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The Subway, Glasgow
West central Glasgow, Scotland, UK
associated engineer
Simpson & Wilson
Sir William Halcrow & Partners
date  1891 - 21st January 1897, 1977 - 16th April 1980
UK era  Victorian  |  category  Railway  |  reference  NS588649
ICE reference number  HEW 1399
Glasgow's Subway opened fully on 21st January 1897, making it the third-oldest underground metro system in the world. Originally steam-powered, with cable-hauled trains, the looped system was converted to electricity in 1935 and modernised in the 1970s. It remains in constant use and follows its original, unextended route.
The first underground metro system had opened three decades earlier — London Underground commenced life with the opening of the Metropolitan Railway on 9th January 1863. Next came the Budapest Metro, claiming second place just months ahead of Glasgow's Subway. Its first line opened on 2nd May 1896.
The Subway is a continuous loop, 10.5km in length. It has 15 stations, eight of which are north of the River Clyde, which bisects of the city. A distinguishing feature of the system is the narrow guage railway that runs through its twin tunnels. The guage is 1.22m wide, and the tunnels 3.35m in diameter. The outer circle runs clockwise and the inner one anticlockwise. The running tunnels join together at the stations in a single 8.5m arched tunnel.
The Subway was built for the Glasgow District Subway Company, and its Act of Parliament received royal assent on 4th August 1890. Construction commenced at St Enoch Square (our grid reference) in March 1891.
In tunnelling under Glasgow, engineers and contractors encountered a wide variety of material, from sandstone and coal to soft clays and silts. Many problems had to be overcome, not least in tunnelling under the Clyde, which had to be done in two places. At Custom House Quay to the east, the river broke in and flooded the workings on ten separate occasions.
The completion of the river crossings by grouting behind a cast iron segmental lining to the tunnels made them remarkably watertight, so much so that the sections under the river are among the driest parts of the whole system. Most of the dry-land tunnel stretches are lined in brick and concrete. The shallower stretches were constructed using cut-and-cover techniques and have a horseshoe cross-section.
The approaches to the river crossing points have 1 in 18 gradient. The stations have flanking gradients of 1 in 20, leading to 3m wide island platforms. The running tunnels are between 2m and 47m below ground.
Because there are no surface stations in the system, removal of the train cars for servicing was a complicated business that involved lifting them with a crane through a special access pit inside the depot at Broomloan Road, Govan.
Originally, the trains were hauled by a 38mm diameter endless cable that ran between the rails at a speed of 20km per hour. The driver controlled a device called ‘the gripper’ that could grab or release the cable as required — a unique method of traction for a suburban railway of this size.
The necessary power was provided by stationary steam engines located in a coal-fired power station at 173 Scotland Street, between the West Street and Shields Road Stations. The red brick complex was built in 1895 and has been a Category B listed building since June 1986, though it has now fallen into disrepair. It was designed by architect John Gordon (1835-1912), who also designed the Subway stations at West Street, Merkland Street (later reconstructed as Partick) and Copeland Road (later Ibrox).
The Subway’s headquarters were at St Enoch Station. The two storey red sandstone building was designed by architect James Miller (1860-1947), who later designed the Institution of Civil Engineers' building in London. The Glasgow building is in the Flemish Renaissance style and has been a Category A listed building since December 1970. The station was used as a travel centre until 2008 but is now a coffee shop.
The Subway opened on 14th December 1896 but closed the same day following a collision. It re-opened on 21st January 1897 after safety works had been completed.
In 1923, Glasgow Corporation Transport Department, who operated the city’s tramways, bought the Subway. They converted it to run on electricity in 1935 by introducing a third 'live' rail supplying direct current. During World War II, the Subway closed (September 1940 - January 1941) after the system sustained bomb damage. Fortunately no one was injured.
In 1973, the Greater Glasgow Passenger Transport Executive became the Subway's operator, and the system was closed in May 1977 for major modernisation works costing £60m.
After an official inauguration by Queen Elizabeth II in November 1979, the Subway re-opened on 16th April 1980. In its new incarnation, trains of three cars, each 12m long, travelled at speeds of up to 54km per hour. The work included a new rail connection between the tunnels and the surface depot. Three stations were rebuilt, six stations received additional platforms and escalators were installed in all stations.
Evening trains (after 7pm) started running in September 1980 and Sunday operation began in 1988. By 1994, 14.7m passengers were travelling on the Subway trains, which took 24 minutes to complete the loop.
The system has been part of Strathclyde Partnership for Transport since April 2006. This body is descended from Strathclyde Passenger Transport Authority, formed in 1996.
The whole loop was closed on 5th March 2009 when piling for the M74 extension, just 25m from the tunnels, caused cracking and falling debris near West Street Station.
In March 2011, the Scottish Government confirmed that it would provide funding for a £290m upgrade of the Subway. The works will include new purpose-built rolling stock, new automated signalling, station refurbishments and ‘smartcard’ ticketing. Work began in July 2011 and part of the scheme — at Hillhead, Ibrox and Kelvinhall — is anticipated to be completed before the summer 2014 Commonwealth Games open in Glasgow.
Architect (stations): John Gordon
Architect (stations): James Miller
Contractor: Sir Robert McAlpine & Sons
Contractor: Charles Brand
Train supply (1896): Oldbury Railway Carriage & Wagon Co Ltd
Train supply (1898) Hurst Nelson Co Ltd
Electric plant (1935): Westinghouse
Research: ECPK
reference sources   CEH SLB

The Subway, Glasgow