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Metropolitan Railway (Met Rly)

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By the mid-19th century the railway termini on the edges of central London were causing significant congestion. Hundreds of horse-drawn carts and buses competed to bring passengers and goods into the City. The practical solution was to build shallow underground railway lines to connect the termini with the City.

John Evelyn's proposal for a 'Metropolitan Traffic Relief' - system of underground roads to be used by heavy goods traffic

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The Metropolitan Railway (Met) was originally incorporated as the Bayswater, Paddington & Holborn Bridge Railway in January 1853. By August it was renamed the North Metropolitan Railway. The 'North' was later dropped. A lack of capital meant construction on the line between Paddington (Bishops Road) and Farringdon Street did not begin until 1860.

Engraving from the Illustrated London News showing the Metropolitan Railway stations, 27 December 1862

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Tunnelling work used the 'cut and cover' method. A wide trench was dug, with brick sidewalls to support the soil. Once the track was laid, the cutting was roofed over and the ground surface restored. Passenger services began on 10 January 1863, with stops at Edgware Road, Baker Street, Portland Road (now Great Portland Street), Gower Street (now Euston Square), and King's Cross. It was the world's first underground railway.

Because of the initial involvement of the Great Western Railway (G.W.R) in the project, the line built was mixed gauge: partly the standard gauge used by most railways and partly the broad (7 foot ¼ inch) gauge used by the G.W.R. The maximum permitted speed was 25 miles an hour and trains took 18 minutes to complete the 3¾-mile journey.


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The line quickly became popular: 29,000 passengers used it each day in the first three weeks of operation. Business was increased when, in May 1864, the Met became the first railway in London to introduce cheaper workmen’s fares.

The original locomotives and carriages on the Metropolitan were owned and operated by G.W.R. By 1864, the Met had bought its own rolling stock: 18 4-4-0 tank locomotives manufactured by Beyer, Peacock & Co. The livery was green until 1885 when it was changed to reddish-brown. The locomotives had condensing apparatus intended to direct steam into cold water tanks on the engine. It was not very efficient, and the atmosphere in the Underground stations was often foul.

Engraving; "Arrival of the Workmen's Penny Train at the Victoria Station", published by the Illustrated London News, 22 April 1865

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The Met quickly extended its services across London. The first extension, from Farringdon to Moorgate Street, opened in December 1865. This was followed by: Paddington to South Kensington, opened in 1868; Moorgate to Liverpool Street to Bishopsgate, opened 1875; and Bishopsgate to Aldgate, opened 1876. An agreement between the District Railway and the Met led to the extension of both lines between Aldgate and Mansion House. This completed the route encircling central London known as the Inner Circle. Services began in October 1884. The Metropolitan generally ran its trains in a clockwise direction on the outer rail. The complete 13-mile trip took 70 minutes.

Framed line diagram/map from a Metropolitan Railway carriage, c1925

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Expansion to the northwest of London began in April 1868 when the Metropolitan & St John’s Wood Railway (fully absorbed by the Met in 1882) began operating from Baker Street to Swiss Cottage, via St John’s Wood Road. Services were extended to West Hampstead in June 1879, to Willesden Green in November 1879, to Harrow-on-the-Hill in 1880 and to Pinner in 1885.

Stained glass window from the board room of the Metropolitan District Railway, c1900

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Freight services were also introduced on the Harrow line and a number of goods yards were built. A 290-acre site was acquired at Neasden for train sheds and works in 1882. An estate for railway staff, known as Neasden Village, was also built.

In September 1887, the Met's overground extension reached Rickmansworth, and in 1889, Chesham. In 1891 the Met took over the Aylesbury & Buckingham Railway, which linked Aylesbury with Verney Junction. An extension from Chalfont Road (now Chalfont & Latimer) to Aylesbury opened in 1892. Services between Baker Street and Verney Junction began in 1897. In December 1899 the Met also took over the running of the Oxford & Aylesbury Tramroad, which ran from Quainton Road to the village of Brill.

Christmas card featuring passengers getting onto a train at Aldgate, 1880-1890

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The Met began experimenting with electrification in 1900. Following disputes with the District Railway on the issue of standard voltage, it was 1905 before the first electric service ran from Baker Street. The service ran to Uxbridge via Ruislip on a new extension from Harrow on the Hill, opened in 1904. Power was supplied from a new generating station at Neasden. Electric working was extended from Harrow to Rickmansworth from 1925, but for long-distance services the change from steam to electric continued until 1961.

In the early 1900s, freight traffic continued to increase. The Metropolitan opened its own freight depot at Vine Street, just north of Farringdon station, in 1909.

Enamelled brass rectangular medallion season ticket, with blank insert, issued by the Metropolitan Railway, third class between Harrow on the Hill and Liverpool Street, 1920-1933

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During the First World War, the Metropolitan Railway, like other services serving the City, was effectively taken over by the government. Its trains were extensively used to transport troops from London to the Channel ports. To replace its employees who left to fight, the Met began employing women for the first time in positions such as porters, ticket inspectors, and guards.

First World War female guard on the Metropolitan Railway at Neasden station

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There was a final period of Metropolitan expansion after the war. In 1925 the Met opened a branch from Moor Park to Watford in partnership with the London and North Eastern Railway. Meanwhile, the Met had become increasingly involved in the suburban housing boom, speculatively developing residential estates on property it owned in Middlesex, Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire. Its surplus lands committee had administered the Met estates.

Booklet; Metro-land, published by the Metropolitan Railway, 1921

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The first development was the Willesden Park Estate, laid out near Willesden Green station in the mid-1880s. In 1919, developments were taken over by the Metropolitan Railway Country Estates Limited, which handled the sale of building plots, and (in the earlier years) the design and construction of houses. The Metropolitan estates built between the wars became known as Metro Land. As part of Metro Land, an extension built from Wembley Park to Stanmore opened in December 1932. The branch was the first in the country to have centralised traffic control; all train movements were controlled from the signal box at Wembley Park.

In the early years of the 20th century, private underground railway companies amalgamated as the Underground Electric Railways of London Company, but the Met retained its independence. The Met regarded itself as a mainline railway and wanted to preserve its lucrative freight services. However, despite resistance, the Metropolitan Railway was integrated into the London Passenger Transport Board when that body was formed in July 1933.

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Record used with permission from the Exploring 20th century project

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