Tuesday, 17 February 2015

London Underground: Keeping a great city moving.

Much more than just a public transport system, the London Underground’s vast network of tracks and tunnels has become ingrained in London’s identity.  You will most commonly hear it referred to as ‘the Tube’ by Londoners, a name which refers to the deep-level circular tunnels which are characteristic of the network.  Although complaining about the Tube’s issues of overcrowding, high prices and frequent delays is a pastime in which most Londoners often partake, the network undeniably plays an essential role in keeping London ticking each day. 

Piccadilly Circus Tube Station

London’s Tube network is the world’s oldest - the first line was opened all the way back in 1863 under the name of the Metropolitan Railway Company.  It was originally built to connect London’s northern rail terminals (Paddington, Euston and King’s Cross) to the City.  Ever since, the Tube has proved extremely popular with Londoners and visitors alike and has expanded massively to cover most parts of the city.  Today, it is the world’s 4th largest metro system with 207 stations and 249 miles of track.  It is also the 11th busiest, carrying a whopping 2.3 billion passengers a year (anyone who has been squashed onto the Tube during rush hour would not be surprised to read this!).

The earliest sections of the network were constructed using a ‘cut-and-cover’ method.  Put simply, this method involved digging up the road surface, laying tracks in sub-surface trenches and then re-sealing the roofs to create tunnels.  These simple tunnels run just a few meters below the streets, with many sections exposed to daylight.  These original cut-and-cover tunnels exist today in the Circle, District, Metropolitan and Hammersmith & City lines.  However, as tunneling technology improved over the years, this enabled engineers to develop much deeper tunnels several meters below the city, using high-tech tunnel-boring machinery to carve through the clay and rock.  These deep-level tunnels resemble round ‘tubes’ due to the shape of the boring machinery.  Much of the network’s central section is constructed in this style, including the Central, Northern, Bakerloo, Victoria, Jubilee, Piccadilly and Waterloo & City lines.  These deep level tunnels run at an average depth of around 24 meters below the streets, but reach a maximum depth of 67 meters as the Northern Line passes beneath Holly Bush Hill.

Many features associated with the Tube have become icons of London itself, including the London Underground ‘roundel’ logo, the ‘Mind the Gap!’ catchphrase which can be heard echoing around any tube station and the famous ‘Tube Map’.  This iconic map was designed back in 1931 by Harry Beck – a London Underground employee who sketched the map in his spare time.  Geographically, Beck’s tube map is an incorrect representation - it was designed to simplify the chaotic geographically-correct map which preceded it, which resembled a spaghetti-like tangle of train lines and was extremely hard to follow.  Beck’s tube map is very similar today as it was back in 1931, and is seen by many as a work of art as well as a simple and usable tool of navigation.  The design can be seen printed on countless souvenirs in gift shops across London!  However, it has been said that on around 30% of journeys, passengers take longer routes than they ought to as the Tube map is unable to give any sense of distance!

All the technical stuff out of the way, lets share with you some funny and truly bizarre facts about the London Underground.  For instance, did you know that the networks escalators combined travel half the distance around the Earth every week?  And names on the network can at times be pretty meaningless - the southernmost station (Morden) is actually found on the Northern Line?! How confusing.  Some pretty odd things have been claimed as lost property on the network – amongst the thousands of mobile phones, house keys and umbrellas, perhaps the most weird items left behind include a human skull, a coffin and breast implants!!  How odd.  Even just glancing at the Tube Map, many station names stand out as amusing – I’m sure everyone who has ridden the Piccadilly line has secretly cracked a smile at the word ‘Cockfosters’.

Love it or hate it, London would not be London without the Tube.

Elis Griffiths. x

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