Big things are happening on TV Tropes! New admins, new designs, fewer ads, mobile versions, beta testing opportunities, thematic discovery engine, fun trope tools and toys, and much more - Learn how to help here and discuss here.
Not a political movement.London's underground railway system is the oldest in the world — the first section opened in 1863 — and one of the best known. It's also known as The Tube due to the tubular shape of deep level stations and tunnels (the name of a number of TV and radio programmes, only one of which is Underground related). Due to the combination of metal, urine and anxious sweat, it has a smell all its own.
Entire books have been written on the system, so we'll be brief here. The London Underground runs on a four-rail 630V direct current. It has 275 stations at present. Not all of the Underground is actually "underground"; much of it is (like many other subway systems) above the surface, over half in this case, with some "underground" stations in the open air (in fact some Underground trains share stations with National Rail services). The Docklands Light Railway is a separate system — almost entirely above the surface, run by a different company and has a different power system — but is shown on the tube map and counted as a tube line for ticketing purposes. Many people seem to think it is just another tube line.
In November 2007, Transport for Londonnote They used to italicise the "for" (the company that runs the network, nearly all of the buses and the tram system in Croydon) acquired some National Rail lines, which became "London Overground" (one of these, the Gospel Oak to Barking line, is actually non-electrified and much of the rest is dual voltage). TfL also runs a tram system in the Croydon area, as well as a riverboat service.
The city's considerable age has led to several stations having wonderfully evocative names, including East India, Seven Sisters, Elephant & Castle, Tooting Bec, White City and the unintentionally hilarious Cockfosters.note Though it's worth mentioning most of these stations are named after the places they are based in — the area names came before their respective stations. Try not to coo too much, though, because it will make your position as a tourist even more obvious. In fact, the best way to act on the Tube is to nonchalantly read a book (or the free papers that end up littering the cars), or else stare straight ahead with dead eyes.note This is an interesting bit of human behaviour relating to personal space, very closely related to the Uncomfortable Elevator Moment — but much longer, and going sideways. Normally, people — or at least Brits — would keep a bit more distance from each other, but that's just not practical in the pack cylinder shaped cars of the tube lines, so instead they retreat into the mind and ignore it. This tendency by London Tubegoers is often referenced in the rest of the country, with Northerners claiming that they can (and do) easily find each other on a given Tube train due to being the only people who act as if there are other human beings present.
The stations are all very different, varying from modern-day gleaming loveliness (most notably the new Jubilee line stations) to atmospheric Victorian gloom (Baker Street), with variations frequently occurring in the same station, especially at interchanges. A considerable number of the older stations are of listed building status (subject to preservation orders) and the architecture has been the subject of books. The deepest station is Hampstead, which has platforms 220 feet beneath the ground, largely due to a hill directly above it. It's best to take the lift when using these stations, as the only other option is a really long spiral staircase.
Most deep-level stations have escalators (the one at Angel is the longest in Western Europe), but obviously at stations five metres below ground level they're just not worth it. The tendency of the early tube operators to switch from lifts (elevators) to escalators when they became available means a large part of the network is inaccessible to wheelchair users — although sometimes there are stations which would be completely accessible if it weren't for a few steps between the bottom lift level and the platforms. To avoid pointed stares and quiet mutterings do not stand on or put any luggage on the left hand side of the escaltor (this side is for people walking up the escaltor in a hurry) or stand still at the top/bottom of the escalator. People using the tube are often in a hurry and these faux pas are notorious as tourist behaviour.
During the Second World War, many people sheltered in the underground stations as protection from air raids (the Moscow Metro was actually designed with this in mind). It was discouraged at first because the government thought it would bring about a new kind of homelessness (they were also probably kicking themselves for not thinking of it first), but they eventually gave in. Most tended to prefer them to their Andersons or the communal shelters since they were a bit cosier, arguably safer, more familiar and arguably less scary. When a fatal crush occurred at Bethnal Green in 1943 after a false alarm, it was hushed up by the government precisely because people might stop sheltering there.
