Engineering the third-oldest underground railway



May 3rd, 2022

The London Underground will forever be the world's most famous underground railway system and owes a lot of its fame to its age as the oldest such system in the world. But with as much history and importance are those that came afterwards and in 1896, some 33 years after the opening of the London Metropolitan Railway, Glasgow became the third city (the second being Budapest) to move masses of its inhabitants underground.

The effort required to construct these systems with Victorian technology was immense and complicated with the need often to tunnel beneath notable bodies of water. Indeed all three cities hosting the oldest underground systems have rivers to conquer and in Glasgow this came in the form of the River Clyde. In 1895, during the railway's construction, the Street Railway Review described to an American audience some of the challenges that Glaswegians faced in tunnelling underneath the Clyde, including some illustrations of the tunnels themselves. GlasgowWARF001 This illustration shows the dimensions and layout of the respective tunnels: "Each tube is 11 feet inside diameter. The shifting sand and mud encountered has been the cause of much difficulty, as the road passes twice under the River Clyde."

At the time of this document in 1895, the Glasgow District Subway was in fact intended to be a 'cable road' or cable-driven railway and this is how it operated until 1935, after which it was electrified. Similarly-operated railways were found in America around this time - in Glasgow's case the cable was powered by a steam power plant between West Street and Shields Road stations. In the 1895 issue of the Street Railway Review, the text erroneously states: "This will be the first passenger cable road in England to use the American method of driving." Glasgow is of course in Scotland.

The two tunnels were entirely separate for a considerable part of the railway's history and to be stabled, the carriages were lifted out of a hole in the ground by a crane. It was only later that the lines were extended and linked with points to allow trains to be stored and worked on at a connected depot, much like those found at various points along London's underground lines. Travelling in the lightweight, rudimentary carriages must have been quite a thrill back in 1896 and is no less exciting for many people today. The original carriages could seat up to 48 passengers but today's can accommodate 112. New rolling stock is expected in 2023.

GlasgowWARF004 A depiction of an individual tunnel. The route of the system, formed of an oval shape with two loops running in oppposite directions, is 6.5 miles long with the tunnels lying between 7 ft and 115 ft beneath the surface. The iron cladding was implemented to protect sections that travelled beneath buildings and pressure had to be regulated in areas under the river where the tunnel had 'blown up' the river bed.

GlasgowWARF002 This photograph, taken from Railway World of London and used in the Street Railway Review, shows the two tunnels side by side at a station, still under construction. Though iron lined the tunnels between stations, wood was used to great effect especially in places exposed to the public.

GlasgowWARF003 This joint illustration shows the wider engineering feats of the railway outside from the tunnels that define it. The original rolling stock, used as late as 1977, can be seen top-right and bottom-left. St Enoch Station (top-left and below image) remains an important Glaswegian landmark and is the most notable above-ground structure of the Glasgow Subway. It was preserved during modernisation of the system in 1977 and now hosts a popular brand of coffee shop. Bottom-right is the interior of the power plant that ran the cable system up to speeds of 15 mph. (Below image by Joe Rogers. 2014) GlasgowWARF005

The Glasgow subway remains an important amenity for the city's 1.7 million inhabitants, connecting the vibrant regenerated areas with the historic heart that it was built to serve in the first place. Despite the unique challenges of building this unique railway, it continues to be relevant in a form little changed since 1896.

The full segments of Street Railway Review can be read courtesy of the Internet Archive, a source of public domain works and CC-licensed work. All images, unless otherwise stated, come courtesy of the Internet Archive on Flickr Commons, with the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, MIT Libraries or Smithsonian Libraries as the contributing library and either the aforementioned libraries or Lyrasis Members and Sloan Foundation as the Digitizing Sponsor.

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