Flat out

One of the problems with being a historian is that every time you see the phrase ‘revolutionary thinking’ there’s a jaded sounding little voice in your head that sarcastically says really? So when the Londonist opened an article with the following line my reaction was fairly cynical:

‘How’s this for revolutionary thinking: the Green Party is proposing abolishing fare zones across London, for one flat fare, wherever you want to travel.’

Why was I dubious? Because I’m looking at a Royal Commission from 1937 and the topic is: flat rate fares for the whole of London. In fact, we can go even further back to the 1870s to find other flat rates in operation. If you’re one of those commuters on the Enfield Town – Liverpool Street line you’ll be pleased/outraged to know that up until the Great War you could travel to central London for a mere two penny daily return from any station along the line, so long as you travelled before 6.30am. ‘The cheapest railway in the world’ they used to call it.

But 1937 is the year worth focusing on. This was when Frank Pick, Vice Chairman of the London Passenger Transport Board (usually called London Transport) was questioned on whether London should operate a system of flat rate fares. At the time New York offered a flat rate fare of 5 cents over their metro system, and Pick was now under pressure to explain why London couldn’t do the same. His main counter argument was a financial one, pointing out that New York subsidised its transport network heavily because of the low fares, while London Transport broadly broke even. This argument is not so applicable today. In 1937 94.8 per cent of London Transport’s income came from fares. Currently only 40.0 per cent of Transport for London’s income comes from fares (from the figures presented by the Green Party). With the transport network far more subsidised today the notion of financial restraint is fairly moot. Furthermore, let’s accept the Green’s contention that the flat rate will not sink Transport for London’s budget, and that they’ll make up any deficit elsewhere. There is, however, a much bigger problem. One that Pick flagged up immediately, but which the Greens don’t seem to mention. Rents.

frank_pick2c_1939

Frank Pick, possibly thinking about rents, via wikimedia commons.

We would all love to have cheaper transport. I currently live out in Zone 5. Cheaper transport would be amazing for me. But transport and housing interact like a one-way see-saw. If you push transport costs down, rents usually rise. As Pick explained almost 80 years ago:

‘It is very simple. In New York what happens is that you can develop intensively an area in the Bronx, a long way from New York, and you can raise tremendously high ground rents because you know you can fill that area with people who must live out there, knowing that they can get to their work at this flat rate of 5 cents, that is to say, what you are doing is to put more money into the hands of the ground landlords.’

Last year Thrillist made an excellent Tube Rent Map. For the most part (there are obviously exceptions) rents decrease as the distance from the centre of London increases. This is because the cost of transport is higher, making housing in these areas far less attractive to renters: a cheaper rent offsets the cost of transport. But a flat rate fare removes that disadvantage. While those living further away still suffer a “time disadvantage” (you sit on a train for longer every day which can be quite irritating unless you’re using the time to read The One Hundred Year Old Man who climbed out the window and disappeared) the monetary disadvantage disappears.

Suddenly outer areas would become far more attractive to private landlords and developers. Demand for housing in outer areas would shoot up because rents and transport are both cheap, but as demand for housing increases and transport costs remain capped, rents simply go up. The idea of the Green’s ‘one zone’ is to make life better for low-paid workers forced into outer areas (which is presumably because rents are cheaper). The end result could be the exact opposite, with rents in these areas soaring in the long run. Furthermore, because the housing crisis is so severe the demand for housing is unlikely to be met, so there is unlikely to be any fall in rents thereafter. The eventual winners would simple be private landlords hiking up rents and private developers setting higher prices for outer-London housing.

The idea of cheap transport is laudable, but the Green’s policy isn’t connected enough with other factors in the metropolis: particularly housing. The idea of the ‘single zone’ appears to be a silver bullet, but as with all silver bullets they tend to be more wrapped in myth than reality. To make the system work there would have to be a commitment to actually solving the housing crisis, and, in all likelihood, rent control.

Call me a cynic, or a historian, but neither seem likely any time soon.

Sources:

http://londonist.com/2016/01/no-more-zones

http://www.timeout.com/london/blog/this-tube-map-shows-the-average-rent-costs-near-every-underground-station-092915

http://www.sianberry.london/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/FaresBriefingJan2016LondonGreenParty_FINAL.pdf

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Taking the bus

Shamefully, sometimes this blog doesn’t quite live up to its name. To rectify this, we bring you two singular cases of omnibuses related criminality designed to stun the mind and bemuse the senses. Sort of.

