The London underground subway system


The London underground railway system (or ‘tube’, as it’s known locally) celebrated its centenary in 1990 and is internationally famous, ranking alongside the Paris metro and the New York subway. London’s tube network covers the largest area of any underground rail system, with 391km (242mi) of track, of which around 171km (106mi) is underground, and 267 stations.

The tube runs to all areas of central and greater London, connecting with all London mainline stations, and provides the quickest way to get around London.

Like the rail network, the tube has also been embroiled in a public/private ownership debate, between the government (who wants to bring in private investment and part-ownership) and London’s mayor, who wants it to remain entirely public-owned and funded. While the arguments rage, the lack of investment has led to a deterioration in the infrastructure, which has resulted in a number of accidents and derailments of trains, and the suspension of services for urgent engineering work.

The tube operates from 5 or 5.30am until around 12.30am (a notice of first and last trains is displayed at each station). If possible, you should try to avoid travelling during the rush hours, e.g. around 8 to 10am and 4.30 to 6.30pm, when passengers are packed in like sardines (when travelling with children or friends, hang on to them, as it’s easy to become separated in the crush).

Platforms are reached from street level by lifts, stairs or, in central London, by escalators. When travelling on an escalator, you should stand on the right (or on the same side as everyone else). After a fatal fire at King’s Cross underground station, no smoking is permitted anywhere within the tube system. To plan your journey, check the maps showing the zones and stations displayed at all stations, or obtain a free Tube Map from any underground or London railway station.

The tube has 12 lines (excluding the Docklands Light Railway), each with a different name and colour (e.g. the Central line is red, the Circle line is yellow). New lines have been built in recent years (e.g. the East London line) and existing lines (e.g. the Jubilee line) are being extended. Where lines cross and where there’s an interchange station, it’s shown on maps by a circle. Check the line(s) you need to reach your destination and where you must change before starting a journey. Once on board a train, you can follow your progress on the map displayed in each carriage above the seats or at the ends of carriages (make sure you’re travelling in the right direction!). Underground trains stop at all stations (apart from a few that operate during rush hours only) and the doors open and shut automatically.

Subway areas in London

The London underground system is divided into areas, called zones, central London being designated zone one. New underground fares were introduced in January 2007 - for example, travel within zones 1-6 currently costs £4.00 per adult ticket (cash single fare), though children travel for less. You can also buy an Oyster Card, a cheaper and more convenient ‘electronic’ ticket, or a Travelcard (see below). Travel which excludes zone one has cheaper fares. Tickets can usually be purchased at all underground stations and you should always buy a ticket before you start your journey, and keep it for inspection and collection at your destination.

Children under five travel free and those aged 5 to 15 travel at reduced rates, which are often less than half (around 40 per cent) of the adult fare. Children need a Child Rate Photocard (available from station ticket offices, London Travel Information Centres and selected newsagents on production of a passport size photograph and proof of age) for travelcards valid seven days or longer, and 14 and 15-year-olds need a Child Rate Photocard to purchase any child rate ticket. Photocards are issued free of charge.

Tickets are available from ticket machines, which accept all coins from 5p to £1 and £5 notes (some accept credit cards), and from ticket offices. Often there are long queues at ticket offices, so always keep some change handy for machines or buy a season ticket. If you must pay an excess fare, a special window is provided at some central London stations, otherwise you must pay the ticket inspector. Machines are also installed in over 2,000 newsagents throughout London to dispense Travelcards, bus passes and London Transport cards.

To gain access to platforms at most central London stations, a ticket must be inserted in an automatic gate. Don’t forget to retrieve your ticket. If the gate ‘eats’ your ticket or doesn’t open, a ‘seek assistance’ message is displayed (ask a ticket inspector for help). Magnets, such as those fitted to some handbags, can destroy the magnetic information stripe on tickets, causing them to be rejected by automatic ticket gates. Take care, particularly if you have a season ticket. Rail tickets that include tube travel can also be used in these gates. You’re subject to an on-the-spot fine for travelling without a valid ticket.

A London Travelcard is available which includes tube travel, most London buses (including some Green Line buses, but excluding Airbuses and Night Buses), most National Railway services and the Docklands Light Railway (which is actually part of the tube system). Travelcards are based on a six-zone system. They can be bought from tube station ticket offices (one-day cards are available from some machines) and from rail stations within the tube network. A limited range of cards can also be purchased from some bus garages, selected newsagents and travel agents. Travelcards are valid for one day, a weekend, a week, a month or any period up to one year. A photocard is required (see above) for seven-day, one-month and annual travelcards. Tickets can be purchased via the internet ( ).

Travel information for the tube and London buses is available via 020-7222 1234 (24 hours) or . Access & Mobility, Transport for London, Windsor House, 42–50 Victoria Street, London SW1H 0TL (020-7941 4500, ) publishes a leaflet entitled Access to the Underground for elderly and disabled passengers.

There are other underground urban railway networks in Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester and Tyne and Wear (Newcastle). The latter is a modern light rapid transit (LRT) system 56km (35mi) in length with over 40 stations. Many other cities have plans for LRT or supertram systems, although they could be cancelled because of lack of funds.

This article is an extract from Living and working in Britain. Click here to get a copy now.

Further reading

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