The lines have their own names and associated colours. They are always referred to by their names though — say "Green line" instead of "District Line" and people will just be confused. To avoid inconveniencing the working population of London in general, repairs or other work on the lines are typically done on the weekends. The age of the Underground combined with an attempt to get through the upgrading project as fast as possible means that nowadays there are often three or four lines not running as normal at the weekends. It's advisable to check on the TfL website before travelling.
There are two different sizes of trains (although the gauge is the same), depending on how the original line was constructed. with larger trains being used for the subsurface lines, which use cut-and-cover construction in tunnels, and tube-shaped trains for the deep-level lines bored far underground. And each line has different trains to suit the subtleties of each set of tracks (although the sub-surface lines are due to have a standardised set soon).
On most of the network, every train stops at every station, though in two places lines operate alongside one another to provide a fast/local service — the District line serves some stations not served by Piccadilly line trains, while the Jubilee line serves some stations not served by Metropolitan line trains. The Met also has "fast" trains that skip more stations further along the line.
The gauge is the same as main line trains,note Meaning that with some modification, ageing Underground trains can be and are repurposed for surface work; the Island Line on the Isle of Wight famously uses old deep-level tube stock and there are some sections of track where the underground shares tracks with other trains. The Crossrail network, currently being built beneath central London (linking two existing National Rail lines), is not part of the Underground, although inevitably it will share stations with it.
The network is divided into nine fare zones, and two ancillary sections for Watford Junction and Essex/Kent (formerly six with four ancillary sections, one for Hertfordshire and three for Buckinghamshire), dubbed the Travelcard Zones, because of the ticket type that allows the unlimited use of the whole network and most of the National Rail network in the area for its validity period (a day to a year), except the river boats where you just get a discount. The integrated ticket was introduced by the GLC in 1981 as part of a general price cut. The cut was ruled illegal, but the ticket stayed. Zone 1 is Central London and you will see estate agents (realtors) use "Zone 1" to advertise properties. In recent years the prepaid, scannable "Oyster card" has become very popular among regular Tube users, allowing you to travel without buying a ticket and giving a good discount into the bargain.
The most famous quote associated with the system is the above-mentioned "Mind the gap", used on stations with curved platforms (albeit with a lot of stations using Boring but Practical variations on the phrase). Based on the experiences of our British Tropers, this is probably adviceworthlistening to.
It is far from uncommon to see rats and mice happily scampering around on the lines and even sometimes on the platform. They survive on the multitude of food dropped by people passing through and anything else they can find. There are also rumors of a colony of mosquitoes that got in when the lines were being dug, got trapped, and have now evolved so far as to be unbreedable with any other kind of mosquito — kind of London's version of alligators in the sewers.
The Underground logo or Roundel is iconic and much-imitated, but it is a trademark and TfL claims to prosecute all unauthorised users.
The Underground features in fiction quite a bit. Transport for London will let you film down there if you ask permission first. They even have a webpage dedicated to filming there. They'd happily let you do simple scenes down there, a murder or two at most, but they'd draw the line at a mass shoot-out or a terrorist attack (for obvious reasons). The places they'll often let you use are Aldwych (a closed station on a closed branch, usually used for historical settings), the closed Jubilee Line platforms at Charing Cross (usually used for contemporary tube scenes) and the closed Down Street station.
Many filmmakers mock up Tube stations as a result, with varying degrees of accuracy.
London Underground sub-tropes:
Dummied Out: Various parts of the system have or had provision for future expansion that (for one reason or another) never took place.
South Kensington had an extra platform for a proposed deep-level line running below the District line
Aldwych had two extra lift shafts that were never used.
City Thameslink doesn't have an Underground station, but it does have a corridor leading to where one would have been if the Jubilee Line had followed its original planned route.
The Jubilee line between Charing Cross and Green Park that was shut when the extension was opened
The Piccadilly line's Aldwych branch
The original King William Street station and tunnels of the City & South London Railway (the rest of which is now part of the Northern line)
Further out of town:
Disused Metropolitan Railway stations in Buckinghamshire — particularly Verney Junction, which is (barely) still in place but hardly sees any traffic. note One train per day, at around 2am, stops a few miles short for the engine to run-round the train.
