After landing at Heathrow, first you go through customs, then you trade dollars for pounds, then you buy a subway ticket on the London Underground.
As soon as the recording warns you to “Mind the gap!” and you see your first “WAY OUT” sign, you know you’re not in Chicago anymore.
“The Tube” will take you to almost any neighborhood and close to any store or tourist site.
This year, the London Underground is marking its 150th anniversary with commemorative stamps and coins, TV specials and a new book titled “Underground: How the Tube Shaped London.” People can even take a ride in 1890s subway cars pulled by an 1890s steam engine, just for old times’ sake.
I have ridden the Tube quite a bit over the past 30-plus years. When my daughter, Ruth, and I visited in October 2011, we bought Oyster cards — swipe-style debit cards offering discount fares — and rode on it several times a day. It was clean, fast and cheap. We didn’t need taxis or buses.
London, with more than 3 million people, was the world’s largest city when its subway opened in January 1863. Something had to be done to ease the bedlam of the narrow streets — a dangerous mix of pedestrians, push carts, and horse-drawn carriages, cabs and wagons.
There was no way to widen and straighten the streets, so a railway was built beneath them. Rails, trains, even the stations were all underground. No other city had that.
Some thought the tunnels would cave in beneath the weight of buildings and traffic. Others thought that passengers would suffocate from breathing smoke emitted by coal-burning engines. Others were afraid of traveling around in dark tunnels, possibly filled with muggers.
But the fears were unfounded. Five hundred VIPS rode on the first, 3.5-mile run on Jan. 9, 1863, and 40,000 regular passengers joined in the next day. What a thrill! Soon, everyone saw that the Tube offered speed, freedom, safety and all-weather convenience.
The well-to-do paid extra to ride in “first-class carriages,” while the rest of humanity sat in the cheap seats. Blue-collar folk bought low-cost “workmen’s fare” tickets to get to work and back.
Today, more than a century after electric trains were introduced, the Tube is the melting pot of a truly global city. You sit or stand amid executives, tourists, teenagers, parents with babies, old people and commuters of every imaginable race and ethnicity.
“London wouldn’t be London without the Underground,” Sam Mullins, director of the London Transport Museum, told the BBC. “It’s a lot more than moving people. It’s extraordinarily interleaved with the culture of the city and its self-identity.”
The system carries a billion passengers a year, and completes more than 3.5 million journeys each day. There are 275 stations, and 253 miles of track.
As songwriter Roger Miller would say, it’s as much a part of London as Westminster Abbey, the Tower of Big Ben, and “the rosy-red cheeks of the little children.”
Danville native Kevin Cullen is a former Commercial-News reporter. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.