The London Underground looked very different in different places over the years. From horse-drawn and steam-powered carriages to wooden platforms, many things have been updated from the subway’s inception to its current location.

However, one of these changes was caused less by the gradual movement of technological advancement and much more by a tragedy that prompted the urgency of the authorities to start updating the stations. The subway used to be dominated by wooden escalators that carried people from the platforms and back to ground level.

The first of these was introduced at Earl’s Court station in 1911. The wooden escalators would continue to be in use for another 103 years, with the last, at Greenford station, being replaced in 2014.

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The wooden escalator at Greenford station before its replacement in 2014

The removal of wooden escalators was spurred by a 1987 incident known as the King’s Cross Fire. The fire was believed to have started when a lit match was dropped under one of the wooden escalators – back when certain areas of the Underground were allowed to smoke.

Emergency vehicles outside King’s Cross station on the evening of the 1987 fire

The flame was small at first but became massive after a trench effect set in. Subway staff were not trained in how to handle the fires and the flames quickly engulfed the wooden escalators. The mixture of complacent fire procedures and flammable parts of the station resulted in the deaths of 31 people and the hospitalization of 100 others.

Kings Cross Fire, Kings Cross Station ticket office after the fire, November 1987

The incident led to many changes. Along with replacing wooden escalators with metal escalators in the years that followed, a report recommending safety improvements was released after an investigation into the fire that was opened by the Premier of the time, Margret Thatcher.

Following the fatal fire at King’s Cross St Pancras tube station, 31 people died in the tragedy, likely due to a lit match falling on the escalator, on November 20, 1987

By 1997, the majority of the recommendations of the Fennell Report had been implemented, with safety improvements including the removal of all hazardous materials, CCTV installed at stations, the installation of fire alarms and sensors and the issuance of personal radios to staff. This also meant that smoking was permanently banned in all areas of the Underground.

There are plaques commemorating the tragedy in St Pancras Church, unveiled by the Princess of Wales, and at King’s Cross station.

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