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Since Victorian times, London's Underground has made an extraordinary contribution to the economy of the capital and has played a vital role in the daily life of generations of Londoners. This wide-ranging history of the Underground celebrates the vision and determination of the Victorian pioneers who conceived this revolutionary transport system and the men who tunnelled Since Victorian times, London's Underground has made an extraordinary contribution to the economy of the capital and has played a vital role in the daily life of generations of Londoners. This wide-ranging history of the Underground celebrates the vision and determination of the Victorian pioneers who conceived this revolutionary transport system and the men who tunnelled to make the Tube. From the early days of steam to electrification, via the Underground's contribution to twentieth-century industrial design and its role during two world wars, the story comes right up to the present with its sleek, driverless trains and the wrangles over the future of the system. The Subterranean Railway reveals London's hidden wonder and shows how the railway beneath the streets helped create the city we know today.


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Since Victorian times, London's Underground has made an extraordinary contribution to the economy of the capital and has played a vital role in the daily life of generations of Londoners. This wide-ranging history of the Underground celebrates the vision and determination of the Victorian pioneers who conceived this revolutionary transport system and the men who tunnelled Since Victorian times, London's Underground has made an extraordinary contribution to the economy of the capital and has played a vital role in the daily life of generations of Londoners. This wide-ranging history of the Underground celebrates the vision and determination of the Victorian pioneers who conceived this revolutionary transport system and the men who tunnelled to make the Tube. From the early days of steam to electrification, via the Underground's contribution to twentieth-century industrial design and its role during two world wars, the story comes right up to the present with its sleek, driverless trains and the wrangles over the future of the system. The Subterranean Railway reveals London's hidden wonder and shows how the railway beneath the streets helped create the city we know today.

30 review for The Subterranean Railway

  1. 5 out of 5

    Jake Goretzki

    Well paced and readable, with enough nuggets to keep the half hearted tube geek engaged. NB as a republican I will henceforth refer to the Victoria line as 'Route C' and the Jubilee as the Fleet Line (sic). The most touching moments are - of course - those around dear old Metroland. It's a massive microcosm, the Tube's history is. Of how the UK works (or - as is more often the case - how it doesn't work). Instigated by a few visionaries. Unplanned and improvised. Thought best left to the market - Well paced and readable, with enough nuggets to keep the half hearted tube geek engaged. NB as a republican I will henceforth refer to the Victoria line as 'Route C' and the Jubilee as the Fleet Line (sic). The most touching moments are - of course - those around dear old Metroland. It's a massive microcosm, the Tube's history is. Of how the UK works (or - as is more often the case - how it doesn't work). Instigated by a few visionaries. Unplanned and improvised. Thought best left to the market - only to be tamed and nurtured later by the state. And throughout, with social benefits that are massively undervalued and wilfully overlooked. And a debt burden that is nationalised - while the profit arising from it is - as ever in the UK - privatised (witness the way those cunts at Canary Wharf paid a mere 5% of the cost of bringing the Jubilee to their door. We paid the rest, according to this. Fuck them. Witness the millionnaire thirties land agent, cashing in thanks to a publicly-funded line that turned field into plot). Plus ca change at Camden Town.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Tony Johnston

    This took me a little while to read. Non-fiction combined with long days at work tends to do that. However, I have a fascination with London and books about London. So, almost inevitably I found this book to be well written, well-structured and full of interesting facts that I have an odd desire to know. I would never live in London, preferring my countryside retreat at the other end of England, but I do like to wander about it, staring at stuff during my brief but regular visits. This sort of bo This took me a little while to read. Non-fiction combined with long days at work tends to do that. However, I have a fascination with London and books about London. So, almost inevitably I found this book to be well written, well-structured and full of interesting facts that I have an odd desire to know. I would never live in London, preferring my countryside retreat at the other end of England, but I do like to wander about it, staring at stuff during my brief but regular visits. This sort of book just adds to my experiences. I didn't know that the first real line was the Metropolitan. I didn't realise that the first 70-80 years of the underground used purely private funding. I didn't realise that Americans invested (badly) in our tubes. I loved the old photo of Sudbury Town and the thought of Golders Green being nothing more than a fork in the road made me happy. My only problem is that there probably won't be a lot of others with quite the same taste in such things. So I couldn't recommend it. PS Did you know that the Fleet River (OK it was a marshy ditch but river sounds nice) used to come down at the foot of Ludgate Hill just where Fleet Street ends? Nothing to do with this book but as far as I know the outfall is buried under the bridge. And if you like this sort of random London knowledge and like underground trains, then this book is for you.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Jane

