150 facts for 150 years of the London Tube

From 'suicide pits' to the 'Tubites': collected trivia about the capital's Victorian subterranean transport system in celebration of its Sesquicentennial

Will Coldwell
Wednesday 09 January 2013 12:59 GMT

Today it is 150 years since the first Tube journey. Here’s a fascinating fact for each year of its operation:

The visionaries

One of the leading visionaries of underground railways was Londoner Charles Pearson (1793-1862), who first envisaged a Fleet Valley rail tunnel in 1845. Pearson also campaigned for the removal of an inscription on the Monument blaming the Great Fire of London on Catholics and the overturning of the ban on Jews becoming brokers in the City of London.

John Fowler (1817-98) was the man tasked with designing the engineering solutions to Pearson’s idea for the first underground railway. Fowler’s other works include the Forth Railway Bridge.

Oxford Circus station was designed by Harry Bell Measures (1862-1940), who established his career by designing some of the grandest homes in the capital.

The architect who engineered most of the District line was John Wolfe-Barry (1836-1918), who also designed Tower Bridge.

In 1843 the Thames Tunnel was completed and opened. It was designed by Marc Brunel (Isambard Kingdom’s father) and was the first tunnel ever to be built under a navigable river. It’s now part of the London Overground line.

Tube Firsts

  • The journey of the first Tube train took place on 9 January 1863.
  • The first Tube line was built and financed by a private company, the Metropolitan Railway.
  • The Tube’s first escalator was installed at Earl’s Court in 1911, featuring a diagonal finish to the stairway, meaning the right  foot reached the top moments before the left.
  • In 1907 a spiral escalator opened at Holloway Road.

Getting bigger

In 1884 there were over 800 trains running around all or part of the Inner Circle every day.

A full journey on the City and South London Railway (now part of the Northern Line), from Stockwell to the City, took just 18 minutes.

Between 1891 and 1893 five more Tube railways under London were authorised by Parliament.

In 1896 the Glasgow District Subway opened. It was the only complete underground railway opened in the UK outside of London.

The Waterloo and City line was the only other line to be built before the turn of the century.

The Great Northern and City line (between Moorgate and Finsbury Park) was mostly completed by 1902.

The tunnels on the Central line twist and turn because they follow the curves of London’s medieval street plan.

There is a prevalent north/south divide on the Underground; less than 10 per cent of stations are south of the Thames.

The Underground was funded entirely by private companies until the 1930s.

Building works

  • It took 21 years (from 1863 to 1884) to complete the Inner Circle of tube lines in central London.
  • London’s current Crossrail development is Europe’s biggest construction project, as well as its most expensive.
  • If completed on time it will have taken nine years for Crossrail to be completed. Just 70 years after it was first proposed.
  • Each tunnel-boring machine for Crossrail costs £10m and the trains will cost another £1bn.
  • Kennington is the only surviving City and South London Railway station that remains close to its original condition, still featuring a domed roof.
  • Funding for a deep-level “Route C” line, better known as the Victoria line, was approved in 1955.
  • The grand opening of the  Victoria line, or “London’s Pride”,  was on 7 March 1969.
  • Queen Elizabeth II was the first reigning monarch to take the Tube, when she took the inaugural ride on the Victoria line from Green Park.

Accidents and incidents

The first accidents on the underground occurred within a couple of months of opening in 1863, involving slow-moving collisions at Farringdon Street station.

The space below tube tracks are colloquially known as “suicide pits” as they help reduce the chance of death or serious injury should someone jump in front of a train.

Around 50 passengers a year commit suicide on the Underground, however the Jubilee line is the only line to feature protective screens along the platforms.

Smoking was finally banned across the Tube network following the King’s Cross fire in November 1987, which killed 31 people.


When the Circle Line opened in 1884, the experience of riding it was described in The Times as “a form of mild torture”.

The “Tube” became a proper name for the first time in the early 1900s, after the Central London Railway (now the Central Line) was nicknamed the “Twopenny Tube”.