One night in August 1932, Leonard Close was driving his omnibus between Ramsbury and Marlborough. Around 11pm he noticed a man standing in the middle of the road, facing away from him, waving his arms as if signalling the bus to stop. Close changed gear and began to slow down. When the bus had closed to within three feet of the man, he suddenly swung round, revealing himself to be masked and pointing something at the driver. What this 1930s Dick Turpin had in mind, however, Close had no great desire to find out. He swerved the bus to miss the man, who then hurled a large stone through the bus, smashing two of the windows. Arriving at Marlborough, Close alerted the police, who then searched the neighbourhood for the offender until 4am. The best the police could do, however, was stop several drivers and interrogate an innocent passing tramp. The mysterious offender disappeared into the night, with the police simply stating they were looking for a man ‘over 5ft’ ‘very round-shouldered’ and who had ‘a peculiar walk’.

Dick Turpin he certainly wasn’t. From Wikimedia Commons.

While that would-be omnibus pirate met with failure, four years later there was a far more successful endeavour. On a Monday night in September 1936, one of the staff at the London Transport Swanley Garage in Dartford was approached by a man. The man asked when the next omnibus to London was due. The member of staff told him that he was unlucky, and that the last omnibus had already left. The man disappeared. Problematically for the staff at Swanley Garage, so did one of their buses.

The following morning those at Ealing Police Court were somewhat bewildered to find an abandoned omnibus parked out front. The bus happened to match the description of a bus which had been stolen from Swanley Garage. Detectives hatched a cunning plan, waiting around the omnibus in the hope that the thief would return and allow them to pounce on him. Their quarry, however, clearly satisfied with having gotten back to Ealing from Dartford never returned. The detectives had to be content with driving the omnibus back to Swanley Garage.

Clearly, The Times  somewhat gleefully noted, there was more than one way of ‘taking a bus’.

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Return of the Women-Only carriage (vintage 1845)?

Being a historian is often being resigned to having a constant sense of déjà vu. This is doubly the case for anyone who has studied public transport, with ideas from over a century ago often being picked up and repackaged as the new big thing by policy makers. We may, however, have a new record for oldest revived policy: fresh from 1845, Jeremy Corbyn has suggested consulting on the use of women-only carriages in a bid to halt sexual harassment.

Women-only carriages (or ladies-only as they were typically called) remained part of the railways in Britain up until 1977. With 132 years’ worth of experience with them, their prospective reappearance is rather alarming. Then, as now, they were a knee-jerk reaction that created problems while failing to solve the immediate issue. Presented here, therefore, is the Pirate Omnibus guide to why this idea should be consigned back from whence it came, to a time when the main topic of conversation was repealing the Corn Laws, rather than whether Judge Rinder is better than Judge Judy (obviously, Judy would have him for breakfast).

In the nineteenth century the ladies-only carriage was a reflection of the gender-segregation of Victorian public life and the lack of autonomy women often had within it (an 1862 guide to using the railways had a section entitled ‘sending females’ by rail, which rather demonstrates popular attitudes), but also a reaction against numerous and recurring cases of sexual assault. The most infamous of these was the 1875 Colonel Baker case. Baker was a noted army officer, brother of explorer Samuel Baker, and friend of the Prince of Wales. He was also a sexual predator. While sat in a first-class compartment with 22 year old Rebecca Dickinson, Baker indecently assaulted her. Dickinson, unable to raise the alarm, climbed out of the window of the moving train, remaining half outside it with her foot on the foot board, and half inside as Baker clung on to her. She stayed like this for five miles as the train sped through the countryside until it finally came to a stop at the next station. Baker was arrested and eventually charged with indecent assault, dismissed from the army, and publicly disgraced. Dickinson was largely physically unharmed, but others were not so lucky, with some women suffering serious injuries or death.

Colonel Valentine Baker, sexual predator in a fez, Wikipedia.

The Baker case highlighted that anyone could be a sexual predator, even the notionally ‘respectable’. As increasing numbers of women travelled by rail, the paternalistic reaction from railway executives (all exclusively male) was to separate off parts of the train in order to provide a safe space for women. Just as Corbyn’s suggestion is a reaction to the apparent increase in verbal and physically harassment on public transport (with sex offences rising by 32 per cent on London’s tube and train network to record levels last year), so it was over  century before. The problem with this solution in the 19th Century, however, was simple. Almost everybody hated the idea.

The vast majority of women rejected ladies-only accommodation. When the Board of Trade surveyed usage in 1888, the Great Western pointed out that despite providing 1,060 ladies-only seats on its trains, only 248 women used them. In contrast, 5,141 women travelled in smoking compartments, despite women very rarely smoking in public. The majority of railway companies found that the accommodation simply wasn’t demanded. The Great Eastern had largely given up providing it, contending ‘ladies, for some reason, are unwilling to travel in compartments set aside wholly for them’.

