Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Book Review: Working on the London Underground from 1863 to 2013 by Ben Pedroche

There are loads of books published covering the London Underground system. Does the world need another one?

Ben Pedroche has contributed to the LU shelf before with Do Not Alight Here: Walking London's Lost Underground and Railway Stations. This time he gives us a two part book on the system itself.

Part one is a whistle-stop tour of the lines history from the very first railway (The Metropolitan) to the present day (Crossrail). Along the way we meet the important personalities behind the lines and look at the way construction methods developed. It's hard to imagine that some lines were built using the "cut and cover" method. I wonder what would happen if you suggested digging up roads for months on end to lay a railway nowadays!

This method couldn't last and very quickly tunnel boring systems arrived with the Greathead shield and later tunnel boring machines (TBMs). The technology behind all these is explained in sufficient detail for the casual reader.

The part of the book nips along at a fair pace. Readers not intimately familiar with the city, basically those who haven't done "the knowledge", might find it useful to have a map of the system handy so they can appreciate how the current map came about in a piecemeal fashion.

Part two looks at the jobs keeping the system running and how they have changed over the years, both individual roles and big picture considerations around upgrades and security. A chapter is devoted to the role of women in London Transport including WW1 guards, the "Fluffies" who cleaned the tunnels and in 1978, the first tube driver.

The book finishes with Disasters and Triumphs, focusing on accidents and tragedies such as the King's Cross fire and 7/7 terrorist attacks. The final paragraph mentions the triumph that was handling all the Olympic traffic so efficiently. I felt this underplayed the positive side of LU a little but perhaps I just wanted a happy ending to the text.

Photos are from both the author and LU archives are well reproduced in black & white.

Overall, a very enjoyable read. If you are a London Underground anorak then it's going to be too lightweight for you but as a very readable history, it's well recommended.

Buy Working the London Underground: From 1863 to 2013 from Amazon

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