Trackside Classic: 1896 Glasgow Subway Car No. 1 – Simply Different

Glasgow is a great city, and perhaps one of the most individually distinctive in Britain, with a historic importance that is obvious to any visitor. But you have to look a little harder to see one of the city’s gems – the only underground cable railway in the world, and the only underground railway in Britain outside London – and unlike anything else anywhere else.

Glasgow, on the River Clyde on the west coast, is the largest city in Scotland and its industrial history and economy contrasts sharply with its stately rival Edinburgh, just 50 miles away on the other side of the country. In the 19th century, Glasgow was the economic powerhouse of Scotland, with major ship and locomotive building and one of the most important ports in Britain, and was surrounded by an industrial hinterland full of coal mining and steelworks. Calling itself ‘the second city of the Empire’ was not hyperbole. The city grew rich on this bounty, and it shows in the city centre’s grand architecture, if not in the working people’s housing on the edge – the city had some of the worst slums in Britain.

And, in 1896, the city built only the third underground railway in the world, following London and–you might be surprised to hear, and by only 7 months–Budapest, the privately financed and owned Glasgow District Subway. But while London has developed one of the most comprehensive (and still expanding) underground railway systems in the world, Glasgow has remained faithful to its original simple network – and it really is a simple circle of just 6½ miles, with trains running on the outer (clockwise) and inner (anticlockwise) circles. And the ‘Subway’ name has stuck, despite attempts over the years to get us to call it the ‘Underground’  – everywhere else in Britain, a subway is a pedestrian underpass, usually beneath a major road.

Perhaps the ‘Subway’, with the grid layout of the city centre (very unusual in Britain) and its dramatic architecture was a subconscious nod to the city’s historic links with New York?But the Subway is more interesting than just a circle of underground railway line should be. And here’s why.

Firstly, the route may be a simple circle, but it shows the variety that is Glasgow. From the city centre, with its impressive Victorian architecture – this is the subway’s own original headquarters, doubling as St. Enoch station – it heads under the Clyde into what the locals call the Southside, and turns west towards the shipyards of Govan. It then heads back north, crossing under the Clyde again towards the more genteel areas of Partick and Hillhead – known as the ‘West End’ and then, as now, the most desirable part of the city. Then, back east and south to the city via the much less affluent Cowcaddens. All told, 6½ miles, with a journey time of around 30 minutes. All the route is in tunnel, mostly built by ‘cut and cover’ techniques and following the street layout, and not far below the surface – but the geography of Glasgow means it is not flat! There are some significant gradients in the West End in particular, and under the river – reaching 5%. Tunnels average 29 ft below ground, and range from 7 ft to 115 ft (at Hillhead). There are 15 stations – eight north, seven south of the river.

Second, it is compact. Track gauge is just 4 feet (1,220mm), not the standard 4 ft 8 ½ inches used in London, and the twin tunnels have a diameter of barely 11 feet. The cars (as they were always called from the earliest days in Glasgow, while British mainline railways had carriages) are thus significantly smaller than anything on even the deep London tubes.

Third, it had the simplest of track layouts. Simpler than a child’s first train set. It was two circles of track. No crossovers, loops or sidings. Not a set of points to be seen. Trains couldn’t cross from one to the other. They could go round and round and that was it. Being cable driven, they couldn’t even reverse. There wasn’t even a rail connection to a maintenance depot. Instead, at Broomloan Road (between Govan and Ibrox on the Southside), a gap in the tunnel roof allowed trains to be lifted from track to shed for maintenance – all of them, every night – and then lowered back down in the morning. Just like your model railway.

The simplicity was turned into a virtue. At each station, the two tunnels opened out into shared spaces, most of which were lit by glazed roofs rather than artificial lights. The station platforms were arranged as an island between the track, so only one platform and one set of stairs, and always on the same side of the train at every station, so doors were only needed on one side. Only one station, Kelvinbridge, was provided a passenger lift – it was stairs only everywhere else.

Privately funded and operated, the Glasgow District Subway opened in December 1896 after 5 years of construction. Trains ran at frequencies of up to every 3½ minutes, with early fares of 1d (one old or pre-decimal penny, of which there were 240 to a pound, so less than half a new (well, 1971) decimal penny) for up to 4 stations, and 2d for a full circuit, from 6am to 11pm. Signalling was a simple electrical system that set a red light at the exit from each station until the train ahead had left the next station, when it passed a treadle that turned the signal behind to green – so a train was always at least one station behind the one in front. Speed was a max of 15 mph.

The trains were driven by a continuous cable between the tracks, itself powered by huge steam engines at a powerhouse at Scotland Street, above the tunnels on the industrial Southside. The two engines were single cylinder monsters, with cylinders 72 in x 42 in, capable of generating 1,500hp. One was usually sufficient for the power needed to run both cables. They were powered by up to six of eight boilers, each 8 ft x 30 ft, and mechanically stoked.

Trains gripped the cable, which was carried by 1,700 ‘sheaves’ or rollers in each tunnel, through a ‘gripper’ over 2 feet long that allowed the driver to grasp and release the cable as required. This was similar to how San Francisco operates its cable cars to this day, but with the cable above the rails rather than below street level. Numerous advantages made this the obvious option in 1896 – notably, electric power had only reached the point where a separate heavy locomotive would be needed, meaning heavier rail and longer platforms would have been necessary.

