43 reviews from the community
Review of "London Underground"
For anyone who lives and/or works and/or shops in Central London, there’s really only one sensible way to get around. I’m sorry – I don’t do buses and I know that I’m not alone in thinking that way. When I used to visit London on a regular basis, I had something of a superficial view about the city’s transport network. As an outsider, it seemed so extensive, so reliable and such good value that I couldn’t really understand why people in London complained about it so much. Then I moved to London. I still think the Underground is great, but I’m certainly far more aware of its issues.
A Potted History of the London UndergroundThe London Underground was the first underground railway in the world and the first of its many lines opened way back in 1863. It wasn’t electrified until the 1890s and in the early days, the network was a mere shadow of the lines that are in use today. Over the years, the network has gone through constant change, with lines being extended, added and upgraded, stretching much farther out of London than the early days. Informally, most travellers refer to the London Underground as the ‘Tube’, although this term originally applied only to the sections that are, indeed, underground. Today more than half of the network is actually above ground.
Originally, each line within the Underground network was managed and maintained by a separate private company. London Transport was formed in the 1930s, integrating each of these lines into one network but it wasn’t until the 1980s that the network evolved into a single entity (London Undergound Limited). In 2003, the government formed Transport For London (TFL) to manage the entire network of public transport in London and the Underground became part of this.In total there are currently 270 stations in the network. The totality of more than 250 miles of track makes this the longest underground rail system in the world and it’s fair to say that developments on the London Underground have informed progress in many other transport systems.
There are currently eleven different lines running within the London Underground network. Deep level lines are generally far hotter in the summer, due to the depth and the lack of ventilation. For those who are particularly sensitive to these conditions, these lines should be avoided in the peak of summer where journeys include zone 1 travel.Bakerloo Line – cuts across London north to south from Harrow and Wealdstone down to Elephant and Castle. This is a deep level line and uses train stock first implemented in the 1970s.
Central Line – cuts across London west to east, from Ealing Broadway to Epping to the North East of London. Again, this is a deep level line and uses relatively new (1992) trains.Circle Line - runs a circular route around Central London. This used to run continuously but in December 2009 was re-routed to continue out to Hammersmith, with trains terminating at Edgware Road. This change was made to increase the efficiency of the line although train frequencies reduced. This is a subsurface line and doesn’t run as deep as the likes of the Bakerloo line.
District Line – born from the Metropolitan District Railway, the line operates multiple branches that run in parallel with sections of the Circle line. The various branches start at Ealing, Richmond and Wimbledon in the West/South West and run to Upminster to the East of London or Edgware Road in the North West. This is another sub-surface line, sharing much of the same track as the Circle Line.Hammersmith and City Line – was originally part of the first line to open in 1863. This line cuts across North London, from Hammersmith in the west across to Barking in the east. The trains are due to be amongst the first to be upgraded this year.
Jubilee Line – is by far the newest line, opening in 1979. This line runs from Stanmore in North-West London down to Waterloo and then across to Stratford in the east. This is a strategically important line, linking Wembley stadium to the heart of London and across to Stratford, where the Olympics are due to be hosted in 2012. This is a deep level line.Metropolitan Line – is the oldest line on the network, this runs from Amersham and Watford down across the North of London to Aldgate in the east. This is a subsurface line running, by far, the oldest trains on the network and is also due to be upgraded in 2010.
Northern Line – cuts London from the North (High Barnet) to the South (Morden) branching in two along the way. The Northern Line currently has the newest trains on the network and runs deep level.Piccadilly Line – runs from the south-west to the north-east, connecting Heathrow airport with Cockfosters. This is another deep level line with new trains not due until 2014. This is a reasonably slow way to get to Heathrow though. Over ground trains from Paddington are far quicker.
Victoria Line – runs from Brixton to the south across London to the north and then out to the east at Walthamstow. Mile per mile, this is the busiest line in London but has only been operational since the late 1960s. This is a deep level line and connects the two busiest mainline stations of Victoria and King’s Cross.Waterloo and City Line – is by far the shortest line, running only 1.5 miles between Waterloo and Bank and maintains reduced opening hours compared to the rest of the network. This is also a deep level line.
The twelfth line, East London, was closed in 2007 and is currently being extended to form part of the over ground network. The Docklands Light Railway forms part of the TFL network but is not considered to be a London Underground line.
