9 Jan 2013

London Underground at 150: Oyster card for ma’am?

As the London Underground marks its 150th birthday, Channel 4 News digs out three films from the ITN archive featuring some royal tube rides (oh, and commuters complaining about overcrowding).

Elizabeth, the driver

Joking about the disruption that had been caused on the Mall by its construction, the Queen officially opened stage three of the Victoria Line on 7 March 1969 and purchased a five pence (5d) ticket to travel from Victoria to Green Park (and then a nice stroll back home across the Park, we assume), writes Channel 4 News archivist Ian Searcey.

It had taken six years and £70m to bore the ten and half miles of tunnel, 70 feet underground, from Walthamstow to Victoria, but the new service knocked fifteen minutes from journey times. “By any standards, that’s progress,” explained ITN reporter Ivor Mills. The new service was expected to take 25,000 people an hour across London and boasted automatic gates, television monitors and “look no hands” drivers.

London Transport, keen to show off its innovative equipment, encouraged the Queen to drive one of the new trains between Green Park and Oxford Circus. For worried viewers, Mills makes it clear, her majesty used “both hands at the controls” and was “under the watchful eye of driver, Francis Fountain” at all times. The last section of the line, described by Ivor Mills as “Passport to Pimlico, Stockwell and Brixton”, was opened by Princess Alexandra in July 1971.

Jubilee Charlie

On 30 April 1979, Prince Charles was sent to open the Jubilee line and Sue Lloyd-Roberts filed this slightly tongue-in-cheek royal report for News at Ten.

“The Prince hasn’t been on the Tube for twenty years,” the report begins “but he was given an easy ride of it today”. Pointing out that he had been driven to Green Park station, the crowds were kept at bay and he had no “ticket formalities”, Lloyd-Roberts goes on to explain that the advertisements on the escalators had also been censored.

With none of the usual underwear ads to “titillate the commuter” on the walls, the prince was reduced to joking about the press struggling to keep up as he travelled down to face the throng of dignitaries waiting for him.

Following in the footsteps of his mother who had driven a train at the opening of the Victoria line in 1969 (above), Charles stepped into the cab to drive through a ribbon stretched across the tunnel to officially open the “three mile, £87m line between Stanmore and Charing Cross”.

The prince was given the chance “to play at the ticket machine” and joked in his speech about having a captive audience (“You are really captive…they’ve shut the gates!’) before unveiling the official plaque. The line opened for passengers the following day.

‘Sardines in a box’

Anyone who lives and works in London will have a view on the standards and quality of service being offered on their daily commute, whichever line they use, but have things changed very much over the years?

When the underground celebrated its centenary in 1963, ITN sent reporter John Whale to Farringdon Street Station to find out what commuters thought of the service and what improvements they felt were needed.

Those he interviewed are, on the whole, positive. The main gripes seem to be cleanliness (remember you could still smoke in the carriages and stations until the late 1980s) and overcrowding.

A bowler hatted gent descibes the system as a “remarkable achievement”, a recent arrival, after his first month in London, acclaims the service as a “wonderful thing…very enjoyable”, a delivery driver (at some length) bemoans the traffic and wonders why packages cannot just be sent by underground whilst another commuter demands better service, more trains and an end to being stuck like ‘sardines in a box”. Ring any bells?