The two cables were quoted in a magazine article in 1898 as each being 36,300 ft long (or 6.875miles), and weighing 57 tons. They were 1½  inches in diameter, of up to 16 strands containing 600 miles of steel in each cable. The gearing between engines and cable was a complex system, which included the equipment to regulate the tension in the cable to match the density of the traffic at any time.

The first cars were built in England, by the Oldbury Carriage and Waggon Company, of Birmingham, which was one of the constituents of what became the Metro-Cammell railway and road bodybuilding business. 20 were completed in 1896, and another 10 in 1897, based on twin bogie chassis with wooden bodies, originally in a plum and cream livery. Metro-Cammell ultimately built the Virgin Pendolino as part of the Alstom group before the last factory at Washwood Heath, Birmingham, was shut in 2005.

The interior of the cars was very elaborate; look at this wood and engraved glass. The seats were attached to the sides of the car, but not the floor, which created a unique rocking motion known, in one of those wonderfully onomatopoeic Scots words, to generations of Glaswegians as the ‘Shoogle’.

From 1898, trailer cars were added, built by Hurst Neilson of Motherwell, close to Glasgow in Lanarkshire. These were shorter vehicles, on a simple four wheel chassis, and obviously no gripper mechanism or driving position. This is the preserved 39T at the city’s impressive new Riverside Transport Museum.

The little two car trains became a Glasgow institution. Their uniformity allowed for ‘Q here’ to be painted on platforms adjacent to the door at the rear of the leading power car, leaving the front door clear for exiting passengers. Red leather and that elaborate panelling in the front car, brown and a plainer finish in the rear, shoogling their way round the inner or outer circle day after day, year after year.

And so things were until 1922, when the Glasgow District Subway company entered terminal financial difficulties. The City Corporation rescued the Subway by buying it from the dying company, but things hardly changed; the cars became red and white, and kept on shoogling round.

In 1935, things did change. The system was electrified, just like contemporary trainsets. That is, an electric third rail replaced the cables, and electric motors replaced the gripper on the same cars. Nothing else changed. Clearly municipal ownership had not brought financial riches!  Still just two separate loops, still cars from 1896, still shoogling.

The stations were simple too, with separate ticket machines for the two types of ticket

Electrification was also when the corporation tried to get the name Underground accepted. The word appeared on stations and cars, but the people loved their Subway and refused to change..

And that was pretty much it until 1977. For 80 years, the same cars had shoogled under the River Clyde and the city’s streets, faithfully if simply serving the people of Glasgow. It outlasted even the famous Glasgow trams, the last of which were retired in 1962 – Glasgow was the last city in Britain to lose them.

But eventually, it was apparent that the end was near unless something drastic was done. You can’t keep something even this simple running forever on nothing. Reliability dropped, and with no loops, a failed train had to be pushed to Broomloan and lifted away before the system could flow again.

So, in 1977, the Subway–sorry, Underground–closed for a three year makeover, under the auspices of the Greater Glasgow Passenger Transport Executive which had also taken over local buses from the city and its neighbours. When it returned, it looked very different.

Stations were enlarged, with bigger platforms at the busy points in the West End and city centre; tunnels were repaired and relined; and a moving walkway linked Buchanan St subway and British Rail’s Queen St stations. New ticketing systems used vending machines and automatic barriers. New, heavier track was laid, and Broomloan modernised and, at last, a rail connection to the depot was built.

And new trains, after just 80 years! 33 new cars were built at Metro-Cammell, with contemporary styling; another eight followed in 1992, with trains formed of two driving and one trailer car. Colours changed from red to bright orange. The driver’s role became one of controlling the doors, and pressing a button to start the train only – automatic train operation did the rest. All in all, apart from the cramped size, the system leapt forward 100 years.

Today, after just 40 years, another modernisation is underway, with new trains coming in 2020 that will be fully automatic. And periodically, there are calls and plans for extensions to the Subway, usually to serve the economically challenged east of the city, where car ownership rates are among the lowest in Britain and rail services few. Sadly, it’s hard to see that ever happening; Glasgow is not London, so the UK government isn’t interested and the devolved Scottish Government can’t afford such expansive projects.

London, on the other hand, has the most comprehensive underground and mainline system in Europe, and is about to get £15 billion worth of east to west Crossrail – a 70-miles-long link built to mainline standards from the western to the eastern outskirts and tunnelling for 20 miles under central London, and has already been promised Crossrail 2, for another £30 billion, from north to south, on top of the massive investment in the Underground’s Jubilee Line and the mainline Thameslink in recent years. Projects like extending the Glasgow subway, renewing the Tyne and Wear Metro or electrifying railways in the industrial north have to wait – but a fraction of the largess freely lavished on London could be economically transformative in such areas, and are needed now more than ever. But government in London has repeatedly stymied such projects, which looks more short sighted every year. Modernising the Subway is costing under £300m; £400m would rejuvenate the Tyne & Wear Metro, but convincing the Treasury takes years, if at all. You sense their first response to being asked is to shrug their shoulders and say ‘but that’s in the North’, but London just has to say ‘Can we have..’

But, in 2003, at least the Subway became, officially, the Subway again, so something’s been put right.

And you have to smile at the map, while topping up your season ticket on the app – the i-Shoogle.