The “Twopenny Tube” nickname was conceived by the Daily Mail, five days after it opened.

The claustrophobic carriages on the early underground trains became known as “padded cells”.

Going both ways

In 1903 the Central London line became the first railway in Britain to be worked entirely by multiple-unit trains – meaning the trains no longer needed to be turned around when they reached each end of the line.

By 1905 all the Tube lines had adopted multiple-unit trains.


The “Twopenny Tube” line significantly boosted profits to shops based around Oxford Street and Regent Street.

In 1909 Selfridges department store lobbied (unsuccessfully) to get Bond Street station renamed after itself.

More successful was Brent Cross. Brent station was named after the shopping centre when it opened nearby in 1976.

The Central London Railway released a ladies only Christmas shopping ticket as a special promotion in 1912.

First World War

During the First World War, women began to make up staff shortages on the Underground.

When Maida Vale station opened on 6 June 1915 it was entirely staffed by women.

By the end of 1917 the Metropolitan Railway had 552 women on its staff.

Police reports of German bomb raids on London in 1917 estimated that 300,000 people were taking shelter in Tube stations.

A white marble memorial at Baker Street station commemorates the 137 Metropolitan Railway employees killed during the First World War.

The extension of the Piccadilly line northwards was largely down to passenger pressure; In 1923, a 30,000-signature petition was delivered to the Ministry of Transport.


  • In the 1860s only basic signage – the station name and exit – was provided on the Underground.
  • One of the first rail maps, produced by the District line in 1892, featured the slogan “Time Is Money” on the cover. 
  • The Tube’s world-famous red  circle logo, known as the “roundel”, first appeared in 1908.
  • Around 60 stations had the Metropolitan line’s red diamond instead of the “roundel” between 1919 and the 1970s.
  • The Underground Sans font, still used in a modified form for all the Tube’s posters and design, was created by Edward Johnston in 1916.
  • In 1907 a photographic survey was taken of all station exteriors in order to establish ways in which a more uniform design style could be achieved.
  • Etiquette posters warning  people to move down the car and to let passengers off first have been produced since the early years of the Tube, some by celebrated cartoonist George Morrow.
  • The Victoria line commissioned artists to produce original tile motifs for each station, including the seven trees which give Seven Sisters its name.

The map

The first free Underground map was released in 1908, a joint marketing enterprise produced collaboratively by the various private companies which ran the separate lines.

The classic diagrammatic Underground map designed by Harry Beck was first produced in 1933, inspired by electrical circuit diagrams.

The map was originally offered to the Underground by Harry Beck in 1931, but it was rejected as it was considered too radical for the public.

Harry Beck was paid 10 guineas, or £10.50, for his Tube map design.

Beck spent two years pestering the Underground to print a trial run – which was enthusiastically received by Londoners.

Beck remained very involved with changes and updates to his map for over 25 years until eventually falling out with London Transport.

In 1959 his name was removed from the map, until the 1990s, when he was once again acknowledged as its creator and “H.C. Beck” reappeared on the large-format station maps.

In 2006 the London Underground map came second in a BBC competition to find the public’s favourite British design of the 20th century.

In 2009 the angular representation of the river Thames was briefly removed from the map, but quickly replaced after a public outcry.


Chiltern Court, the largest apartment block in London, was opened over Baker Street station in 1929. You can buy a three-bed flat there today for £1.1m.

From 1933, London Transport was responsible for an area of 2,000 square miles within a 20- to 30-mile radius of Charing Cross.

Once formed, London Transport inherited an underground railway network covering 227 miles and carrying some 415 million passengers each year.

Mind the gap

The original recording of “Mind the gap” was made in 1968 featuring the voice of sound recordist Peter Lodge.

While most lines still use Peter Lodge’s recording of “Mind the gap”, others use a recording by voice artist Emma Clarke. The Piccadilly line uses the voice of Tim Bentinck, better known as David Archer from The Archers.


Scottish sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi designed the mosaic murals at Tottenham Court Road station, which were completed in 1984.

