A Brief History Of The Central Line

By M@ Last edited 6 months ago

Last Updated 20 December 2023

A Brief History Of The Central Line

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An empty Central line carriage
An empty Central line carriage... not a common sight. Image: iStock

At 46 miles, the Central line is the longest underground line in London (though much of it is not underground). It's also rather old, being the last underground line opened in the Victorian era (just). It underwent rapid growth in its first few decades, but hasn't otherwise changed much since the 1940s. Here, we present a potted chronology of the crimson subway.

1889: Plans for a Central London Railway, running east-west across central London, are first laid out before the public. The public, god bless them, takes some convincing. Up to this point, all underground lines have been built by 'cut-and-cover' (i.e. excavating a deep trench then roofing it over). Proper tunnelling is unfamiliar (although what will become the Northern line is already under construction beneath south London). It has to be carefully explained in the press that tunnelling will not disturb the shops and businesses at ground level.

1891: The line receives government permission to go ahead. It's been some time coming. This is 28 years after the first underground line — the Metropolitan Railway — first carried passengers. And they've still got to build the damn thing.

1900 (27 June): "It will be a great boon to our great city". That's the verdict of the Prince of Wales, soon to become Edward VII, on opening the Central London Railway. Edward even takes a ride along the line between its Bank and Shepherds Bush termini. For some reason — possibly to amuse future trivia compilers — the novelist and all-round-wit Mark Twain is also onboard.

A headshot of Mark Twain
Mark Twain: one of the line's first passengers. Image: public domain

1900 (30 July): Turns out that Edward's "official opening" was a bit of a sham. The line isn't yet ready to carry passengers, but His Royal Highness's diary wouldn't allow for any other date. The Great Unwashed have to wait until the very end of July to follow in his august footsteps, with the first services running at 5.15am on 30 July. The line is immediately known as the "Twopenny tube" — a nickname lifted from sticks of paint — to reflect the uniform fares across the line. Bond Street isn't quite ready yet (took until September)... just as would happen with the Elizabeth Line 122 years later.

1900 (6 Oct): The nascent line suffers its first fatality when conductor James Watts Field (25) falls from the train between Bond Street and Marble Arch.

1901: The line proves immensely popular, attracting 20 million passengers in its first six months. It is not without its issues, however. The chief complaint is bad vibrations. Buildings above the line experience the shakes every time a train passes below. The problem is serious enough to come before Parliament. It is eventually solved by the introduction of lighter locomotives, adjustments to the track and, from 1903, the first multiple unit trains (which draw power across all carriages rather than use a locomotive).

1907: The twopenny tube becomes the thrupenny tube, as fares are increased for the first time for longer journeys.

1908: New station klaxon! Wood Lane is added, just in time for the Franco-British Exhibition. Much of the architecture at this huge fair is painted white, and this is why the district will later be known as White City.

1908: The first pocket underground map appears. The Central line is blue! Its later-to-be-familiar red colour is already taken by the Metropolitan.

A 1908 tube map
A 1908 underground map showing the Central London Railway in BLUE!

1912: The eastern end of the line gets the first of several extensions, opening up a route to Liverpool Street.

1920: A major extension to the west opens, with trains now running as far as Ealing Broadway.

1925: A new version of the underground map is drawn up by the amusingly named FH Stingemore. This time, the Central is depicted in a not-so-fetching shade of dirty yellow... the diarrhoea line? The dubious hue will be continued on the early maps of Harry Beck, from 1933.

1933 (1 Jan): Arguably the biggest day in the underground's history, as the various disparate rail companies (including the Central London Railway) are brought together under the umbrella brand of London Transport. From now on, the different routes are regarded as one network rather than lots of competing companies.

1933 (24 Sep): The Central line loses a station when the British Museum stop is closed. New platforms at nearby Holborn made the station redundant. In 2023, very little remains of this long-lost stop, but see Secrets of the Underground, series 3 for a glimpse at the remnants.

1935: The Central is finally shown in red on the underground map. Hoorah!

1937: Until this point, the route had been known officially as the Central London Railway and latterly the Central London line. As of this year, it officially becomes the Central line.

1942: The outbreak of the second world war halts construction work on a new extension to the north-east. The tunnels have already been dug, and are given over to war work. In one of the more remarkable chapters in underground history, the tunnels between Leytonstone and Newbury Park are converted into a linear factory, making aircraft components for the Plessey company. Some 2,000 people go to work in the secret subterranean production line.

A bronze relief sculpture of the Plessey aircraft factory in the central line tunnels
A depiction of the Plessey factory by Paul Day (best known for his Kissing Couple sculpture in St Pancras), as featured on the Battle of Britain memorial on Embankment

1943 (3 Mar): The worst disaster ever to occur on the London Underground, and one of the worst in London's history, occurs at Bethnal Green station. The station has not yet opened for trains (see 1942), but is in use as an air-raid shelter. On this evening, a crush develops at one of the entrances, during which 173 people lose their lives. The site will later be marked with a prominent memorial.

1946-49: With the war out of the way, extension work continues. The line runs as far east as Stratford in 1946, and Newbury Park in 1947. Much of the Hainault loop comes in 1948 with extension to Epping in 1949. Westwards, you could reach Greenford in 1947 and West Ruislip in 1948. Busy times!

1953 (8 April): In a now largely forgotten disaster, 12 people are killed and 46 injured in a rear-end collision just east of Stratford.

1967: The Central line has not been extended in real life since the 1940s. But this year sees the movie version of Quatermass and the Pit, which features a fictional extension west to a place called Hobbs End. Here, Professor Bernard Quatermass uncovers evidence of a telekinetic Martian infiltration. Coincidentally, this will be the only excuse not used for the late delivery of the Elizabeth line.

Hobbs End from Quatermass and the Pit
Quatermass and the Pit: Some inconvenience was caused.

1993: The 1992-stock trains (which still run on the line in 2023) are introduced. That sounds pretty recent but consider that in 2025 they'll be a third of a century old. The carriages should eventually be replaced with new tube stock like that coming to the Piccadilly line... though no order has yet been placed, and TfL's coffers are doing whatever is the opposite of overflowing.

1994: The short single-track section of rail from Epping to Ongar finally closes after dwindling numbers of passengers. It now runs as a heritage railway.

A central line route map with the Epping Ongar route still shown
The Ongar single-track branch closed in 1994, but this route map at Liverpool Street was still displaying it in 2019. Image Matt Brown

2003 (25 Jan): A train derails at Chancery Lane station, injuring 32 people. The accident, which was caused by a loose motor, prompts a partial line closure until the end of May.

2013: Train frequency increases to 34 trains per hour, making the Central line the most intensive rail service anywhere in the UK. (A record since eclipsed by the Victoria line, at 36 tph,)

2016 (19 Aug): For the first time in its history, the Central line runs services throughout the wee small hours as part of the new Night Tube initiative. Services run from Ealing Broadway to Loughton or Hainault.

2022: The Elizabeth line opens, with connections to the Central at Bond Street, Tottenham Court Road, Liverpool Street and Stratford. The new line relieves some of the passenger pressure on the old Red line... but not much.

2023: 4G and 5G mobile signals become available at some stations and tunnels (around Notting Hill Gate, and Tottenham Court Road). The whole line should have signals by the end of 2024.