The Underground Case for Public Transport, Civic Values

A Passenger’s History of the Tube,
by Andrew Martin,
Profile Books, 304pp.

Reviewed: 25 August 2012

The public transport system of a city tells you a lot about the civic culture of the place. To use public transport is one of the few collective experiences of daily life that may imbue a sense of community that crosses social divides, or that in bad cases may accentuate socio-economic division.

The history of London’s Underground, or “the Tube”, offers a meta-narrative of that city’s development over the past two centuries. The fits and starts, triumphs and failures of its development reflect the changing moods and qualities of entrepreneurship, engineering, architecture, and the priorities of government bodies at all levels and of different ideological persuasions. The first “mass” public transport system in London was Shillibeer’s twenty-seat horse-drawn omnibus fleet, originally named “Economists”, that plodded on regular city routes picking up passengers wherever hailed.

Beginning in 1869, the first Underground lines were built by private companies with no government investment. However, each line required a special Act of Parliament that would empower it to acquire the necessary urban land, rights of way and interconnections with other lines. All the vested interests got involved in the lobbying around the passage of these Bills – local city government, existing landholders, rival transport operators, and land speculators. So lines evolved in Darwinian fashion, some to survive and others to lose all their investors’ money or be gobbled up by a rival. In reality, few of the lines could pay for themselves from passenger ticket sales, but the directors often made money from land development or other deals around their real estate. After fifty years of intermittent crisis, a degree of centralized network management came into being, to the relief of the general public.

The issues around investment in public infrastructure have not changed much. Each Underground railway project in its day was opposed by skeptics who could not see a sound “business case”, but more far-sighted business interests saw that efficient urban transport was essential. As far back as 1883, a Cheap Trains Act was passed to set conditions that would put transport within reach of every commuter from the expanding Greater London. Not every line prospered, but every line contributed to a remarkable public asset that makes modern London workable. Skeptics of Australia’s National Broadband Network and proposed fast rail networks might care to ponder.

These days, more than half the track mileage runs above ground through the outer suburbs, but it is all part of the Underground system. No Tube, no commuters. No commuters, no City of London economic powerhouse. Recent massive re-development of East London at Canary Wharf, and even the Olympic Games precincts, rely entirely on the Underground to convey massive daily tides of humans back and forth across the city of 20 million.

Most Londoners both love and hate the Tube, but Andrew Martin mostly loves it, warts and all. Son of a Yorkshire railwayman, he ran away to London as a teenager, waving his father’s universal rail pass, and fell in love with the Underground. Now a barrister turned journalist, he has published six detective novels on railway themes, and edited the weekly column “Tube Talk” for the Evening Standard magazine.

There’s a huge culture of complaint, commentary and anecdote among Tube travelers who include every class and kind. Dozens of books are written on the engineering, commercial or architectural histories of lines and even individual stations. There are serious clubs, magazines and websites, whose members do not consider themselves “trainspotters” of the nerdy kind. Fans set themselves challenges, such as beating the world record for passing through every station on the entire Underground network (about 20 hours).

A longer-term challenge is to meet a ten-point checklist of experiences emblematic of Underground travel. These include running down the “up” escalator, having one’s pocket picked, being required to walk between stations after a train breakdown, losing an umbrella, and being approached (on a train) by an attractive member of the opposite sex. There’s a certain seductive cosiness about traveling through underground tunnels, just as children thrill to stories of caves, secret tunnels, and magic rabbit-holes.

Lost property is a major, centralized operation. A staff of forty handles 200,000 items per year, of which less than a quarter are reclaimed by their owners. The London Transport Museum, near Covent Garden, does a roaring trade selling bags and upholstery made from the fabric designed for seats on the Tube. A 1970s-vintage fabric, featuring orange and brown rectangles, is popular with younger homemakers with a taste for nostalgia.

Thatcher and Blair UK governments attempted to reintroduce private enterprise to the Underground through Public-Private Partnerships. These failed, with the last private partner throwing in the towel in 2010 after failing consistently to meet commercial targets. Yet every business lobby wants the Tube to continue and extend further, as London’s most reliable arterial system.

This factor is one that economists struggle to explain – how something can be economically essential yet commercially unviable. The benefits are too widely and thinly spread for the costs to be allocated on a user-pays basis. The long-term, economy-wide efficiencies of a passenger trip on the Underground are clearly worth more than can reasonably be charged to each passenger. Historically, that is why we invented governments and universal taxation. It is also part of the original meaning of “civilization”.

The Griffin plan for Canberra envisaged electric trams on the broad avenues of a medium-density city, as was then normal in thriving American cities. But public investment in Canberra’s amenity has always been stunted by lack of private business push for it, and jealousy from State capitals and State-based Federal parliamentarians who resent Federal contributions to Canberra. Public servants transferring from Melbourne and elsewhere needed to be lured by visions of a garden city with private suburban gardens for everyone, so the city grew without a dense centre. For a century, London extended outward only as far as public transport made it possible, and inner London today remains hostile to private cars. Canberra has done most of its expansion on the assumption of private cars and infinite suburbs, fuelled by cheap petroleum.

Imagination and courage will be needed as those assumptions fail and it becomes necessary to refit Canberra with effective public transport for a more civic future. Recent experience of public transport in Melbourne and Sydney suggests that we of the sedan generation could even learn to enjoy it.

Richard Thwaites has lived and worked in Canberra since 1988 without, so far, setting foot on a public bus.