    A well written and fascinating insight into how the London Underground came to be. This was an Amazon recommendation (presumably based on the fact I recently read "Brighton to London derailed) and I downloaded the sample chapter. It has an easy to read, fact-full but not too text book style of writing that interested me. The story progresses in great detail, highlighting some early speculation but including some wonderful tangents (the Empire exhibition in 1924 featured a life-sized model of the A well written and fascinating insight into how the London Underground came to be. This was an Amazon recommendation (presumably based on the fact I recently read "Brighton to London derailed) and I downloaded the sample chapter. It has an easy to read, fact-full but not too text book style of writing that interested me. The story progresses in great detail, highlighting some early speculation but including some wonderful tangents (the Empire exhibition in 1924 featured a life-sized model of the Prince of Wales made out of butter - thanks Canada) until shortly after the Second World War, when, like the network Itself, it runs out of steam leaving the final chapter being a bit of a chore. The Underground system is a wonderful piece of Victorian and Edwardian engineering, and it's stewards of Ashfield and Pick left a legacy behind them. Overall a well-written tale about the Underground system, and it's many amazing characters, that will prove interesting to those that have spent time travelling on the tube

  4. 4 out of 5

    Thor

    Fascinating book that goes further in depth than the previous book I read about the London Underground. There's more focus on the various developments, and as such the book bundles these together in a subject oriented way. This leads to a lot of repetition of certain elements, as well as foreshadowing, combined with a way of cherry-picking the relevant facts. Nevertheless, it works well -- you get a good depth into the developments while learning of future consequences without having to go into d Fascinating book that goes further in depth than the previous book I read about the London Underground. There's more focus on the various developments, and as such the book bundles these together in a subject oriented way. This leads to a lot of repetition of certain elements, as well as foreshadowing, combined with a way of cherry-picking the relevant facts. Nevertheless, it works well -- you get a good depth into the developments while learning of future consequences without having to go into depth *there* until it's due it's own chapter. I enjoyed that there was some insight into the PPP, and by now I'd love to see Christian Wolmar write some more opinion pieces in the Guardian regarding the PPP. Though it would be welcome if they were slightly more subjective.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Joanne

    After a week in London, using "the tube" every day, I wondered how the heck this thing was built. Went to a bookstore in Holland Park where we were staying and voila - the perfect book. I will admit I skimmed parts of it but the descriptions of the various stages, how it all came together and how it created the city of London as we know it, were great.

  6. 4 out of 5

    E. Kahn

    This book is mostly a history of the companies and agencies that built and run London's subways - which is actually fascinating reading; right until the Underground was nationalized, the construction of lines was financed through a medley of Ponzi schemes and assorted methods of creative accounting that generally left investors worse off than if they'd put their money in government bonds, when they didn't actually lose their shirts, while relieving congestion in London's overcrowded streets, pro This book is mostly a history of the companies and agencies that built and run London's subways - which is actually fascinating reading; right until the Underground was nationalized, the construction of lines was financed through a medley of Ponzi schemes and assorted methods of creative accounting that generally left investors worse off than if they'd put their money in government bonds, when they didn't actually lose their shirts, while relieving congestion in London's overcrowded streets, providing a valuable service to millions of commuters - and vast profits to landowners in areas served by the Underground. I wish the author had gone into a bit more detail regarding the various schemes to partly privatize it from Thatcher onwards, as the reader only gets a general impression of incompetence, corruption, blind neoliberal ideology and sheer spite against the poors who use public transport. The book gave me something to think about, re how mass transit schemes should be financed. Subways in particular are enormously expensive to build and hard to justify investing in if their only source of income is the tickets sold. They also go a long way to decongest city streets as well as increasing land value, so it seems fair and logical that they should be subsidized by people using those streets and profiting off that newly valuable real estate.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Valerie

    This was a very enjoyable book about the history of the London tube. Having lived in London for close to a decade, I’ve always loved the tube and never quite understood why so many Londoners were constantly complaining about it (apart from the fare price – that is worthy of complaint). The system may not be perfect and it is overcrowded, but it is so efficient and expansive compared to public transport systems in other cities. I will always have a soft spot for the London tube, so I greatly enjo This was a very enjoyable book about the history of the London tube. Having lived in London for close to a decade, I’ve always loved the tube and never quite understood why so many Londoners were constantly complaining about it (apart from the fare price – that is worthy of complaint). The system may not be perfect and it is overcrowded, but it is so efficient and expansive compared to public transport systems in other cities. I will always have a soft spot for the London tube, so I greatly enjoyed reading about its history. The book contains a wealth of information, is easy to read, and the author’s enthusiasm for the London underground transpires on every page. I would say though that the book might be a challenge for those who don’t know London as the author seems to assume that the reader is familiar with London’s geography. I also felt the book didn’t fully live up to its promise of exploring the impact of the development of the tube on London as a city. Though this is addressed I found that the book remained a bit superficial on this theme. But I did very much enjoy what the book had to offer, which is a history of the vagaries through which the London underground came to take the shape (and smell) it has today. And it has whetted my appetite for finding a book that explores more the social history of the tube.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Richard Archambault

    Ultimately disappointing, even though I should be the target audience for this type of book. That's why it took me almost a year to finish it; I kept finding other books that were more interesting, and put this one down. Since I've never been to London, I don't know the geography well enough, but the book makes constant references to places and tube lines and stations, but with very few maps, they had no meaning to me. I did find the last chapter to be interesting (about the failed PPP projects) Ultimately disappointing, even though I should be the target audience for this type of book. That's why it took me almost a year to finish it; I kept finding other books that were more interesting, and put this one down. Since I've never been to London, I don't know the geography well enough, but the book makes constant references to places and tube lines and stations, but with very few maps, they had no meaning to me. I did find the last chapter to be interesting (about the failed PPP projects), but otherwise, the constant place-names just made this book hard to follow for me. I guess it'd be more enjoyable for someone who knows London better than I do!

  9. 5 out of 5

    Alex

    A highly readable and interesting history of the London Underground. I must admit that as a non Londoner I knew little of the underground or its history before reading this book. Happily I can say that reading this book has rectified that. I found the earlier chapters about the development of the Underground to be the most interesting. Wolmar has a way with words, enabling even a novice like me to understand the intricacies of the system and its history with ease. I would highly recommend this bo A highly readable and interesting history of the London Underground. I must admit that as a non Londoner I knew little of the underground or its history before reading this book. Happily I can say that reading this book has rectified that. I found the earlier chapters about the development of the Underground to be the most interesting. Wolmar has a way with words, enabling even a novice like me to understand the intricacies of the system and its history with ease. I would highly recommend this book to someone who knows very little about the underground and its history, as it informs one about this in an entertaining and easily understood way.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Martin Willoughby

    If you want to know more about the world's first underground railway, this is the book for you. How the Victorian private cvompanies did and didn't build it, what drawbacks that attitude had and who managed to overcome it all.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Pinko Palest

    It was a joy to read. Not so much about the trains, the stations or the tunnels, although these too are dealt with, but rather about the politics of it all, with some additional social history. Wish it was longer

  12. 4 out of 5

    Petra J Witowski

    One of my favourite books, i keep going back to it ever since i got it back in 2007. The depth of knowledge is astounding and it is written well, captivating and easy to follow. Would recommend for anyone with an interest in the underground.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Scott