There were multiple reasons for refusals to travel in the carriages. They became associated with clichéd old fashioned spinsters and were typically full of children (a common complaint by female passengers was that they were often used as mobile nurseries, with one correspondent pointing out that ‘women are, as a rule, very fond of their own children, but I for one draw the line at other people’s children […] when they behave like little monsters’). But more importantly, there were still serious concerns over safety. A ladies-only carriage was just as dangerous a space as any other carriage. Men still got into them and still occasionally attacked women within them. Lone female passengers chose to travel in carriages with other occupants, because, gender segregated or not, they were considerably safer than travelling in an empty ladies-only carriage.

Furthermore, ladies-only carriages encouraged a particularly unpleasant discourse that we today would consider ‘victim blaming’. An editorial from an 1875 newspaper, in the wake of a sexual assault, advocated ladies-only carriages with the argument:

‘[…] we must urge, in the interest of the public, men as well as women – for, after all, men have rights – that the ladies’ carriage experiment should be properly tried. It is incumbent upon the gentler sex not to lay themselves open to the gibes and sneers of the vulgar upon such a point as this, and the sooner they do so the better, or they will be the victims of retaliation.’

In short, travel in a ladies-only carriage or you deserve what you get. This kind of attitude is utterly unacceptable today, but ladies-only carriages act to reinforce it. The focus moves from the perpetrator to the victim, placing emphasis on the actions of any potential victim to avoid assault rather than dealing with the cause of the problem. This is a regular criticism of ladies-only carriages in the countries that still have them, such as in Brazil. Laura Bates, the founder of the (exceptional and well worth following) Everyday Sexism Project also highlighted this: ‘It seems to accept that the problem is inevitable, that men will harass women and that all we can do is contain them’.

WomensCar_KeioLine (1)

Passengers waiting to board a women-only car on the Keio Line at Shinjuku Station in Tokyo, Wikipedia.

Aside from these fundamental problems, there are also practical ones. Many Victorian railways abandoned ladies-only carriages because they caused congestion in other parts of the train by preventing men and women travelling with men from using them. The Metropolitan Railway experimented with ladies-only compartments for only a year, during which there were legion complaints from male commuters saying the compartments were empty while the rest of the train was seriously overcrowded. That problem is even more apparent today. Furthermore, the carriages would complicate loading trains. Getting into any carriage on the tube is often difficult enough, expecting women to force their way to a specific part of the platform where the ladies-only carriage will arrive is ridiculous. Gender segregated carriages go against everything the last two centuries have told us about making railway travel safer and easier: open the train up as much as possible. The Underground’s new S-stock and the Overground’s new trains both allow passengers to walk the length of the train and see clearly along it. In the case of emergency, therefore, escape and help is much more likely. Finally, the notion of a binary gendered train is increasingly at odds with modern society, raising questions of whether they would discriminate against transgender and genderqueer individuals.

Baker_Street_tube_station_MMB_11

Interior of a Metropolitan S-Stock train, Wikipedia.

The women-only carriage idea is a non-starter. But it also ignores the reason that sexual harassment appears to be increasing: congestion. Trains and tubes are increasingly overcrowded. Counterintuitively, a seriously congested train is often an anonymous space. Attackers are lost in a crowd of people, it’s often difficult to see or react to them, and if someone is caught then they can often claim it was an accident. In today’s i there was an interview with a women who had been sexually assaulted on the tube, who explained: ‘I was on the Tube on the way to work. It was really crowded. There was a guy standing behind me – he was pressed up against me really close and then rubbed his erection against me.’ Relieving congestion by investing in larger trains and more frequent services makes these kinds of events less likely. Corbyn’s suggestion is to introduce women-only carriages on tubes after 10pm, which is unlikely to make much of a dent into the problem anyway. Not only is it an archaic policy, but it’s one that also misses the point.

Congestion-on-the-london-underground

Congested Northern Line train, Wikipedia.

Other suggestions are far more likely to help. The British Transport Police recently launched a campaign (Project Guardian) encouraging women to come forward and report sex crimes on public transport. The widespread use of smartphones means attackers can often be photographed or recorded, while CCTV also allows individuals to be identified. A greater staff presence on platforms and on trains is also key. The solution to solving harassment is not to remove women from a key part of everyday life, but provide the tools and assistance to prevent such events from occurring in the first place.

Ultimately, the women-only carriage is a relic of the past, and one that deserves to stay there. Perhaps the final word should go to a Victorian periodical, Funny Folks, reporting on the end of ladies-only carriages on the Metropolitan in 1875:

‘But as a rule, the carriages were empty. Courteous guards in vain strove to beguile maidens to avail themselves of the luxury; urgent porters recommended young mothers “a nice quiet corner for the baby” without effect. Sometimes in the interests of the company, they made a rush with a pretty girl’s luggage; but with a pout she would order it to be hauled out again, and, possibly out of mere dash and spirit, get into a smoking carriage. It would not do; the “ladies only” compartments had to be given up to “the mixture as before;” and man – proud man, got a lesson in the difficulties of legislating in the interests of the fair sex!’

