Crocodile’s Breath

James Meek

  • The Subterranean Railway: How the London Underground Was Built and How It Changed the City For Ever by Christian Wolmar
    Atlantic, 351 pp, £17.99, November 2004, ISBN 1 84354 022 3

On Easter day, I walked down Farringdon Road from Rosebery Avenue, towards Farringdon Station. I intended to make a voyage to one of the planet’s more mysterious realms, the point at which Zone Six of the London Underground’s fare map gives way to Zone A, the point that, for many Londoners, marks the edge of the known world. Unless you happen to live there, of course. But I suspect there are more Londoners alive now who have been to Lombok than have taken the Tube to Chalfont & Latimer or Chorleywood out of curiosity.

There was an anniversary to commemorate. Exactly 90 years before, at Easter 1915, the Underground had launched one of its periodic spring campaigns to encourage people to explore the countryside. Given that Germany had just started a submarine blockade of the country, trench warfare had begun in mainland Europe and invasion was feared, the slogan chosen by the copywriters was nothing if not spunky: ‘Why bother about the Germans invading the country – invade it yourself by Underground and the motor bus.’

Farringdon Road is built on what used to be the valley of the Fleet River, which flowed into the Thames from the direction of King’s Cross. In 1863, Farringdon became one terminus in the world’s first underground railway, the Metropolitan Railway, the other being Paddington. It’s been running ever since: 142 years of complete strangers squeezed into boxes, propelled under the earth at great speeds and trying not to make eye contact.

Though its construction was inspired by the idealistic Charles Pearson, born in 1793, the Metropolitan was intended, like all railway projects of the era, to be a hard-nosed, profit-making, capitalist enterprise. It’s not that simple now, and it was not that simple in Victorian times. From the outset, the Underground was delicately balanced between an essential municipal service which London could not do without, like piped water, and a sink-or-swim entrepreneurial venture expected to pay its way.

It was in Farringdon Road, in 1858, that the Underground – before it was even built – got its first quiet bit of public subsidy. The company trying to raise money for the Metropolitan was on the verge of collapse. David Wire, the lord mayor, allowed himself to be persuaded by Pearson – then the Corporation of the City of London’s solicitor – of the case for public transport in the capital, the one that’s still being made today. Wire accepted that something needed to be done to unjam the roads, and to enable key workers to move to cheaper, better and cleaner housing further from the city centre without losing their city centre jobs. He sold part of the recently cleared Fleet valley to the Metropolitan at a less than market price, and saved the project.

I did not invade the Outer Zones at Easter. I’d planned badly. Much of the Metropolitan Line was closed over the holiday weekend for engineering work. I returned to the station a few days later, in circumstances more typical of Underground journeys: a cold, wet, midweek evening, just after 6 p.m., as the offices of Clerkenwell were emptying into the underworld for the commute home. Some passengers would return glammed up from the suburbs on later trains. A poster printed in the Underground’s familiar corporate font, ready for the pub and club rush that follows the rush hour, listed the locations of nearby cash machines and bars and clubs: Bed Bar, Betsy Trotwood, Bleeding Heart Tavern, Dust, Eagle, Ember, Fluid, Fabric.

Trains were arriving every two minutes, never quite allowing the press of passengers on the westbound platform to build up to a dangerous thickness. It used to be that you were only told when something was going wrong on the system. Now the Underground likes you to know when everything is going well. Posters and announcements were proclaiming proudly that every Underground line was operating a good service. A man wearing a fluorescent orange tabard over his powder blue Underground jacket was performing live among the crowd, signalling to drivers with a plastic lollipop and reeling off destinations into a portable radio mike which relayed to the station speakers, urging passengers to move down the platform.

Like so many artefacts of Victorian industrialisation, Farringdon Station was never torn down and rebuilt. The way it looks now is an accretion of 150 years of decay, makeovers, new technology and bodging. Someone had the idea of repainting the ironwork in the Victorian colours of poster yellow and red, but that must have been a while back: it’s starting to look grubby again. Onto the elderly brick walls, brackets for CCTV cameras have been bolted, festooned with anti-pigeon spikes.

I boarded a Metropolitan train to Amersham, wondering whether the person who designs the upholstery for the seats is the same person who designs the carpeting at Heathrow and the blouses for British Airways’ female cabin staff and why, if so, he has escaped punishment for so long. The train started for King’s Cross. There’s a 700-yard tunnel under Mount Pleasant but the rest of this line, like the other early Underground lines – the District, the Hammersmith & City and the Circle – was built using a method known as ‘cut and cover’, where navvies dug down from the surface, then roofed the tunnel over. Officially, 307 people were displaced in the Farringdon area when the line was built, but unofficially, 12,000 people were moved, most of them poor, and the landlord of the Pickled Egg in Clerkenwell got £100 compensation for having his foundations shaken.

