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Under London’s busy streets runs an institution that is out of sight, but certainly not out of mind for thousands of locals and tourists alike. Writer Darren Sketon sheds light on the backbone of one of the world’s most important cities.
Text: Darren Sketon
Country: United Kingdom

n a recent visit home to the UK, I was on my way to meet a mate from my university days for a day of shopping in the Camden markets, a couple of beers, a good pub lunch, and a bit of live music. Seventeen years ago, we would meet once a month: He would travel into London from the North-Eastern suburbs, and I would come from the South-Western suburbs.

How did we get there? On the London Underground.

As I sat on the train, I began to think about and truly appreciate the greatness of this underground network of railways that we often take for granted.

The best way to get from Point A to Point B in London is to take the Underground, also known as ‘The Tube’. It is much faster than taking the bus and much cheaper than taking the iconic but costly black cabs. Possibly the most famous transport system in the world, the London Underground system boasts kilometres of lines, distinct station names and an iconic map. The schematic Tube map, designed by Harry Beck in 1933, was voted a national design icon in 2006.

From humble beginnings in the 19th century, the system now runs 402 kilometres of lines (55% of which are over-ground, interestingly) serving 270 stations. The idea of an underground railway system was first proposed in the 1830s, with the very first line opening in January 1863 running from Paddington to Farringdon.

The system’s first tunnels were built just below the surface using the cut-and-cover method. Later, circular tunnels – which give rise to its nickname ‘the Tube’ – were dug through the London clay.

In 1933, London’s underground railways, tramways and bus operators were merged to form the London Passenger Transport Board, which became known as London Transport. The London Underground celebrated 150 years of operations in 2013.

The World Wars of the early 20th century pressed the system into a different kind of service. In that era, the underground system during the war was used as one large, extended air-raid shelter. It is hard to imagine hundreds of families taking shelter down there during The Blitz, crowded together and hoping for the best.

Unfortunately, in recent years, two events have been burned into the memories of Londoners and tourists alike. First, there was the Kings Cross station fire of 1987, in which 31 people lost their lives. Second, the 2005 terrorist bombings (often referred to as 7/7, like 9/11 is used in the United States) killed 52 civilians on the subway system and bus network of London. I contemplate both of these events every time I jump on The Tube. You can’t ignore them, but you push them aside because life has to go on.

The Underground has numerous hidden lines, strange uses and disused stations. For example, the postal system uses special lines that are not well-known but are in fact a very efficient way of moving those parcels and letters. The military used stations and lines during the World Wars and the Cold War. Passengers can see these obscure lines and stations on their journeys as the trains pass through stations that are closed down, boarded up and blacked out. These stations even appear in James Bond films.

Above ground, the ticketing system is very user-friendly. A day pass or a week pass is the most affordable, efficient, and practical way for tourists to get around London. Simply buy a travel card, buy a tourist map of London, and you can get from The British Museum to Hyde Park to Wembley Stadium with relative ease as a foreigner not familiar with the city layout.

“In comparison with New York, it is a beauty,” said John, an American tourist.

Unfortunately, the system is not perfect and suffers from some unpleasant social aspects. Strikes happen with alarming frequency. They are highly annoying and damage the economy. I have suffered during a strike while trying to attend a football game. During strikes, London really struggles as commuters try to use other modes of transport. Suicides are also more common than you would think. It is messy and extremely disturbing for anyone who witnesses the event, especially the train driver. Suicides also cause great delays and inconvenience to other passengers.

As I sit on my train, I contemplate the bombing attacks, the fire, the suicides and the strikes and simply hope that by sheer luck I will not experience such an event. I also think about colour-coded lines, which frequently pop up in pub quiz questions across England. I test myself with questions such as, ‘Do you know what colour the Bakerloo line is?’ or ‘What line is black?’

Check the table at the bottom for the line names and their colours.

With the London Underground being so popular, one of its main problems is overcrowding on trains and platforms, especially during rush-hour. Personally, I avoid rush-hour for this very reason.

Overcrowded for sure, but absolutely necessary,” said Rob, a native of London.

In the future, London must address this issue to make riding the Tube a less stressful experience for commuters. Phone signals and Wi-Fi access are next in line to drag the system kicking and screaming into the modern, technology-focused world.

Next time you are in London, jump on that Tube.

The lines of the London Underground:

Bakerloo line 1906
Central line 1900
Circle line 1871
District line 1868
Hammersmith & City line 1864
Jubilee line 1973
Metropolitan line 1863
Northern line 1891
Piccadilly line 1906
Victoria line 1968
Waterloo & City line 1898




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London Underground: More than just transportation

The London Underground, also known as ‘The Tube’, is the best way to get around London. It is much faster than taking the bus and cheaper than taking the iconic but costly black cabs. The ticketing system is very user-friendly. A day pass or a week pass is the most affordable, efficient, and practical way for tourists to get around London. Simply buy a travel card, buy a tourist map of London, and you can get from The British Museum to Hyde Park to Wembley Stadium very easily.

The Tube was created in the 19th century and runs 402 kilometres of lines serving 270 stations. The first line opened in 1863 running from Paddington to Farringdon. In 2013 the London Underground celebrated 150 years of operations. Unfortunately, the system is not perfect and has some unpleasant aspects, like strikes, which are very common. There is also overcrowding on trains and platforms. This is an issue that London must address in the future to make the experience less stressfu l.



 

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