London Underground

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The London Underground is usually called the Tube by Londoners, ever since the first deep-level electric railway line was constructed in 1890. It is a system of electrified railways that run under ground in central London but above ground in the suburbs.


The Tube is owned by London Transport, a government agency which is part of Transport for London, who also run the famous, red doubledecker buses.

The first underground railway line in the world was laid in London on the 10th January 1863. 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 separated into two types: Sub-surface (Cut-and-cover method) and deep-level "tube" lines (Bored using a Tunnelling shield) running about 20 metres below the surface (although this varies).


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

Line NameColourDate of OpeningTypeNotes
BakerlooBrown1906Deep level
CentralRed1900Deep level
East LondonOrange1869Sub-surface
Hammersmith & CityPink1864Sub-surface3
JubileeGrey1979Deep level
NorthernBlack1907 (part)Deep level4
PiccadillyDark blue1906Deep level
VictoriaLight blue1969Sub-surface
Waterloo & CityTeal1898Deep level5

1The Circle line became known as such in 1949
2Originally called the Metropolitan District Railway
3Originally part of the Metropolitan Line, the line became known as the Hammersmith & City 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 runs to Heathrow and although it is slow and crowded it is nonetheless the most convenient 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 also possible on the southern reaches of some lines. 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, South Central and South East franchises.


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, Marylebone and Paddington together. The relatively simple Cut-and-cover method was used, since 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 engines, which meant that ventilation shafts had to be placed at regular intervals.

Expansion was fast. 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 from 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 each tube line was inconvenient. Frequently, passengers would need 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 seperate 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.

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 occured. A remote stretch of the Central Line was turned into an underground aeroplane factory.

Following the war, congestion continued to increase. The construction of the carefully planned Victoria Line in a diagonal slope across central London alleviated much of the extra traffic caused by expansion after the war. It was designed that almost all of the stations along its length allowed interchange with other lines, while it was the first underground line to use ATO (automatic train operation). The Jubilee Line (so-named because it was opened in honour of the British Queen's silver jubilee) first ran in 1977. During the 1990s it was extended through the Docklands to Stratford in east London. The stations on the "Jubilee Line Extension" are the most spacious and stylish on any Rapid Transit system in the world, each one architect-designed to be sympathetic to the area in which it was built, and incorporating platform-edge doors to reduce suicides and large numbers of lifts (elevators) to improve access for the disabled.


For fares Transport for London (and local National Rail franchises) use a zone system where zone 1 is the most central, with a boundary just outside the Circle Line. After number 6, the zones change to letters. zone D is the most remote, consisting of Amersham and Chesham out in the Chiltern Hills on the Metropolitan Line.

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 ticket machines that will accept coins and fresh English paper money (the machines do not accept Northern Ireland or Scotland tender, beware!). They usually give change. LT have recently introduced credit and debit card ticket machines across the network.

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, with the caveat that daily Travelcards are only sold after 9:30 am.

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 the enormous amount of use that they see, they tend to break down, causing long delays at stations.


The London Underground has a good safety record. Although suicides are unfortunately common, these are dealt with quickly and with dignity. Suprisingly few accidents are caused by overcrowding on the platforms; one explanation suggested for this is that Londoners are too polite to push!

A fire at King's Cross station in 1987 was 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 caused the prohibition of smoking throughout the system.

The Future

The London Underground is in a state of flux at the moment. Currently midway through part-privatisation, the system's maintenance is being taken over by two Infracos (Infrastructure Companies). These are Metronet, who will control the sub-surface lines and Tube Lines, who as the name suggests, will manage the deep level tube lines. The aim of this "Public-Private Partnership" is to accelerate investment in the sadly neglected aspects of the London Underground.

See also: