BOOKS: Underground movements - This succinct and entertaining account of the rollicking history of London's Tube offers pointers for its future structure, says Bob Kiley

BOOKS: Underground movements - This succinct and entertaining account of the rollicking history of London's Tube offers pointers for its future structure, says Bob Kiley - Underground to Everywhere; By Stephen Halliday; Sutton Publishing pounds 19.99

by BOB KILEY, commissioner of transport, Transport for London
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Underground to Everywhere; By Stephen Halliday; Sutton Publishing pounds 19.99

I was bemused to read on the penultimate page of Underground to Everywhere that I had been dismissed, a fact that - if true - would disqualify me from writing this review. But, as they say, reports of my demise are premature. Indeed, I read on the Postcript page that I accompanied Ken Livingstone, mayor of London, to the High Court in July 2001 for the judicial challenge to the Government's plans for a public-private partnership (PPP) to fund the Underground.

London's Underground is a well-documented subject, but this book is a valuable addition to the bibliography. In just over 200 pages, Dr Halliday provides a succinct and entertaining review of how the world's first underground railway was promoted, financed and built, and how the system has fared since. There are fascinating contributions on Frank Pick's continuing artistic legacy, through posters, design and architecture, and on the role played by the Underground in two world wars.

At first, it was outside the direct control of the politicians. Since the 1940s, however, the effect of political control has been reflected by changing remits and an erratic graph of funding, which never achieved the level needed to help maintain London's status as a world city. The creation of Transport for London offers the potential for a long-term strategy, though this is unlikely to happen within a PPP that imposes the discredited Railtrack system of managing trains and track separately.

What strikes the reader is how the planners, operators and regulators have struggled to raise capital to build and refurbish the lines. Other themes recur, like better cross-city links. As long ago as the 1860s, what are now the Thameslink and East London Line cross-river services were introduced; both are likely to be substantially upgraded.

There has been a continuing New York influence. Marc Brunel, creator of the Thames Tunnel, gave up his post as New York's city engineer to come to London in 1799. A century later the disreputable Charles Yerkes escaped from debts and philandering in the Big Apple to make his mark in London. Without his financial machinations, much of the Northern, Bakerloo and Piccadilly lines wouldn't have been built.

But the most notable import was the Derby-born Albert Stanley, later Lord Ashfield and the founder of London Transport in 1933; he moved from general manager of New Jersey Tramways to a similar post with Underground Electric Railways.

Other themes have changed over time, most notably the concerns of the early Underground companies about competition from one another. It is ironic that the proposed PPP aims to reintroduce the concept of spurious competition among the three infracos, without any measurement mechanism for ensuring improvements to services.

Much as I was absorbed by this book, I should point out two errors. The chronological list shows Transport for London becoming responsible for the Underground in July 2000. The current argument between the mayor and the Government is precisely about the basis for a handover yet to take place. The statement on government funding (p200) says the average annual investment in the 1990s was pounds 463,000; it was pounds 463 million.

Finally, the prevailing theme of the book is how the system was and is funded. All the original lines were privately financed, but throughout the 20th century there are examples of governments adopting a Keynesian approach of endorsing investment because of the spin-off to a depressed economy. This argument helped to justify the construction of the Victoria Line in the 1960s, although there was a further boost from the newly developed cost-benefit analysis that showed a 'social' return of more than 11%.

As this book illustrates, the Underground has a great history but we may be in danger of undermining it with the PPP proposals, which offer neither a safe nor a value-for-money solution for London's Tube users.

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