Article Correctness Is Author's Responsibility: The Return of London’s 1930s Futuristic Subway Car

This year, some of London’s oldest surviving subway carriages will be coming back from the dead. The three so-called Q-stock trains, which first hit the rails in 1938, have been languishing in storage since the last one left service in 1971. Now, pending the completion of a public appeal to raise £200,000, the carriages will be restored by the London Transport Museum and made ready for service once more.

Don’t necessarily expect to see them pulling into a regular station anytime soon, however. The restored rolling stock are being retooled as a sort of rolling exhibition. Each car will be refitted to highlight an important period of London history during the carriages’ working life: the evacuation of children from the city during World War II, the lean years of 1940s austerity, and the relative affluence of the 1950s. Once fitted with contemporary trimmings and advertising, the carriages should prove fascinating not just as a snapshot of bygone London life. They’re also a reminder of just how quickly something that was at the cutting edge of technology can start to look prehistoric.

When London’s first Q Stock trains started serving the city’s District Line in 1938, they would have had some of the latest developments designed to make mass transit run smoothly: electro-pneumatic brakes and doors operated by air pressure that, instead of the normal hinge, would simply whoosh back when the guard pressed the button. Seen 79 years later, however, these once up-to-date trains look like messengers from another age, possessing features that time has rendered exotic.

For a start, they were far from uniform. The Q Stock line was actually a retrofit, cobbled together from three existing generations of carriages built in the 1920s and ‘30s that were then retooled and given the same paint job and upholstery to bring them up to date. The result was that Londoners frequently got different sizes and shapes of carriage within the same train. The older of the three carriages being restored, built in 1935, came equipped with a clerestory roof—a raised, vaguely Mohawk-like line of windows running along the carriage’s roof spine. Intended to provide extra light on a line that ran frequently above ground, this feature revealed the influence of contemporary American trains and street cars. The carriage also features another bygone feature: a first class section. (In a spirit of wartime pragmatism, different fare classes were phased out in 1941.)

An example of the earlier model of Q Stock train with a clerestory roof//London Transport Museum.

The two newer Q Stock carriages, built in 1938, show how much design had shifted. They dispensed with the clerestory, no longer needed as more powerful electric lighting was introduced. What they possessed instead, was a super-sleek chassis that flared at the bottom to reach closer to the platform—something that the more avant-garde train designs of the 1930s experimented with but which soon fell out of favor. In terms of fittings, however, the different generations of car were more uniform, with an abundance of mellow wood in the upholstery that, paired with shaded lamps, gives them an almost domestic look. The later Q Stock trains may have been modern, but they still came just before the general shift away from wood towards plastic and metal.

This is charming, but it isn’t necessarily evidence of a bygone era that had higher standards of comfort. The carriages’ lamps were wired up to the same circuit that propelled the train forward, and the fluted shades were in place to make sure passengers couldn’t cause problems with the whole train by getting close enough to tinker with the bulbs. The sleeker, plainer designs of later rail cars should thus be seen partly as a move towards something safer and more efficient. That won’t stop The London Transport Museum’s carriages looking great—even enviable —when they hit the rails once more.