From station to station, the décor altered. It is hard for users to judge whether the new Public-Private Partnership which is supposed to be renovating the system is making real progress, or advancing in one area and merely shoring up in another. At King’s Cross the old green and taupe tiles on the platform are chipped and falling off the walls. At Great Portland Street, the squat brick alcoves of the original line have scrubbed up nicely, but sit incongruously with the beige metal panels around the entrance.

Everyone on the train looked terribly prosperous, clean and peaceful as they read about Jonathan King and the Nias earthquake in the Standard. It is amazing to watch the skill with which three people can stand in a rocking train, in a space less than two metres square, without touching each other, and read their papers without falling over.

At Baker Street, the Metropolitan departs from its original Paddington route. We hit the surface and after Finchley Road I was able to sit by the window. The heating warmed my ankles. Everyone in the carriage was getting drowsy. It was strangely luxurious. You tend not to read about comfortable, delay-free journeys on the Underground, but the strange truth is that they happen all the time. Unfortunately, having finished Christian Wolmar’s book I will never now be able to enjoy a long-distance journey on the Metropolitan, knowing that from 1910 until the start of the Second World War commuters – and returning theatregoers – could for sixpence travel in one of the company’s Underground Pullmans, and as the train clanked along be served meals in a mahogany dining-room behind green damask curtains.

We passed Neasden. When the first railways were built in England, they reached out to London from the north, not the other way round. London had no need of the railways to get where it wanted to go. It was already there. But when it came to the Underground, London did reach out, to the countryside. Edward Watkin, who became chairman of the Metropolitan in 1872, drove the Underground overground for 35 miles, to Aylesbury, in order to further his ambition to build mainline railways linking England and France through a Channel tunnel. He failed in that, but inadvertently laid down the skeleton of the body that would become Metroland, the only named one of several such vast suburban growths which bricked over the land on either side of the rails in the countryside beyond London.

When the Metropolitan was built through Neasden en route to Harrow in 1880, it was a rural district, famed for its hawthorn hedges. Goldhawk Road and Latimer Road were open fields when the Hammersmith & City built stations there. When the future Northern Line arrived in Golders Green in the first decade of the 20th century, there was nothing there except a farm at a crossroads; within six months of the station opening, there were 73 houses, and by 1914 there were 471.

Near Harrow I saw a patch of allotments close to the line. There is a property developer lurking inside everyone who has lived in London for a few years, like the Incredible Hulk lurking inside Bruce Banner, and I found myself wondering how much they’d be worth if they were sold for housing. From the day the Metropolitan began snaking into the shires people have been looking out of train windows, thinking such thoughts. It’s how the suburbs were made.

The expression ‘Metroland’ comes from the title of a promotional booklet published by the Metropolitan in 1915 to encourage Londoners to get out and about in the countryside. After the Armistice the booklet turned into a property magazine. Lyrical articles on the bucolic splendours of Edgware and Pinner were interspersed with advertisements for new private housing estates destined to turn the very rural surroundings that were their selling point into so many more acres of brick, slate and lawns.[*]

Wolmar describes Moor Park in Hertfordshire, where I got off the train, as ‘Britain’s first gated development’. It grew up in the 1920s around a Metropolitan halt originally built with golfers in mind. Lord Leverhulme bought a 17th-century mansion nearby and facilitated the construction of grand homes for wealthy commuters on the fringes of his estate. Wolmar quotes the contemporary pitch for houses ‘where City men could live a life of luxury in the grounds of an historic old English park and yet be just 40 minutes away from Baker Street by fast electric expresses’.

I wandered around for a while, gawping at the white villas, the graffiti-free neatness of the place, the yew hedges and the daffodils. I was disappointed not to see any gates, or to be told by security guards to move on, until I noticed that many of the roads had signs warning that they were privately maintained at residents’ expense, and should in no way be considered public highways.

A couple of stations back up the line towards London is Northwood Hills, which opened in 1933, created by developers along with a large new private suburb. Wolmar quotes a new resident who arrived that December to find the area around the station a sea of mud awaiting construction. The novice commuter went on: ‘Yet, I was to find that residing in a suburb adds a thrill and a zest to life. It is an experience in having no traditions to live up to.’