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Let them eat cake

August 1864.

For 100 people on a train life was about to get a little frosty.

When we think of train travel in the United States in the late nineteenth century our thoughts probably shoot back to the famous moment when Marty murdered an innocent steam locomotive to travel back to the future.

Or the scene in Buster Keaton’s classic ‘The General’ where the Union army begins to realise that its health and safety regulations regarding flaming bridges needs a reassessment.

In both cases we’re reminded that train travel in America in this period could be prone to interruptions beyond what might be reasonably expected. It’s easy to assume that once the railways arrived people and goods were easily zipped from place to place (and for the most part they were, especially if you were eloping). But in a period where safety regulations were often lacking and there was little in the way of communication equipment to maintain contact services could be easily disrupted, especially in the United States where the distances travelled were so vast. In 1864 on the morning of New Year’s Day a train on the Michigan Central Railroad ploughed into an enormous snow drift. As the driver attempted to clear the obstacle he managed to drive his engine deeper into the drift. Seven miles from Chicago, with no easy means of raising the alarm, the train was now trapped with little prospect of immediate help.

With a large number of women and children aboard getting the passengers comfortable became a priority. Passengers braved the snow storm that was now engulfing them to collect wood from fences surrounding the railroad and used it to feed the stoves in one of the carriages. Unfortunately this endeavour was a little too successful, the stoves began to burn red hot and then set fire to the roof of the carriage. Having raised a fire, the passengers now desperately acted to quell one before it engulfed their shelter, but while the flames were brought under control, the carriage had to be abandoned. By 2 o’clock in the afternoon The Times reported ‘apprehensions of horrible death had begun to seize upon them’. But then in the distance came the sound of relief, another train was on its way.

400 yards away a train from the Michigan Southern line rolled up and stopped to pick up the stranded. The passengers were forced to wade through a drift almost ten feet in depth at the height of the storm to get to safety. Many were badly frostbitten in the process. On board the passengers were obliged to east the only source of food available, a wedding cake, which was promptly devoured. The train, now with a double load of passengers then attempted to get going. But for the passengers a sense of déjà vu was about to set in. Struggling to get up momentum the replacement train found itself confronted with an even larger snow drift two miles up the line. With reversing back down the line not an option, the train was reversed a short distance and then was driven as fast as possible into the drift. All that happened was that it then buried itself in the drift so deeply the wheels froze up. Having set fire to their last train, transferred to another, and eaten a happy couple’s wedding cake, the hapless passengers were now in exactly the same situation.

As evening fell two men decided to make their way towards Chicago to raise help, the conductor of the train Mr Curtis and a Mr Barnes (ostensibly of Goshen, Indiana). Making their way to the Fremont House they managed to raise the alarm amongst the guests, and a group of sleighs with blankets and provisions set out for the relief. Only two made it to the train. By 8 o’clock, however, these sleighs attempted to return to Chicago with several passengers. But the drifts were terrible, the sleighs constantly turned over, and the groups had to frequently extricate the horses. Eventually one sledge broke down, and the men were compelled to wade waist deep through the snow. By half past ten the group were hopelessly lost in the drifts, but a light was sighted in the distance. In a reverse of their previous fortune they had happened upon ‘the residence of a hospitable German, who made them comfortable for the night.’

The following morning the group were bemused to find they’d only made it half a mile from the train. Luckily, however, the agent of the railroad, himself blundering around for several hours in the storm had made it to the train at 10pm the previous night with provisions and blankets. Finally, the passengers were extricated that morning, brought on sleighs into Chicago, some frostbitten but all alive.

What the happy couple did without their wedding cake, alas, history does not record.

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Communication Breakdown

‘What were the objections to the Bill? One was that there existed no necessity for legislation on this subject, and another was that if a means of communication between passengers and guards were established they would have old women travelling by rail needlessly interfering with it.’

‘There had been a notice in The Times some time ago of a gentleman having his head cut off by a post when leaning out of the carriage window in endeavouring to attract the attention of the guard. The Times of that morning also contained a letter from a gentleman who had unsuccessfully tried to communicate with the guard, the carriage in which he was being on fire. Thus, it could not be disputed that a case of necessity for communication between the passengers and the guard had been established.’ – Henry Sheridan, M.P., 1867.