Tickets, Fares and Fishy Bits of PlasticThe TFL network has a system of zones for its Travelcards and these zones are used to calculate fares on the Underground. There are principally six zones on the Underground, with three additional zones on the Metropolitan line. The fare increases according to how many zones you travel through. You can purchase tickets on the spot either through a ticket office or through machines, but you’ll find that the further out you go, the shorter the ticket office opening times are. The ticket machines are pretty self-explanatory and user-friendly (they even have instructions in a variety of languages) but there is nothing more infuriating than standing behind someone who can’t figure out the machine, in the middle of the rush hour.
A much better option for those who just want the Underground is the Oyster card. This card can effectively be set up in one of two ways – as a Travelcard or as Pay and Go. As the former, it works exactly the same as the National Rail Travelcard, but you don’t need a photocard with it because it’s electronically registered to you. If you set it up as Pay and Go then you need to keep topping up with credit, rather like a mobile phone. The good thing about Pay and Go is that it’s a good way to save money if you don’t do one regular journey, as all journeys are discounted. So that £4.00 single fare that I quoted if you pay cash is reduced to £1.80. For two single journeys a day that’s a significant saving. There’s a feature of the Oyster card that I particularly like, whereby mine automatically tops up online when my balance reaches a certain point. I can be pretty confident therefore that I’ve always got credit to travel.
A standard single fare is not cheap. Within one zone, the price of a single journey, paid by cash, will cost you £4.00. Curiously, the cost doesn’t increase enormously as you add the zones, so the further you’re going the better value it gets. A single from zone 1 to zone 7 costs £5.50, for example. You can, however, save an enormous amount of money by investing in a Travelcard. These are effectively season tickets for periods of 1 day, seven days, a month or a year that give you unlimited travel between various zones for the duration of the ticket. Most commuters will use these, particularly if they’re coming in from outside London as they can be combined with their National Rail season tickets. If you buy them on the National Rail network you need a photocard and you also get issued with a horrible paper ticket. If this is for any longer than a week, you’ll have to keep getting it replaced as the magnetic strip will fail and you’ll have to keep getting the guy on the barrier to let you through.
The network is pretty hot on fare evasion. Ticket barriers at most stations are automated and, in zone 1 at least, this remains the case throughout operating hours. There are also plenty of patrols of uniformed and plain-clothed inspectors. I find these go in fits and starts. For months, you’ll not see anyone or be asked to show your ticket by anyone and then one week you’ll be asked three times. The penalty fare is £50 and according to how far they think you’ve pushed it, they can prosecute you too. My advice? Always get a ticket – it’s another reason that Oyster is so good.
Information and AccessThe Tube map is now pretty iconic and was used by various other systems as a blueprint for their own maps. It’s not geographically accurate, so the distances between stations aren’t right, for example. But the simple colour scheme and layout seems way easier to follow to me, compared to, for example, the Paris Metro, which always flummoxes me. Tube maps are everywhere, displayed in various locations in stations and on platforms, plus there are free pocket versions, regularly re-published to reflect station closures and changes. Symbols on the maps indicate whether stations interchange with others (a white circle) or whether there is step-free access for disabled passengers. The map is an essential tool for travellers and tourists.
Information in stations is pretty good too – at least in theory. Instead of detailed timetables, the wall displays simply show the line, with an estimated frequency (number of trains per hour) and the journey times to each station. The electronic display (where available) then tells you how long it is until a train is due and where it’s going. You can accurately plan when you will get somewhere and I find that I can cut it quite fine. I don’t generally allow loads of time like I might do a normal train service, as even if I miss one train, the next one is likely to be along pretty soon. I do find that the electronic displays can be difficult to see properly in some stations though. At Finchley Road, for example, they seem to be completely blocked out by the security cameras from most places on the platform.There has been a big investment programme to try and make more stations have ‘step-free’ access for wheelchair users and this is still ongoing. Some key stations (King’s Cross for example) have undergone major works to add lifts so that you can avoid the stairs and escalators. Overall, however, the network, particularly in zone 1, remains wholly unsuitable for wheelchair users. This is compounded further as you progress outwards as staff members become fewer and farther between. It’s also worth pointing out that most of the lifts are pretty claustrophobic at peak times and there are certain stations you might want to avoid if this bothers you (Regent’s Park and Covent Garden have a lot of steps if you don’t want to take the lift!)
Are You Sitting Comfortably?
