The Tube, 1863 to 1979

Submitted by Matthew on 29 January, 2014 - 11:19

Janine Booth’s new book, Plundering London Underground: New Labour, private capital and public service 1997-2010 examines the Public-Private Partnership (PPP), which was dreamed up, and imposed, but also faltered and collapsed, within the term of Blair and Brown’s Labour government.

One key “justification” for the PPP was that London Underground was is such a poor condition that it required a massive cash injection. The argument went (wrongly) that only the private sector could deliver that investment. But how did London Underground get into such a woeful state? The first section of Plundering London Underground looks at this historical background; the excerpt below takes us from the Tube’s birth through to the end of the 1970s.

The world’s first railway to carry passengers underground did so for the first time on 10 January 1863. Thereafter, private companies built and operated several new lines, creating a railway web beneath London.

From 1908, the companies began to jointly promote their services as “the Underground”. In the 1920s, governments gave the companies financial support to improve services and create jobs, but the competing private owners nonetheless failed to provide a coherent and reliable service.

In 1929 Herbert Morrison, Minister of Transport in a minority Labour government, drafted a Bill to unite the Underground in public hands, later recalling that, “Here was I, without a socialist majority, determined to go into some scheme of public ownership.”i He recommended that London’s passenger transport should be run by “a small board of business men of proved capacity”, and that the dispossessed private owners should be paid compensation. Morrison’s plan was implemented in 1933.1

A new public corporation, the London Passenger Transport Board (LPTB), now ran London Underground. Previously separate “railways” became “lines” of a single London-wide Underground service: for example, the Central London Railway was now the Central line.

The chair of the LPTB was Lord Ashfield, until then leader of the Underground Group of private companies. In its first year, the LPTB’s stockholders — mainly the former private owners — received dividends of nearly £5 million.ii Because of the continuing involvement of the private companies and their chiefs, some trade unionists and Labour left-wingers felt that Morrison’s scheme fell short of the full public ownership and industrial democracy that they wanted.iii

Ernest Bevin, leader of the Transport and General Workers’ Union called it “positively the worst form of public control”.iv

By 1936, there were reports of a “rising storm of protests” by passengers and a “seething discontent” among workers about poor services and worsening conditions.v

Matters improved with the New Works Programme. From 1937, the Programme provided substantial new investment and created jobs at a time of high unemployment. It extended the Central, Northern, Piccadilly and Bakerloo lines, electrified the Metropolitan line north of Rickmansworth, and built new tunnels, stations and escalators. The programme slowed during the Second World War, but nonetheless led to services running 18% faster in 1947 than in For transport writer Christian Wolmar, this period was “undoubtedly the London Underground’s heyday”.vii For the first time, some degree of each of the five key factors — public ownership, London control, adequate funding, integration and public service — were all in place together.

London Underground was run by a London body until 1948, when Labour’s first majority government brought the whole railway industry into public ownership. London Underground was placed within the new British Transport Commission. This new body prioritised reconstruction of the mainline railway and shelved unfinished parts of the New Works Programme. This “nationalisation” meant that a national authority, rather than a London one, now had ownership and control of the Underground.

Christian Wolmar believes that: “if any period could be identified as the source of the state of the Underground today, it is the immediate post-war period up to the 1960s when, quite literally, nothing was invested. The system has been playing catch-up since then.”viii

After fifteen years of national control, the Underground returned to the control of London bodies from 1963, and investment began to grow again. The Victoria Line opened in 1968. In 1970, the new Greater London Council took over, and according to Underground worker Dave Welsh, ‘It began to be possible to articulate a strategic policy for the tube with cheaper fares as the keystone’.ix The 1970s saw the Jubilee line (originally named the Fleet line) built and the Piccadilly line extended to Heathrow airport, funded partly through government finance and partly through by the new London Transport authority (LT). But the second half of the 1970s saw real-terms public funding of London Transport fall off. Martin Eady, who worked at Ealing Common depot, explained that:

“By the back door the public expenditure cuts are having serious effects on tube workers and passengers.

The cuts in capital spending mean not only that much-needed extensions are not built (remember the Fleet line extension, the River line, the Hackney-Chelsea line, etc.). Renewals of outworn rolling stock, decrepit station buildings and appalling staff facilities are held back, resulting in severe discomfort for passengers and staff alike. Many spare parts have to be robbed from one train to keep another in service, so repairs become make-do-and-mend jobs, especially on the older pre-war stock”.x

Government — both London and national — was about to change hands, with dramatic consequences for London Underground.


1. The London Passenger Transport Act was passed under the National government , which had replaced the Labour government in 1931.

i. Lord Morrison of Lambeth, Herbert Morrison: An Autobiography, Odhams, 1960, p.41.

ii. Socialist Party of Great Britain, Nationalisation or Socialism?, 1945.

iii. See, for example, Ben Pimlott, Labour and the Left in the 1930s, Allen & Unwin, 1977, pp.66-67; and The Live Rail, 1936.

iv. Quoted in Britain at Work project newsletter, ‘Going Underground: tales from the tube’, 2013.

v. Arthur Downton, The London Transport Scandal, London District Committee of the Communist Party, 1936, p.1.

vi. John R Day and John Reed, The Story of London’s Underground (9th edition), Capital Transport Publishing, 2005, p.146.

vii. Christian Wolmar, Down The Tube: the battle for London’s Underground, Aurum Press, 2002, p.31.

viii. Christian Wolmar, (2002), p.37.

ix. Britain at Work project newsletter, (2013).

x. The Platform, March 1977.

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