles Pearson died 4 months before the public opening of the Metropolitan Railway. Although he had turned down money from the company (offered as a thank you for his push to open the railway, as well as assistance in gaining funding) his wife was provided a yearly £250 (roughly £28,000 when adjusted for inflation).

Constructing the Metropolitan Railway

The Metropolitan Railway was constructed using the cut-and-cover method, a process in which an area of ground is dug into from the surface producing a large trench. While the trench is open all works are able to be completed with relative ease and space. For the Metropolitan Railway the walls were built up using brick while the roof was produced with a combination of iron girders and elliptical brick archways. Once all work was completed the trench was back-filled with earth and compacted. Today, cut-and-cover is most commonly used on service pipe replacements and maintenance such as; water, gas and electricity cables.

Thames Tunnel Shield

The cut-and-cover method was the main shallow subway production technique in the 1800’s, it was fairly quick and much easier than boring a tunnel through by hand. An example of early tunnel boring techniques can be seen in the Thames Tunnel constructed by Marc & Isambard Brunel. Utilising the tunnel shield, patented by Marc Isambard Bruel & Thomas Cochrane, It was able to progress only 3-4 metres per week. The main problem with cut-and-cover however is the large amount of disruption that can be caused on the surface compared to deep tunnel boring techniques.

Another positive of using the cut-and-cover method was the proximity to the surface; this made smoke and steam ventilation systems easier to install. Despite using condenser type trains (trains which trap and condense the steam produced so it can be re-used) these ventilation systems were greatly necessary in the Metropolitan Railway before the electrification of the central parts of the line, which took place in the early 20th Century. Line extensions further out of the city were not electrified until the 1960’s.

The condenser trains utilised were produced by Beyer, Peacock and Company. After the initial 18 locomotives were so successful a further 120 were ordered and used on the Metropolitan, District and other cut-and-cover lines. In the end 148 of these condenser locomotives were produced and run until the electrification of parts of the line in 1905.

Metropolitan Railway Steam Condenser Locomotive

During the construction phase of the railway there was skepticism among local and national newspapers, some referring to it as ‘the drain’. This skepticism wasn’t helped by several problems encountered during construction, including; burst sewerage pipes flooding the tunnel and collapsing excavations damaging nearby buildings. However, on the first day of opening on the 10th January 1863 the railway carried 38,000 passengers with extra trains needed to supply the demand. In the first 12 months an estimated 9.5 million passengers were carried with a further 12 million in the following 12 months.

The Metropolitan Railway extended several times from its central London routes. These expansions to the suburbs provided an opportunity for the company to retain any surplus land that ran alongside its tracks and develop housing, providing its own mortgage and finance schemes. These homes were mainly purchased by city workers due to their proximity to stations and the ease of commuting into London. In 1915 these areas were dubbed Metro-Land. As part of the Metro-Land experience the company would put on special catering cars on their peak trains both in the morning and the evening. The idea was for city workers to have their breakfast while on their way to work and have their dinner when returning in the evenings.

At the beginning of the 20th Century other companies were opening up deep-level electric tracks, these became much more popular with transport users due to the lack of pollution. This popularity of electric trains forced both the Metropolitan Railway and the Metropolitan District Railway to electrify their own trains. After a successful 6 month trial on the railway it was decided that electric was the way forward and they began electrifying the central routes and in 1905 the first electric trains were running on Metropolitan Railway tracks.

Electricity not only significantly reduced pollution but also sped up services too. The circle line’s electrification reduced travel time from 70 minutes for a full circle to just 50 minutes proving electric traction was the way forward. Despite this clear advantage of electricity it wasn’t until the early 60’s that the entire Metropolitan Railway (later called the Metropolitan Line) was fully running on electricity.

In 1933 the Metropolitan Railway merged with other underground railways and bus companies to form the London Passenger Transport Board, which soon traded under the name London Transport. From then on it became known as the Metropolitan Line and is still known as that today.

Further Reading:
– TFL – Time Line & History of London Underground Events
– Memories of the Metropolitan Railway

– Ejge Geotechnical Engineers- Cut-and-Cover Information
– Amersham History – Metro-Land Information
– History today – General Overview of the Met Railway

Image Sources
– Cover Image – London transport Museum -Metropolitan Railway Roundel
– Illustration of cut-and-cover trench close to Kings Cross, London – The Illustrated London News, 2nd February 1861, Page 99, Author: P Justyne
– Thames Tunnel Illustration
– Steam Condenser locomotive – Loz Pycock, 2009 on Flickr