The different trains vary in terms of layout, types of seat and number of seats. Personally, I prefer to sit with my back to the window facing the opposite side of the train but on some lines (Metropolitan for example) this isn't possible and you're hemmed into more cramped seating arrangements. There's a real issue about giving up seats for elderly or disabled passengers and for preganant women and to be honest, I nearly always stand to avoid any scrutiny when it's busy. There are some seats that are upholstered in such a way that if somebody plonks down next to you, you are virtually hurled off your seat (particularly on the Victoria Line). The seats on the Central Line are hard and uncomfortable.Special mention needs to be made of the heat too. In the height of summer, the Underground can be an extremely uncomfortable place to be. The issue of air-conditioning the trains has become high on the agenda over recent years, but it's not an easy problem to fix. The lack of clearance between the existing trains and the tunnels means that they're having to invest in entirely new stock so it'll be some time before the network is properly air-conditioned. Until then, we'll all continue to suffer - and it's pretty horrible. People regularly pass out (causing further delay) and most of us have suffered the fate of being stood next to Mr or Mrs Stinky Pits. In reality, if I can, I avoid the Tube after 11:00 in the peak summer months.
Abuse, Staff and More Abuse
Certainly in zone 1, you will find a high degree of staff visibility, diminishing as you go further out into the network, particularly outside peak hours. But I would say that the helpfulness and customer focus of TFL staff is proportional to the zone in which they work; zone 1 staff members are pretty miserable, pretty unhelpful and generally pretty uncommunicative. They have to deal with a far higher volume of passengers and enquiries, of course, but if they don’t like the job – well, they know what to do! A recent story hit the London Standard about an employee on the Central Line who abused a customer verbally over the loudspeaker and was forced to quickly resign amidst complaints of bullying. One of the issues stems from the fact that TFL have become very strict on their policy of zero tolerance towards abuse of their staff members. This is, of course, entirely appropriate – nobody should have to take abuse from anybody at their place of work. But my personal view is that this has led to a culture of complacency and superiority in staff members, with customers unwilling to complain about the poorest of standard in fear of being labelled abusive.There are also regular reports about the problems faced by the Lost Property system on the Tube. Mystery shopping/undercover reporters have deliberately handed in items of lost property at stations and then gone to the lost property office at a later date to be told it was never handed in – even though they have a reference number to prove it was.
But please don’t think that all TFL staff members should be tarred with the same brush. Many of the staff members working on the Tube are a delight. Some of the drivers make hilarious announcements on the trains (often cheering up an otherwise very dull day.) Some of the station staff are absolutely outstanding and really do put their customers before anyone else. But there efforts are largely overshadowed by the ignorant, rude, disinterested wastes of space you’ll find staffing huge sections of zone 1.
Reliability IssueThe London Underground is an old network and despite major investments to improve, problems are frequent and inevitable. Commonly, lines are disrupted by signal failure and within a few minutes this can have a massive knock-on effect, particularly at peak periods. It is estimated that more than 200 journeys per month are delayed by more than fifteen minutes, which, as a percentage of the total journeys isn’t enormous, but when considering the number of people affected, it’s a huge problem. Inevitably, of course, these delays seem to strike far more commonly during peak hours. Information is made available to passengers very quickly. I have text alerts registered from the TFL web site that alert me to any major problems as soon as they occur. Similarly, as you enter all Tube stations, a board will give you a status update on each line, updated in real time, so that you can plan your journey. But you simply cannot avoid the impacts of delay on the Underground and this is, unfortunately, part of the territory.
You can claim compensation, but only if your journey is delayed by 15 minutes or more. You can claim on the TFL web site and I find that the complaints are usually turned around in about 10 days. Frustratingly, even if you have an Oyster card, they send you a voucher refund that you then have to go and get added to your card at the ticket office – why they can’t refund straight to Oyster, I don’t know. They refund only at Oyster rates too – even if you paid cash. So a £4 single fare will only ever be refunded at £1.80.One of the biggest issues in London currently is the upgrade programme, which has been running for years, and will be continue to do so, severely disrupting the network at weekends. It’s not unusual for more than half of the entire network to be partly or fully suspended at the same time and this has a real impact on your journey. Replacement bus services are slow and cramped and the knock-on effect to the lines that are working is also very noticeable. There’s no easy answer here. Disruption during the week would not be tolerable, but the shift to weekend engineering works only means these things take far longer to complete. My advice at the moment is to check weekend journeys before you travel and prepare well for delays.
