This wasn’t supposed to be an Underground blog, but nonetheless, here’s the third entry in a row on the Tube. Don’t worry, the next entry will probably be about pirates in Camden or something.
Now, yesterday I talked about the experimental streamlined Tube trains built in 1935. The experiment didn’t really catch on for a number of reasons, but why was streamlining introduced in the first place? It’s largely a matter of fashion.
You see, at this time, speed was the thing. The Europe-wide party of conquest and expansion had been brought down by the hangover that was the Great War, and so humanity had to look for new frontiers. In the 1920s and 30s, technology set those frontiers and simultaneously provided a means by which they could be crossed.
Air travel was advancing in leaps and bounds (not literally). Speed records were set on land and water by the likes of Henry Segrave and Malcolm Campbell on an annual basis. And on the railways, the companies vied to provide the fastest and best locomotives in the world. In Britain, the two major players were the London and North Eastern Railway on the East Coast and the London, Midland and Scottish Railway on the West Coast. The ultimate winner was the LNER, with Nigel Gresley’s customised locomotive Mallard. Its 126mph record still stands as the fastest speed ever attained by a steam train.
The phenomenon wasn’t limited to Britain. Other European countries were in hot pursuit of the record. It’ll come as a surprise to absolutely nobody to learn that there was a political dimension to it, with Nazi Germany keen to prove that they were the best at everything in the world evar and therefore desperate to grab that railway speed record. Despite rivalry between companies and, indeed, nations, it’s worth noting that the engineers behind these great advances weren’t all that political (not in their professional lives, at least) and ideas were freely exchanged.
The fashion extended beyond vehicles and into art and architecture – the art deco movement shows definite influence by the streamlining fad. Therefore, it’s no surprise that London Transport should try to get in on the act. Students of engineering history will note that the 1935 stock has a slightly German look about it.
So that’s why it was decided that what the Underground really needed was a streamlined train, even though the chances of reaching speeds that would justify such streamlining were slim to nil. And, as observed, the experiment was abandoned.
What I didn’t mention in my last entry was that, when the streamlined prototypes were ordered, London Transport also commissioned a less radical train. It was, under the skin, basically the same as the streamliners. The difference was that it had a flat front.
This gave it the best of both worlds. All the advantages of the new design were there, most notably the increased space in the carriages. The disadvantages of the streamliners – poor visibility, lack of space in the cab – were gone. It was a roaring success, and so London Transport ordered a whole production run of almost identical trains. These were the 1938 stock.
These were, to my mind, the greatest Tube trains ever built. It is actually quite sad that I have an opinion on the greatest Tube train ever built, but there you go. Theoretically conservative in its design, it has that very slight streamlining around the cab edges to give it a soupcon of modernism. So successful was the design that, in 1949, London Transport ordered another batch of identical stock. Subsequent trains, although to new designs, were clear descendents of the 1938 stock. It was only really in the 1990s that new trains broke with the 1938 design completely, although it goes without saying that they still retained the innovations of the 1930s.
The last 1938 train was withdrawn from London Underground after an incredible 50 years of service in 1988. Note that I said specifically “from London Underground”. The trains may have been superseded on the busy commuter lines of London, but they could still be useful elsewhere.
The train on the left, following retirement, was used as coaching stock at Chatham dockyard and then formed the main passenger train on the Alderney Railway in the Channel Islands. No electricity supply, you’ll note, so it had to be hauled by a diesel shunter. Alas, this well-travelled train was great at going underground, but it wasn’t quite up to withstanding the sea air, and salt corrosion did for it.
More successful was the class’ service on the Isle of Wight. Restrictions imposed by a tunnel on the route mean that conventional trains cannot be used, and so withdrawn Tube trains are the simplest solution. Rebuilt and reclassified as Class 483, they provide a sterling service, as seen on the right there. Still going strong after 70 years in service. They don’t make ‘em like they used to.