Steam train back on London Underground

You guys must think I make this stuff up …. I don’t. The “lead” for this “story” came from sister-in-law, Sabine.

The world’s first underground journey, from Paddington to Farringdon on what is now London’s Underground on took place on January 9th 1863. It took a decade of lobbying before parliamentary assent was given for the tube in 1854, and construction only started in 1860. Three years of blight and construction noise followed.

The underground opened to the public at 6 am the following day, January 10th, 1863 – early enough, as the newspaper Observer reported, to “accommodate workmen, and there was a goodly muster of that class of the public, who availed themselves of the advantages of the line in reaching their respective employment”. By 8 am there was a first morning rush-hour crush, with would-be commuters unable to board at King’s Cross. Even on day one, some employed the commuter trick of travelling a stop outwards in order to get a space for the journey in.

Steam train back on London Underground

Steam train back on London Underground

The Observer of 1863 was impressed by the “general comfort”, noting that the “novel introduction of gas lighting into the carriages is calculated to dispel any unpleasant feelings which passengers, especially ladies, might entertain against riding for so long a distance through a tunnel”.

That was 1863. Any bleary-eyed Londoner overlooking exposed stretches of the District or Circle lines of the London Underground in the small hours of a recent Sunday must have pinched themselves.

In a test run for the London Underground’s 150-year anniversary celebrations, a restored original steam locomotive hauled a Victorian first-class carriage – all wood and gas light fittings – from Earl’s Court to Moorgate, billowing clouds through the capital’s oldest tunnels. More than 100 years after regular services ended in central London, a steam train was carrying passengers on the tube.

1863 How it was in Baker Street Tube Station

1863 How it was in Baker Street Tube Station

As on the very first journey in 1863, railwaymen, enthusiasts and a few dignitaries and press were aboard. But this time an audience of overnight tube maintenance workers in orange hi-vis jackets were lining the route with cameraphones at the ready.

Baker Street Station in 2012 - not much change

Baker Street Station in 2012 – not much change

Riding inside the restored Metropolitan 353 carriage was Peter Hendy, the commissioner of Transport for London, a key player in making this bizarre vision a reality. “This is the advantage of having your own railway – you don’t have to ask permission,” he said.

The event has been three years in the making, via fundraising campaigns, a lottery grant, and painstaking restoration of the teak carriage’s crimson upholstered seats, large windows, leather panels and gas light fittings – the height of Victorian luxury in 1892, before it lapsed into less exalted use. “This was a chicken coop in a farmyard,” Hendy marvelled, before – ignoring the safety briefing of five minutes earlier – pulling down the windows to appreciatively sniff in the smoke as if sampling a Havana cigar.

The original plan was for a “light steam” simulation – where an electric locomotive did the pushing – but Transport for London insisted on “doing it properly” with a full working locomotive, which burned approximately one ton of coal for Sunday morning’s journey. Not everything went smoothly – a valve that blew at Baker Street rendered much of the station invisible from the carriage. A soaked, sooty and bedraggled – but delighted – station supervisor eventually appeared through the clouds to help wave the party on.

While the steam-powered trains are an immense draw now – £180 ($270) seats on January’s celebratory services sold by the London Transport Museum went instantly – passengers on the original underground trains were not so keen, complaining about the “sulphurous atmosphere” in the tube. Electric alternatives were pioneered in the later Victorian era, and the last regular steam services ended in 1905. Now, as part of a series of exhibitions and events for the anniversary, the public will be able to witness this extraordinary spectacle again next year.