Safety and Security
When I first used the Underground, way back as a teenager, it struck me as a dangerous, oppressive place and it wasn’t something I relished using. Nowadays, I don’t even think twice about it and regularly travel very late without feeling unsafe. The stations now have a better staff presence than they once did and there are so many security cameras and help points that it’s possible to raise help quickly (although how long it would take to arrive, I’m not completely sure.) I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit that I still find the Underground a rather exciting place to be. I get a genuine buzz when I get on the Tube to go out somewhere; it’s an essential part of a night out for me now. I personally approve the decision that was taken last year to ban the consumption of alcohol on the Tube. I think this is inappropriate and intimidating for other passengers and I don’t think it’s too much to ask to get people to drink elsewhere.It’s hard to imagine that smoking was once permitted on the Underground, but the Kling’s Cross disaster of 1987 put paid to that. A fire broke out on an escalator in the station, which is believed to have started from a match or cigarette and 31 people died. A complete ban on smoking on the network was rapidly implemented and is now ruthlessly enforced. Overcrowding is a problem. The station platforms and the trains can become incredibly busy and at times, it can be very unpleasant. I was on a train that was absolutely jammed full on the Central Line last year, when it stopped in a tunnel and was stuck there for fifteen minutes. The first couple of minutes were OK, but then the screaming started. Alas, some poor souls have terrible panic attacks, and when they start screaming it’s a pretty unpleasant place to be. Accidents are fairly common, but generally through slips and trips.
It always strikes me as being very clean, particularly in zones 1 and 2. Litter is cleared almost immediately and cleaning teams work constantly. I dropped a pot of soup at Oxford Circus last week (yes, it was me, sorry) and a cleaning team was mobilised in seconds. There are no litter bins on the Underground, due to the security risk, but litter is certainly not a problem.The biggest personal risk on the modern network is now from security threats. Petty crime is a real problem – loads of my friends have had purses, handbags or wallets stolen and I’d always recommend keeping anything valuable fastened securely. Following the terrorist attacks of 7/7, sensitivity around future incidents is now very high and you’ll regularly see a sudden deluge of police officers surrounding anybody who is or appears to be acting suspiciously. Realistically, you just can’t let these things change your life. Indeed, I think it’s the resilience of passengers that stops terrorism making any real difference. However, there’s no harm in being vigilant and reporting bags that appear to have been left behind.
So, bombarded with all that information, what would be my top tips for getting the most out of the Tube?1 – Be prepared. Carry a pocket map of the Tube, an Oyster card and a bottle of water. Even in the Spring, it can get very warm down there and the water will keep you hydrated.
2 – Avoid peak times – travel after 09.30 and before 16.30 if you can. Children will find peak times particularly unpleasant and if you’re out as a family it can be a nerve-wracking experience for all.3 – Observe the signs. If the signs say ‘Keep Left’ then please keep to the left! If you wander out to the right, you’ll get barged out of the way or somebody will hurl abuse at you. These signs are there to keep the network flowing so observe the etiquette. Always stand to the right on an escalator, for example, to allow those in a hurry to walk down to your left.
4 – Don’t run – particularly down an escalator – they’re pretty lethal. Don’t run for trains – the next one will be along soon. It’s not worth the risk of injury to yourself, or others.5 – Be alert. My pet hate on the Tube is people who walk along reading a book or a newspaper without looking where they’re going – mobile phones are just as irritating. Have some self-awareness – at the very least, you’re probably in somebody’s way.
6 – Respect other passengers. It’s not hard – just think about other people. Don’t barge your way onto trains. Don’t listen to music really loudly. Don’t eat really smelly food. These things can really make life harder for other passengers. If you’re hot, don’t start flapping your hands and huffing. Just sit quietly – everyone else will be hot too.7 – Take a chill pill. I’ve decided that it doesn’t pay to be in a tearing hurry all the time. Allow enough time in your day so that you can miss a train or two and still stroll to and from the stations. There’s nothing worse than having to tear across London.
8 – Enjoy the trip! There is so much to look at on the London Underground even in zone 1. Check out some of the art work displayed on the trains or the infrequent poetry. The stations vary enormously too. I love the Sherlock Holmes inspired Circle Line platform at Baker Street but I also love the exposed concrete and contemporary feel of the station at Westminster. Enjoy the buskers too – there are plenty of licensed musicians working in the passageways to try and brighten your day!I’ll always have huge affection for the London Underground. It’s not until I’m on a Tube train that I feel as though I’m going home and I think that, whilst there are problems, the service is pretty good. Putting the politics of who manages it to one side, I think it's reasonably well-managed and given the age of it all, it holds up pretty well. A trip to London simply wouldn't be complete without at least one trip on the Tube.
Product Information : London Underground
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Listed on Ciao since: 01/12/2003