London celebrations

London Underground: The brutal way the Victoria Line was built from grueling changes 70 feet underground to only have one bath

The Victoria line was the very first automated rail service. It stands as one of the transport feats of the world. But how did it happen?

In 1948 a task force set up by the British Transport Commission (BTC) proposed a tube railway from Victoria to Walthamstow – with the aim of decongesting the central area and connecting four main railway stations in the capital – Victoria, King’s Cross, Euston and St Pancras. Bn 1963, work had begun on the Victoria line.

First broadcast in 1969, a BBC documentary reveals the details of how the Victoria Line was dug, revealing the grueling work that went into making transport what it is today. Here at MyLondon, we’ve summarized the construction events of the world’s most advanced underground system.

READ MORE: Tripadvisor’s Best Pub at Every Elizabeth Line Stop



Queen Elizabeth II opens the new Victoria line on the London Underground, March 7, 1969. Here she walks around the driver’s cab

The first job was to build an ‘umbrella’ type structure over Oxford Circus that would allow vehicles to continue traveling over it while workers dug the tunnel below. The rule was that work had to be completed over the long weekend so that traffic could return to the streets by 6.30am on Tuesday morning after the bank holiday.

After the steel overpass was completed, workers descended 70 feet underground to begin digging the tunnel, working in small groups. They worked eight-hour shifts, with some apparently choosing to work double shifts, so they only had one bath per two shifts.

Tunnels were dug into the clay subsoil using a digging shield – a tool that developed and improved over time. Today, a group of six men working on a modern rotary excavator can tunnel through clay at two inches per minute with impressive precision.

London clay is apparently quite ideal for the construction of underground railway tunnels, but it cannot sustain itself for long, so the tunnel lining rings had to go in quickly after the tunnels were dug. Given the complexities of building a new London underground tunnel, among others already in it, the BBC documentary said ‘there has been little comparable engineering achievement with human error so weak”.

Nonetheless, the engineers faced tough challenges, with trains stopped at Finsbury Park for 15 hours as the new line passed, a flooding problem under Green Park and the complexity of the converging lines at King’s Cross, which meaning that the Victoria line had to be somehow threaded through.

But the workers preserved, working along the route of the tunnel until the line was complete to Walthamstow. Tracks were then laid with incredible precision to within 1/16th of an inch and a total of 42 new escalators were installed at Victoria line stations.

The Victoria line was set to test the world’s first full-scale automatic railway. The trains had to be driven from a control room near Euston with no real need for a driver, he was just there to reassure people.

On Easter 1968, when ordinary Londoners were enjoying a break from work, this flying umbrella that had rested over Oxford Circus five years earlier was finally lifted. And then, in 1969, Queen Elizabeth II became the first monarch to board the Underground for the opening of the Victoria Line, making the short journey from Green Park to Victoria.

Watch the full BBC documentary ‘How They Dug The Victoria Line’ on BBC iPlayer here.

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