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The 275 stations, and 12 lines that connect them all, make up one of the world's most extensive underground train systems.

Here's some helpful information on how best to use London's Tube or metro when you're next in London.

 
 
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How to Best Use the London Underground

The London underground train system is a great way to travel around central London.
 

Wherever you are in central London, there's a Tube station (this is what many Londoners often call their underground or metro train system) nearby.

Part of a two part series on London's Underground - see also How to Find the Best London Underground Ticket Pricing.

 

 

Very frequent trains, and if you have an unlimited journey Travelcard, very low journey costs, make the London Underground a great choice when traveling around the city.

Using the information on this page, and the related information on how to choose the best value tickets will make your time and travels in London much more convenient and affordable.

London Tube Facts and Figures

The London Underground network is a combination of various formerly independent train services.  The earliest of these was the 'Metropolitan Railway', running on a four mile section of what is now called the Bakerloo line, running between Paddington and Farringdon St.  This line first started service on 10 January, 1863.

New lines and new stations have been continually added, and from time to time, some stations have also been closed.  The most recent addition to the underground network is an extension to the Jubilee line from Green Park to Stratford.  This ten mile extension took six years to complete and cost 3.5 billion pounds - a cost of 66,000 ($120,000) per foot!

In total, there are currently 275 stations on 12 lines, and 253 miles of route, mainly double tracked, of which 20 miles are in shallow tunnels and 93 miles in deep tunnels.  More than half the 'underground' track runs above ground (primarily out of the central city area).

To get between the surface and the underground stations there are 408 escalators and 112 lifts.  The longest escalator is at Angel Station, and is 197 ft long, with a vertical rise of 90 ft.  The deepest lift shaft is at Hampstead, going down 181 ft.  The shortest lift is at Westminster, going down only 8 ft.

The shortest distance between stations is 0.16 miles (between Leicester Square and Covent Garden on the Piccadilly line) and the longest distance is 3.9 miles (between Chesham and Chalfont & Latimer on the Metropolitan line).

In 2003, 19 million people made, between them, just under 1 billion journeys on the Underground.

Amusing Map Variations

Here's a fun version of the famous 'Beck' style map of London's Underground.  Click on this image to open up a copy of the map, but in anagram format.

And here's another spoof on the Underground, this time joking about what would happen if Underground stations were sponsored by commercial organizations, so as to slightly change their current names to reflect the sponsoring company (476kB pdf).

And, as further amusement for lovers of trivia, here is an interesting series of comparable maps of different subway systems around the world, all shown on the same scale.

And here's a wonderful website with lots of Tube information and trivia, including a collection of more silly maps.

Where are Stations

Underground stations are not always easy to find, and sometimes their signage is subtle rather than obvious.  Stations are closely spaced in central London, but it is better to know where the station is and then go directly to it, than to walk aimlessly until you randomly find one.

This is particularly so because two stations, while close to each other on the street, might be far apart in terms of being on two different lines with many stops and changes of line required to travel between them.  Your choice of which station you start your journey from can make a huge difference to how quickly and easily you can travel to your destination.

The Two Key Decisions For Any Journey

Many times, when traveling from one place to another around London, you will have a choice of stations to start your journey from, and a choice of stations to end your journey at, with several stations each being a similar distance from where you actually start and stop your journey.

These different stations might be on different lines, and so one choice of departure and arrival stations will give you a shorter journey time than other choices.

So, when planning your journey, don't just look for the closest stations to where you are and where you want to go above ground; consider also the below ground traveling time implications of your station choices.

How Long Does it Take to Travel by Tube?

Stations are more closely spaced in central London than in the outer suburbs, and while there is a fair amount of variation in distance between stations, it is possible to use some approximate 'rules of thumb' for guesstimating how long a journey might take.

Because tube travel times are not much affected by traffic, travel times are reasonably consistent and predictable.

Trains generally depart every 3 or 4 minutes, less frequently at weekends and late at night.

The total time for a journey is much more than the minute or two that the train takes from leaving one station until arriving at the next.  You also have to allow time to travel from the surface down to the underground area, to walk to your platform, and to wait for your train, and then to repeat the process back to the surface at the completion of your journey.

The simplest way of calculating travel times in central London is this :

  • Allow ten minutes for your journey

  • PLUS two minutes for each stop the train makes between the start and finish of your travel

  • PLUS five minutes every time you need to change trains

This simple calculation will usually prove accurate, plus or minus a few minutes.

For slightly more accurate information, you'll notice at most Tube stations they have maps of the line that show travel times from that station to other stations on the same line.

You can also use this helpful website to calculate very accurate travel times and details for you.

Accessing Stations - Not Disabled (or Suitcase) Friendly

Many of the older stations were constructed long before providing universal disabled access was mandatory.  This means you may find yourself having to climb up and down several flights of stairs, which is fine if you're fit and unencumbered, but not so good if you're struggling with two heavy suitcases or mobility impaired.

Even if there are no stairs, wheelchair users will find the escalators a problem.

Note that if you are at one of the few stations with elevators, these are double doored - you go in through one set of doors and then exit through the other set of doors on the opposite end.

