For many Londoners, complaining about the London Underground is a daily custom. There are those who grumble loudly about delays, overcrowding and tourists who stand on the left-hand side of the escalators, but even they would have to admit that, as a whole, the Tube is one of the greatest things about living in the city. And it has many distinct qualities that make it a source of pride—and all manner of fascinating quirks or details that can make traveling on it an enjoyable experience (apart from the times you’re wedged in directly underneath a fellow passenger’s armpit). Here are just ten of our favorites.
1. The map
Ever since Harry Beck’s new London Underground map debuted in 1933, people have tried to come up with alternatives to it—circular layouts, or ones that are more “geographically accurate”, or that in some way resemble the maps seen in other cities’ metro systems. But the simple fact remains that none of them will ever replace Beck’s masterpiece, because it’s impossible to improve upon. It’s remarkably impressive in how readable it manages to make the confluence of lines and stations, and continues to successfully adapt to the network’s expansion. Just don’t try taking the Thames out of it, and you’re fine.
2. The driverless trains on the DLR
It’s amazing that train driving isn’t a more hotly contested occupation in the U.K., given the natural reaction of almost every passenger—whether newcomer or seasoned commuter—when faced with the automatically-controlled trains of the Docklands Light Railway. The DLR is a light rail extension to the Tube network in the East End of London, with 45 stations across seven different branch lines, and is widely acknowledged as one of the most enjoyable ways to travel in the capital, particularly if you manage to nab the empty seat at the front and pretend you’re the driver.
3. The motivational slogan boards
Service Update Information boards—simple whiteboards that station staff can use to quickly update passengers about problems on the lines—have been in regular use across the network for many years, but it’s only in the last few that they’ve become a veritable viral internet phenomenon. The question of which station’s staff first decided to write a motivational “thought of the day” to their boards is lost to the mists of time, but it’s now a pretty standard practice; as is that of commuters taking photos and sharing them across social media. There are even online tools to let you generate your own fake version.
4. The door buttons that do nothing
Several types of train stock deployed across the network have buttons on or next to their doors, which seem designed for passengers to manually open or close them. However, with the exception of the DLR, and at some outer stations on the Metropolitan line, all the doors on every other line open automatically, and the buttons are essentially functionless. It feels like something that was specifically designed to let seasoned Londoners laugh at tourists who frequently press them in vain—but actually, it’s simply that they’ve fallen out of use as the automation was introduced to speed up station dwell times in the early 1990s.
5. The two-station Waterloo and City Line
The longest line on the Underground is either, depending on how you count it, the Central Line (49 stations and 46 miles) or the District Line (60 stations, but only 40 miles). The shortest, however, is comfortably the Waterloo and City line, which runs nothing other than a straight 1.5 mile journey between two stations. Originally a separate British Rail line that became an official part of the tube in 1994, the W&C might seem pointless when looking purely at a map, but it actually serves as a vital artery between Britain’s busiest railway station and the bustling financial district. And besides, the idea of an entire tube line that just runs for four minutes between two stations feels appropriately idiosyncratic.
Even more than the map, the blue and red roundel is the most distinctive mark of the London Underground. Not only is it an eye-catching way to identify each station name as you pass through it, but when used outside stations it also serves as a beacon: you might be lost in the most unfamiliar part of London, but the moment you see that roundel shining in the sky, you know that you can find your way home.
7. Baker Street’s Sherlock Holmes tiles
Tube stations rarely identify themselves specifically with their surroundings, perhaps due to the fact that the stations themselves often outlive ever-changing developments above ground. One notable exception, however, is Baker Street, which from platform level upwards leaves visitors in no doubt as to the most significant cultural artifact of the area. Even though he’s a fictional character and nobody of that name has ever actually lived on Baker Street, the station is filled with stylish tiles of differing sizes that show a silhouette of Sherlock Holmes. It never fails to raise a smile, and makes the station a tourist attraction in its own right.
8. “Baby on Board” badges
A common hazard of etiquette when traveling on the tube regularly is the thorny question of when you should give up your seat to somebody else. Of course, everyone wants to make sure a pregnant woman gets to sit down, but asking if somebody is actually pregnant, or merely perhaps wearing a large coat, can risk severe offense. Salvation is at hand in the shape of these small roundel-based pin badges—but the best thing about them is that they are actually given out for free, on request, by Transport for London themselves. That’s right: there is a government-funded initiative designed solely to assist with politeness. Which might be the most British thing that has ever happened.
9. The feeling of satisfaction when you successfully plan an alternate route
Every commuter worth their salt knows the basics of their day-to-day journey, but true “tube ninja” status is earned on those occasions where one’s usual route isn’t available. The ability to quickly calculate the best possible way from A to B without having to stop and pore over a map the way everybody else on the platform is doing can be a source of immense satisfaction when you get it right — and is one of the best ways to show off to visiting friends or family, too. The same goes for knowing exactly where along the train to get on so that you alight right next to your destination platform’s exit stairs.
10. The heritage
The London Underground is now over 150 years old, and that sense of history and heritage can be found everywhere across the network, in all kinds of ways. Travel between Canning Town and Stratford on the Jubilee line, and you’re following a route that’s been used by passengers since 1847. The oldest trains currently in use on the network, which serve the Bakerloo line, have been in service for over 40 years. From the art deco 1930s station buildings of the Piccadilly Line, to the shining modern masterpiece of Canary Wharf, simply traveling around on the Tube is a lesson in the history of 20th century British design and architecture.
And through it all is the knowledge that barely anything about this gigantic network was planned in advance—it simply grew, organically, expanding to fit the needs of the people around it, frequently making square pegs fit in round holes along the way. In this way, it’s perhaps the purest expression of the character of London itself.
For even more great things about the Underground, check out this blog dedicated to listing 150!
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