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London Underground

The London Underground is a public transport network, composed of electrified railways that run underground in tunnels in central London and above ground in the London suburbs. It is usually called either the Underground or the Tube by Londoners.

Table of contents


The Tube is owned by London Transport (LT), a government agency which is part of Transport for London (TfL), who also schedule and let contracts for the famous red double-decker buses.

Today there are 275 stations and over 408 km of active lines, with 3 million passenger journeys made each day (927 million journeys made 1999-2000).

Lines on the Underground can be classified into two types: sub-surface and deep level. The sub-surface lines were dug by the cut-and-cover method, with the tracks running about 5 metres below the surface. Trains on the sub-surface lines have the same loading gauge[?] as British mainline trains. The deep-level or "tube" lines, bored using a tunnelling shield[?], run about 20 metres below the surface (although this varies considerably), with each track running in a separate tunnel lined with cast-iron rings. These tunnels can have a diameter as low as 3.56m (11ft 8.25in) and the loading gauge is thus considerably smaller than on the sub-surface lines, though standard gauge track is used. Lines of both types usually emerge onto the surface outside the central area, the exceptions being the Victoria Line which is in tunnel for its entire length, and the Waterloo and City which, being very short, has no non-central part and no surface line.


The table below describes each of the lines, giving the colour used to represent the line on the ubiquitous Tube maps, the date of opening and the type of tunnelling used.

Line NameColourYear of OpeningTypeNotes
Bakerloo Line
1906Deep level
Central Line
1900Deep level
Circle Line
District Line
East London Line
Hammersmith & City Line
Jubilee Line
1979Deep level
Metropolitan Line
Northern Line
1907 (part)Deep level4
Piccadilly Line
Dark blue
1906Deep level
Victoria Line
Light blue
1969Deep level
Waterloo and City Line
1898Deep level5
1The Circle Line became known as such in 1949. The Circle line was not built as a separate line, but was instead created by joining parts of the District and Metropolitan Lines.
2Originally called the Metropolitan District Railway
3aOriginally a separate line operated by a consortium of companies including the Metropolitan. The line was owned by London Underground from 1948 but British Railways goods trains continued to run on it until 1966. It was for many years regarded as a branch of the Metropolitan Line, and was shown on the map as a purple and white striped line. The line gained its own identity in the late 1980s.
3bOriginally part of the Metropolitan Line, the line became known as the Hammersmith & City Line in 1990.
4The busiest line on the system, with two branches in central London.
5Came under control of London Transport in 1994.

The Piccadilly Line now runs to Heathrow Airport and although it is slow and crowded it is nonetheless the cheapest way to get straight to the city centre.

Interchange is possible with the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) at several stations, including Bank, Canary Wharf and Stratford, while access to the Croydon Tramlink system is possible at Wimbledon. Interchange with international Eurostar trains can be achieved at Waterloo. The lack of lines in the south of the city is because of the geology of that area, the region almost being one large aquifer. This is made up for, however, by a large number of suburban rail services run by the South West Trains, South Central and Connex franchise holders (see British railway system).


Being one of the oldest and most complicated rapid transit systems in the world, the London Underground has a long history.

The first half of the 19th century saw rapid development in train services to London, but most mainline termini were constructed a long way away from the central business district to avoid damage to historic buildings. As a result, reliance on buses increased until London was gridlocked. The solution came in the form of yet another railway. In 1854 it was decided that the Metropolitan Railway Company would be allowed to build a short stretch of underground railway between Paddington and Farringdon. This would link the mainline termini of King's Cross, St. Pancras, Euston and Paddington to a point near the edge of the City of London. The relatively simple cut-and-cover method was used, because deep-level tunnel construction methods were not sufficiently advanced to construct anything more than covered trenches. This first part of the Metropolitan Railway was opened in 1863 using steam locomotives to haul trains, which meant that ventilation shafts had to be built at regular intervals.

Expansion was rapid. The Metropolitan quickly branched out into the suburbs, even creating whole villages from nothing in a region of countryside which came to be known as "Metroland". The railway bought up extra land adjacent to the railway and built houses in a spectacularly practical example of demand creation and by 1880 the 'Met' was carrying 40 million passengers a year.

