Going underground: the Glasgow Subway
It was almost a year ago, to the day, that (a few degrees north of here) I witnessed a particularly tall Scottish acquaintance crack his head on the frame of a domestic doorway that was significantly shorter than he was. His pained response, as he clutched his bruised head:
“Which *~#!ing Oompa-Loompas designed this place?”
I haven’t asked him, but I suspect that this particular Scotsman not find the Glasgow Subway a particular congenial mode of transport. His good humoured rhetorical question floated into my mind as I descended the steps to the short and disturbingly narrow platform of Bridge Street underground station. Despite a major refurbishment in the nineteen-seventies, neither the subway network (Britain’s only underground system outside London) nor stations have been expanded since it first opened in 1896. Most stations, like this one at Bridge Street in Laurieston, still have their original island platform that is just a few metres wide. Clockwise (Outer Circle) and anticlockwise (Inner Circle) trains emerge from tunnels either side of this platform that seem blacker than I ever remember comparable metro tunnels being.
Relatively new welded tracks twitter and twang with distant train movements, and if two trains arrive at the same time, the two competing gushes of wind can catch an unseasoned transit passenger by surprise. The aroma of traction motors, brake shoes and damp mingle. At off peak hours when service intervals widen, an empty Glasgow Subway platform is a strangely haptic place to wait in silence for a train. The closed loops of the two lines seem to magnify the sounds that reverberate through the tunnels and along the tracks.
As the distant rumble of an approaching train becomes a roar, I realise that this is a fully fledged metro system, just on a scale not seen in many other places… it’s tiny. If the stations seem diminutive, the trains appear from the dark mouths of the tunnels like Hornby scale replicas. Even I (as a moderate five-something man) have to duck when boarding. Unwary tall men should beware, here’s another door frame that could cause an outburst of cursing.
Once installed on the suitable retro banquette seating (orange and brown is a cultural colour combination that was celebrated in trains and buses throughout Britain in the seventies) the trains feel deceptively spacious. There are a handful of clever design details as well – the high level metal grab handles are integrated with the lighting panels for a space efficient and smooth surface (no risk of banging your head here). The trains are also comfortable – especially in the short, windowless and sheltered benches at the end of the carriages – comfy enough to consider just curling up with a good book on a cold wet day to enjoy a couple of 25 minute circuits.
The circle of stations has hardly changed since the subway opened – amongst metrophiles that’s acknowledged as a rarity. Only Merkland Street station has been closed and abandoned, replaced by the larger rail and bus interchange at Partick. Eagle eyed passengers should keep an eye out between Govan and Partick for the unilluminated but wider tunnel that marks the site of the old station.
Those same metrophiles should alight at Kelvinhall for the excellent (and free) Glasgow Museum of Transport, where some of the fixtures from Merkland Street have been re-constructed into a mock station that houses three of the subways original passenger carriages. Before electrification in the seventies, trains were pulled by a clutch and cable system powered by a huge steam engine between West Street and Shields Road stations. I’m torn between the old wooden and leather benches of these carriages or the delightfully retro orange and brown interiors that seem to have lasted three decades.