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A Guide to the London Underground

London Underground

All major cities have to have major public transport installations. A great many of them have underground rail systems so there is nothing unique about London.  

However, the London Underground, or the Tube as it’s known as locally, does tend to have a little mystique surrounding it. For someone arriving from a town or city that doesn’t have an underground network at all it can seem completely impossible to fathom.  

It’s especially impressive when looking at its history. It was the first underground railway system to open anywhere in the world. The first route was between Paddington and Farringdon and opened in 1863 and today it is a network of 11 lines stretching across London and crossing into surrounding counties including Hertfordshire, Essex and Buckinghamshire. 

It also carries over 1.3 billion customers a year at a peak of 5 million customers a day. 

It’s easy to see why some people might be nervous about travelling on it. 

The infamous tube map can look like a Jackson Pollock painting for the uninitiated. The intercrossing coloured lines, the zones, the fact that some lines aren’t even part of the tube network but are ‘helpfully’ pointing out other possible options! 

That’s not even mentioning the tickets which are usually the most unnecessarily complex part of any city’s transport network. 

The following is a rough guide for those who have never travelled on the tube before. 

The Tube Map 

The underground network stretches across nine zones as can be seen by the white and shaded circular areas that circulate out from the middle of the map. Central London is in Zone 1, in the middle of the map and the zones go out in numerical order until Zone 9 is reached. 

It’s worth noting that Zone 9 is only found in the north east and north west of the map. South of the river only extends as far as Zone 5. 

There are 11 lines, although the tube map key suggests there are 17. The others will be explained shortly. 

  • Light Brown – Bakerloo Line 
  • Red – Central Line 
  • Yellow – Circle Line
  • Green – District Line
  • Pink – Hammersmith & City Line
  • Grey – Jubilee Line
  • Magenta – Metropolitan Line 
  • Black – Northern Line
  • Dark Blue – Piccadilly Line
  • Light Blue – Victoria Line
  • Turquoise – Waterloo & City Line Line 

The other lines in the key include the DLR (the Docklands Light Railway) and the London Overground. These essentially both work in exactly the same way as the tube, use the same tickets and are generally so seamless most people won’t know the difference. 

The DLR is driverless, which is a pretty interesting difference. 

TFL Rail and London Trams are different systems, but use the same tickets, so they are less seamless than the others. 

The Emirates Air Line is essentially a tourist attraction, a cable car that goes from one side of the river to the other. It has no transport benefit and in almost all circumstances, finding alternative means of transport is always quicker and cheaper. But it is fun! 

The last part of the key shows parts of the district line that only open occasionally. Specifically the route to Kensington Olympia station. 

The other things marked on the map are stations with step free access from street to platform, National Rail services (overground trains, not to be confused with the London Overground line!), Airports, Riverboat services and the Victoria Coach station. 

The map also shows which stations have more than one line going through them (interchange stations), which stations are linked together so more lines are accessible (such as Bank/Monument) and which stations are close enough to walk from one to the other (such as Camden Town and Camden Road).

Deciphering the Tube Map 

First things first. Find out the required station for the commencement of the journey and the station where the journey is to end. Look them up on the map and try to work out how to get from one to the other in the quickest way, using the white circled stations to change lines if required.

Next, figure out the direction of travel. Northbound, southbound, eastbound or westbound, this is pretty self explanatory from the direction of travel on the map. 

The tube platforms are labelled by the line and the direction of travel so a train travelling in the right direction is relatively easy to find. Tube platforms are also numbered. Rest assured, the platform numbers at tube stations mean absolutely to nothing to anyone who doesn’t work for London Underground! 


There are numerous options as to how to pay for travel. 

Paper Tickets 

There are manned ticket offices at most Central London stations and automated ticket machines everywhere.  

Single or return tickets to a specific destination are pretty self explanatory. When the destination is reached the ticket will be consumed by the ticket machine and the gates will open automatically. 

For multiple locations or for a day’s worth of travel on the tube there are travel cards. These give unlimited travel possibilities on the Tube, Trains, Trams, DLR and most other forms of transport in London (a notable exception are the buses).

They are simply shown, if asked for, or, in most cases, they are inserted into machines and then returned. The gates will open as soon as the ticket is taken.

Travel cards are available for single day use or for 7 days. 

Oyster Cards 

The cheapest way to travel on the underground. As a comparison, a single journey in Zone 1 on a paper ticket would cost £4.90. Using pre-paid Oyster card it would cost only £2.40. 

An Oyster is basically a plastic charge card. When they are purchased they come pre-loaded with some credit but can then be topped up at machines or ticket offices. The beauty of them is that they seamlessly work out the cheapest price for a journey and charge just that. They are also capped so it’s possible to travel all day on the tube and not be charged an exorbitant amount. 

Credit is also held on the card forever, so it can be used on a future visit to London! 

Oyster cards are accepted on all overground, tram, train, DLR and bus services as well as the underground. It’s worth remembering that London buses DO NOT accept cash. Only Oyster and contactless are accepted. 

The key with an Oyster card is to touch in (at the beginning of a journey) and then touch out at the end on the yellow circles. If there are no barriers a yellow circle will be somewhere and will need to be found and ‘touched’. Otherwise a ‘worst case scenario’ fare is charged. 

For buses and trams, only a touch in is required as they are a set price.


Mobile devices and credit/debit cards. Work in exactly the same way as Oyster cards. 

Catching a train 

Sounds quite simple but can be quite stressful for the beginner.  

Standing behind the yellow line is essential (something that will be drilled in constantly by the announcements!). The trains arrive at speed, the platform can be quite crowded and in the vast majority of stations there is no protection from the edge of the platform.  

Some Jubilee line stations, however, do have protective doors in place. 

The doors open automatically from the inside and out. Ignore any buttons that purport to Open or Close, they don’t work! 

‘Mind the Gap’ is a real thing and will also be heard multiple times on the tannoy system. It means that there is a gap between the platform and the train so watch your step. Some stations have huge gaps, others have no gap at all. 

Let other people off the train first. Not doing this is almost as grave a crime as standing on the left hand side of the escalators. Trying to enter the train before people have disembarked is likely to be met with a strong ‘tut’.

Once on the train move down as far as possible away from the doors to allow other people to enter. 

The modern tube trains will have a display and announcements as to what station is approaching. Older ones will have the driver announcing it. 

A foolproof way is to simply look out of the window as each station’s name is prominently displayed all along the platforms. 

Accessibility and Opening Times 

Most of the lines start running at around 05:00 from Monday to Saturday and finish around midnight. There is a reduced service on a Sunday so times should always be checked as they vary from line to line. 

On the weekends there is a night tube running on certain lines. On Friday and Saturday there is a 24 hour service to certain stations on the Central, Northern and Piccadilly lines. There is a full service to every station on the Jubilee line. 

The stations with step free disabled access are clearly marked on the tube map. These include stations with lifts.  

Unfortunately the tube network was built over a hundred years before disability access was a requirement, therefore in a lot of cases full access is not available and not likely to be possible in the future either.  

Nearly every stations has escalator access, some have tramulators too but others have very long walks within them so be prepared. 

Most tube trains also have a significant step up or step down when they arrive in a station. 

Other tips 

  • Avoid rush hour, football matches and other events (unless attending). The trains are uncomfortably overcrowded at these times. 
  • The front of the train will advise the ultimate destination. 
  • Always stand on the right of escalators. It will be pointed out unless adhered to! 
  • Offer seats to elderly, pregnant or disabled passengers, those with children or those that are noticeably less able to stand. It will not likely be asked for but will be appreciated. 
  • Hold on tight if standing! 

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