One winter in the early 1990s I took an overnight train from Georgia to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. There were no planes: Armenia was at war with its neighbour Azerbaijan, and under blockade. Snow came through the ill-fitting windows of the sleeper as it trundled between steep little peaks. When we arrived in Yerevan the next morning it was still dark: the moon had set, and the city, starved of electricity, was blacked out. Only sparse dabs of kerosene light and the occasional brace of headlights showed a city was there at all.

Robert, an Armenian PE teacher who had befriended me in the coupé, took me through the frosty murk of Yerevan’s central station and into a doorway. In an instant there was light, power, a swift transaction involving tokens, a set of escalators, and at their foot, the familiar declining whine of a clean, brightly lit underground train. We got in; the carriage was full of neatly dressed Armenians who were, in spite of everything, going somewhere – commuting. We travelled two stops, to the centre of town. I experienced the disorientating sense that the entire urban planet was connected by a single network of underground railways, functioning as a dependable back-up world rumbling away below, eternal and unchanging, whatever chaos reigned on the surface. Then we got out and climbed to the street, where there was still no power. Robert took me by the arm in the pitch darkness and led me, like a blind man, to a hotel.

Like all Soviet-era metro systems – most big cities had them – Yerevan’s is patterned on the one in Moscow, which owes much, in turn, to the London Underground. Frank Pick, one of the guiding geniuses of the glory days of the Tube between the wars, was given a medal by Stalin in 1932 (although he did not, as Wolmar romantically suggests, meet the dictator in person). When work began on the Moscow metro in 1931, it was with the possibility of
cities being attacked from the air, and of citizens finding not merely shelter underground but a whole lit-up, powered, alternative, subterranean city, invulnerable to bombs. The use of the London Underground as an air-raid shelter in the Second World War has become part of Britons’ mental slide show of the Blitz. Although few Londoners used it – 4 per cent, Wolmar reckons – some slept on Tube station platforms every night for three years, nourished by tea and buns delivered in refreshment trains, which each evening hauled tons of food around the network.

It was still earlier that London’s Underground turned from being a mere means of transport into a skeleton city-in-reserve beneath the earth’s skin. Londoners began to seek shelter in the Tube in earnest after the Zeppelin raids in 1915, and after 1917, when German bombers struck heavily, citizens poured into the 86 stations which the Underground, then privately owned, made available. At one point in 1918 some 300,000 Londoners took shelter there, when there was supposed to be room for only 250,000. During the First World War, passenger numbers on the Underground went up by two-thirds. From 1914, Tube advertising played to people’s fears. ‘It is bomb proof down below,’ one ad read. ‘Underground for safety; plenty of bright trains, business as usual.’ Another read like a sinister piece of verse:

Never mind the dark and dangerous streets
It is warm and bright
Be comfortable in well-lit trains and read the latest war news.

Two decades earlier, there had been a different attitude towards the world of the Underground. In The Time Machine (1895), H.G. Wells portrayed the beautiful, degenerate, soft-headed heirs of the aristocracy frolicking in the sunlight, prey, on dark nights, to the cannibalistic attentions of an underground-dwelling industrial proletariat. ‘There is a tendency to utilise underground space for the less ornamental purposes of civilisation; there is the Metropolitan Railway in London, for instance,’ Wells’s narrator says. ‘In the end, above ground you must have the Haves, pursuing pleasure and comfort and beauty, and below ground the Have-nots, the Workers getting continually adapted to the conditions of their labour.’

How peculiar, and often unpleasant, the Underground seemed to the gentry when work started on the first three and a half miles of the Metropolitan in 1860, before Wells was born. After all, who, before the Underground, was under the ground of London? Rats, the dead, and those brave few whose job it was to build and maintain sewers. No wonder the Times referred to the ‘foul subsoil of London’ and contemporaries talked about ‘trains in drains’. Never mind the generous compensation paid to the wealthy for driving the Metropolitan across their land. Never mind that the Metropolitan’s route avoided posh areas wherever possible, digging up roads and demolishing the dwellings of the poor instead. Never mind that the Metropolitan, when it began running, had separate compartments for three classes of passenger. It was still strange to have trespassers running beneath your property. When the first section of the District Line, from South Kensington to Blackfriars, was built between 1865 and 1870, Lord Harrington forbade the construction of ventilation shafts on his Kensington estate. Train whistles were not allowed to sound near Temple, except in an emergency, for fear of breaking the concentration of barristers. Lord Palmerston, Britain’s 79-year-old prime minister, declined to attend the opening of the Metropolitan, saying that at his age he would rather stay above ground for as long as he could.

