London Model Tramways

4mm scale model trams

Kingsway Subway - historical notes

The Kingsway Subway was the only place in the world where double-deck tramcars ran underground. In London, the London County Council which ran the greater part of the London tram system fought to gain routes to the central area, with rather limited success. The network was distinctly one of two halves - north and south. In the early years of the twentieth century. a slum clearance scheme and the construction of a new thoroughfare - Kingsway - gave the opportunity to build a tunnel that would allow the two halves of the system to be joined. The tunnel was built literally from the floor upwards, and then roofed over with the new road surface.To either side of the new tunnel were built subways to accomodate gas and water mains. In Southampton Row there was a 1 in 10 slope built in a cutting 170 feet long

The ramp as it appears today with rails and conduit slot still clearly visible.

Tramway Stations

Once inside the subway. the line continued to descend dipping under the large sewer that serves Holborn and which crossed the route at right angles.

Just inside the Subway almost at the lowest point under the Holborn sewer before the rise to Holborn tram station.

There were two subterranean tram stations. Holborn, the first was under Kingsway level with Holborn Underground station. The second, Aldwych, was further down Kingsway just before the subway followed the curving route of Aldwych above.Initially there had been plans for a third station at Wellington Street, but this was not proceeded with. The stations had staircases which gave pedestrian access to islands in the centre of the street above. 


A view of the still remarkably complete Holborn tram station looking north. Daylight can be seen coming down the now closed off entrance stairs.



Two road islands in the centre of Kingsway, approximately level with the Underground station are all that remain of the former pedestrian entrances. This grille is at the top of the stairs seen in the previous photograph.

Victoria Embankment

Perhaps with limited foresight the subway was originally built to allow only single-deck cars to pass through. When first opened in 1906 the route was incomplete. Initially the service terminated at Aldwych - the tunnel had yet to reach the Embankment. For a while the stub end of the subway was also a subterranean tram depot. in 1908 the lines from South London had reached onto the Embankment having crossed the river Thames via Blackfriars and Westminster Bridges. Initially there were connections that allowed trams to turn north and south from the exit alongside Waterloo Bridge, but that to the north was little used and soon removed.


The entrance under Waterloo Bridge. Recently a restaurant has been opened here.

Double deck cars ran along the Embankment, many using the loop formed with the two bridges as a means of turning around to make their return to South London. On the northern side double deck cars terminated at Theobalds Road just round the corner from the steep entrance ramp that was in Southampton Row. It became apparent that great benefit would gained if the subway could take double deck cars, both from the point of view of public service as well as enabling the transfer of cars from one part of the system to another.

In an incredible feat of engineering the Subway was enlarged in a little over sixteen months. In fact the service was interrupted for less than a year the last single deck car running in February 1930, and the first double deck car in January 1931.

From 1937 a new Waterloo Bridge was built, due to the subsidence of the foundations of the original. As a result the southern exit from the Subway onto the Embankment was resited under the span of the new bridge. The building of the bridge continued into the war years and it became known as the Women's Bridge because of the large number of women who worked on it's construction.



Although there had been speculative plans for other tram subways in London none were built. In 1933 the LCC had ceded it's responsibility for the trams to the new London Transport, which had soon made the decision that trams were to be replaced by trolleybuses. At the point at which the war halted the conversion programme, all the trams in north London had gone, save for those that ran through the Subway. Investigations had been made into the possiblity of running trolleybuses through the Subway, and one prototype, number 1379 had been built. This had been equipped with offside powered doors that would allow access to the central platforms at each of the stations. There were many difficulties however. Tramcars were a little over seven feet wide and were steered by rails. They could thus be contained within a comparatively narrow tunnel. Trolleybuses were seven and a half feet wide and had to steered by a driver. Trams picked up current from the conduit system meaning that overhead wires were unneccessary, whereas trolleybuses had to have a overhead power supply. A nocturnal trial was carried out with the trolleybus running on battery power (which expired before the journey was completed), and being fitted with compressed air cylinders to provide for the brakes.  A towing lorry was positioned to represent an oncoming trolleybus and whilst they passed clearances were very tight indeed. The war intervened however, and the trolleybus was never to enter the Subway again, although it ran on north London routes for many years. 



London trams were narrow and guided by rails. Trolleybuses on rubber tyres had to be steered. Postwar trolleybuses were nearly a foot wider than trams. These factors would all have made trolleybus operation through the subway difficult.

Looking towards the Southampton Row Ramp.

After the war there was much to be done to deal with the inevitable wear and tear and neglect that had taken place. In this time plans were changed and replacement by the flexible diesel bus was the preferred option. Running buses through the Subway had most of the difficulties of trolleybus operation plus the problem of the diesel exhaust. The last trams ran through the Subway on the night of 5th April 1952. Soon after closure it was used as a store for London buses being stockpiled for the special services run on Coronation Day in 1953. In the early sixties the southern part of the Subway was rebuilt as a one-way traffic underpass from Waterloo Bridge to halfway up Kingsway approximately where Aldwych Station had been located. This remains the situation today. North of this point the Subway remains in situ. It was used for a number of years as the London flood control centre - a portakabin was located on the Holborn Station platform for this task. In later years it has simply been a store littered with road signs and other odds and ends.


Very occasionally the opportunity arises for public access to the Subway although places on such tours are always in great demand. 

A modern view of the railings surrounding the southern end of the entrance ramp cutting. The light tower can still be seen here although the lamp itself is long gone.