From the earliest days on the railways there was a serious communication problem. Until the end of the nineteenth century carriages were usually made up of separate compartments with no internal connection. This meant it was impossible, save getting out of the carriage itself, to escape from an emergency. Furthermore, until 1868 there was no legal obligation for a railway company to provide a means of communication for passengers to raise the alarm. Advice on the matter included waving a handkerchief on a stick out of the carriage window and hoping the driver or guard noticed. Where passengers might find a supply of sticks was never adequately explained. Other companies provided contraptions of dubious usefulness. One M.P. recalled

‘…that he found himself once in a carriage with one other passenger, whose conduct, after a time, began to excite his apprehension. He seemed very uneasy, looked out, listened, and stretched out of the window till his informant thought he was going to throw himself out, and came to the conclusion that he was shut up with a madman. His uneasiness increased when his fellow traveller, after leaning out further than ever, turned to him and said, “Have you any objection, Sir, to take hold of my leg? “But he proceeded to explain that he was an engineer, and that from a sound he heard he thought something was wrong with the axle, and wished to get at the rope in order to stop the train, which, with the assistance of his companion, he did. He mentioned this to show that it was evident that such a contrivance could hardly be called effectual, especially with regard to the use of it by a lady.’

In 1864 the first murder was committed inside a railway carriage. Thomas Briggs, a banker, was robbed, beaten, and then hurled out of a carriage to his demise on the North London Railway. As might be expected there followed vociferous demands for some means of signalling an emergency in a compartment. In 1868 the Regulation of Railways Act obliged all companies to provide communication cords. In an emergency, a passenger merely had to pull the cord, alerting the guard and bringing the train to a stop. That should have been the end of the problems…

Australian soldiers waving farewell on a train in Brisbane in 1940, but, given the lack of photographic evidence, providing our closest idea to how Victorian passengers would have to raise the alarm if their train caught fire. (from wikipedia commons)

The problem with communication cords was they had to run the whole length of the train. As trains had an uncanny knack of going around curves, the cord had to have enough slack to stop it from snapping. The result was cords were often too slack, so a passenger under attack was liable to spend precious seconds lugging away seemingly unending lengths of cord while simultaneously being murdered, which was hardly ideal. In other cases the cords simply failed to work, having broken at some point along the train.

In 1899 a passenger travelling along the East Coast main line was alerted by a man in the neighbouring compartment that they had a problem. The toilet between their compartments had, for reasons unexplained, chosen to spontaneously burst into flames. Faced with the prospect of being killed by a flaming lavatory, our passenger pulled the nearest communication cord, only to find it had broken at both ends. Swiftly shifting to the other side of the carriage and pulling the other cord, he found exactly the same situation. He was thus confronted with two lengths of emergency cord, a burning toilet, and the prospect of half an hour before the next stop. With help from the other passengers in the adjoining compartment he tried to douse the flames using the only supply of water available; the toilet. Exhausting that supply as the train pulled into Grantham, the passengers fled their compartments just as the flames spread into them.

As the twentieth century dawned, however, the cords became increasingly reliable. However, the other problem was that people had a decided knack of pulling the cords in various kinds of spurious “emergencies”. In 1912 Captain Walter Evans, finding he’d boarded a train that didn’t stop at his station, and having ‘a most important appointment which he must keep’, pulled the communication cord and brought the express train to a halt. The Magistrate presiding at the subsequent trial decided this was not an adequate excuse. It remained, however, a recurring theme among the socially superior passengers needing to get to business engagements. In 1934 a Managing Director with ‘an important engagement at Retford’ pulled the emergency cord as the express he was on travelled at 60mph through the station before evading the guard and clambering out of the stopped train. He was prosecuted and fined.

German communication cord pull from the 1920s. (wikipedia commons)

Other reasons, however, delved into the world of absurdity. In one case an elderly woman was leaning out of a carriage window while waving good-bye to her friends on the platform. As the train pulled away she started shouting “good-bye” louder and louder until her false teeth fell out of her mouth. She pulled the cord so she could retrieve them. In another case a bride and bridegroom were just setting off on their honeymoon when the groom pulled the cord because, as a consequence of being showered in huge quantities of the stuff by their friends at the station, ‘the bride was choking with confetti’. In 1959 a young mother, realising she had left her baby on the platform by accident, pulled the cord in Paddington station and managed to delay a total of 21 trains for almost ten hours. One man apparently pulled the cord so he could complain about the quality of the lighting in his compartment, another because a young woman was smoking in a non-smoking compartment, and there was an incident where an elderly lady, on her first railway journey, pulled the chord to complain to a bewildered guard ‘tell the driver from me that he is going too fast’. The driver’s response, alas, history does not record.

But perhaps the most dubious use of the cords was by those who smelt a profit. In the 1930s the fine for improper use of the cord was £5, and using it was often referred to as “the £5 pull”. Perhaps the canniest passenger who pulled the cord was the man who did so for a bet. He paid his £5 fine, but won his £10 bet.