In 1850, London’s population was two and a half times the size it had been at the turn of the century. Its roads were clogged at peak times with hundreds of thousands of pedestrians, with cabs, carts and horse-drawn omnibuses, and with tons of horse manure. Many of the workers on whom the wealth of London depended struggled to commute by foot or horse, or moved into squalid, overcrowded lodgings closer to the City. The Metropolitan would begin to ease the jams and squalor. South of the river, there was less need of an Underground: the bishops, who owned much of the land, were better disposed towards the railways than the nobs on the north bank, and had poorer tenants, who could easily be bought out or evicted. Surface railways proliferated there. In Central London, the wealthy formed a powerful lobby against overground railways going through their streets and estates. In one sense, they did the city a favour, by forcing the development of a revolutionary, hidden means of transport, and saving uncounted attractive old buildings from destruction. In the wake of the Metropolitan’s early success, so many railways were proposed for London that, had they all been built, only a quarter of the city would have been left standing. But by forcing the Underground entrepreneurs to pay such huge sums for land and compensation, they drove them to the brink of bankruptcy and led them to cut corners (or rather to create corners, twisty routes to avoid touching rich people’s foundations being an Underground speciality).

Victorian London was a smelly place. On the surface, dung, horse piss and coal smoke. Underground, until the 20th century, the trains ran on steam, a fantastically unsuitable form of locomotion for enclosed tunnels. As if the atmosphere weren’t foul enough, the initial ban on smoking on the Metropolitan was scrapped after a political campaign. It was hard journeying in the carriages in the smoky glow from gas or oil lamps, although the Telegraph reported, with a hopeful eye to the future, that they were bright enough to read a paper by. In 1867, the deaths of three people were linked to emissions of choke damp, the sulphurous fumes given off by the Underground’s engines. The Metropolitan tried to mitigate the problem by digging vents, buying special low-steam locomotives, and lying. The atmosphere in the tunnels, it said, provided ‘a sort of health resort for people who suffered from asthma, for which the sulphurous and other fumes were supposed to be beneficial’. The Times described a pharmacist who did a good trade in Metropolitan Mixture, which he prescribed by the wineglass to half-suffocated passengers who would totter into his shop from the nearest station.

One journalist, taking a trip on the footplate of a Circle Line locomotive in 1890, said that after heading west from King’s Cross the air began to smell like the worst between-decks quarters in a warship in a gale, and by the time they reached Gower Street – today Euston Square – he was ‘coughing and spluttering like a boy with his first cigar’. A few years earlier, another journalist described his debut trip on the Underground, from Baker Street to Moorgate, as a first experience of hell:

The compartment in which I sat was filled with passengers who were smoking pipes, as is the British habit, and as the smoke and sulphur from the engine filled the tunnel, all the windows have to be closed. The atmosphere was a mixture of sulphur, coal dust and foul fumes from the oil lamp above; so that by the time we reached Moorgate Street I was near dead of asphyxiation and heat.

The early cut-and-cover lines were at least close enough to the surface to allow vents and open stretches. When advances in engineering enabled the construction of the genuine Tube, deep tunnels bored through the 150-metre-thick layer of clay running beneath London, it became impossible to use steam trains. Work started on the first Tube, the City & South London Line between Monument and Elephant & Castle – now part of the Northern Line – in 1886. Its backers originally thought the trains would be hauled by cables, with steam-powered winding gear at stations, like horizontal lifts. Instead, it opened in 1890 as the world’s first large-scale electric railway, and the world’s first tube. It was, the Times said, ‘a gigantic iron drainpipe, thrust by main force through the solid London clay, much in the fashion in which the cheesemonger thrusts a scoop into his Cheddar or Gloucester’.

There were teething troubles. When the City & South London opened it had dim electric light in its carriages, but, since there was nothing to see outside, the carriages didn’t have any windows, just thin strips of glass at head height. Insufficient motor power meant that trains had a habit of stopping and rolling backwards when they tried to haul full carriages up an incline. Geologically, the tunnels could have been mostly straight, but even though the Tube was far below the surface – 15 to 35 metres – such was the fear of undermining private property that the engineers sent them along the lines of streets wherever possible, sometimes even stacking two tunnels on top of each other to avoid running below privately owned foundations, as at Chancery Lane and Notting Hill Gate. The consequence was the series of sharp curves and gradients which still jolt passengers today but in the early days of the Tube were more extreme, often hurling travellers against each other. Since the City & South London was, uniquely for the era, a one-class railway, this may have led to revolutionary moments of cross-class contact, but hardly to gratitude.

