THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
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American influence on London’s Underground trains
London Transport Museum in Covent Garden explores the powerful link between transport and the growth of modern London, culture and society since 1800. Here, the Museum’s curator Katariina Mauranen explores American influence on the design of London Underground trains.
American influence on London’s underground railways and train design has been considerable, particularly in the early decades of development and operation.
The legacy of American roots lives on today, not only in the language we use (on the London Underground, railway carriages are known as ‘cars’, for example) but also in more tangible ways throughout the system operating above and below the streets of London.
London’s Underground, the oldest urban rapid transit system in the world, opened in January 1863 with steam-hauled trains. Electrification, when it came in the early 1900s, was heavily influenced by American companies, engineers, and technology.
A financier from Philadelphia, Charles Tyson Yerkes, had invested in the Chicago electric railway and saw a business opportunity in doing the same in London. In the short time he spent in London before his death in New York in 1905, he unified several businesses under the Underground Electric Railways of London Ltd.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the electrification of the Circle line raised important issues, because its rails were shared by both the Metropolitan and District Railways. Two key questions affected the future of the entire system: What current to use? What kind of trains to build? The answers came from America.
In 1900 two rival options were considered for the Circle line. At first the cheaper but untested AC system was favoured, but when Yerkes stepped in to finance the conversion, he was unconvinced. He brought in a technical advisor, a fellow veteran of the Chicago transit system, James Russell Chapman from Boston.
Eventually, on Chapman’s advice, a tried and tested DC system was adopted. This was offered by British Thomson-Houston, the UK arm of the American General Electric Company. The early trains were made up of cars hauled behind heavy electric locomotives, but this produced vibration, which proved impractical.
A different system was soon tested: an electrical multiple unit, developed by Frank J Sprague, an engineer from Milford, Connecticut. Instead of one locomotive, this system involved several driving motors spread across the train, which significantly reduced vibration. When it was introduced in London in 1901, it had already been tested – in Chicago.
Early electric Underground trains would not have looked out of place in a Western movie, with their American-style clerestory roofs, curved windows and boxy sides. Inside, the transverse seats also reflected an American-style arrangement.
Most trains on the District, Metropolitan, Circle and Hammersmith & City lines were designed with clerestory roofs and straight sides well into the 1930s. But in 1938, the clerestory roof gave way to a new, modern design by the Baltimore-born engineer William S Graff-Baker. Graff-Baker had joined the District Railway in 1909, aged 20, and by 1935 had risen to the post of chief mechanical engineer.
His designs and ideas can be seen in many improvements along the decades, but his crowning glory was the 1938 Tube stock, the first deep-level London Underground train where all traction equipment was tucked under the floor instead of requiring a separate compartment on board. All subsequent trains have been built in this way.
Graff-Baker also designed the distinctly modern-looking Q38 stock for the District line. These trains operated on the surface and were larger and more spacious than the deep-level Tube stock, which had to run in narrow tunnels below ground. Until the introduction of Q38 stock, District line trains had retained their clerestory roofs.
The rolling stock, collectively launched as Q stock and made up of older and new stock adapted to work together, came into service in November 1938. It combined Graff-Baker’s sleek, modern design with the older stock, with its American-style clerestory roof. This made for unusual-looking combinations of trains at station platforms, with three distinct designs, all of them with American roots.
London Transport Museum is restoring two of Graff-Baker’s Q38 cars, and a clerestory-roofed Q35 car, into an operational heritage train. The Museum has previous experience of operating Graff-Baker’s designs, as it has offered heritage runs on a 1938 Tube stock train for many years.
Donate to help keep London Transport Museum’s restoration of the last three 1930s Q stock Underground cars on track: www.ltmuseum.co.uk/support-us