Happy 150th birthday London Underground

Decluttered tube map

It’s the 150th anniversary of the first London Underground train journey today. On 9th January 1863, the original section of the Metropolitan Railway between Paddington and Farringdon was put into operation. (It was opened to the public for the first time the following day.)

The ‘tube’ may be old and creaking (it is officially the world’s oldest underground railway system); it may be hamstrung by creaking Victorian infrastructure and more passengers than it was ever intended to deal with; it may be horrendously grimy and faint-inducingly hot in the height of summer (all three days a year of it); it may look antiquated compared to the shiny new automated and air-conditioned mass transit systems increasingly common in the more affluent cities of Asia.

Nonetheless, I love the Underground – it helps that I no longer commute into London every day! – and its iconic tube map, designed by electrical engineer Harry Beck in 1933.

Google have commemorated the anniversary with one of their customary doodles:

Google doodle London Underground 9/1/13

(Although note that the Victoria line – in light blue – has been split into two non-connecting halves.)

This continues a long tradition of pastiches and parodies of the iconic map design. There’s a comprehensive collection of ‘alternative’ tube maps over at londonist.com – well worth a look. Here’s my favourite:

Decluttered tube map

Finally, some basic facts about the Underground to indulge the geek in me:

  • It operates 270 stations – the most of any other metropolitan subway/metro system in the world – across 11 separate lines.
  • Tube trains carry around 1.2 billion passengers every year (that’s more than three million every day) – as many as the entire UK national rail network.
  • With 250km of track, the Underground is the third ‘longest’ in the world, behind only the Beijing and Shanghai metro systems.
  • Only 45% of the network is actually underground.
  • The Central line is both the longest and the busiest line, servicing around 260 million journeys every year on its 46 miles of track. Conversely, the Waterloo & City line operates just 1.5 miles of track and sees only 15 million journeys each year.
  • Hampstead station on the Northern line is 192 feet below street level, making it the deepest-lying station on the network.

The London Underground is far from perfect, but it’s still our Underground and something to be proud of. Aside from New York, Paris and arguably Moscow, how many other cities have something as mundane as a mass transit rail system which is known the world over and rightly considered iconic in terms of its representation of a nation? Happy birthday!