When the Central Line opened in 1900, it introduced hanging straps and proper windows, but drew renewed complaints of bad air. A bureaucrat in the Sudan Political Service said that it smelled like crocodile’s breath. The Central Railway retorted: ‘It has been practically demonstrated by physiological and chemical experiments that a live man might be sealed up in a lead coffin for half an hour without any resultant feeling of oppression – I say nothing of depression – provided he were treated as frozen mutton in a cold store, so that the air he breathed might still remain cold.’ Not until the 1930s was the atmosphere of the Tube made palatable by means of blowing filtered, ozonised air into it from the outside world.

For all this, the Underground was popular with passengers. On its first day, 10 January 1863, the Metropolitan carried 30,000 people, each paying between three and six pence. The railway laid on a four-carriage train every 15 minutes: it wasn’t enough to cope with demand. And the early Underground had a good safety record. The first person to die under a train, Kate Gollop, who fell by accident when rushing to catch the last service from what is now Great Portland Street Station to Edgware Road, was killed one and a half years into the Metropolitan’s operation. She was said to have been drunk. Such episodes were rare. In its first year the Metropolitan made a profit of £102,000, an extraordinary sum, the equivalent of perhaps £50 million today. Shareholders raked in the dividends.

None of the investors who subsequently queued up to put their money underground would experience such good times, but they didn’t find that out until much later, and the privately financed and owned Tube network spread apace. The Northern & City from Moorgate to Finsbury Park was built in 1904, the Bakerloo and Piccadilly Lines in 1906, and the Hampstead Tube from Charing Cross to Golders Green and Archway in 1907. The first escalator started up at Earls Court in 1911 (a correspondent to the Times complained that the word was half French, half Latin, but nobody took any notice); the Underground logo appeared in 1913; in 1919, the gatemen who had previously been stationed between carriages began to be replaced with sliding doors. The iconic Underground map, designed by Harry Beck, an electrical draughtsman, in imitation of a circuit diagram (he was paid only ten guineas for his masterwork) was taken up in 1932. By 1937, when the sole Tube line to go deep into South London was renamed the Northern Line, the Underground was, in appearance and culture, recognisably similar to today’s.

It differed, nonetheless, in two important ways. A combination of entrepreneurial drive and recklessness, brilliant management, care for design and craftsmanship, arm’s-length government control and Keynesian spending to defeat unemployment had bequeathed London a public transport system that was an admired model around the world, and was, for its users, despite all the short cuts and irrationality in its creation, a solidly built, reasonably well-funded operation. So admired, so solidly built and so well funded, that after the war it would be left to rot for fifty years.

The original Jubilee Line, which opened in 1979, ran from Charing Cross to Stanmore. It was to have been called the Fleet Line, but the 25th anniversary of the queen’s coronation squashed commemoration of the old river. Two decades later, engineers were having a hard time completing the extension to the line, to Stratford, in time for the queen’s millennium visit to the Dome, and when the Jubilee Line extension opened it was best known for costing £3.5 billion, twice as much as it was supposed to. Now, it is coming to be more famous for the architectural magnificence of its stations. But the Jubilee extension had another distinction. If the last Victorian Tube lines saw private financiers diddling each other, what may be the last Elizabethan Tube came about because the Thatcher government decided to use public money to help a group of extremely rich people become even richer. Wolmar puts it this way: ‘The Jubilee Line extension is unique in being an underground line designed primarily to satisfy the needs of a private developer rather than London and Londoners as a whole.’

The extension was born out of the Thatcher government’s desire to make Docklands, the part of East London left to decay after the collapse of the capital’s role as a port for cargo ships, a showcase for the laissez-faire, market-based approach to urban regeneration. A Texan entrepreneur seized the opportunity to get consent for a gigantic development of skyscrapers and offices at Canary Wharf. His project was taken over by Olympia & York, a property development company controlled by the Canada-based Reichmann brothers. There seemed to be a market for the expanse of office space they planned to provide, but the Docklands Light Railway wouldn’t be able to transport the anticipated 50,000 workers to and from Canary Wharf each day. So the Reichmanns came up with their own plan for a new Underground line, to run from Waterloo to Canary Wharf. They called it Canaryloo, and put a tiny price tag of £300 million on it, which they suggested they would mostly be able to fund. The government, delighted at the prospect of a private company paying for a new Tube out to its favourite development site, gave its backing to a slightly longer version as far as Stratford.

The construction of the Jubilee extension has, in the end, given London a beautiful new underground railway. But it came at a higher price than £3.5 billion. Because the government backed the Jubilee, it could not fund two other potential underground lines, Crossrail and the Chelsea-Hackney, either of which would have linked West and East London, helping areas in equal or greater need of regeneration than Docklands. Indeed, it was only after stubborn local lobbying that the Jubilee extension gave Southwark its first Tube station, in Bermondsey. Previously, the plan had been to zip through Southwark in order to speed commuters to and from the shining towers of Canary Wharf.

