First published in 1962, and lauded for its in-depth study of the deep-level tube networks under London, Rails through the Clay swiftly became regarded as a Bible for tube geeks. As second-hand copies were soon exchanging hands for a significant amount, the book was updated in 1993 and re-released.
Again, out of print, the second-hand copies are sold for a usually not insubstantial amount – but recently I was lucky to pick up a copy for a negligible amount and have spent the past few weeks digesting its contents.
Often called a Bible for tube geeks for its contents, the term is doubly apt as the book itself is about the size of a decent Bible!
Without wanting to be too disparaging, tube geeks seem to come in two varieties. The first group – which I count myself to be part of – find the network interesting and are keen to learn a reasonable amount about it. The second group are the anoraks who will argue quite passionately about the size of a nut and bolt used to secure something in a train. The – to my mind – less significant the issue, the stronger the dispute it can engender!
This book is a delight for the second group – and a very dense read for the first group.
I will admit that after working through the first couple of chapters, I realised that the best way to read the book is to skip over the highly technical stuff and concentrate on the generalities. Some people might be interested in the slope angle of a specific part of a tunnel, the configuration of train layouts or the suppliers of this, that and the other – but I am not. More accurately, I might be interested if the information was in an appendix at the end of the book, but including all the details in the body of the text makes for heavy reading.
I prefer the more general wider ranging story of the network, not a written version of an excel spreadsheet.
That said, once I learnt to skip swiftly over the technical details, the rest of the book genuinely lives up to the hype and I am delighted that I finally managed to get a copy.
Running right from the beginnings of deep level tube tunnels (sub-surface rails are ignored), the book carries you right through the era of private ownership, the slow stealthy takeover by the government with the inevitable run-down of investment once taxpayers were involved, right up to the commencement of the Jubilee Line extension.
The book has lots of snippets about cancelled plans or tunnels that were built then abandoned – including details of the rarely mentioned loop at Embankment and a short-lived Jubilee Line extension idea that would have put the Isle of Dogs station at the south of the Isle, and a long way from the then-abandoned docks.
What interested me was less the technicalities and more the sort of snippets you can drop into (suitable) conversations – such as the soil dug out for the original Jubilee Line being used as landscaping for the M4 motorway, or that the tunnel rings ordered for the aborted extension were later reused for the Picadilly line extension to Heathrow Terminal 4.
These are the sorts of things I delight in learning about, and the book gave me some interesting snippets to research further.
The two authors regularly bemoan the long delays imposed by political arguments and the lack of investment, but while it is a “truth” that the railway was under-invested in during the 1980s, what comes out is that there was a massive amount of money spent on the network. We just seem to have forgotten about it, especially as fire-safety upgrades in the later part of the decade sucked away most of the money to “invisible” upgrades.
The book, re-published in 1993 ended on a high note though, as the authors were delighted to note, the Crossrail project looked likely to be on the verge of getting approval from the government.