Meanwhile, a second railway company began construction further south. The Metropolitan District Railway first opened a stretch from Westminster to South Kensington in 1868, taking advantage of the construction of the Thames embankment to expand towards the city, reaching Tower Hill and linking the termini of Victoria, Charing Cross, Blackfriars, Cannon Street and Fenchurch Street. Having conquered the city, the District Railway turned its attention to commuters even more so than the Metropolitan Railway had, reaching Wimbledon, Richmond and Ealing.

Although the Circle Line didn't get its own identity until 1949, the "District" and the "Metropolitan" had linked up with each other to provide an "Inner Circle" service starting in 1884.

Advances in deep-level tunnel design came thick and fast. Tunneling shields[?] allowed stable tunnels to be constructed 20 metres down, and electric locomotive traction made it both useful and safe. The result was the City and South London Railway, which linked King William Street (close to today's Monument Station) and Stockwell. The ride was unpleasantly rough and the lack of windows seemed to have a detrimental psychological effect. However, people learned from these mistakes and over the next 25 years six independent deep-level lines were built.

The presence of six independent operators operating different Tube lines was inconvenient. In many places passengers had to walk some distance above ground to change between lines. Also, the costs associated with running such a system were heavy, and as a result many companies looked to financiers who could give them the money they needed to expand into the lucrative suburbs.

One such financier was Charles Yerkes, an American tycoon whose company took over all but one Tube company (the Waterloo & City remained separate until 1994). Between the wars, expansion took place at a rapid pace, driving the Northern and Bakerloo Lines out into the suburbs of northern London. Architect Charles Holden[?]'s memorable station designs have brightened the commuter's journey both on these lines and elsewhere with a style which still looks fresh today.

The outbreak of World War II led to the use of many Tube stations as air-raid shelters. They were particularly suited to this purpose, but sadly a small number of horrific accidents occurred, notably at Bethnal Green. A remote stretch of the Central Line was turned into an underground aeroplane factory.

Following that war, travel congestion continued to rise. The construction of the carefully planned Victoria Line on a diagonal NE-SW alignment beneath central London attracted much of the extra traffic caused by expansion after the war. It was designed so that almost all of the stations along its length allowed interchange with other lines, and it was the first underground line to use automatic train operation (ATO). The Jubilee Line was named in honour of Queen Elizabeth II's silver jubilee in 1977, but did not open until two years later. During the 1990s it was extended through the Docklands to Stratford in East London.

The stations on the "Jubilee Line Extension" are particularly spacious and stylish, each one designed by a leading architect. London Underground states that North Greenwich station, for example, "is large enough to contain 3,000 double-decker buses or an ocean liner the size of the Queen Mary within its walls". Canary Wharf station is larger in volume than 1 Canada Square, one of the huge towers that dominates the Docklands area. The platforms west of Canning Town incorporate automated platform-edge doors that help to minimise the wind resistance of the train and prevent suicides. These modern stations include lifts (US: elevators) to ease access to all parts of the station complex, particularly by travellers having luggage, or using wheelchairs or push chairs.

An increasing problem for the system is flooding. Since the 1960s, the ground water of London has been rising, after the closing of industries such as breweries and paper mills[?] that had previously extracted large volumes of water. By mid 2001 London Underground was reportedly pumping 30,000 cubic metres of water out of its tunnels each day.


For fares Transport for London (and local National Rail franchisees) use a zonal pricing scheme where zone 1 is the most central, with a boundary just outside the Circle Line. After number 6, the zones are named A, B, C and D; zone D is the most remote and consists of Amersham and Chesham out in the Chiltern Hills on the Metropolitan Line. These lettered zones cater for the rural extremities of the tube and do not encircle the capital. Confusingly, the bus operators treat zones 4, 5 and 6 as a combined zone 4.

In general, the more zones travelled through, the higher the fare. Journeys through zone 1 are more expensive than those only involving outer zones. The zone system works well because most of the stations where lines cross are in zone 1, meaning that most journeys over similar distances will cost the same.

There are assistance booths open for limited periods, and ticket machines usable at any time. The machines will accept coins and fresh English paper money, though no Northern Irish or Scottish notes, beware! They usually give change. LT and the DLR have recently introduced credit and debit card ticket machines across their networks. A small number of cash machines dispensing all zone bus passes have appeared.

London Transport also sell daily, weekend, weekly, monthly, and annual "LT cards", allowing unlimited rides in one or more zones on buses or on the London Underground; these are a good deal for commuters and anyone else who rides the trains or buses daily. Travelcards are similar, although they also permit travel on National Rail. Daily Travelcards are only sold from machines after 9:30 am, but a peak hour inclusive version is available at a much higher price. Many shops, usually newsagents, sell bus passes and Travelcards; these are identified by a "Pass Agent" sign, usually in a door panel or front window. A day pass is valid until 4:30 am the next morning. Passes can be bought from these agents during a day prior to travel.

