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Friday, 8 February, 2002, 17:47 GMT
London Underground: No transport of delight
London Underground symbol
London Underground is set to embark on probably the most controversial chapter in its long history with the announcement by the Transport Secretary, Stephen Byers, that the part-privatisation plan is to be given the green light. Chris Jones of the BBC's News Profiles Unit looks at the world's oldest tube system

At 6am on Saturday 10 January, 1863 an engineering feat of heroic proportions was unveiled to the world that symbolised the striving ambition and ability of Victorian Britain: the world's first underground railway, in London.

The crowd resembled "the crush at the doors of a theatre on the first night of a pantomime," and such was the delight of those who managed to buy a ticket that few were inclined to complain when they were left spluttering by the sulphurous fumes on board.

An early poster
An Underground poster enticing travellers to the suburbs
Today, even the most grudging of the 3.7 million weekday passengers would probably acknowledge that it is a little more comfortable now.

But few would contest the notion that travelling on the London Underground can still be a taxing experience, that for years the system has been going down the tubes, starved of investment and with an increasingly-demoralised staff.

In the course of an average day, regular passengers expect to encounter some kind of problem: a cancelled or defective train, a security alert, staff shortages, a ticket machines that gives no change, signal problems, trains that are overcrowded, trains that are near-empty but freezing, or delays that are left unexplained by the driver.

Health hazard?

And that's not to mention the fleas that apparently find Tube trains an ideal breeding-ground or the research by University College, London, that such is the concentration of dust particles, that travelling on the Underground for 40 minutes is the equivalent to smoking two cigarettes.

Bob Kiley and Ken Livingstone
Bob Kiley and Ken Livingstone are aboard
But like those uncomplaining first passengers who believed the sun would never set on the British Empire, most new Millennium passengers utter no more than a sigh of frustration at the familiar obstacles.

It is the stoicism of the British that initially surprised Bob Kiley, the American upon whom London's Mayor, Ken Livingstone, is pinning his hopes to oil the wheels of the subway system, but who must work with a financial system in which he has little faith.

Kiley is not the first American to oversee the London Underground, a system with a colourful history. In 1900, an American financier, Charles Yerkes, took charge of much of the operation, which even then, was showing signs of age.

Close to going bust

He applied his business methods, which he described as "buy up old junk, fix it up a little and unload it upon other fellows" to the construction of much of the capital's deep-level expansion. When he died in 1905, he left the system on the verge of bankruptcy.

London Tube map
The famous London Tube map
Another fraudster, Whitaker Wright, began to build the Bakerloo Line, fled to the United States in the face of mounting debts and then, when he was brought back and sentenced to seven years hard labour, collapsed in the dock after taking cyanide.

"It has never been easy to raise money to build or maintain the London Underground and the chicanery used to build much of the system makes Ken Livingstone's difficulties mild by comparison", says Stephen Halliday, the author of Underground to Everywhere.

As the first country to undergo an industrial revolution, much of Britain's railway infrastructure is suffering from extreme old age. And so the Tube compares unfavourably with subway systems in major cities around the world on almost every count, including cost.

In Paris the flat rate fare is about 80p; in New York £1.03; in Moscow 12p; while in London a single journey can cost £5.40. And experts estimate that the PPP operation, involving £16bn of investment, will add another 15% to passenger fares.

In spite of all this, a sense of nostalgia for the Underground keeps it in the city's affections.

Inspires lyrical tribute

In the grim days of the Blitz, it provided shelter for many thousands, and inspired poems including one by AP Herbert: "Thank you Mrs Porter, For a good job stoutly done Your voice is clear, and the Hun can hear When you cry 'South Kensington'."

A Tube train
The Tube: destination uncertain
While poetry has become a feature of the advertising displays on trains, so London Underground exposed the works of artists such as Graham Sutherland and Rex Whistler to large audiences for the first time.

It was also responsible for introducing Cubist and other innovative station architecture and more recently, the striking features of stations on the Jubilee Line extension.

But it is comfort and punctuality that are closest to the heart of commuters. They must now stomach the admission from Tube managers that despite the massive refurbishment programme planned to start this summer, overcrowding will worsen on two thirds of the network over the next eight years.

And the cry will go up with increasing frequency: "They wouldn't treat cattle like this."

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