January 10, 1863: First underground railway opens in London

Christy Karras

The idea of linking central London neighborhoods with a rail system had been floated for decades, as more and more people commuted into the center and jammed traffic. But the crowded, narrow, winding streets on land — all owned by many different entities — hardly made for streamlined rail lines. Thus, the Metropolitan Railway came up with a completely new (and untried) solution: put the trains underground.

The London Underground’s first 3.7-mile section, from Paddington to Farringdon, opened on January 10, 1863. Its wooden cars, pulled by steam-powered engines, carried 38,000 passengers — making it an immediate and undisputed hit.

Soon, other segments joined the first. By 1884, the Circle Line fulfilled its promise, circumnavigating the city and taking people to most of the city’s major train stations. Thus, passengers could ride the national rail network to London and go straight into an Underground station, emerging near their eventual destination in central London.

The Underground, often called “the Tube” for short because of its circular tunnels, is now vastly expanded — and beloved worldwide. It makes London one of the world’s easiest cities to navigate via the subway. Almost every tourist destination in the city is near one of the greater London area’s 270 Tube stations.