Book review: ‘Today’s London Underground’ by Reiss O’Neill

A collection that will give even seasoned Tube travellers a new insight into London’s public transport network.

A devoted fan and collector of books on long-distance trains, I used to snub the ever-growing genre of literature about the London Underground. That attitude was most likely the result of nearly 30 years of often-trying London Tube commutes and a number of negative experiences associated with them. These ranged from suffering heat stroke on a Central Line train during the particularly hot summer of 2003, when the temperature inside some of the carriages was well over the official maximum limit for transporting cattle, to being stuck (due to a signal failure, no doubt) on the Northern Line for over two hours one evening. Indeed, familiarity does often breed, if not quite contempt, than definitely lack of excitement.

Those memories, alongside excessive and constantly rising fares, were particularly poignant when compared with my largely positive impressions of many other underground urban railways of the world, from Washington DC to Seoul, Budapest and even Moscow.

Yet, with time, just as one often becomes used to and even attached to the generally unremarkable architecture of one’s home town, I eventually got to grips with the Tube’s trains and interiors, and was slowly but surely growing increasingly fond of its - at times battered and tired, yet still highly peculiar – beauty.

And that is precisely what a keen reader will be likely to discover in ‘Today’s London Underground’ by Reiss O’Neill (Pen & Sword, £30, ISBN: 1473823471), an album of photos with extended captions covering all imaginable aspects of the Underground from history, rolling stock and station designs to depots, signage, clocks and even station benches! Whatever the aesthetics and technological sophistication of all of the above, one thing is certain – just like London itself, they are all unique and immediately recognisable.

The book is resplendent with interesting details (like, for instance, the fact that the Hampstead Northern Line station is the deepest of the whole network sitting at 58.5m under the ground) and unusual features like the roundel in place of the clock face numbers at Bethnal Green, or a beautifully designed platform bench at Arsenal station.

The final chapter, ‘Engineer’s Rolling Stock’, should be of special interest to E&T readers. It carries photographs and descriptions of some of the London Underground engineering vehicles that are not well known to general public, for they operate mostly at night when passenger services are all shut. Among them are rail-adhesion trains, with specially-adapted trailer cars in use mostly during the autumn to prevent a build-up of the fallen leaves coating overground lines; battery locomotives, prototype motor cars (to test future trains’ design and equipment), and a number of service vehicles that can function both on road and rails.

Thanks to this album, my future Tube journeys will never feel the same again.

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