Is this unfair? Didn’t the Thatcher administration opt for the Jubilee extension because the Canary Wharf developers offered to make a contribution towards the cost? Well, yes. Initially the developers said they would pay for the whole thing. Later, they said they would pay a third. In the end the private sector contribution was less than 5 per cent.

When my wife and I moved to London in 1999, the only area reasonably close to the centre of the city where we could afford to buy a flat was Hackney. We like living there, and the buses are good, yet the fact that Hackney is the only borough adjacent to Central London which does not have a single Tube station seemed like an official stamp of second-class status. Now and then there’s a ripple of excitement among local politicians that the East London Line is about to launch northwards from Whitechapel, or that the corpse of Chelsea-Hackney has been seen to twitch.

Yet thinking it through, on reading Wolmar, I realise how wrong I’ve been. I could afford to buy a flat in Hackney in 1999 precisely because there’s no Tube station there. If there had been, the price of property in the area would have soared, and I would have been scouring estate agents’ websites in Waltham Forest. And the relationship between the Tube and property goes further. As it happens, none of the prospective new lines goes anywhere near my building, but suppose they did, and it was announced construction was to begin: I wouldn’t have to pay any more for having a new Tube station on my doorstep than anyone else in London, but the price of my flat would shoot up. It would be like winning the lottery, at the taxpayer’s expense.

What if the property owners who benefited from new Tube lines had to give some of their gains back? In Down the Tube: The Battle for London’s Underground (2002), Wolmar quotes from a study into the Jubilee extension by the Centre for Land Studies. The author, Don Riley, worked out that the £3.5 billion spent on the line had increased the value of the land along its route by £13 billion. He suggested a way to tax the extra revenue landlords gained as a result, which would have paid back the cost of building the line by 2020, with money to spare. The idea wasn’t taken up; other ideas were. We now understand how the Tube will be funded in 2020 – or rather, we know what to call the way it will be funded, the PPP. Understanding it is a different matter.

In 1978, the Jam released a single called ‘Down in the Tube Station at Midnight’. It opens with the sound of a Tube train pulling into a station. A child’s voice cries against the heavy roar and rattle and a guard shouts something and the music begins, chopped chords, an urgent, darting bass line and an ominous hissing of cymbals. In the song, Woking boy Paul Weller, lyricist and vocalist, captures something Wolmar doesn’t mention in either of his books on the subject. He brings to life how frightening Tube stations could be late at night in the 1970s, particularly for non-Londoners. The long, dirty, CCTV-less tunnels, smelling of urine, so much less busy than now, the sense of being in a beige-tiled maze, alone except for the dodgy-sounding geezers whose voices echoed not so distantly, but in which direction? You weren’t sure.

The song tells of a disaffected traveller getting beaten up and robbed in a Tube station. In view of what was about to happen politically in Britain, the identities of the protagonists are notable. Weller’s isn’t the angry outsiderdom of the Clash or the nihilistic jesting of the Sex Pistols, his early punk inspirations. The hero of the song is a family man who wants to get home and have a glass of wine over dinner with his wife. His attackers ‘smelled of pubs, and Wormwood Scrubs, and too many right-wing meetings’. The fear and disgust he feels towards his skinhead assailants is mirrored by his fear and disgust at the squalor that the public service he’s in, the Underground, has descended into. Assuming he doesn’t bleed to death, is he going to vote for Margaret Thatcher, or Ken Livingstone, the two politicians about to do battle over the Tube? In the circumstances, it seems quite likely he would have voted for both of them. They were both populists, after all.

Livingstone’s two-part battle with the government over managing and funding the Underground – with Thatcher, from 1981 to 1986, as leader of the Greater London Council, and with Blair, from 2000, as mayor – brought to a head a debate about how the system should be run and paid for which had begun in the 1850s, before the first shovelful of earth was dug for the Metropolitan. Throughout the Victorian and Edwardian eras, thanks to the early financial success of that first line, investors had little hesitation about putting their money into new lines, or lengthening old ones, through increasingly baroque financial instruments. Charles Yerkes, an American financier who left Chicago in 1898 after a failed attempt to bribe his way to a hundred-year tram monopoly there, raised the money to build the Bakerloo, the Piccadilly and much of the future Northern Line by issuing a form of junk bond. (The original entrepreneur behind the Bakerloo, Whitaker Wright, went bust and took a fatal dose of cyanide just before beginning a seven-year jail sentence for defrauding investors.) Yet despite huge demand from passengers, the economics of the system meant that investing more to expand it usually failed to yield large enough profits to satisfy the investors’ original expectations. Yerkes’s dupes lost heavily.

