Gateways back through time

Saturday, November 14 2009


Kingsway Tram Subway North entrance after 1909.
Photo ©TfL from the London Transport Museum Collection

Ever since childhood, I have enjoyed visiting museums which feature anything to do with rail transport. For many years, my favourite was the Science Museum in London. It’s engineering gallery once contained a large collection of  working models of steam locomotives. Most of them were connected to a compressed air main and could be made to work by pressing a button. Was this one of the first examples of allowing museum visitors to interact with the exhibits? There was much more of railway interest in the Museum than the scale models. The museum’s collection included some of the earliest railway locomotives in the world and from 1963 they were augmented by the Museum’s star exhibit, the GWR’s first castle class locomotive, 4073 Caerphilly Castle. Several of my schoolboy trips to the Science Museum were simply to pay homage to Collet’s magnificent creation.

A few years later, I made a pilgrimage to the erstwhile Birmingham Museum of Science and Industry. I wanted to see Secundus, the only surviving locomotive from the 2ft 8½ gauge Furzebrook Railway which once carried ball clay from mines in the Isle of Purbeck to a wharf on the River Frome. As well as Secundus (which is the last surviving railway locomotive actually built in Birmingham) the Museum also had the magnificent  Coronation Class City of Birmingham. The LMS pacific actually moved slowly (though not under its own steam) up and down a short length of track. However, what delighted me most of all was the Museum’s collection of miniature stationary steam engines. These were actually worked by steam! Once, many years ago, I walked around the museum with the curator recording the sound made by these different engines for a programme on BBC Radio Birmingham. Sadly, in 1997, Birmingham City Council decided to turn their backs on their city’s great industrial past, the museum was closed, many of the exhibits put into storage, and the site sold off for redevelopment.

Many more years were to pass before I found something better – the Kew Bridge Steam Museum in Brentford. This contains the best collection of pumping engines in the world. Amazingly many of these giant engines can actually be seeing working under steam. There is much more to see in the museum, which has recreated a 2ft gauge railway in the style of the line that once connected Hampton Waterworks to a coal wharf on the River Thames. (A project to rebuild the original railway is being promoted by the Metropolitan Water Board Railway Society.)

During my first visit to Kew, I was impressed by seeing the enormous Grand Junction 90 inch engine in operation. This engine is the largest operational beam engine in the world. After looking at the 90 inch from every angle, I spied a closed door, no one was around, so I turned the handle and pushed… inside was a huge room, dark, dusty and neglected. I carefully closed the door and, as my eyes accustomed themselves to the gloom, I realised that I had found the Museum’s greatest treasure, the Grand Junction 100 inch engine, the largest surviving single cylinder beam engine in the world. The 100 inch is still awaiting restoration and is not yet on public display.

After such adventures, I could be forgiven that, when I organised a visit to the London Transport Museum in Covent Garden, I did not have very high expectations. I knew that there would be no vintage trams running on a demonstration track, nor would the Museum’s Beyer Peacock built Metropolitan Railway ‘A’ class 4-4-0T locomotive be pulling a train of ancient carriages. When I discovered that most of the schoolchildren in London had also decided to visit the Museum (it was the half-term holiday) my expectations fell even further.


District Line ‘Q’ stock driving coach at the London Transport Museum.

(Click on photograph to see the original and for details of licensing.)

And yet I need not have worried, the Museum has provided many ingenious ways in which visitors can interact with the items on display and the children, completely absorbed in exploring the museum and its exhibits, were uncommonly well behaved. Most of the information boards are digital providing access to photographs (such as the picture above), explanatory notes and even short films showing the exhibit working in London in its heyday.

And while none of the exhibits are actually running (with the exception of a gauge 1 model of a 1970s District line set) you can actually sit in a horse drawn bus or a tram, which makes the exhibit much more meaningful. Mind you sitting down again in one of the District line coaches, that I travelled to school in nearly half a century ago, made me feel that I belonged in a museum myself! Finally, I tried my hand at driving a Jubilee Line train on a simulator. These simulators were by far the Museum’s most popular exhibits and the way scores of children queued up patiently for their turn as tube train driver was a joy to behold.

The only discordant note was set by the Suburbia exhibition which, though commercially sponsored, appeared not to be designed to the same high standard as the rest of the Museum, and seemed excessively dumbed down given the importance of its subject. Nevertheless I felt that the Museum was excellent value at £10 a ticket (including a voluntary £2 donation) with accompanied children under 16 allowed in free of charge.