The Northern Heights extensions that didn't happen, including some unfinished brick viaducts. for more information on these, see Unfinished London
Until quite recently, when its comically Victorian rolling stock was replaced, the Northern Line was noted for its darkness and gloom. Not for nothing was the subway attack in An American Werewolf in London set in a Northern Line station.
Subways Suck: The tube is actually an extremely good way to get around London. However, it is often noisy, crowded, hot and smelly, and problems occur relatively frequently (normally a signal failure). The old-fashioned architecture doesn't help, because as beautiful as it is, it makes the stations feel ancient, not to mention that it's frequently very compact, making stations easily crowded and harder to ventilate.
One Under: The term used when someone goes under a train (fatally or not), be it as a result of attempted or actual suicide, murder or accident. Has turned up in fiction at least twice (as in State of Play). Many drivers who are involved in a "One Under" don't drive a train again. Not exclusive to this system, of course. Many stations have areas under the tracks to stop people doing that sort of thing, known as "suicide pits". These incidents are prevented at the underground stations on the 1999 extension of the Jubilee Line, since they were built with platform screen doors.
Works significantly featuring the London Underground are:
open/close all folders
The K-On! movie features the girls passing through Camden Town station on the Northern Line.
In the comic book Hellblazer, a magician called Map is shown to live in the underground tunnels, happily clearing away the tracks for the London Council, who are quite unaware of his power, which is linked to locations and places (hence his affinity with the city).
In many of her early appearances (including the cartoon) the X-Men character Jubilee wore earrings shaped like the London Underground symbol for the Jubilee Line.
In The Invisibles, Tom O'Bedlam puts Jack Frost through a stage of his initiation in a disused tube station with hallucinogenic "Blue Mould" growing on the walls.
In V for Vendetta, the final(?) showdown takes place in Victoria Station.
The film Billy Elliot, which takes place mostly during the 1984 miners' strike, but has a coda set in the present day. The transition in time between the past and the present is indicated by Billy's family arriving at one of the distinctively modern stations on the Jubilee Line extension.
Creep. The poster for this, featuring a woman's bloodied hand against the front of a Tube train, was famously banned from being displayed in the system. A semi rail-fans's point on the poster: It features a 1972 stock Northern Line train, withdrawn from service a number of years before Creep was made.
The Tube has banned quite a few ads from the network over the years, mostly for being too raunchy.
The James Bond film Die Another Day makes the rather big mistake of having a Piccadilly line station south of the river. For those who don't know the system, said line is entirely north of the Thames.
Skyfall has Bond pursuing Silva between Temple and Embankment stations on the Circle and District lines, which are portrayed as deep-level tube in the film; they're cut-and-cover in reality. The scenes were filmed at the disused Jubilee line platforms at nearby Charing Cross station. A codename for a plan is that of a former Metropolitan Railway station, "incorrectly" described as an old Tube station — it's well out of London and left the network before London Underground was fully created.
A defunct Underground line features prominently towards the end of V for Vendetta, where the whole network is closed by the Norsefire Coalition.
The plot of the film Sliding Doors diverges at the main character catching/missing her train at Embankment station, setting off events for the rest of the film (which shows us two parallel lives from that point on.) The actual scenes underground were filmed on the Waterloo and City Line.
The movie Death Line features cannibals on the underground who have grown up completely apart from other human contact and can only say "mind the doors". It sounds goofy, but it's a British horror classic.
Atonement features Keira Knightley and a considerable number of other people drowning in the real-life bombing of Balham station.
28 Days Later was filmed at Canary Wharf. Jim, Serina and Mark walk along the Docklands Light Railway line.
28 Weeks Later had a whole section of going through the Underground, in the pitch-black.
In An American Werewolf in London the titular werewolf committed one of his murders in Tottenham Court Road station. When the dead were advising him to end it all (in a porn cinema in Piccadilly), one of them says, "You could throw yourself in front of the tube".
Otto in A Fish Called Wanda needs it explained the London Underground is not a political resistance movement.
Three And Out. Where a guy has two "one unders" in a month and discovers a third gets him 10 years wages' and retirement. He then persuades a suicidal guy to jump under his train. Provoked a massive protest from ASLEF (the trade union for Tube drivers) and the filmmakers taking out ads accusing Underground bosses of opportunism. It got universally panned by the critics, and bombed at the box office.