    A good read on the history of the London Metro. It provides an overview and is a great history of it.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Dale

    Well paced and thorough from the master of all things transport related

  15. 5 out of 5

    Marie (UK)

    This is a very interesting account of the London underground from the mid 19th century to the present day. It highlighted many aspects of which i knew little and was a very easy read

  16. 4 out of 5

    Matthew Hurst

    A brilliant overview of London's Underground packed full of interesting facts and information, if you wish to read about how the Underground was born I recommend this.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Nathaniel

    Informative Was really good and made me laugh. Thank you for a thrilling read. Can't be bothered with this review just in case you hadn't guessed.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Geraldine

    I wish I could give this more stars. However, a third of the way through it dawned on me that however passionate the writer, any history of London Underground is never going to be that fascinating. He's passionate, there's no doubt about that. Indeed, I chose him as my first preference for Labour's Mayoral candidate. A plus point for the book is that it is rich in passing references to peripheral matters, prompting me to look up those matters and learn about those, whilst acknowledging they had n I wish I could give this more stars. However, a third of the way through it dawned on me that however passionate the writer, any history of London Underground is never going to be that fascinating. He's passionate, there's no doubt about that. Indeed, I chose him as my first preference for Labour's Mayoral candidate. A plus point for the book is that it is rich in passing references to peripheral matters, prompting me to look up those matters and learn about those, whilst acknowledging they had no place in a book about LU. It started well, with an explanation of how the mainline rail services terminate(d) some distance from the City of London, and given the congestion on the roads, it was deemed necessary to take passengers into the City. Although the opening section was interesting, it did descend into a rather tedious but essential narrative of the tussles over routes and property rights, Parliamentary enquiries and financing, and comparison of different rolling stock and construction methods. I found that quite difficult to get through. It really perked up in the section about Metroland and LU's famous posters of the interwar years. A part of LU history that is blanketed in rosy nostalgia, with the inimitable Betjeman looming over. A part of me wanted more about how various suburbs grew up round the new Underground lines, but I soon realised that the hyperlocal history of areas I'd never visited would not be that interesting; the interesting hyperlocal history of my own area was driven by the other sort of trains - now operated by Southern on tracks run by Network Rail, which, correctly, get only a passing mention here. The section on WW2 is poignant and fascinating, and the description of post-War decline progresses at an appropriate rate. He revised an earlier edition on the aftermath of 7/7, and points to the massive changes in that time - the Overground, and plans for Crossrail, improved Thameslink and possibly Crossrail 2, as well as the impressive (if annoying, as a passenger) upgrades to track and signalling, and station improvements. Actually quite a shock to realise how much better my journey to work has been in recent years compared to the 90s and 00s, and, ironically, how much of this was due to the disastrous (expensive, anyway) PPP deal that was eviscerated in The Blunders of Our Governments. It is also due to sensible improvements in buses - back in the 90s when I lived in tube-less Streatham there were no bus lanes on Brixton Hill, making the above mentioned National Rail lines the only way into town and, frankly, a nightmare. If tubes and buses can improve so much from when I was a young trainee, anything's possible for pedestrian and cycling infrastructure. Sadly, I don't think that Christian Wolmar will get the chance, but part of the reason for voting him '1' is to exert pressure onto (hopefully) Sadiq Khan to make this happen.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Anders Hanson

