Crowded but crucial: London Underground turns 150
The London Underground began celebrating its 150th anniversary on Wednesday, creaking under the demand of four million passengers a day but still innovating.
The world's first underground railway, then known as the Metropolitan Railway, unveiled its first stretch of track between Paddington and Farringdon on January 9, 1863, with passengers making their first journeys a day later.
Long queues formed for the steam trains in gas-lit tunnels, with one delighted passenger exclaiming that the trains were so tall, a man could stand inside with his hat on his head.
A century and a half later, the sprawling 402-kilometre (250-mile) network suffers frequent breakdowns and delays, but is key to London's functioning as a global city, with a record 1.171 billion passenger journeys made in 2011/12.
London mayor Boris Johnson called the network affectionately known as the Tube "arguably the best, and most iconic, underground system in the world".
A series of events are planned to mark the milestone, including trips by steam trains through Tube tunnels and two new two-pound coins commemorating the anniversary.
Twelve short stories by well-known authors will each focus on one Tube line, and more broadly on what the Underground means to Londoners and visitors.
The original Underground, opened after just three years' construction, was designed to reduce congestion above ground from carts and stagecoaches.
Today the Underground employs 19,000 people and carries passengers between 270 stations each year, linking London with its commuter belt including Surrey, Kent, Essex and Hertfordshire.
Waterloo is its busiest station, with 82 million passengers passing through each year.
It has borne witness to key moments in Britain's history, sheltering 175,000 people from bombings during World War II and bearing the impact of terrorist attacks in 2005 which killed 56 people on three tube lines and a bus.
A huge fire left 31 people dead in 1987 at King's Cross Station, leading to a safety overhaul and smoking ban.
But it continues to develop, with the latest innovations including air-conditioned trains and high-frequency services planned on the Victoria and Central lines.
Johnson said in tribute: "The arrival of the Tube was truly revolutionary and today it is still admired around the world.
"It annihilates distance, liquidates traffic and is the throbbing cardiovascular system of the greatest city on earth.
"It continues to play a hugely important role in the success of our capital -- efficiently moving record numbers of people during the London 2012 Games."
© 2013 AFP