The Tube's Lost Spiral Escalator

Harry Rosehill
By Harry Rosehill Last edited 36 months ago

Last Updated 23 June 2021

The Tube's Lost Spiral Escalator
Photo: Sarah Heenan

Holloway Road seems just like any other tube station. Recognisable by its classic Leslie Green design, it's just a zone two stop on the Piccadilly line. Except, that here, something quite extraordinary once happened.

American Jesse Reno was the creator of the escalator; but he wasn't happy with that achievement alone. He wanted to push technology further and moved to London in 1900 with the goal of designing a functioning spiral escalator.

In 1902 he built a demonstration at Earl's Court Exhibition that worked as an amusement ride, but still that wasn't enough for Reno. The Piccadilly line — then known as the Great Northern, Piccadilly & Brompton Railway — was about to open and Reno wanted the first fully functioning spiral escalator to be there.

It's worth pointing out just how radical this was at the time. The London Underground didn't have any normal escalators at this point — that began in Earl's Court in 1911 — let alone complicated helixes like the one he had planned.

The escalator in production. Copyright TfL

Reno's wish came true and the escalator was built. It ran at a speed of 30 metres a minute rising just over 10 metres in height — except no member of the public ever stepped foot on the escalator. The reason for this isn't quite clear, but it's most probable that it just wasn't safe, so didn't cut the mustard. Side note: if it failed Edwardian health and safety standards, that's really saying something.

The escalator was lost and forgotten about, until 1988 when it was rediscovered at the bottom of an old lift shaft. You can now see what remains of the contraption at the London Transport Museum Depot in Acton. An uninitiated onlooker might take these to be random hunks of scrap metal but the Museum has put a lot of work into piecing these "jigsaw pieces" together.

The remains of the escalator at the London Transport Museum Depot. Copyright TfL

It's not surprising that Reno's spiral dream failed. In fact, no-one made a successful spiral escalator open to the public until the 1980s, demonstrating just how complex the technology was.

There are also numerous guided tours around the depot that can be booked online.