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How to solve a problem like the rush hour

Rush hour. For some it’s an 80’s classic by Jane Wiedlin featuring a bizarre array of dolphins for no apparent reason. For others it’s Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker belting their way through two fun action comedies. Also a third action comedy which we don’t speak of. Ever. For millions of people though rush hour is the sequence of events where you attempt, in a sort of live action version of Marioland, to fight your way from home to work in the morning. It’s also a problem that, in London especially, is getting worse. Though we’re probably better off than in Japan, where a team of half a dozen station officials lovingly shove you into a carriage.

How to deal with rush hour isn’t a new question. Congestion on the streets of London was horrendous in the nineteenth century as Gustav Dore depicted in 1872’s London: A pilgrimage.

Ludgate Hill in 1872, from Wikimedia Commons.

The solution then was to go underground. The Metropolitan Railway first started running in 1863 and the first tube, the City & South London, got going in 1890. The problem was these tended to encourage more passengers, and combined with both a growth of population and the number of journeys people were taking, failed to provide enough capacity. By 1913 the underground railways were beginning to fill up, leading one man to complain that on the District Line ‘…the train is literally crammed with people standing crushed together from one end of the train to the other, huddled together little better than animals…’ By 1919, with the huge increase in passengers that the Great War created the situation was so bad a Government Select Committee decried that

‘Trains were crowded not merely to excess, but almost to danger point.  The crush in the “peak hours” not only overloaded public conveyances, but subjected travellers, particularly the old, the feeble and women, to an amount of suffering, the effects of which often unfitted them temporarily for their ordinary duties.’

By 1970 the rush hour was so bad the transport system had developed a bizarre electronica noise that bombarded passengers as they travelled and the situation has hardly improved since. In recent years a host of upgrades have tried to solve the problem. Crossrail is liable to be the most successful, but creations such as the Emirates Cable Car have been about as much use as, well, a cable car in the middle of nowhere serving absolutely no-one. Seriously? That’s the plan? A cable car? So what I’m going to do here is line up a few solutions to the London rush hour inspired by the last 200 odd years for your perusal. How do we solve the rush hour? Well let’s try:

Bigger trains      

Obvious right? Just have bigger trains. The problem is that most of the railway architecture in Britain was designed in the 19th Century. As such, the space around the track (so the size of tunnels, bridges, platforms, etc.) is limited, as it was built at a time when trains were much smaller. This led to the recent blunder by the French train operator SNCF who ordered trains that were too large for the older parts of the network. We would totally never do anything like that, right?

Ultimately, this means we have to find space inside the trains themselves, which is difficult. On tube trains in the early twentieth century the motors were often at the same level as the passengers (those vents behind the cab), now they’re underneath which means more space inside.

Central London Railway (now Central Line) motor car 1903, Wikimedia Commons.

Another idea is the seat layout. New trains, such as the class 378 on the Overground and the new trains on the Metropolitan line, have longitudinal seating, basically the seats are like two benches running up the sides. This means less seating space, but more standing room, a solution Berlin, Paris, and New York were adopting in the 1920s. Furthermore, you can wonder merrily up and down the train between carriages.

Inside of a class 378 London Overground carriage, Wikimedia Commons.

This is really useful, because anyone who travels on trains in London knows that the middle of the train is always the fullest, but often the ends are empty. By allowing passengers to walk through the train, this problem is eased. While people might decry the loss of seating, and the seats mean you have to engage in a staring competition with the person opposite, during rush hour it makes all the difference. More people can get on and can move around the train far more easily. These are changes that tube trains are especially crying out for, because they’re the smallest of all the trains running in London and would gain the most.

Bigger tunnels

As I said, train size is limited by the space around the track. So why not just make it bigger? This is perhaps most applicable to the tubes, which are much smaller than their main-line counterparts. The answer is that it’s ludicrously expensive, but it is doable. In the 1920s the original 1890s City & South London tube was enlarged so it could be integrated with the rest of what became the Northern Line. This involved removing the tunnel segments, adding spacers, and then boring out a bit more of the tunnel before sticking the segments back in again. Initially they tried to run trains through while doing the work, but when a train hit a board in one of the tunnels and caused a collapse (thankfully the driver got the train out safely) they decided this wasn’t such a great idea. The line was closed and work went fairly rapidly. Unfortunately this means closing down a line and creates a lot of angry passengers who have to be provided with other means of travelling. But for a long term solution it is one London might have to think about sooner rather than later. If they could do it in the 1920s, we can probably do it now.

