London Underground map

The London Underground is one of the UK’s most important transport networks, carrying up to five million passengers a day along its 402km of tracks, which connect 270 stations and 11 lines. As the world’s oldest underground network, it opened in 1863 and was a masterpiece of Victorian engineering.

The idea was first mooted in 1845 by London solicitor Charles Pearson, who proposed improvements to the capital’s transport network, including a central rail station accessed by a tunnel. He envisaged it would be used by several rail operators to transport commuters to the city from the suburbs.

However, his idea that the trains could be pushed through tunnels by compressed air was rejected as unworkable – an apt decision, according to modern engineers. The limited technology at the time would have undoubtedly caused its failure.

Despite his early plans being rejected, he continued to lobby for the Underground, using his influence as a leading solicitor to back up his proposals. In 1854, the Royal Commission was launched to examine ideas for a rail system for London.

Eventually, Pearson’s idea for an Underground rail network gained support and led to the launch of the world’s first underground system and the rapid growth of the capital.

Known as the Metropolitan Railway at first, the tunnels used gas-lit wooden carriages pulled by steam locomotives until 1890, when these were replaced by electric trains on some routes. By 1907, all of the lines were electrified.

Following continued expansion throughout the 19th century, by a number of different rail operators who signed a joint marketing agreement in the early 20th century, signs saying “Underground” began to appear outside central London stations.

The network became officially known as the Underground and continued to expand during the 20th century, with only the outbreak of the two world wars temporarily halting its growth. Today, the Underground is managed by Transport for London – a private-public partnership set up in 2000 under the Greater London Authority.

Visionary engineers

A number of the greatest civil engineers in history are responsible for the London Underground – also known as the Tube. The first underground tunnel was the Thames Tunnel, designed by Marc Brunel, father of the more famous engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

The Thames Tunnel was a self-contained project in itself that was completed and opened in 1843, long before the rest of the Underground. It allowed people to travel under the River Thames and was the first tunnel ever built under a river. It became part of London’s rail network after operating solo for many years.

The man who put Pearson’s ideas into operation was John Fowler, who designed the first Underground railway system. The civil engineer was also responsible for building the Forth Railway Bridge.

Harry Bell Measures, who had previously designed some of the grandest homes in London, designed Oxford Circus Station, while architect John Wolfe-Barry created most of the District Line. He was also the designer of Tower Bridge.

Fascinating facts

Today, only 45% of the Underground is actually in tunnels. The longest distance between stations is from Chalfont and Latimer to Chesham, which is a distance of 3.89 miles on the Metropolitan line. The shortest distance is a mere 260 metres, between Covent Garden and Leicester Square. Although the journey takes only around 20 seconds, it costs £4.90 per person and is one of the most popular journeys among tourists.

The average speed of the tube trains on the Underground is 20.5 miles per hour, including stops at stations, although on the Metropolitan line, they can reach speeds of more than 60mph.

Waterloo is the busiest Tube station and is used by an estimated 95 million passengers a year. It took over as the busiest station from Oxford Circus in 2014. The longest escalator, at a height of 60 metres, with a vertical rise of 27.5 metres, is at Angel, while Stratford has the shortest escalator, with a vertical rise of 4.1 metres.

The longest continuous tunnel runs from Morden to East Finchley, via Bank, on the Northern line and spans a total of 17.3 miles. The longest journey without changing trains runs from Epping to West Ruislip on the Central line and spans 34.1 miles. The station furthest underground is Hampstead on the Northern line, which operates at a depth of 58.5 metres.

In order to keep the London Underground operational, more than 47 million litres of water are pumped out every day. This is sufficient water to fill a standard-size swimming pool in a leisure centre, which is 25 metres long by 10 metres wide.

In total, Tube trains travel around 76.4 million kilometres every year, carrying 1.265 billion passengers. This makes London Underground the busiest metro system in the world!

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