    As you'd expect from rail expert Christian Wolmar this is a knowledgeable and informative history of the London Underground. You'd think that given the importance of the Tube a lot of the details of its history would be familiar, but there's a surprising amount to learn here. Although the origins of the Metropolitan line and names such as Frank Pick and Charles Holden are well known, crucial figures in its history, such as Charles Yerkes and Lord Ashfield, are almost unknown. Christian Wolmar de As you'd expect from rail expert Christian Wolmar this is a knowledgeable and informative history of the London Underground. You'd think that given the importance of the Tube a lot of the details of its history would be familiar, but there's a surprising amount to learn here. Although the origins of the Metropolitan line and names such as Frank Pick and Charles Holden are well known, crucial figures in its history, such as Charles Yerkes and Lord Ashfield, are almost unknown. Christian Wolmar devotes a lot of this book to the political processes that both helped and hindered the Tube as well as the affect that public and media opinion had on its development. This book is very much a history of its development and how it expanded and evolved through its first 90 years, as the last 60 or so years are rattled through in just two chapters. However, Christian Wolmar has written other books devoted to the recent history of both overground and underground railways, and so he may have felt that was superfluous and simply made the subject unmanageable in size. Wolmar does occasionally make opinionated side comments about the management of the Tube, but what is clear is that his opinions aren't easily characterised as a private (right) versus public (left) division, and that is welcome. If you want a concise, easy to read history of the Underground then this is ideal. It also includes a mass of notes and reading suggestions, that will send you off to look for other books that will tell you more about this fascinating subject.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Nick

    Wolmar is perhaps Britain's best transport journalist and his passion for detail shows through in the research - it's well footnoted and indexed, and thorough in its detail. Yes, it's a bit nerdy, but this book's strength is in its socio-economic contextualisation. You get a real sense of how the world's first subway came about initially through individualistic desire and latterly through principled leadership, and almost always in spite of the actions of local and central government. It really Wolmar is perhaps Britain's best transport journalist and his passion for detail shows through in the research - it's well footnoted and indexed, and thorough in its detail. Yes, it's a bit nerdy, but this book's strength is in its socio-economic contextualisation. You get a real sense of how the world's first subway came about initially through individualistic desire and latterly through principled leadership, and almost always in spite of the actions of local and central government. It really brings home the rapid rate of growth of London as a city and the astonishing extent to which this was driven by the Tube - and not just in 'Metroland'. The final chapter of this edition was a re-working of an earlier book, Down the Tube: The Battle for London's Underground. Oddly, it felt like that chapter was less cohesive - more of an afterthought to the rest than vice versa. From what I read, the book has been revised since. I hope it was better integrated in the process.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Jessica

    I actually wanted to read Underground Overground, but the copy at the local library has been checked out for some time, and this was the only other book on the history of the Tube available. I'm not sure how it compares, though Subterranean Railway is slightly out of date, having been published in 2004, with updates made to the current edition for the 7/7 bombings. However, this really only affects the introduction and final chapter. I found the tone of this book to be quite dry, and as such did I actually wanted to read Underground Overground, but the copy at the local library has been checked out for some time, and this was the only other book on the history of the Tube available. I'm not sure how it compares, though Subterranean Railway is slightly out of date, having been published in 2004, with updates made to the current edition for the 7/7 bombings. However, this really only affects the introduction and final chapter. I found the tone of this book to be quite dry, and as such did drag in places, particularly when covering nationalisation of the Underground, but still contained enough interesting bits to hold my attention. I particularly liked the sections on the early Tube and WWII. I think it is actually a fascinating subject matter, since modern London has been so profoundly shaped by the Tube, something this book did its best to explain. Overall, a good read, but not a great one.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Cate

    Loved it, loved it, loved it. What a great read. A real reminder of what an amazing feat of engineering the Underground is & done at time when government planning was "interference". Ironically public ownership during the 1960s & 1970s, like has happened all over the world, saw a decline of investment in the Underground & a decline in services and standards. This was largely due to a misplaced belief in the supremacy of the car and a misunderstanding of the concept of social capital. The Undergr Loved it, loved it, loved it. What a great read. A real reminder of what an amazing feat of engineering the Underground is & done at time when government planning was "interference". Ironically public ownership during the 1960s & 1970s, like has happened all over the world, saw a decline of investment in the Underground & a decline in services and standards. This was largely due to a misplaced belief in the supremacy of the car and a misunderstanding of the concept of social capital. The Underground was at it's height in the first incarnation of London Transport - one of the first Quangos. The book is a tribute to those early pioneers and characters who by sheer will power saw the establishment of such a vital piece of London. Great read.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Chris

