A traveller’s guide around London tube stations

What do you think of when London is mentioned? It is most likely to be Big Ben, the royal family, fish & chips and the NHS that spring to mind. However, if you are from London, one of the first things that spring to mind is the tube- the veins of the heart that can take you from one point to another- the Central Line that can take you from East London to West London or the Circle line which (until recently) was shaped like a circle. Regardless of which line you take, it allows someone from a quiet suburb to the more populous areas to commute easily. Wherever you are in London, you can’t avoid the tube.

Basic information about each line 

Take the red Central Line from the periphery of the East London/Essex border to Central London- and 10 stops later, you will have reached West London. On the other hand, there is the turquoise Waterloo and City line, which only has 2 stops. There are 11 unique lines which come under the control of the London Underground, with their respective colours:

  • Bakerloo (Brown)
  • Central (Red)
  • Circle (Yellow)
  • District (Green)
  • Hammersmith & City (Pink)
  • Jubilee (Grey)
  • Metropolitan (Magenta)
  • Northern (Black)
  • Piccadilly (Blue)
  • Victoria (Light blue)
  • Waterloo & City (Turquoise)

The Overground is, as the name suggests, overground, so doesn’t fall under the Underground category. It would be too time-consuming to go over the history and opening dates of each of the several lines individually, so it would be useful to know particular information about the Underground.

The map and the logo

Two useful things to know about the TFL’s (Transport For London- responsible for the transport system in London, including Underground, Overground, tram and bus networks) tube network. They are the map and the logo. If you ever get lost, either of these will (eventually) direct you to your desired destination. These are also two major icons of the network. Firstly, the logo… The recognisable bar with a circle around it was first seen around stations in 1908 (and its usage 110 years later only illustrates how iconic it has become). The bright red circle, blue bar and white gap are appealing and simplistic. It has been adopted amongst all sectors of the TFL- trams, buses and Overground alike (with slight adaptations) when London Transport took control of all public transport in 1933. Due to too many competitors in the market, the government was asked to regulate the market, as referred to in ‘The Subterranean Railway: How the London Underground Was Built and How It Changed the City Forever’. There is no one person to credit the design of the logo to though, especially as it has changed over the years, but it’ll likely be around forever.

The map, on the other hand, is a more ‘complex’ design, with all its words, different lines and nodes compressed all in one space. To those who may not be accustomed to the tube map, it may just seem like a clutter of colourful lines connected at random parts- and in truth, most London commuters do see it like that. Originally, the first few lines had their maps but, eventually, as more train lines came about, there had to be a way to connect the various lines without commuters having to carry several maps in their briefcases. In 1933, a draughtsman, Harry Beck, came up with an idea where distance accuracy isn’t as important as being able to connect the relevant stations, whereas previous attempts by others considered both equally important. The use of lines, simple nodes and different colours to represent each line made a simple network which is still in use today.

Why is there a North/South divide?

For the more keen-eyed (and for those who commute across all parts of London), you will notice that south of the River Thames, there are relatively few tube lines compared to other parts of the capital. Why is this so? Didn’t the TFL realise this will be an issue before? There are 29 tube stations in the South, whilst there are over 200 stations north of the river.  Well, in essence, South London was once a very well-connected place through several private railway companies. Thus, to set up a tube company, it would be best to steer off the incumbent firms and create your market. There was also the issue that, in the Victorian age, there was a North/South divide, where South was an underprivileged area, with Southwark being the only notable exception. Therefore, to set up a tube line wouldn’t be a very profitable idea in that part of the capital. However, taking away all of this, there was still a geographical problem which prevented the growth of the tube station business.

In the London Borough of Lambeth lies a group of streets called Lower Marsh, Upper Ground and Broadwall, which answers (in part) why the South is deprived of tube stations. This area was previously a marshland, meaning it is not an ideal area to build on, especially since train lines have to be sturdy enough to ensure the safety of the numerous civilians who would be using these services. When an enquiry was made to Lambeth Archives, Archives Manager Len Reilly stated that:

“The low-lying marsh nature of North Lambeth and North Southwark and Bermondsey is referenced in almost all serious archaeological and historical sources. Books by the Museum of London archaeology service, eg. ‘The prehistory and topography of Southwark and Lambeth’, or ‘Archaeological excavations for… Jubilee Line project’, or the ‘Survey of London Volumes on Lambeth, Bankside and St Georges Fields’, or Graham Gibberd’s book on Lambeth Marsh. It is reflected in road names: Lambeth Marsh, Upper Ground, Broadwall, Newington Causeway, etc.  It is also clearly shown on maps, most notably the John Rocque map of 1746 and Horwood (in the early 19th century), both of which also show drainage ditches in abundance and what an impediment the geography was to development.