Yerkes’s problem became London’s problem. The ad hoc Underground system he and his predecessors had financed teetered on the edge of bankruptcy because not enough passengers were using it, yet too many passengers relied on it to allow it to close. This wasn’t an unsuccessful restaurant chain that could be wound up and demolished because it was unprofitable. Indeed, many commuters now lived in suburbs like Northwood Hills which owed their existence to the Tube stations around which they had grown. In 1924, Lord Ashfield, who, as Albert Stanley, had begun to reform and consolidate the private Tube from 1910 onwards, calculated that suburbia wasn’t densely enough populated, at 12 houses per acre, to yield enough money to support a private Tube unless exorbitant fares were charged.

Stanley managed to add the bulk of London’s profitable buses to the private Tube system, and the income from bus fares, together with regular bouts of spending by the government to counter Depression-era unemployment, kept the system afloat until, in 1933, the Labour transport minister, Herbert Morrison, agreed to set up London Transport, a semi-governmental body, bringing the era of the private Underground to an end. This original, prewar, internationally admired LT was notable for being allowed by the government to do what Gordon Brown’s Treasury forbids Transport for London to do in the 21st century: issue bonds and solicit credit underwritten by the government, which means that loans can be obtained more cheaply.

Wolmar runs briskly through the history of the Underground from its heyday in the 1930s to the present in The Subterranean Railway, but for the full, gory detail of the Underground’s decline after the war, and the bizarre current saga of the PPP, readers must turn to Down the Tube, a superb piece of reporting which nonetheless requires great patience to follow. As Wolmar points out, it is almost as if the PPP’s designers do not want its contractual rules to be understood. ‘The documentation itself stretches to 135 volumes with an estimated 2800 pages and two million words,’ he writes, and ‘it is growing all the time.’

The Underground was nationalised in 1948 and put under the control of something called the British Transport Commission, which was struggling to renew the country’s decrepit main line railway system. The Underground was last in the queue for government cash. It wasn’t allowed to spend more than £50,000 at a time without permission. A little more money was flowing by 1970, when the GLC took over, but by this time the assumption was strengthening that growing car ownership and new roads would solve the country’s transport problems. Less money was going into the system than was needed to keep it from decaying, let alone improve it. By the 1980s, when Livingstone took on Thatcher in an attempt to slash fares and revive the Tube, it was in deep decline. It was corrupt at the top – the most senior executives avoided using their own trains by running 26 chauffeur-driven limousines at a cost of more than half a million pounds a year – and corrupt at the bottom, with ticket collectors regularly pocketing excess fares at the barriers. In 1982, fewer than half a billion journeys were made, a low point in passenger numbers. Managers refused to refer to the fires which constantly broke out in stations as ‘fires’. They insisted on calling them ‘smoulderings’. On 18 November 1987, a fire which began underneath the Piccadilly Line escalator at King’s Cross killed 31 people. Few of the staff at the station had any training in emergency procedures and when a passenger alerted them to the fire, five minutes after it started, in the words of the head of the Underground: ‘The supervisor looks down at the flames, and says “yes”, but does not do anything.’

The fire forced a root and branch review of the way the Underground was managed, but not in the way it was funded. The Treasury fed the organisation money in annual packets, sometimes more, sometimes less, making planning impossible. In 1991, the Conservatives promised £750 million a year for three years to begin deep renovation work, and Tube managers hurled themselves gladly into a frenzy of projects. In 1992, with the national finances in a mess, the Conservatives reneged. London Underground, which had set up an emergency team called Operation Strikeforce to work out how to spend the sudden flood of extra money, had to set up a second team to work out how to rein in the first one.

Such was the bitterness left by this perceived betrayal that it influenced support among Tube bosses for New Labour’s PPP proposal. Anything, it was felt, would be better than the old system, if only it allowed long-term planning.

The Blair government got its way over PPP in 2003, having beaten off Livingstone and the host of experts, analysts and commentators from across the political spectrum who said it was a mad scheme. The arguments will continue for as long as the PPP contracts last – 30 years. Last month Bob Kiley, the transport commissioner for London, described the PPP’s performance as ‘bordering on disaster’. A week later, the head of the Metronet consortium, John Weight, was sacked. The big, meaty capital programmes that the PPP was supposed to ‘incentivise’ Metronet to do weren’t happening. None of the eight stations it was supposed to have refurbished are finished, and track renewals are way behind schedule. But the point about how well the PPP consortia are doing their job is only half of the story. We can never know for sure, but the suspicion will always remain that the job of rebuilding the Tube could have been done more quickly, more cheaply and more simply if only the Blair government – or, rather, the Blair-Brown government, since the Treasury has been the key driver of the PPP deal – had been less doctrinaire and less obsessive in its belief that the private sector invariably does things better.