Robot drivers

Conveyed by robots? The city of tomorrow, today? Automatic trains aren’t new. The Victoria Line is run automatically and has been since the 1960s when for a bet they let the Queen loose at the controls of one of the trains. The “driver” in the cab is largely there for safety reasons and to push about three buttons. On the Docklands Light Railway the automatic trains are incredibly successful, and the lack of driver means children and bankers frequently fight each other to the death so they can get the front row seats. Why automatic train control hasn’t been extended is largely a question of trade union antipathy and the fear that the trains could develop a self-awareness that leads to a Star Trek style killing spree.  Ultimately, however, it means faster trains and trains that can be run closer together, creating a better service. Similar arguments can be applied to surface vehicles. Driverless cars are being increasingly tested, and if successful, would allow for a much more efficient flow of traffic.

Turn London into 1970s Stevenage

Stevenage, bizarrely, was something of a cause celebre in the 1970s over cycle provision with a superbly developed system of cycleways. Increasing cycling provision is vital in combating the rush hour. Bikes are small and efficient. The problem is the infrastructure to support them is usually pathetic. Better infrastructure is a well-worn argument; segregated cycle lanes from other traffic, the right of way to benefit bikes, etc. There are great alternative ideas, like sky cycle, a network of bike routes over railway lines which should be a serious consideration. In fact, in the nineteenth century there were some ideas proposed for elevated glass walkways over the street, an idea that could be adapted for cycle ways (cycling in the rain is grim, fix it with a glorious glass awning over the top Victorian Crystal Palace style). Other ideas could be turning London into a massive one-way system, freeing up one side of the road solely for bike use (London was turned into a giant one-way system for a day in 1962 to ease congestion during a tube strike). While a cycle lane effective takes space away from other vehicles, it does so in a way that is far more beneficial, economical, environmentally friendly, and at least 293% more awesome.

Silence of the trams

In 1952 London did something which at the time probably seemed like a good idea. With the benefit of hindsight though it was aggrieving short-sighted; they scrapped the tram system.While trams aren’t as flexible as buses, they are faster and have a much bigger capacity for passengers. Furthermore, they’re environmentally cleaner, given their electrical power source. For wide roadway with heavy traffic (such as Oxford Street) trams are ideal. We could even take a hint from 1920s north America, which operated ‘interurbans’.

Interurban tram, Wikimedia Commons.

These were like a cross between a tram and a train, operating a tram style service in the centre, then shooting off at high speed into the outer suburbs like a train (Cambridge features something a bit similar, the “guided busway”, though it’s a poor compromise, like a Dr Who episode featuring the Autons instead of the Daleks). While trams have returned to London, in Croydon, they really should be brought back into the centre. A lot of the former infrastructure remains, such as the Kingsway tram subway, and it would be great to see trams come back. If they’re good enough for almost every major European city, they’re probably good enough for London.

Abandoned Kingsway tram subway, Wikimedia commons.

Just get rid of the passengers?

Everything suggested above is expensive and inconvenient to do or only increases capacity by a marginal amount. But there is one thing that could be done; cut down the population of London (now, if you start screaming “end mass immigration” or something idiotically similar at this point (like they do in the comments of this mediocre Guardian article) please take this moment to walk out into the sea in your favourite concrete clothing – you’re missing the point here). London is a super-metropolis. It is not merely huge, but it is huge out of all relation to the rest of the UK. Greater London’s population is around 8 million, the next largest city, Birmingham, has a population of around 1 million. Trying to supply more transport to London, especially when we know more transport often encourages more people to travel, is effectively a self-defeating catch 22 at the moment. But if we could get rid of some of the passengers, that might make a bigger difference.

In twentieth century when the centre of London was severely overcrowded, the plan was to move people out of the centre into the developing suburbs where better quality housing was being built, into ‘garden cities’ like Letchworth or Welwyn, or the new towns, like Stevenage. This in turn encouraged businesses to move out into these areas to take advantage of that labour source, doubly relieving congestion in the centre of London. What London needs now is a decentralisation similar to what happened in those cases. If London could shift a couple of million people out into places like Birmingham (while concurrently giving those places the infrastructure to cope, ditch HS2, do this instead), the pressure on the London transport network would be relieved. The UK is suffering from a severe housing crisis, so here’s the basic solution; build lots and lots of cheap homes in those other cities, maybe even create a new town or two. Build up the transport networks too. Get a load of trams in there. Seriously, trams are awesome. No cable cars. Anyone suggests a cable car, have them shot. Encourage business to move into those areas. Pick a Wednesday and just scoop up Canary Wharf and stick it in Middlesbrough. The UK’s other cities benefit from increased housing and diversity of employment, London benefits as rents fall and congestion eases, everyone gets more trams. It’s a winner. It might seem like a bit of an overkill solution to get you a seat on the Piccadilly Line every morning, but of them all, this is the one that would make the most difference.