Station Access

Sadly, not all Underground stations are accessible by people with mobility problems. Many have some of the 408 escalators and 112 lifts (elevators), but not all of them.

The escalators in London Underground stations are both an asset and a liability. They are among the longest escalators in Europe and all are bespoke (custom-built). Because of their age and heavy usage, they tend to break down rather frequently, causing long delays at stations.

London Transport now produce a map which specifically indicates which stations are accessible. However, step height from platform to train is often as high as 20 cm on older lines. Only the Docklands Light Rail network and the Jubilee Line Extension are suitable for the unassisted wheelchair-using traveller.


As far as passengers are concerned, the London Underground has a good safety record. Although suicides are unfortunately common, these are dealt with quickly and with dignity. Surprisingly few accidents are caused by overcrowding on the platforms; one explanation suggested (presumably by people who have never actually visited London or the Tube) for this is that Londoners are too polite to push!

However, for its own workers the record is less good. In January 2002 London Underground was fined 225,000 for breaching safety standards for workers. In court the judge said the company was "sacrificing safety" to keep the trains running "at all costs". He continued that the company, "despite the lip service they paid to health and safety issues, fell lamentably short of the proper safety standards and, objectively, simply ignored their obligations in this respect". Workers had been ordered to work in the rain, in the dark, while the track current was still switched on. (Source: BBC News (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/england/1752928.stm))

The worst recent incident was a fire at King's Cross station on November 18, 1987, caused by a smouldering cigaratte stub falling onto a wooden-tread escalator panel. Thirty-one people died in the fire, which prompted the phasing out of wooden escalators and prompted the prohibition of smoking throughout the system.


London Transport's logo (shown above) and tube map are instantly recognizable by any Londoner, almost any Briton, and many people around the world.

The logo, as well as London Transport's distinctive sans-serif typeface, were designed by Edward Johnston, the former in 1913, the latter in 1916. Much of the reason for the widespread recognition of the London Transport logo is its ubiquitous usage on London Transport documents and signage. It is used for all tube station signs (where the station name appears on the horizontal bar), for example, as well as on in-carriage maps.

The tube map was designed by Harry Beck in 1931. See tube map for an in-depth analysis of its history and its topological nature.

London Transport is known for taking legal action against unauthorized use of its trademarks.

The Future

The London Underground is in a state of flux at the moment. Currently midway through partial privatisation, the system's maintenance is being taken over by two Infracos (Infrastructure Companies). These are Metronet and Tube Lines. It has been decided that Metronet will maintain the Bakerloo, Central, Victoria, the Waterloo & City, Circle, District, East London, Hammersmith & City and Metropolitan Lines. Tube Lines will handle the remainder: the Jubilee, Northern and Piccadilly Lines. The aim of this "Public-Private Partnership[?]" (PPP) is to accelerate investment in the sadly neglected aspects of the London Underground, commissioning new trains and installing safety features such as ATP[?], automatic train protection. The Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, is sceptical about the practicality of the PPP plan. However, he has dropped the legal challenge against PPP, and refurbishment works are expected to be carried out from end 2002 onwards.

Further, plans are underway to extend the East London Line to both the North and the South; to the North, Shoreditch station[?] will be abandoned, and, in a move that will bring the Underground to Hackney for the first time, the line will run on the old Broad Street viaduct to Hoxton, then to Highbury & Islington station to connect with the Victoria Line. Another branch may run on the same tracks as the North London Line to Willesden Junction. To the South, two branches are planned, running to Croydon and Wimbledon. These will transform the line from a small stub in the network to a major transport artery.

See also

Underground stations

Bounds Green tube station, Tottenham Court Road tube station, Dollis Hill tube station, Notting Hill Gate tube station, Charing Cross tube station, London Bridge tube station, Cannon Street tube station, Embankment tube station, Oval tube station and Bethnal Green tube station.

...and significant tube station content in: Kings Cross fire, Mornington Crescent, Kings Cross station, Marylebone railway station, Liverpool Street station, Paddington station and Waterloo station.

See: List of London Underground stations; List of closed London Underground stations

The Tube in fiction

(Please add to this list.)

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