Steaming back to the dawn of the railway age
Carriage No 353 of London’s Metropolitan Railway, which once ran, resplendently appointed, behind a steam locomotive, suffered lean years after it was taken out of service in 1905.
For decades afterwards it was used by a railway in Somerset, before an Oxfordshire military tailor bought it in 1940. In later years it served as a club house for American servicemen, then as an antiques shop and even a farm outbuilding.
But on Sunday night it was back on track and the stuff of every boy’s dreams as it nestled in behind the E-class locomotive No 1 at Moorgate station with clouds of steam billowing as high-pitched whistles indicated its readiness for the journey to Edgware.
The brief return to London of the steam age marked the 150th anniversary of the opening of the Tube in 1863, when the steam-powered Metropolitan line opened. It carried 40,000 people on its first day, mostly VIPs, financiers, shareholders, engineers, landowners and politicians.
During last summer’s Olympics, the Tube carried 4.57 million people daily, with few delays. However, £12 billion (€14.4 billion) needs to be spent in the coming years to cope with London’s growing needs, said Underground chief operating officer Howard Collins.
Coal and steam
On Sunday, 150 passengers took a step back in time as the steam train began its journey.
Windows, opened with leather straps, were lowered to savour the smell of coal smoke and steam in the tunnels. That would not have happened back in 1863, when passengers’ complaints varied from “the most trifling consciousness of a change of atmosphere” to claims of a sulphurous cloud that could provoke paralysis, insanity or even death.
“Today, people think the modern-day trains are noisy,” said retired Underground employee Paul Furze, who indulges his love of trains at the London Transport Museum in Acton.
Carriage No 353 carried only first-class passengers in eight-seat compartments during its service between 1896 and 1905, when London Underground began to replace steam with electric-powered trains.
Planning for the celebratory journey, which will run again next weekend, began three years ago, backed by a £500,000 National Lottery grant for restoration. Carriage No 353 alone, rescued from an Oxfordshire farmyard in 1974, cost £200,000 to restore.
Restored by craftsmen at the Welsh Festiniog Railway Company, which runs the world’s oldest surviving railway, the carriage once more enjoys plush red seating, punched leather door panels, and gilt-edged sycamore panels, evoking the Victorian age.
Behind it on its commemorative journey lay the three third-class carriages. Between it and the engine was the luggage carriage and the milk van, which brought milk to London from farms in Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire in the 1890s.
Enthusiasts had applied months ago for the commemoration trips. “Staff, for example, paid £180 for first-class tickets. Despite the price they will still be oversubscribed,” said Collins.
As the train passed through stations en route to Edgware, spectators gawped, pulling out cameras and mobile phones to capture images of a bygone age as the locomotive chugged past the platforms at 10mph.
Inside the tunnels, steam and smoke rolled back upon the carriages, creating ghostly whirlpools deep underground in the face of the oncoming, modern-day trains.
On the return leg to Moorgate, some passengers swapped places from the first-class carriages to third class. But former Conservative minister Michael Portillo, now a TV railway historian, was happy to stay in third: “I loved it,” he said.
Inside the more Spartan furnishings of the third-class carriages, known to trainspotting aficionados as “the Chesham set”, there are still advertising banners for the WH Smith library service, and advice on how to cope with air raids. These carriages were saved by the Bluebell Railway after a decade of restoration.
One train-lover, Peter Emerson from Nottinghamshire, who had paid “far more” than he should have for four tickets at a charity auction, was a boy again: “A once in a lifetime experience,” he said.