How could I go to Glasgow and not ride the subway? It is in fact the third oldest in the world, after London and Budapest, having opened in 1896 (eight years before the first part of the NYC subway). The primary thing about it is its size – TINY! The whole thing reminds me of some sort of oompa-loompa train. It makes the tiny trains and tunnels of London’s deep tube lines – of which I complain frequently – look big. Also, it has frequently been called “the clockwork orange” because of its circular nature and its colors – see below.
The Glasgow Subway is a 6.5-mile loop line, with 15 stations, covering a circle that includes part of the city center of Glasgow plus some of the neighborhoods to the south and west. It is entirely underground, and currently carries about 40,000 riders per weekday. While it was originally called the subway, the name was changed in 1936 to the “Glasgow Underground” and not officially rechristened as the subway until 2003. In London, of course, the word subway refers to any sort of pedestrian underpass, and NOT to the Underground – but I guess they have to be different, don’t they?
In terms of its long history, not much has really happened! In 114 years, the route has never been altered or extended, which has got to be unique. When it first opened they used single cars and a cable system (essentially like the cable cars in San Francisco), with a steam power plant that moved the cable. In 1935 the system was converted to electric operation, but they just modified the original cars, and kept going until 1977. Until then, the only way to get one of the cars off of the track was by crane, so any breakdown was a major problem!
By that point, things were pretty grim. The line was run-down; everything was old and worn out, there were worrisome cracks appearing in some stations, the two mainline rail stations that connected to the subway had both been shuttered in the 60s, and most of the demand south of the river – working waterfront and high-density housing (read: tenements) – had disappeared. In the spirit of our statement that Glasgow has some American elements to it, this sounds kind of typical for the time, doesn’t it?
Well, with creation of a new regional governmental agency responsible for transport, the subway was closed for just under 3 years for modernization, reopening a few months before I was born. Stations were rebuilt and enlarged, and a couple were relocated. Now, 30 years later, the system again needs investment to keep it going; while there was signifcant talk of shutting it down and abandoning it, they have ultimately decided to spend a few hundred million £s to carry out additional refurbishment.
While the former St. Enoch mainline railway station disappeared in the 1960s – and has been replaced by a shopping center which claims to be the largest glass-covered enclosed space in Europe – this subway station is the second-busiest, serving the primary shopping area of Glasgow and is only a 5-10 minute walk from Glasgow Central, the city’s primary railway station.
Buchanan Street is the busiest station, serving the Buchanan Street pedestrian mall as well as Glasgow Queen Street, the city’s second railway station and departure point for trains to Edinburgh as well as the rest of Scotland.
Originally, all of the stations had very narrow island platforms. In the late 70s modernization, several of the busiest stations were rebuilt to have separate platforms for each direction. Of course, with 3 tiny cars, it must be hard to overwhelm the platforms with passengers!
Overall, it was quite interesting to see such a miniature and old subway, combined with a oh-so-70s modernization. I’ll be interested to see what they do with it in the forthcoming refurbishments. Perhaps a back-to-the-future theme?
Finally, the first time Astrid or I heard of the Glasgow Subway was through this YouTube video a few years ago, so if you have time to kill you might find it interesting – a guy who races the subway train between two stations by exiting the train, running/biking on the surface, then trying to re-board the same train at the next station.