Tubes, bridges & sewers: The centuries old infrastructure Londoners still use today

Believe it or not, this is part of the sewer system: the inside of Crossness Pumping Station, south east London. Image: Steve Cadman/Wikipedia Commons.

An accusation often levelled at the modern era is that it’s one of waste: that we are a throw-away society, over-consuming off paper plates with disposable cutlery. If this is the case, then we should take inspiration from our not-so-distant ancestors, the Victorians. They really knew how to build things to last.
Today’s Londoners would be hard pressed not to use at least some of the infrastructure left over from the 19th Century. If you’ve taken the Tube, crossed the Thames or even gone to the toilet in the capital recently, then you’ve used something Victorian.

But it wasn’t us they had in mind when all these durable things were built: in their own time, the era’s city planners faced plenty of infrastructure problems of their own. In the 19th century, London was the largest city in the world, and its population more than tripled from just under 2m in 1840 to almost 6.5m by 1900. With the fabric of the city facing unprecedented burdens, the engineers of the day began to build.

The Tube

There are few things as synonymous with London as its underground. Begun during the second half of the 19th century, the system was created in part to deal with the overcrowding that population growth had brought to the city’s roads.

First opening in 1863 the original Metropolitan Railway was just four miles of route, between Paddington and Farringdon. But other lines swiftly followed: the District arrived before the decade was out, and what would become the Circle line was completed in the 1880s. The first deep level tube, a stretch of the Northern line, opened in 1890.

Last year, a magnificent 1.4bn rides were taken on the London Underground – all the more impressive when you consider that the engineers maintaining and upgrading today’s network are still working on a system first opened while Abraham Lincoln was president.


Sewer System

The density of London’s population also created huge sanitary problems. The Thames was an open sewer, and the streets were little better. Through the Miasma Theory of disease, deadly illnesses such as cholera were blamed on ‘bad air’ – and not on the fact that people were relieving themselves in their drinking water. Something had to be done.

Following a particularly warm and noxious few months in 1858 – a period known as The Great Stink – the local government of the day rolled its sleeves up. The Metropolitan Board of Works commissioned its chief engineer Joseph Bazalgette to create a new system of sewers and pumping stations.

Bazalgette installed 82 miles of “intercepting sewers” parallel to the river Thames, with a further 1,000 miles of interconnected “street sewers”. Most used gravity to funnel waste to the east; but series of pumping stations were included, to offer a helping hand. All this did wonders for London’s poorly and no doubt the city’s smell – and created the Embankment in the process.

Rudolf Hering’s 1882 map of London’s sewers. 

The system has been used ever since. The historian Peter Ackroyd puts this relatively unknown engineer alongside giants such as Christopher Wren in his pantheon of London heroes.

With London’s population at an all-time high, dealing with the capital’s waste is top of the agenda again, and the authorities are now building the 16 mile Thames Tideway tunnel under the river. Let’s hope it lasts as long as the 150 year old Victorian system.

Bridges

You can’t really go anywhere but the loo to appreciate London’s sewage system – so if you want to ogle some Victorian engineering, why not visit the river?

Nearly two thirds of the 33 bridges that cross the Thames were built by those intrepid engineers, and they include nearly all the best lookers: the Albert Bridge, the Hammersmith Bridge, to name but two.

Tower Bridge.

In Tower Bridge, the last to be built by the Victorians, we’ve got both a looker and an incredible piece of engineering. Not only does it draw visitors from across the world (it’s currently listed on TripAdvisor is the 7th ranking attraction in the world’s number one destination city); the bridge can also raise its central section, to allow large boats to pass. A functional beauty: those 19th century builders did it again.

Internationally, Victorian Britain gained the unfortunate – and accurate – reputation of being arch-colonialists. Domestically, though, they did us a lot of good, building exceptional structures that are still in use a century and a half later.

We can only hope that the massive infrastructure projects of today will last nearly as long. HS2 and Crossrail, the ghost of Isambard Kingdom Brunel is watching.

 
 
 
 

What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.


Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.