All over central London holes are appearing, some small, some like at Tottenham Court Road, huge, all for the purpose of improving your travel experience in six years time with Cross Rail. The scheme might, at this point, seem a crazy idea, but its predecessors were simply barking mad.
The first ever railway in London was the London & Greenwich Line and ran for almost its entire 3.75 mile length along an elevated viaduct, thereby, its planners reasoned, avoiding congestion at ground level. Unfortunately it would take 878 brick arches to construct which were both expensive and time-consuming, for what was a journey that could be walked in less than an hour.
Later in 1840 the Blackwall Tunnel to Minories line used stationary engines at either end and hauled the carriages along using stout cables attached to the carriage-ends.
In 1861 a London engineer Sir John Fowler designed a smokeless engine for London’s new underground network. Fuelled by red-hot bricks placed under the boiler, it unsurprisingly made only one brief experimental run, and was for given the moniker “Fowler’s Ghost”.
Before electrification smoke filled tunnels continued to be the norm, how anybody survived a journey, one can only imagine. Early Metropolitan Line trains were initially fitted with a tank in which the smoke was routed into a tender allowing it to be discharged each time a train broke cover. Evidence of one of these “blow holes” can still be seen at Leinster Gardens, numbers 23 and 24 look like real houses but are only 5ft-deep façades, the space behind them left for smoke discharge. They look so convincing that in the 1930s a successful hoax scammed hundreds of guests out of 10 guineas for a ticket to a charity ball advertised at that address.
At Crystal Palace in 1864 the new atmospheric railway was launched. It was smoke free as its tightly fitting carriages were pushed into a circular tunnel in the manner of a piston forcing them along using only air pressure. History doesn’t record how many ear drums were perforated. In 1867 a similar system was demonstrated at the American Institute Fair in New York [pictured], Alfred Ely Beach demonstrated a 32.6 m long, 1.8 m diameter pipe that was capable of moving 12 passengers plus a conductor.
In 1943 Professor Sir Patrick Abercrombie, forgetting that there was a war on, proposed that tunnels were excavated all over the place in order to reduce congestion on the surface. Apart from the fact that hardly any traffic was seen in London during the war, he proposed that a tunnel be bored under Buckingham Palace; the plans probably to this day lie on a shelf gathering dust.
Not content with the Victorian vandalism of removing the colonnades along the length of Nash’s Regent Street. The Greater London Council in 1967 (probably at the behest of Ken Livingstone) commissioned a feasibility study for twin overhead passenger monorails to run down the middle of Regent Street. Once they were built one supposes that another feasibility study would be needed to decide where the Christmas decorations should be situated.