LONDON, UK — It's just after 8 a.m. at Finchley Road station on the Metropolitan line and London's subway network is heaving with rush hour passengers.
Further down the line, in city center stations like Baker Street, Farringdon and Aldgate, the same commuters spill out into the streets, their heads down against the grey of an English winter morning, minds already focused on their jobs.
For most this is just the start of another working day. But for the transport network through whose maze of narrow tunnels they have rattled, it is a phenomenal feat: more than three million people delivered safely, without delay.
What makes this feat even more remarkable is the fact that the London Underground, or Tube as it is more commonly known, is today celebrating its 150th anniversary. Some of the tunnels, including those used by the Metropolitan line, have been in near-continuous operation since steam trains first navigated them in 1863.
That's not to say the the world's oldest underground rail network isn't showing its age. Delays occur frequently as signals fail, trains break down or lines are closed for maintenance work.
There are other gripes. Commuters complain of paying too much for a service that is estimated to be running at almost 50 percent over capacity. Trains and stations are rammed at peak periods, making travel an ordeal of forced intimacy with strangers. In summer, when air conditioning systems struggle against rising temperatures, it is far worse.
Train drivers aren't happy either. The service was hit by a strike over pay shortly after Christmas and more is threatened in coming weeks, bringing the prospect of widespread disruption.
Many of these problems are a legacy of the Tube's venerable heritage. Although now run as one service, its individual lines were haphazardly dug beneath the city by private companies during its first 80 years of life. It's an infrastructure that has aged badly.
“It's too complicated and this is because of a series of historical errors and historical accidents over the course of its construction,” says Andrew Martin, a novelist and author of "Underground, Overground,” a book exploring Tube history. “But that helps make it interesting as well.”
Unlike the neatly planned networks that run beneath the streets of Paris, Berlin or New York, the London Tube is a tangle of branch lines, messy intersections, long-abandoned ghost stations and narrow tunnels that must close every night to allow teams of engineers and cleaners to keep things ticking over.
What the Tube fails to offer in function, it makes up for with the form it still proudly displays on lines such as the Northern, Piccadilly, Central and Bakerloo, where over the years architects and draftsmen, many now legendary figures, have crafted the Tube system’s distinctive character.
Among them Leslie Green and Charles Holden designed stations that glowed with red-tiled Edwardian warmth or revelled in the clean, futuristic lines of art deco. Meanwhile, in unglamorous back offices, Harry Beck and Frank Pick created the Tube’s iconic color-coded maps and cheerily familiar "Underground" roundels.
"The stations built in late Edwardian times by Leslie Green are stunning," Martin said. "Each has its own individual tiling patterns and if you pay attention you notice they're like little jewel boxes." These include Martin's favorite, the Bakerloo line station that serves Regents Park. "It's only a little one but has this color scheme of brown, cream and yellow. It looks like a chocolate sundae."
While some of the finer design points may be missed by the quotidien crowds that stream through ticket barriers, down platforms and onto waiting trains, few who use the network will be unaware of the role it has played during the city’s turbulent past.
During the Second World War, subterranean stations offered sanctuary to tens of thousands of people during German air raids. More recently, in July 2005, it was targeted by Islamist extremists who detonated bombs on Circle and Piccadilly line trains, killing 41 people.
Such events and the Tube’s enduring presence in London life for a century and a half have embedded it firmly in the city’s soul and provided inspiration for artists from poets to punks.
In the mid-20th century, John Betjemen, a British poet laureate, chronicled the Metropolitan line-fueled expansion of London’s leafy northwestern suburbs with wistfully optimistic verse now known as the Metro-land poems. "One, Middlesex," paints this quintessentially English scene: “Gaily into Ruislip Gardens / Runs the red electric train / With a thousand Ta’s and Pardon’s / Daintily alights Elaine.”
In “Down In The Tube Station at Midnight,” a 1978 single that is now a favorite with subway buskers, Mod revivalists The Jam sang about: “The distant echo / Of faraway voices boarding faraway trains / To take them home to / The ones that they love and who love them forever.”
To its credit, Transport for London, the government body that now runs the Tube, appears to have a strong sense of this cultural heritage. It is working to restore and preserve some of its more cherished stations as part of a broader program to upgrade passenger and train capacity.
And in an exercise of pure nostalgia, it will this weekend allow a special steam service to run between Paddington and Farringdon, recreating the route of the first train of 1863 through the vaulted Victorian arches of the Metropolitan line. Large crowds are expected.
While electricity-powered modern day Metropolitan trains may offer fewer thrills than their coal-fired predecessors, they remain just as popular with passengers.
“I can’t complain, it’s more or less reliable, you never have to wait more than three or four minutes and in my experience it’s the best metro system in Europe,” said Louis Allen, a student on his daily commute from Warwick Avenue to Euston.
“If you’ve ever tried driving in central London or getting the bus, then the London Underground is definitely the preferable option,” said George Bruce, 54, making his regular two-weekly Tube pilgrimage into the city from outlying Harrow on the Hill for a business meeting.
“It’s true there are sometimes delays,” said Faraz Helmi, a 23-year-old Iranian student traveling from Maida Vale to Aldgate. “But it’s better than anything I have seen elsewhere. For me it is perfect.”
And with that, another train rolls into the tunnels, accelerating cautiously toward the next 150 years.