    Could have done with a few more maps of the early underground as some people, such as myself, are not that familiar with the layout of London. There could also may have been more about the more recent history of the underground as it went through the late 20th century in a few paragraphs. But overall very interesting, explains why the underground looks like a load of spaghetti has been dropped onto a map and why it is the way it is. Some very interesting facts and figures in it including the pass Could have done with a few more maps of the early underground as some people, such as myself, are not that familiar with the layout of London. There could also may have been more about the more recent history of the underground as it went through the late 20th century in a few paragraphs. But overall very interesting, explains why the underground looks like a load of spaghetti has been dropped onto a map and why it is the way it is. Some very interesting facts and figures in it including the passenger usage in its first full year of operation in the 1860's

  24. 5 out of 5

    David Bowles

    Although I generally read mostly fiction, I enjoyed deviating from my normal type of book. The London Underground was my general means of transport back in the '90's during my year in London and I developed a fascination and love for it as one who is not used to it and did not need to use it during peak times. This book gave a intriguing look at how London came to get its tube line, the politics and the technical difficulties which were overcome and the problems negocaited which left London with Although I generally read mostly fiction, I enjoyed deviating from my normal type of book. The London Underground was my general means of transport back in the '90's during my year in London and I developed a fascination and love for it as one who is not used to it and did not need to use it during peak times. This book gave a intriguing look at how London came to get its tube line, the politics and the technical difficulties which were overcome and the problems negocaited which left London with the wonderful asset that it has today.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Jiri Kram

    Read this and yoy will never ever see tube the same. If you are Londoner or just love London this is number one book you must read to understand - what makes London the best city in the world. It will answer a lot of questions even those you never asked. And I guarantee you daily comute to work or just getting around London will be for you different. You will see the city differently. Very differently and you will admire places like Earl's Court, Hammersmith, Embakment, Wimledon, Farringdon, Sou Read this and yoy will never ever see tube the same. If you are Londoner or just love London this is number one book you must read to understand - what makes London the best city in the world. It will answer a lot of questions even those you never asked. And I guarantee you daily comute to work or just getting around London will be for you different. You will see the city differently. Very differently and you will admire places like Earl's Court, Hammersmith, Embakment, Wimledon, Farringdon, South Kensington...everywhere you will see different things that you would not recognise before.

  26. 4 out of 5

    James

    I was a bit embarrassed reading this book as it's awfully nerdy. At least it was about the business decisions and stuff that built the underground rather than comparisons between various engines or whatever. It's an interesting book though, and has given me a stack of facts to bore people with. It seems a bit too heavily weighted towards the early years - with the post-war years all squeezed into one chapter. Good book though.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Susan

    I really loved this book, as I love the London Underground! I may be what the author calls a "tubehead". This book was a compelling story of the men who whose foresight created our present-day London. We tend to believe that our 21st century technology is so revolutionary and life-altering and forget how the Underground impacted every aspect of social, economic and politicallife from its Victorian beginnings to the present day.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Kate

    An excellent history of the Tube; I will never look at London (above ground or below ground) the same way again. It does get down in the weeds at times, but it's well researched and well written. My only complaint is actually for the publisher: the most important illustration in the entire book is a map of the current Tube system, and it is bound so tightly that everything in the middle of the map is unreadable. Pull up a Tube map online for easier reading.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Jessica

    If I could have given half stars, it would have a 3.5. This book's subject is interesting, but Wolmar included FAR too much information about the back and forth between the owners of each line and/or the government. I don't need to know EVERY. SINGLE. STEP. I would certainly say that the beginning chapters are far more interesting than the concluding. Wolmar is an expert in his subject area, but I'm not reading it in order to become an expert myself.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Gerard Hogan

    For a daily user of the underground this a fascinating account of the origins London's metro system. It documents the ideas and also the people who planned (!) and competed to make the underground what it is today, a fairly ramshackle affair. Explanations about the lack of the tube in south London are produced as with the tales of a strange American swindler who built most of the deep tunnel lines. I learned a lot.

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