In the 90s, due to a boom in graffiti, the “silver” tube trains were replaced with the red, white and blue painted ones still seen today.

Southwark Station’s blue cone wall, built as part of the Jubilee line extension’s new generation of stations, was inspired by an 1816 stage set for The Magic Flute.

Since 2003, musicians require a licence to busk on the Tube.

The ceramics on the City and South London Railway (now part of the Northern line) were inspired by the designs of artist William Morris.


Charles Holden is perhaps one of the most prominent station architects. He based Arnos Grove on Stockholm Public Library and Gants Hill was inspired by the Moscow Metro.

All 46 stations designed by Leslie Green have distinctive tile patterns to help regular customers recognise them.

Green’s stations – such as Covent Garden – were all steel-clad to allow premises to be built on top of them.

Sir Norman Foster designed Canary Wharf station, which opened in 1999 as part of the Jubilee line extension.


The original trains had three different classes, costing three, four and six pence for a single journey. l A single cash journey in Zone 1 now costs £4.50.

The Oyster card touch ticketing system was introduced in 2002.

If you paid a full cash fare between Covent Garden and Leicester Square (0.16 miles) it works out at over £28-a-mile.

Biggest, longest, lift-iest

Each year, every Tube train travels 114,500miles/184,269km.

The average speed of a train is 33km/20.5 miles per hour.

Only 45 per cent of the network is actually in tunnels.

There are 426 escalators. Waterloo has the most: 23.

The total number of lifts, including four stair lifts, on the Underground network is 164.

The deepest lift shaft is at Hampstead station and is 55.2m.

The shortest lift shaft is at King’s Cross and is just 2.3m.

The total number of carriages in the Underground’s fleet is 4,134.

The total number of stations currently served is 270.

The total number of staff on the Underground is approximately 19,000.

Baker Street is the station with the most platforms: 10.

The long and short of it

The total length of the Tube network is 402km/249 miles.

The longest continuous tunnel runs between East Finchley and Morden (via Bank) and is 27.8km/17.25 miles long.

The longest distance between two stations is between Chesham and Chalfont and Latimer on the Metropolitan line, which are 6.3km apart.

The shortest distance between two stations is from Leicester Square to Covent Garden on the Piccadilly line, which are a mere 300m apart.

The longest journey you can take without a change is 59.4km from West Ruislip to Epping on the Central line.

The longest escalator on the network is at Angel and is 60m long, with a vertical rise of 26.5m.

The shortest escalator is at Stratford, taking passengers up just 4.1m.

The deepest station below street level in central London is Bank, which is 41.4m deep.

In outer London, Hampstead is the deepest station below street level, at 58.5m.

Passenger numbers

The first-ever day of public service was enjoyed by 40,000 passengers.

In 1908, the first full year of operation for all three lines, the Hampstead Tube (now part of the Northern Line) carried 25 million passengers, the Bakerloo 28 million and the Piccadilly 34.5 million.

Passenger numbers grew rapidly and by 1918 the Underground was carrying 70 per cent more people than in 1914.

Currently 1,107 million passengers are carried every year.

The busiest station in London is Waterloo, which has 57,000 people entering during the three-hour morning peak.

82 million passengers travel through Waterloo each year.

During 2011/12, London Underground carried a record number of passengers, with 1.171 billion journeys made. This is 64 million more than in 2010/11.


In central London, trains cannot drive faster than 30-40mph because of the short distances between stations.

The Victoria line can reach speeds of up to 50mph because the stations are further apart.

The Metropolitan line has the fastest train speeds, sometimes reaching over 60mph.


A prototype smokeless locomotive built in 1861 by Robert Stephenson and Co never made it into service, earning it the nickname “Fowler’s Ghost”.

Disused stations, known as “ghost” stations, such as those at Aldwych, Down Street and Lord’s, often find alternate work as film and TV sets.

A ghost named Annie Naylor, a dead milliner, aka the “Screaming Spectre”, is said to haunt Farringdon station.

Likewise, actor William Terris “haunts” Covent Garden.

