Fifty years ago, the London Underground put a carpet on the floor of one of their tube trains to see what the public thought. The verdict was not favourable.

At the time, tube train floors were made of slatted wood, but London Underground faced a problem. The floors were usually made from hard-wearing Canadian maple, but in the 1970s, there was a growing shortage of Canadian timber, and prices for what they could get were soaring.

LT Museum’s 1938 stock carriage (c) ianVisits

So, in March 1974, London Transport decided to test some alternatives.

The ones that would eventually come to replace wooden floors were the vinyl floors — although awkwardly, the vinyl used for the tests on two District line trains also contained asbestos, which would have been a very big problem had that particular vinyl been used on the rest of the fleet.

However, one of the other trials involved carpets.

Just one carriage on the Piccadilly line (No. 9153) was converted for the tests, which were intended to determine how hardwearing the carpet would be once the public trampled all over it.

Transport for London Corporate Archives ref: LT000030/Staff Magazines/053/LT News/March 22 1974, pp2 (c) TfL

We don’t know if the carpet was a technical success because it was a failure as far as the public was concerned.

At a time of austerity, the public saw laying carpet in a train as an expensive extravagance when, in fact, it was a cost-saving measure to avoid using expensive wood. The perception that carpet was more expensive, even though it was actually cheaper, proved a publicity problem that the facts could not overcome.

It’s an annoying problem even now, where a cost-saving measure can be criticised for apparently wasting money when the exact opposite is the case. I once worked at a charity that was urged to stop making our brochures look so glossy, as donors felt their money was being wasted on glossy printing. We switched to a cheaper-looking paper that was more expensive to print, but at least the donors were happy.

Back to the experimental carpeted tube train, and Mr Terry Lowe, London Transport’s mechanical engineer (design) told the staff magazine, LT News: “The fire resistant Canadian maple used at present for the floors is becoming both difficult and very expensive to obtain.”

“The carpet – 80 per cent wool and 20 per cent synthetic fibre – is being tested for its wearing qualities and to establish the necessary cleaning and maintenance procedures. Similar tests are being conducted with vinyl-asbestos floor coverings.”

The May 1974 edition of Railway Magazine added that tests of other materials would take place over the next few months.

In the end, London Transport opted for the vinyl-style flooring and has stuck to that decision ever since. However, carpets are a regular feature on mainline trains, so had people not complained in 1974, would the tube be as famous for its patterned floors as it is for the seats?

Who knows!

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One comment
  1. Edward Betts says:

    It’s interesting to compare this with the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system in San Francisco, which had carpeted train floors for over 40 years. Much like the London Underground’s experiment, BART ultimately phased out carpeting, favouring easier-to-maintain vinyl flooring. The final carpet was removed in 2015, marking an end to an era that many considered a quirky but impractical feature of public transport. More details on the BART flooring transition can be found here: https://www.bart.gov/news/articles/2015/news20150810-0

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