Or, you know, we could just build another cable car…

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Expressing your love.

Brighton, Wednesday, November 5th 1845. A crisis was breaking. Lady Adela Villiers, the seventeen year old daughter of the Earl and Countess of Jersey had disappeared. At 5pm that afternoon, Lady Adela had retired to her room to dress for dinner. But she then never appeared at the table. The house was searched, but no trace of her found. On further inquiries, it was discovered that at 5.15pm she had been seen traveling through the lodge gate and turned down St James’ Street with a small bag. The staff at the local railway station reported seeing no-one of her description. On Thursday morning there was still no information to her whereabouts. She had vanished.

The disappearance whipped up a furore in Brighton high society, The Satirist published a letter from one inhabitant

‘The comparative dullness (compared to days of yore) that has latterly pervaded this once right regal town has at length been dispelled – the spark of excitement is rekindled – scandal reigns supreme – or, more appropriately, in the words of the poet, Brighton “is itself again”.’

An answer to the mystery was soon forthcoming. Further inquiries at the railway station suggested a man, who had been holding a handkerchief against his face had bought tickets to London for himself and a woman who answered Lady Adela’s description. Then two letters were discovered from Lady Adela left in the house for her mother and her two sisters. On Thursday, at 4pm, Lady Adela’s brother, Captain Frederick Villiers, left London on an express train. His destination was Gretna Green, the village in Scotland famed as a destination for runaway English couples wanting to get married. A race was now on, could the Captain catch his sister?

The Lady Adela affair highlights the incredible impact the railways had on getting around Britain in the early nineteenth century. In 1836 express stage coaches could travel from London to Manchester (almost 200 miles) within eighteen hours, themselves a massive improvement on the three days it took in 1750. But with the developments following the opening of the Stockton and Darlington railway in 1825, the first public passenger railway in the world, these journey times would be slashed. In 1838 the London & Birmingham railway, the first intercity railway to connect London, could get you to Birmingham, 112.5 miles away, in 5 ½ hours.

Locomotive of the London & Birmingham Railway, from Wikimedia Commons.

On Wednesday evening Lady Adela and her companion had reached London, and travelled straight to Euston station. Just before 9pm they were seen on the platform, the gentleman requesting a coupe for himself and the lady on the express train to York. By Thursday morning the pair were breakfasting at the York station of the North Midland railway, where Lady Adela’s ‘elegant’ appearance and manners apparently attracted the attention of fellow diners. They then took their places in the mail train (mail trains were typically the fastest express trains available) to Newcastle. At Newcastle they were met by the gentleman’s private coach, sent up the night before, which was attached to the mail train (private carriages could be placed on wagons and then affixed to trains). Unfortunately at this point the railway officials attempted to move the couple from their private coupe  into a first class compartment with two other passengers. At this, the gentlemen, revealed to be Captain Ibbetson of the 11th Hussars, put up determined opposition, demanding a vacant carriage for Lady Adela and himself. Such was his manner and eloquence he got it, though now the fugitive couple could be readily identified. At 1pm the train reached Carlisle, the couple having covered around 400 miles within 19 hours. Here Captain Ibbetson’s carriage was detached, some post-horses put on, and the couple raced off towards Gretna Green. By 2.30pm they were married.

'The road to Gretna Green', London Illustrated News 1871

‘The road to Gretna Green’, London Illustrated News 1871

For Captain Villiers the race to catch his sister was over before it even began. At 4pm Villiers took an express from Euston to Wolverton (now part of Milton Keynes). There he was forced to take a third class parliamentary train (required by law and stopping at all stations) to York. Once there he tried to arrange a special engine for his own use (a charter train, whereby a whole train could be rented by an individual), but this proved impossible, so he was forced to wait until 9pm when the London mail train arrived to take him to Carlisle. He got there at 2pm on Friday, and by 4pm was in Gretna Green, a full day after his sister had departed the town for Edinburgh with her new husband. All Villiers could do was take the news of the marriage home with him. Lady Adela and Captain Ibbetson were re-married at St Pancras church in London later that year, affirming their somewhat dubious elopement in the eyes of her family who were forced to accept the arrangement and undertake some damage control.

The fact someone could get from the south coast of England to Scotland in under 24 hours emphasised the power of the railways and their technological marvel. It was a quantum leap on the situation just a decade or two earlier. But the speed of the railways was already being challenged.  In 1848 a runaway couple from Cambridge were surprised to find themselves detained on their arrival at Liverpool Street station. The electric telegraph had been their undoing, their details being telegraphed from Cambridge to London the moment their elopement was discovered and beating them there. Runaway couples everywhere would have to take note…

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