Puppydog tails — 15 July 2011

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.

220px-Pneumatic_Dispatch_-_Figure_7At 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.

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(2) Readers Comments

  1. One of the good things about London is being able to combine bus, tube and railway in order to travel around. Visit any other big British city and you straightaway notice the difference. The one improvement to the transport mix in London would be to add trams – these are very successful in Sheffield and Manchester, to mention but two tram cities.
    I don’t know whether Crossrail is really necessary or whether it will be a success but I hope so, not least because I would not like to think we have endured all that disruption to traffic flows for a failure.
    As traffic becomes ever slower in London, it is clear to me that no amount of road “improvements” will solve the problem. The solution lies with public transport. People have to be persuaded or coerced out of cars and cabs (which cause the same congestion as cars, after all) and onto buses, tubes and trains. We need to improve public transport and make it cheaper to use.
    Some cities have free bus services in the centre (e.g. Sheffield and Manchester) and automatic barriers that allow only buses onto some roads. If we had planners with imagination, they would be working on similar plans for London. The congestion charge is a dead duck. Our need is for actual physical barriers to stop cars coming into central London and to render them unnecessary by creating an excellent public transport network.

    • I’m afraid your utopian ideas for the future of London transport is destined to disappointment.

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