The World’s Oldest Underground Railway

I get a lot of hits on this page as people search for exactly the title of this post. The answer is the Metropolitan line in London, by a clear 30 years over Line 1 in Budapest. See below for why Cobble Hill, listed in Guinness as the world’s oldest urban railway tunnel, isn’t (wasn’t, it’s closed)  even that.

Visiting, near as damn it, every capital city in Europe wasn’t the original task we set ourselves. We were initially just going for extremes of latitude and longitude, and convexity and non duplication of route where feasible, while getting back to base inside 2 weeks, bar a day or two. Capital cities are usually situated at the economic hub of a country, and so the very nature of European political and industrial geography meant that you end up visiting everybody’s principle city almost inevitably. Indeed,  it’s quite impossible to do most of the above while specifically avoiding capitals. The likes of Berlin, Prague, Bratislava and Rome, missing from the initial plan, only cost an extra day in total. Ditching Sicily gave us that back.

Having now renamed the project the disOrient Express, The Steering Committee have been focusing in on each of these cities and each and every one of them has some kind of fixed rail feature of a cyclical nature that we can wind onto our orbital odyssey. It seems that every time we zoom in on a specific city that we are visiting, and working out what might be feasible in the allotted time, we turn up a world class railway gem. This week unearthed an underground funicular tram. I didn’t aim for it, it was just part of a logical route around Istanbul, but it turns out to be the 2nd oldest (and still in use) tube train on the planet.

During our latest phase of investigation of the Balkans, we’ve found out that there are actually 3 underground railways vying for the coveted title of World’s Second Underground Railway after London’s Metropolitan line from Paddington to Farringdon, opened in  1863.

These are

  • Atlantic Avenue (Cobble Hill)  tunnel, disused (1844)
  • Line 1 – Budapest  (1896)
  • Tünel – Istanbul  (1875)

The Atlantic Avenue tunnel in Brooklyn claims to be the worlds oldest urban underground railway. But ultimately it’s just a tunnel, there aren’t any underground stations on it. As such, the tunnel under the streets of Edge Hill in Liverpool, built 15 years earlier by Stephenson in building the worlds first passenger railway between Manchester and Liverpool, blows it away as an urban railway tunnel. The Brooklyn tunnel is a cut and cover (like the circle line in London), so the Guinness Book of records has put it down as the world’s oldest urban tunnel.  Like the Atlantic Avenue tunnel (proper name Cobble Hill), Edge Hill is, thank God, also abandoned, so we wont be needing to divert the route through Liverpool. Everyone on the trip must leave or depart St Pancras on the Metropolitan/Circle line in either direction. You will then have traveled on what was, for over 30 years, the only true underground railway, with stations and signals and all that stuff, in the world. Of course, until electric trains came along in the 1890s, you’d have died of asphyxiation before you got on the train anyway.

The Tünel underground funicular in Istanbul also fails the intermediate station test that Atlantic Avenue suffers from, it’s just a tunnel with a semi-submerged station at either end. But it still beats Budapest by 20 years, and is still in operation.

The Tünel

As such it’s certainly a collectors item to go with the Metropolitan in London and Line 1 in Budapest, all three of which we will traverse.

You’ll also get 2 “heritage” trams in Istanbul (they are new trams but with an antique look, running on new tracks through old routes, and designed primarily for tourists), and two ferries across the sea of Mamara to the iconic eastern railway terminus at Haydrapasa and back. And an unashamedly modern tram over the Galata Bridge.

Haydarpasa Terminus Istanbul

After that circuitous adventure you can retire to wherever you have selected for chilling out in the Cankurtaran budget hotel district. There are scores of places to chose from around there. It’s ideally situated for doing any bazaar, Blue Mosque or Topkapi Palace stuff you might wish to do. I’ll probably give the last two a wide berth. You can get all the long range shots you want on the two ferries. But the bazaar is, in my opinion, a world beater (just don’t go in there with the intention of actually doing any shopping).  With such a range of accommodation options I’m considering leaving it up to the individual, or small groups, as to where you want to hang out. The other 3 stops (Narvik, Berlin and Ljubljana), which are all overnighters, I have ideal solutions for all and which are also as cheap as you could possibly get short of just roughing it.

Early Evening Traversal of the Stara Planina Mountains

On the way to Istanbul from Bucharest on the Bosfor Ekspresi we will be traveling along a delightful section of railway in Bulgaria. Along the way we will pass through the ancient town of Veliko Tournovo, which was the medieval capital of Bulgaria (if I get any more of those I’ll start compiling a list of  used-to-be capitals). We’ll then perform two 360° loops involving tunnels in order to climb up and down the Stara Planina mountain range. The view alas is mainly of the trees as it’s heavily forested. But if you keep your head out of the window you should catch some spectacular views. Theres a lovely write up and photo here

How Challenged  Do You Want To Be ?

In order to keep the words “challenge” and “disorient” to the forefront of the project, we’ve obviously been working hard to ensure we have feasible, but not too leisurely, gyratory travel tasks to perform at each stop. Most of these can be omitted if you just don’t fancy it, and in several cases it’s simply not going to be feasible for us to do this en-masse anyway, the trams wont take that many of us at once.  There are almost countless outstanding railways around Europe, it just isn’t possible to fit even half of them into 2 weeks. I spent 8 days once doing just Switzerland flat out (day time running only), and I still missed loads of it.

But if there’s a  peach of a railway within reach, and at no subsequent cost to the schedule, then the temptation to notch off just one more classic route, and the fear that I’ll be lamenting my lack of stamina for decades to come if I don’t,  mean that I will inevitably want to fit it in. One such line is the Transalpina, or Bohinj Railway, in the Julian Alps in Slovenia. It was built to link Vienna directly with Trieste, and has had a colourful history in both world wars. We would end up covering a circle through the mountains and hills of the region and back to Ljubljana. Our published schedule has us arriving at Ljubljana at 20 to 9 in the evening. But we might be able to get there 6 hours earlier. There is a connecting service at Belgrade, it leaves just an hour or so after we are scheduled to arrive on the overnighter from Sofia at the appalling hour of 4 in the flipping morning.  If we can catch this early morning train then we could sit on it through Ljubljana, and on to the northern Slovenian town of Jesenice, arriving at 4pm. From there we can get this most beautiful of railway lines.

The price for all this is that, while it’s all “free” on your InterRail pass, you will be in virtually constant motion from leaving Sofia the previous evening at 8pm, till you land finally at Ljubljana (for a 2nd time, you went straight through it earlier in the day) at 21:45. The castle in Ljubljana and the glass box funicular up to it run till 11 in the evening, so in theory you could still do that under spotlights in a high summer evening, which would be quite spectacular. But the logistics of this will need careful planning, There is a supermarket at Jesenice but it’s a tight change there. There wont be any buffet services on the Transalpina. We will probably need on the ground help to make this work without being unduly unpleasant. And of course, you can always wimp out and jump off in Ljubljana in the afternoon, and that’s assuming we managed to catch this earlier train, and thus lose Belgrade completely, in the first place.


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