Squeeze on in and move as far forward as possible.

If you are using an escalator, please observe the frequent signs reminding you that if you're standing on a step, to do so on the right hand side, so that people in a hurry can walk down (or up!) on the left hand side.

Note that if you are traveling with suitcases (eg to/from Heathrow) you should go through the manual entry/exit gates rather than through the automatic ticket barriers.

Using the Underground

You must have an appropriate ticket for every journey.  No rides are free.  You will need to use the ticket to be admitted in through the automatic barrier gates at the start of your travel and then you will need to use the ticket a second time to be allowed to leave through similar gates at the end of your journey.

Most of the time, you'll be using a ticket with a magnetic stripe.  You feed the ticket in to the gate (through a slot on the right hand pillar) and the machine reads it to confirm your ticket is valid, and then feeds it out through a second slot.  Take the ticket and go through the barrier gate (which will open for you when you remove your ticket).

If your ticket was for a single journey and you're leaving a station at the end of the journey, the barrier gate will not return the ticket to you, because it has now been used up.

Note that you can feed your ticket into the barrier gate as soon as the person before you has taken their ticket back.  You don't need to wait for the person to get through the gates and for them to close again.

If you're talking about a journey on the tube, everyone refers to the different lines by their name (eg, 'the Bakerloo line', 'the Piccadilly line'), not by their color or number (the lines are colored, but aren't numbered, unlike some other cities).

Try and be courteous and make using the system convenient for everyone.  If a train is crowded, move into the middle of the carriage, even though this is away from the doors.  At the station before your stop, go with the flow of people toward the exit doors and then stop by the door, and so when it is your stop, next, you'll be able to easily exit.

If waiting for a train on the platform, when the train arrives stand to the side of the doors to make it easy for passengers to get out of the train first.

Hours of Operation

This is a more complicated subject to explain than you might think.  Every different line has slightly different times for when the first and last trains start and finish operation.

And the start and finish times vary by station.  Obviously the first train that might start at one end of the line at, eg, 5.30am, will not arrive at a station six stops down the line until perhaps 5.45am, so the time of the first and last train varies from station to station.

Generally, most trains start sometime between about 5.00am - 5.30am Monday to Saturday, and between 6.30am - 7.30am on Sundays.

This means that stations in the middle and towards the end of the longer lines might not see the first train for another 30 - 45 minutes or more.

The last train each night is about 11.30pm for outlying stations and sometime around 12.30am - 1.00am for the central stations.

Take the Correct Train

There is an obvious and a more subtle thing to keep in mind when getting on a train.

The obvious issue is 'Am I going in the right direction?'.  Make sure that the train you are on is heading in the direction you intend to travel.  Usually trains are described as 'northbound' or 'southbound' (or east/west), but on the Circle and District lines, this can be a more complicated issue.

The other issue is to be sure that the train is actually going where you want to go.  Some platforms have trains for several different lines all stopping there, and so you'll need to be sure that the train you need is the train you're getting on.

Even if you're sure the train you're boarding is on the correct line, there is one remaining possible problem.  While not so much an issue for travel within Zone 1, if you are traveling further out, be aware that some of the lines split and branch out in two or more directions.  If your destination is on one part of a split line, be sure your train is traveling to that side of the line, not the other side.

A related issue is that not all trains travel the entire length of the line.  Make sure the train is going as far as you are.

Some Problems and Inconveniences

London's underground system suffers from being the oldest in the world.  Trains are smaller than you'll find in more modern systems, and the entire system is somewhat unreliable.

When you first enter a station, look for a whiteboard type noticeboard that will have information about any current stoppages or problems.  It is probably fair to say that at any given minute of any day, there is some sort of problem somewhere on the tube.

Note that the underground trains do not have toilets on board.  Some, but not many, of the stations might have toilets, and some of these might be pay toilets rather than free toilets.

The overall system is carrying more passengers every day than ever before, and so will sometimes be very crowded - especially if there are delays and fewer trains than normal are collecting passengers.  While rush hour crowding isn't as bad as in some cities, if you have a chance to avoid traveling at obvious peak periods, you'll probably be pleased to spare yourself the experience.

One growing problem on the underground is the heat.  The trains generate heat from their motors and from the lighting, and all the people also generate heat (the average person is radiating 600W of heat all the time).  All this heat is gradually warming up the tunnel walls (which formerly used to soak up the worst of the summer heat) and so each year sees higher temperatures in mid and late summer than the previous year.

It is now possible to sometimes encounter temperatures of 100F (38C) on some lines in mid-summer, and even in mid-winter, you may find temperatures over 70F(21C).  Wear layered clothes so, if sensitive to the heat, you are able to take off some clothing while on the trains.

Best Price Tickets to Travel on the London Underground

We discuss how to choose the best value fares on the London Underground in the other part of this two part series.  Using the information in that article can potentially save you a huge amount of money on your travels on what can otherwise be one of the most expensive metro systems in the world.

 

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Originally published 4 Jul 2004, last update 19 Dec 2013

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
 
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