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Dogs must be carried on the escalator.


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A special steam train at Farringdon station, to celebrate 150 years of the London Underground. Photo by diamond geezer/flickr.

Here in Britain, we have been celebrating a birthday. Not the birthday of a person, however, but the birthday of a railway. One hundred and fifty years ago, in January 1863, the first underground railway in the world carried its first passengers. It ran for 6 kilometres from Paddington in London to a place close to the City, which is the name we call London’s main business district.

The new railway was controversial and unpopular with many people. The men building the railway dug up the streets and knocked down houses and other buildings. They dug a deep trench and put the railway track at the bottom. Then they covered over the new railway and remade the surface of the street. Not surprisingly, the construction work caused chaos in London for many months.

Steam engines pulled the first underground trains. Although the tunnels had vents in the roof to let the smoke escape, they were still full of soot and steam. The railway company bravely said that the atmosphere was invigorating and particularly good for people with asthma. I think that it must have been very unpleasant. Nonetheless, from the very first day the railway was popular with people who needed to travel to their work in London. About 26,000 people used the railway every day in its first six months of operation.

More underground railway lines opened in the following years. The railway companies found new ways to build and operate them. Instead of digging huge trenches in the streets, they bored holes deep under the city. People called these deep underground lines “tubes” because the tunnels had a circular shape like tubes. Nowadays, we say “the Tube” to mean all of the London underground system. It was of course impossible to use steam engines on the deep Tube lines; they had electric trains instead. By the beginning of the 20th century, electricity had replaced steam on all the underground lines.

To celebrate the 150th birthday of the London Underground, one of the old steam engines came out of its retirement home in a museum to pull a special Underground train. The Post Office issued some new stamps to mark the anniversary. And Prince Charles, who is old but not quite as old as the London Underground, joined the celebrations by taking a trip on an Underground train earlier this week. This was apparently the first time in 27 years that he had travelled on the Tube. Our royal family live very different lives from ordinary people!

To finish this podcast, here is some Underground vocabulary for you to learn.

When you go into an Underground station, you will see signs that say things like “Bakerloo Line southbound”. “Southbound” means “traveling south” – and “northbound” means traveling north, and I am sure you can work out what “eastbound” and “westbound” mean.

After you have followed the signs and found the right platform, and the train has arrived, you will often hear an announcement telling passengers to “mind the gap”. To “mind” something means to be careful – the announcement means “be careful. There is a gap between the edge of the platform and the doors of the train. Take care not to fall down.”

When you arrive at your destination, you will probably step onto an escalator to carry you up to the surface. You will see signs saying “please stand on the right”. This is very important! It means “if you want to stand and let the escalator do the work, you must stand on the right hand side of the escalator. Then people who are in a hurry can walk or run up the left hand side of the escalator.” You may think that this makes no sense – these crazy British people drive on the left hand side of the road, but they want people to stand on the right hand side of the escalator? However, Londoners who are late for work get annoyed by tourists who stand on the left-hand side of escalators. So, don’t be a tourist, stand on the right like us natives!

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Dogs must be carried on the escalator!

Finally, you will probably see a sign which says “Dogs must be carried on the escalator.” This will finally convince you that the British are mad. Do you really have to take a dog with you on the Underground so that you can carry it on the escalator? If you don’t have a dog, do you have to walk up the stairs instead? I will leave you to work out what the sign really means!

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