Many Londoners have a rough idea of the outlines of PPP: two private-sector consortia, Metronet and Tube Lines, are now maintaining, repairing and renovating the stations, trains, tracks and tunnels of the Underground, while London Underground, still publicly owned, operates the system. But this doesn’t explain the what, the why and the how of the PPP. The best comparison Wolmar comes up with in Down the Tube is of a man who wants a new car. He could borrow the money from the bank and buy a car, but that would put him deep in the red. Alternatively, he could go for a hire purchase agreement over, say, four years. The car would still belong to the company selling it, but he would be able to use it, in exchange for small, regular payments. If he kept up the payments, after four years, he’d own the car. If he defaulted, the company would take the car away.

Strange as it may seem, the Treasury is treating the renovation of the Underground like the hire purchase of a new Ford Focus. If the government paid up front to do the work, it would count against the government’s borrowing, and hurt the government’s balance sheet. If, however, it passes control of the Tube’s infrastructure to private companies, and lets them maintain, repair and improve it in exchange for smaller payments over 30 years, the work will still get done, but the Treasury’s books won’t take such a hit at the beginning. The burden of borrowing large sums in the early stages will fall instead on the private companies. The PPP, as the government sees it, has the added advantage that private companies can manage big construction and maintenance contracts more efficiently than state managers.

Clear enough. Except that the government’s assumptions are vulnerable to challenge. The government has never convincingly explained why it was acceptable for the new railway between London and the Channel Tunnel to be financed with a government-backed bond issue, but not the rebuilding of the Tube. The evidence that the public sector would have done a less efficient job than private companies was based on guesswork; the element of risk that is supposed to be part of the incentive for private firms to do a good job does not exist for the PPP either, since the contractors have included the risk of anything other than a major catastrophe in the cost of their winning bids. Even before a single bolt was tightened, the PPP contracts had cost £455 million to draw up, mainly in accountants’, lawyers’ and consultants’ fees. One firm, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, came up with the original draft of the PPP, was a financial adviser to London Underground, reported on the financing of London Underground for the Department of Transport, and advised many of the PPP participants. Originally, the government thought the scheme would be self-financing: now it is putting in £1 billion of public money a year. Meanwhile, Metronet and Tube Lines are making a combined profit of £2 million a week.

Beneath it all lie the language and rules of the contracts themselves, which Wolmar does a courageous job of trying to decipher. Rather than being commissioned by London Underground to do specific works to improve the Tube, Metronet and Tube Lines – the ‘infracos’ – have their payments raised or lowered according to an arcane and fanatically detailed set of performance criteria. It is for them to decide how to meet those criteria, or indeed whether it is worth their while. There is one rule, for instance, about the way payments to the infracos should be affected by the distance train drivers have to walk from their cabs to the station toilets – the idea being that it might be worth the infracos’ while to move the toilets. But London Underground can’t tell them to build new toilets, only hope they’ll be incentivised to do so. As Wolmar points out, if the formula is badly written, there might be no new toilets for drivers for 30 years, or there might be an explosion of platform toilets.

You cannot tell from reading his books which political party Wolmar might vote for, although if there was a Railway Party, he would surely vote for that. Sometimes he slips into the rhetoric of trains for trains’ sake: he gives very little space to the heretical consideration that, without such a sprawling Underground network, London might have been a more compact place, obliged to grow upwards as well as outwards, and might have ended up sharing more of its wealth and population with other British cities. Yet he is judicious, too. Although Down the Tube was written with real anger, and some disbelief, he concedes that the Underground’s problems have been intensified, in a way nobody predicted in the nadir of 1982, by a doubling of passenger numbers, caused by the choking of the roads and the introduction of Travelcards by the first Livingstone regime. In The Subterranean Railway he mellows somewhat about the PPP.

‘It would be comforting to believe that the PPP will return the system to its former grandeur,’ he writes. ‘At worst, there will be some improvements, albeit at a high cost.’ He points out that Michael Cassidy, a former big cheese in the City of London’s administration, compared the PPP to Yerkes’s funding of the Tube’s Edwardian expansion. ‘Bearing in mind Yerkes’s crookedness,’ he writes, ‘that is hardly a compliment to its architects.’

[*] E.S. Turner wrote about a reissue of the British Empire Exhibition Number last year (LRB, 2 December 2004).