A search of London maps 1840 (at the start of the railway era) shows how undeveloped south London was then. So until more extensive development of the suburbs in the 1870s-1880s, there was no need to bury railways: they could go overground, usually on viaducts. Note that railways in London started in 1836 with Bermondsey-Deptford, and expanded rapidly thereafter.  Most of the south London railway network was complete by the 1870s.

The maps of London devised by John Rocque- as well as a simple search of the 1840 ones- show a stark contrast between either side of the city- there is great ‘bunching’ north of the river, whilst south of the river is quite sparse. Interestingly, John Rocque formally titled the map ‘A plan of the cities of London and Westminster, and borough of Southwark’again, highlighting Southwark as the only notable place in South London. Clearly, the geology of London is not as straightforward as one would have thought; the North of London lies on clay, whereas the South is a mixture of sand, silt, gravel, making a marshlike foundation. As a result of this (and the aforementioned financial incentives), north of the River Thames became a breeding ground for tube stations, and it would be very difficult to alter this.

The pain of delays…

Delays. Delayed. Faults. Running late. All common words used by your typical commuter around London’s tubes. And this is not without reason. The TFL regularly produces data- one such data item is the ‘number of lost customer hours’- how much time commuters lose due to delays (of all kinds). In the month leading up to the March lockdown, 3.5 million hours of customer hours were lost- compare this with two years ago’s number of 2.45 million hours. Why does it seem to be getting worse? From 2016/17 to 2018/19, there was an increase of mechanical faults by ⅓, from 3806 to 5040. One simple reason is due to the TFL cancelling its maintenance contract with a private firm due to wanting to reduce their costs- this has come at a cost itself. TFL had a budget deficit of almost £1 billion at the beginning of 2018; the ever-increasing costs to keep up with the increasing demand lead to strict actions being taken. 

One other reason for these delays has been strikes taking place. Timetable changes and pay have been the main reasons in recent years. Strikes at certain parts of the Underground then caused a bottleneck at other stations, which has caused a realisation that one part of the network being down has a negative effect at other stations. However, as the data provided above shows, there will always be delays- and as for now, it is unlikely to improve.

Part time Underground, part time shelter

Tube stations saved numerous lives during the Blitz in World War 2. Despite being labelled as ‘Underground’, only 45% of the network is actually below the surface- but this was still enough to help civilians to use these places as air-raid shelters. They were not supposed to be frequently used by the public, as depicted by this statement in an article by the Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail in 20th September 1940:

“Little heed was paid last night to the appeal of the Ministries of Home Security and Transport asking the public to refrain from using the London Tube stations as air-raid shelters except in the case of urgent necessity.”

To further reinforce this point, it is believed that over 180,000 people used tube stations as an air-raid shelter- it became a place of safety and unity for communities. The government realised this wasn’t something they could negotiate with, so had to eventually give in and even provide services for the people. Women, recruited by the TFL, provided the necessities and there was even entertainment provided. This came at risk-  the horrifying sound of the bombs being dropped above them echoing in the stations, lack of ventilation and diseases being able to transfer easily (this was all before the NHS was established). Dr Edith Summerskill MP said in the Manchester Evening News the following:

“These children sleep in their damp clothes, until the early morning hours, when they are dragged off to their cold homes. Already a complaint known as ‘shelter throat’ is common, but the danger to children forced to sleep under conditions which provide a breeding place for influenza, pneumonia, and tuberculosis, quite apart from the more common infectious diseases, cannot be overemphasised.”

Regardless, civilians took the risk- it can be said without these tube stations, the death toll of the Blitz would have been much higher and this could have likely changed the tide of the war.

The heartbeat of the city

There is an extensive amount of information about the tube network, from where each line starts and ends to the history of each line- or even, simply, what would have happened if the London Underground didn’t exist and was run by several competitors (or there was no public transport at all). It is an easily accessible transport, but as highlighted, hasn’t come without its drawbacks. 

Wherever you are in London, you can’t avoid the tube.

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