Second World War

  • Rapid expansion of the Underground services into London’s suburbs throughout  the 30s were brought abruptly to  a halt with the outbreak of the Second World War.
  • The Underground was central to evacuating children and expectant mothers from London to the countryside in 1939.
  • Within a couple of days, London Transport successfully evacuated 600,000 vulnerable Londoners.
  • Brompton Road station on the Piccadilly line, which was closed in 1934, was converted into an underground Operations Room  for London’s anti-aircraft control during the war.
  • During the war, signs warning passengers to carry their gas marks were on display at every Underground station.
  • Despite having been previously used as shelters in 1917, the government felt that the Underground should be used for transport, not shelter. Posters were put up warning passengers that Underground stations “must not be used as air-raid shelters”.
  • On 7 September 1940, the East End experienced the first of many heavy bombing raids. People rushed to the Underground stations and staff were unable to resist.
  • Many people got round the Tube sheltering ban by buying cheap penny travel tickets and then  refusing to leave the platforms.
  • Trains continued to run throughout the blitz, leading to especially crowded stations mixed with travellers and those seeking shelter.
  • The press described those sheltering in the Underground as “Tubites”; London Transport called them “squatters”.
  • It wasn’t long before around 177,000 people were sheltering in the Underground’s deep-level stations every night.
  • “Droppers” would get into the station early and drop items of clothing against the wall to reserve the prime spots, which would then be sold for up to half a crown each.
  • Some communities of shelterers on the Underground set up committees and newsletters to campaign for better facilities.
  • On 8 October 1940 the government announced a U-turn and ended the unenforceable ban on sheltering in the Tube.
  • For Christmas 1940, London Transport staff distributed over 11,000 toys, presented by America’s Air Raid Relief Fund to children sheltering in stations.
  • Numbered bunk beds and a ticketing system were quickly installed to reduce queuing and stop “droppers”.
  • By the end of the war there were over 22,000 beds installed in Underground stations.
  • A popular war-time addition to the Underground was the “Tube Refreshment’s Service” which distributed seven tons of food to those sheltering every night.
  • Between September 1940 and May 1941, 198 people were killed when Tube shelters were hit directly by bombs.
  • One of the worst bombing incidents to affect the Underground shelters was on 14 October, when a bomb pierced the road surface, killing 64 people sheltering on the platform below.
  • On 13 January 1941, Bank station was hit, killing 56 people. Details of the incident were strictly censored.
  • The worst single incident to occur in London during the war was on 3 March 1943, when 173 people were crushed to death in a stairwell at Bethnal Green station – not a single bomb was dropped on the capital that night.
  • Around 200 London Transport workers were killed on duty during World War Two.
  • Despite a ban on geographic transport maps during the war, the Tube map was still permitted, presumably because it wouldn’t have been much help to Nazi paratroopers.


London Underground manages about 10 per cent of green spaces in London, playing host to everything from deer to grass snakes.

It has been estimated that around half a million mice are living across the Underground network.

The mosquitoes that live in the Tube tunnels have evolved into a unique species known for its voracious biting. They were named Culex pipiens molestus by biologists.

The website “Animals on the Underground” has made 35 different animals shapes from Beck’s Tube map.


In 1956, to fill staff shortages, London Transport began to directly recruit in Barbados and Jamaica.

By 1969 over 4,000 staff from the West Indies had been recruited by London Transport.

The Tube celebrated its centenary in 1963 with a series of events including a parade of underground trains at Neasden depot.

In 1978 Hannah Dadds became the first woman to be employed as an Underground train driver.

The Tube usually only runs for 24 hours during New Year, however it also stayed open all night for the 2012 Olympic opening and closing ceremonies.

Three babies have been born in the London Underground. The most recent was a boy, born in December 2008.

All these facts are taken from Underground: How the Tube Shaped London by David Bownes, Oliver Green and Sam Mullins (Allen Lane, £25); London Underground by Design by Mark Ovenden (Particular, £20) and Underground Overground: A Passenger’s History of the Tube (Profile, £8.99). All out now.

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