120 years of Subway

The Subway is the world's third oldest underground railway, after London and Budapest, opening on 14 December 1896. 120 years on and the Subway carries 13 million passengers per year, but let’s take a look back to when it all began.

During the 19th century Glasgow had seen spectacular population growth. It now became a priority to move people about the city for work so demand grew for a public transport system that was quick, good value and accessible to all.

The Subway was originally built for the Glasgow District Subway Company and operated as a cable-hauled system. The people of Glasgow were in awe as it was the first of its type in the world with propulsion provided by stationary steam engines.

In 1923, the Subway passed into the hands of Glasgow Corporation Transport Department, and in the following decade was converted to electric traction, introducing a third live rail for the purpose.

The Subway ran with little further change until 1977 when the new operators, Greater Glasgow Passenger Transport Executive, closed it for major modernisation investment. Three years later and the Subway in its present form reopened for operation on 16 April 1980.

Now part of Strathclyde Partnership for Transport (SPT), the Subway is currently undergoing a major £288 million modernisation programme. This will see new trains and a new signalling system in place over the next five years, completely transforming the whole system.

Glasgow Subway through the ages

Big Wigs
original train
70s concourse
Big Wigs
original train

The route

Some things will however stay the same, the Subway circle running around the city of Glasgow is all underground, contained in twin tunnels, allowing clockwise circulation on the Outer circle and anticlockwise on the Inner. Fifteen stations are distributed along the route length of just over 10k.

Most of the tunnels are relatively shallow, following the alignment of the city streets. The deeper sections that pass under the river are lined with cast iron segments, whilst the majority of the tunnels are formed from concrete and brick.

The tunnels are very small, only 3.4m in diameter. This is in scale with the unusually small track gauge of 1220mm (4 feet from rail-to-rail) makes the Subway unique.

original map
70s map
current map


The current trains are normally formed from three cars, the maximum length of train that can be accommodated in each station. Thirty-three ‘power cars’ from the 1977-80 modernisation make up the majority of the current fleet.

The three-car train can carry 90 passengers – 36 sitting and 54 standing.

Each car is very small (12m long), in keeping with the tunnels and the curvatures of the route served. Trains in passenger operation are semi-automatic, with a maximum speed of 54 km/h, but are automatically limited to lower speeds for the tighter curves and other route limitations.

Prior to the 1977-80 modernisation, the 15 stations were very basic and similar at track level, having a simple island platform serving either direction of travel. Modernisation introduced separate flank platforms to six of the busier stations. At the same time, 28 sets of escalators were provided.

original train
70s train
current train

Looking to the future

Today, the Subway carries 13 million passengers a year or 40,000 people a day. As part of the £288 million modernisation programme, SPT is modernising all 15 stations. Our city centre St Enoch station has seen the biggest change with two new glass canopies in place in St Enoch’s Square.

Other stations now complete include Hillhead – complete with full mural by renowned Scottish artist Alasdair Gray; Partick; Ibrox; Kelvinhall; Buchanan Street; and the £7 million Govan Interchange linking the Subway Station with the new bus station and Fastlink services.

SPT has also introduced a smart ticketing system with reusable plastic Subway Smartcards which allow Smartcard customers to top up their cards and travel the Subway. Since its launch, the technology has been adopted by more than 140,000 Subway customers.

In 2016, SPT took a significant step forward in the Subway modernisation programme unveiling the new trains to be introduced in 2020/21.

The contract to supply the new trains and signalling equipment has been awarded to Stadler Bussnang AG / Ansaldo STS Consortium.

Seventeen new trains of the same length and size as the existing rolling stock will work their way into service as a four-car set instead of the current three-set.

Inside the trains will have a radical new look with more open space between carriages and passengers will also have a new forward view through a new wide-screen window at the front of the train.


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