Steam Trains Return to the Underground

Published: 07 Mar 2013

For users of London Underground recently, it wasn’t so much a case of ‘minding the gap’, but minding the smoke, as a steam driven locomotive returned to the tracks.

It was the first time that a steam passenger train had trundled along these lines since 1961, a blast from the past in celebration of 150 years since the first underground train journey.

Back then, in January 1863, when the Underground opened to the public, it was a technological wonder that immediately captured the imagination of Londoners. So much so that within just a few months of its opening, the Tube as it would come to be known, was carrying over 26,000 passengers a day, all of them keen to avoid the congestion of Victorian London above.

But, just as it had in the past, the arrival of a steam train onto today’s tracks also seemed to capture the imagination and attention of even the most blasé modern day Underground traveller.

Originally built in 1898, ‘Met Locomotive No 1’ had once worked these very lines, but had been taken out of service some sixty years ago. But, after doing the rounds of several steam railways and three long years of restoration, she was back on track.

Starting at Kensington Olympia Station in West London, the train headed out along part of what was the original Metropolitan line, where it had started life. Passing through twelve stations, Met Locomotive No 1 chugged its way beneath central London, along the Circle line, passing through Edgware Road, Baker Street, King’s Cross and the Barbican, before finally arriving at Moorgate. Every platform was packed with steam enthusiasts looking to catch a glimpse of this almost surreal and exceptional sight.

Passengers fortunate enough to be taking the trip were only able to board the train after showing their commemorative burgundy and gold tickets. At 25 mph, progress for them was more sedate than on a modern Tube, which whistles through the tunnels at double that speed. But since everyone wanted the journey to last as long as possible, that was no problem.

For all those involved, the experience was something truly special, an opportunity to experience the world of the Victorian traveller on the Underground. That meant experiencing the smell of the steam coming through the windows, and the sound of the metal wheel on metal track echoing off the tunnel walls. With nowhere for it to go, the steam and smoke from the train enveloped the carriages, heightening the sense of somehow being back in the Victorian age, when this was part of something very new and revolutionary.

Though this trip into the past was over too soon, it’s one that passengers may be able to repeat in future. Before the smell of smoke was out of everyone’s nostrils, hints were already being dropped that something like this might become a more regular event.

If so, smoking on the London Underground, banned completely since 1987, could be making something of a come-back.


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