There are signs for the London Underground all over the city but no one ever calls it that. It’s known simply as the Tube and it’s the world’s oldest and largest subway system with more than a billion passengers a year.
We took the Tube almost exclusively to get around London during our recent eleven-day stay there. There are two lines out of eleven — Central and Jubilee — that serve the Stratford City area and most of our travels were on these lines. One day (a Saturday) the Central line was closed for repairs and so we took the overground National Railway Services to Liverpool Street Station. We also spent one whole day in Greenwich which is served by the DLR (Docklands Light Rail). The DLR trains are robot-controlled — no operators.
In 1933 a man named Harry Beck designed the color-coded Tube map that is now recognized as a London icon. Click here to see the latest version of this map. There’s also a free Tube map app at the Apple Store available for iPad owners. Beck’s circuit diagram design is now used by metro systems all over the world, including our San Francisco Bay Area’s BART system.
On our first day in London we took the Piccadilly line from Heathrow to Green Park and then transferred to the Jubilee line all the way to Stratford City. And on our last day we took this same trip in reverse.
We also took the Jubilee line one day to Westminster Station to sight-see central London and on another day to Waterloo Station and then transferred to the Northern Line to Leicester Square where we started our West End Walk.
The Jubilee line is almost always crowded and also takes a while to get anywhere because it goes everywhere. The Line starts out in Northwest London and it includes Wembley Stadium as one of its stops. It then heads southwest through West London to Waterloo Station south of the Thames where it heads east to Greenwich and finally north to terminate at Stratford.
We found the Central Line to be much faster to get to our central London destinations. Unfortunately the Central Line is also cramped and always crowded and I had to stand most of the time. Some courteous Londoner, however, would usually offer his or her seat to my wife. The air conditioning is miniscule on the trains and we were always hot even though the weather above was usually pleasant. A study a few years ago on the air quality on the Tube stated that one twenty minute ride is equivalent to smoking one cigarette.
It was about a 20 minute ride on the Central Line to Tottenham Court Station which is just a couple of blocks from the British Museum. We went a few stops farther one day to Marble Arch in order to catch our bus to Stonehenge. And on another day we rode for about 15 minutes to St Paul’s Station where we walked to the Thames and across the Millennium Bridge to the Tate Modern. On yet another day we rode the Central to Holborn (one stop before Tottenham) where we transferred to the Piccadilly Line to get to Knightsbridge Station and Harrod’s Department Store.
On some days we took other routes on other lines to get back to our hotel. After visiting the Tate Modern we crossed the Blackfriars Bridge and got on the District Line at Blackfriars Station. This line took us to Mile End where we transferred back to the Central line. We also took the District line one day when our river cruise from Westminster Pier terminated at the Tower of London and we caught the train at Tower Hill Station. The yellow cars on the District line were more spacious than the Central or Jubilee or Northern and much less crowded. Also, the accordion cars gave the impression that you were on one very long tram.
By the end of our trip we considered ourselves experts on the various Tube stations we visited. Some of the big transfer stations required long walks up and down stairs and through long tunnels on multiple levels. There were also a couple of stations where all you had to do was cross the platform to pick up the next train. Most stations had escalators. Some had elevators (they’re called “lifts” in England). We learned to avoid the ones that were mostly stairs.
We purchased seven-day Oyster cards at Heathrow and then single-day tickets for the next three days. On our last day we bought tickets to Heathrow that were a tad cheaper than the single day ticket. You can ride all day on a three-day or seven-day Oyster card and the system is designed so that you never pay more every 24 hours than a single-day ticket. The rates depend on the zones in which you travel. Heathrow is in Zone 6. Central London is Zone 1. Stratford is in Zone 3. The Oyster Cards and tickets are good not only for the Tube for also for the red double-decker buses, the DLR and the overground trains. You can even use them to ride the Emirates Air Line from the Docklands over the Thames to Greenwich.
Oh, one more thing about the Tube and London in general: Everyone is in a rush to get to work, to get home from work and to get wherever they are going in the middle of the day. And every few feet on an escalator there’s a sign that says “Stand to the right.” If you don’t want to be bowled over, you better obey the sign!