LONDON (Reuters) - Britain’s capital began year-long celebrations for the 150th anniversary of the world’s oldest underground passenger railway on Wednesday with reams of newsprint and plans for exhibitions, books, poetry and a commemorative steam train ride.
The rail service known affectionately as the “Tube”, which began in Queen Victoria’s reign, sheltered Londoners from Hitler’s bombs and has been a familiar friend to millions heading home from work and the pub, celebrated by announcing new trains, increased capacity and more frequent service.
“The Tube annihilates distance, liquidates traffic and is the throbbing cardiovascular system of the greatest city on earth,” London Mayor Boris Johnson said in a statement released on Wednesday by Transport for London (TfL), the authority that runs the British capital’s buses, trains and the Underground.
Over the next 20 years London’s population is expected to grow by well over a million people, underlining the importance of continuing to improve and upgrade the Tube network, TfL said.
It said a major upgrade program, one of the largest and most complex engineering projects in the world, was already providing tangible benefits for passengers and would deliver others such as air conditioned trains.
The Guardian newspaper devoted part of its G2 section to the Tube, revealing that U.S. talk show host Jerry Springer was born at Highgate station and that mosquitoes in the Tube differed genetically from their cousins above ground.
The Times newspaper devoted a two-page spread to the facts and figures of a service which launched on January 9, 1863 with a steam powered journey between Paddington and Farringdon Street and opened to the public the next day.
Though revolutionary, it was not long before passenger complaints started rolling in for a service which now carries 1.1 billion people every year.
Times archivists uncovered what the paper believes may be the first complaint in a letter from Irving Courtenay in February 1863 which derides the service for over-crowding, misleading information and unhelpful staff.
The detailed missive, in which Courtenay becomes separated from his travelling party and misses his train because of the crowds, comes to an end with his frustrating efforts to complain to a station porter who declines any responsibility.
Anyone jammed onto the Northern Line at rush hour on a week day might recognize his plight very well, though these days most commuters sit or stand mute and stoic through frequent delays and stuffy conditions.
Inside the Victorian facade of modern-day Farringdon station on Wednesday celebrations were modest, with only a handmade sign on the window of the station supervisor’s office.
Much like Courtenay’s porter, he refused to answer any questions about the anniversary.
On the platform, under the modern electronic signs sticking out from the ageing brickwork, passengers with iPods, newspapers and mobile phones stood waiting for the train.
Striking up a conversation on the Tube tends to be discouraged, but 21-year-old student from Essex Monique Daniels said she hadn’t considered the history of the Tube before beyond her own memory of a man on the Underground who once stood up and began tap-dancing in front of her.
“It was quite weird, but quite amusing,” she said.
On Sunday the first Tube passenger journey from Paddington to Farringdon will be recreated with a series of specially restored trains including the Metropolitan Steam Locomotive No.1 and the Metropolitan Railway Jubilee Carriage No 353 - the oldest operational underground carriage in existence.
Two new two-pound coins issued by the Royal Mint will go into circulation in 2013 and the Royal Mail will issue a set of 10 special stamps.
Penguin books will publish 12 short stories by well-known authors. There will be one about each Tube line and will look at the meaning of the Underground and the place it holds in the imagination of all those who live in and visit the city.
Reporting by Paul Casciato