The London Underground
Visitors to London quickly come to realize that the London subway system or “the Tube” aka The London Underground is the heart of the city. London runs on the backs of these trains. Or, should I say, in their bellies, and has for over a hundred years. If that surprises you, you’ll never guess some of these other facts about the underground train system that keeps the city going.
The First of Its Kind
Construction on the first line of the London Underground began in the mid nineteenth century to connect the different railway stations around the city. This line was the Metropolitan Line, what is now a maroon line on any London Underground map.
First installed in the 1860s, it was originally just a simple line across London. From this, the system grew out of a series of add-ons of new stops and lines, continuing into the present day with the most recent additions to the underground system being the addition of the Jubilee Line extension in 1999, and an extension of the Piccadilly Line in 2008.
London’s Underground system has set historical precedents for the world to follow. When the system was first proposed, the idea of putting steam-powered trains in underground tunnels sounded absolutely ridiculous! But the system worked, and its first automated trains were the first to ferry passengers using electronically-powered railroad tracks.
Its Original Purpose
The first underground rail line connected two above ground railway stations, Paddington and Farringdon, which were already carrying traffic to and away from London, but which stopped on what was then the fringes of the city. Getting from station to station at that time was incredibly difficult.
There was simply no room on the crowded London streets to put a train. It would have been cumbersome and disruptive to try to worm in a railway amidst the wide carts and carriages and the large amounts of foot traffic that sloshed through the muddy nineteenth century streets.
To facilitate, or perhaps because of this, there was also a ban on above-ground railways within the city. This was great for people trying to use the streets to move about within the city limits, but extremely inefficient for those arriving at one railway station on the edge of the city just to have to chart a troublesome course across London to another railway station.
The London Underground was born to connect two such stations in a way that did not violate the no-railway ordinance that kept city streets rail-free.
It has ferried soldiers home from war, has protected civilians during the Blitz, and even serviced royalty, like when, in the 1980s, Prince Charles and Princess Diana rode the Piccadilly Line to London Heathrow Airport.
When used as bomb shelter during the World War II, hammocks were strung across the rail lines for children to sleep in and sometimes concerts took place on the platforms with the audience seated in rows in the tracks’ pit.
These Tube shelters didn’t protect everyone, though. In 1941 Bank station was hit with a bomb, killing upwards of 100 people. Several stations suffered damage during the Blitz and had to be rebuilt, though today some of those stations thrive once more, serving as valuable stops and line changes for Tube riders.
A System for Cultural Change
As the train system grew in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it allowed the city of London to grow and spread out into surrounding villages as it allowed poorer city workers to move farther out and give their family more room to live. Thus, this thriving, if stuffy and hot, subterranean train service pumped life into the city, connecting metropolitan and remote areas to one another and contributing to the dynamic and swiftly-moving city we see today.
The system was beefed up in time for the 2012 Olympic games and it really came through, keeping the city effectively mobile even through the swell in traffic while the games were in full swing. Local Londoners were sceptical and anticipated a total shut-down of effective transportation, but the Underground system managed to keep up.
Today’s Tube is so essential to the lives of Londoners and visitors alike that a strike by Tube drivers brings the city to a near-standstill. In 2014, the city was forced to provide replacement bus services in some areas in order to help thousands of affected people complete their daily commutes.
“Oh, the places you’ll go!”
Posters at the Transport Museum invite tourists to visit the world via the London Underground, as it connects many fascinating historical sites and cultural centres in London. It can get you just about anywhere you’re looking to go in and around London’s diverse inner boroughs.
If you’re visiting London for a few days or weeks, you really ought to familiarize yourself with these general rules of thumb of the London underground:
- Stand on the right side of escalators, walk on the left.
- Stay aware of your belongings, as you would elsewhere. Just keep an eye or a hand on anything you own so it doesn’t end up the property of someone else.
- London trains are typically hot. A lot of bodies packed together and breathing hot air without much great ventilation will do that. But it’s just temporary.
- Mind the gap! There is always a gap between the platform and the train, and sometimes that gap is uneven. Just step carefully.
Adjoining trains and bus services can take you to places like Bath, Stonehenge, Brighton, Oxford, and more!
Popular Sites to Visit and their Underground Tube Stops
- Hyde Park (Lancaster Gate on the Central Line)
- Buckingham Palace (Victoria on the Victoria line or St James Park on the Circle and District Lines)
- Tower of London & Tower Bridge (Tower Hill on the Circle and District Lines)
- London Transport Museum and Coven Garden Market (Covent Garden on the Piccadilly Line)
- London’s West End – Theatre district & Piccadilly Circus (Piccadilly Circus or Leicester Square on the Piccadilly Line)
- The British Museum (Tottenham Court Road on the Central and Northern Lines)
- Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery (Charing Cross on the Northern and Bakerloo Lines)
- Southbank, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, & the Tate Modern Art Museum (Blackfriars or Mansion House on the Circle and District Lines)
- The O2 Entertainment Center in Greenwich (North Greenwich on the Jubilee Line)
- Oxford Street Shopping Center (Bond Street on the Center and Jubilee Lines)