After our visit to the Museum, I felt that it would be appropriate to visit the last place in London where there is a decent length of surviving tram line, the Kingsway Tram Subway. One member of our party tried hard to get me to go in the opposite direction with tempting talk of pubs offering excellent refreshments, but all to no avail. I felt a strange force drawing me to the Subway’s north ramp in Holborn, and to Holborn we all went. After an excellent cup of coffee in a traditional Italian sandwich bar, we crossed the road and peered at the tram tunnel through the locked gates.

A man in a fluorescent jacket came up to ask what we were doing. My blood pressure began to rise. Imagine my surprise when, instead of treating us as potential terrorists, he proceeded to ask whether we were waiting to visit the art exhibition? I explained that we were looking at the old tram tunnel. He then asked us whether we would like to see inside. You bet we would! He told us that visitors were supposed to book ahead, but that if we asked the lady in the tent across the road she would probably be able to add us to her list.

We learned that an organisation called Measure, which mounts art exhibitions in disused buildings, had arranged to use the tunnel for one month to display Chord – a giant mechanical artwork that had been specially commissioned from Conrad Shawcross for this particular space. People were only being let into the tunnel in groups of 20 we were lucky that there were some vacancies and our names could be added to the list for the next batch. The last group should have been out in ten minutes, but they could not not drag themselves away. Ten minutes grew to half an hour. It felt more like two! At last it was our turn to walk down the ramp.

The first surprise was how little has changed inside the tunnel. Although the last trams ran through the tunnel in April 1952, nearly all the track is still in situ in the northern section. (In 1964 the southern section of the tram tunnel became the Strand Underpass.) Nearly everything has been preserved including the thick layer of dust which has gathered during the succeeding half-century. The next surprise is the surviving tram station Holborn. The station is complete including its two stairways leading to street level. The station is engineered just like most of the tube stations on the London Underground. Just before the station there is an upward incline which allowed gravity to assist in bringing trams to a stop. Just after the station there is a downward incline, which enabled gravity to help again, this time in accelerating the trams in an energy efficient manner.

Gradually the penny began to drop, I had seen this sort of thing before being built in the 1970s in Brussels and in the 1980s in Hannover, when I mistakenly thought it was a post WW II continental invention. The idea is simple: run trams in the usual manner where you can, when the going gets tough in the city centre pop them underground. The result is fast convenient rapid transit at one tenth of the cost of building a whole line as an underground metro. (City of Warsaw transport planners please take note.) This scheme has been called a number of different things in its time: semi metro, pre metro, stadtbahn and szybki tramwaj. Visiting the Kingsway Subway reminded me is that this concept dates back to the beginning of the 20th century.

After the first world war there were plans to construct several such tram tunnels in London, including one line under Oxford Street. If only! Unfortunately the road lobby had its way and in all British cities, bar Blackpool, energy efficient and pollution free trams were scrapped and historic buildings were razed to the ground in a vain attempt to adapt ancient road patterns to the monstrous appetite of the motor car.

While our guide explained all this and more, we drew nearer to a brightly lit area behind the tram station. Were those trees growing inside the tunnel? No, as we drew nearer we could see that the ‘trunk and branches’ were in fact the hub and arms of two gigantic machines slowly spinning a rope from many bobbins of multi-coloured string. They were mounted on two three wheel chassis on a wooden track of the same gauge as the rails in the tram London. (Shawcross’s first idea had been to run the machines on the original tram track.)

So what did we make of Chord? Although the word inspirational is tired from over use, here it is precisely the right word to use. Like the individual response to an evocative poem each person’s reception of Chord will be different. For me, the sheer scale and mechanical ingenuity of Shawcross’s machines first led to feelings of anger about the destruction of British industry and the export of manufacturing jobs. These were then followed by more positive thoughts about the future potential of the tram tunnel as an extension of the London Transport Museum. (Perhaps allowing us to ride London trams on authentic London tram track?) Finally there was an great feeling of optimism that, in spite of the slow tightening of the authoritarian screw in Britain, organisations like Measure could still spring up from a chance conversation in a London coffee house.

It’s too late to see Chord in the Kingsway Subway, but not too late to obtain a copy of Measure’s beautifully illustrated book about the history of the tram tunnel and the creation of Chord.

Details from:



One comment

  1. WOW! Got any photos? I was at the north end of the tunnel with Eddie last summer – what we’d have given to have gone in!!!

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