In The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, Strand station becomes the Pevensie children's gateway to Narnia. In the book, this happened at an unnamed countryside train station, rather than in the Underground.note In reality Strand station was renamed Aldwych in 1915.
Brian Cox's escape plan in The Escapist relies on breaking through a wall near a stormwater drain to get through to an abandoned area of the London Underground (left after World War II), and getting onto a station platform before the tracks start up and electrify.
In Quatermass and the Pit, the artefacts are found during the construction of a fictional Central Line station called Hobbs End.
The 1968 British film Otley features a standoff between Tom Courtenay and Leonard Rossiter on the Central Line platform at Notting Hill Gate.
The Total Recall (2012) remake features characters travelling on what is supposed to be the abandoned Underground, with roundels and posters visible, but the trains don't look a thing like the real ones.
The Underground is so old that it features in the Sherlock Holmes canon, being a major plot point in "The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans".
Reciprocating this, in recognition of its association with Holmes the tiling in the modern day Baker Street tube station contains silhouettes of the detective with his iconic deerstalker and pipe. This resulted in a Celebrity Paradox for the Present DaySherlock series which is set in a world where the classic Holmes never existed, historically or as a literary character. Consequently series filming at "Baker Street" actually needed to be done in other, plainer, stations.
In the Nightside novels by Simon R. Green, the way to the Nightside involves entering the Underground, finding a station sign written in Enochian (the language men use to communicate with angels) and boarding that train.
As noted in the Live Action TV section, a great deal of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere is set in these tunnels and other service and sewer tunnels of London.
Martha Grimes' The Anodyne Necklace starts in the Underground, with a busker becoming involved in a mugging, and the resemblance of the Tube map to a Role-Playing Game dungeon becomes a plot point.
In the Len Deighton novel SS-GB a man attempts to murder Douglas Archer in a Tube station.
In the Discworld novel Thud!, dwarven tunnels under Ankh-Morpork are marked with the sign of the Long Dark - described identically to the London Underground logo. At the end of the novel these are gifted to the city - the next novel set there mentions The Undertaking, a government project to convert these to civilian use...
In Sourcery, it's briefly mentioned that the spider-skin bound version of the Fullomyth (a Filofax for yuppie supernatural beings) contains an insert showing the London Underground with the three stations they never dare show on the public maps.
The Doctor Who New Adventures novel Transit by Ben Aaronovitch is set in a future where the Tube has combined with the T-Mat teleporter network from "The Seeds of Death" to form a network of trains that "hop" through teleportation fields, linking all the planets in the solar system. There's even a holographic version of the Beck map, which clearly shows how the subspace tunnels connect by ignoring the planets themselves. The novel is about the attempt to make the first interstellar link, known as the Stellar Tunnel, or Stunnel (a parody of the Channel Tunnel). King's Cross is still the major interchange for different lines.
Ben Aaronovitch clearly loves the Underground because the third book in his Rivers of London series Whispers Under Ground (the clue is in the title) not only features the system heavily but all but one of the chapters is named after an Underground station.
The whole plot of the novel Tunnel Vision is a bet the main character, Andy, does with his best friend that he can ride the whole system in a day (people have tried this). Him being a 'trainspotter', his internal monologue features a lot of useless trivia about the system.
The novel Mind the Gap has a group of runaways living in abandoned tunnels of the London Underground.
In Child of the Hive, Will, Ben and Alex attempt to escape from Drew, who is chasing them, by going into the Underground and moving between lines.
In the non-fiction literature Guinness World Records (formerly Guinness Book of Records) The London Underground is stated as the first underground railway in the world. The shortest amount of time to travel to all the underground stations is always changing so it's probably not worth stating the current record here.
In Rogue Male a fight to the death in a deserted tunnel of the now-disused Aldwych London Underground station ends with the "hideous, because domestic, sound of sizzling."
Several times, most notably in "The Web of Fear", where the mock-up was so convincing, London Transport thought that their property had been used without permission.
Marble Arch in "Trial of a Time Lord" ... less so.
EastEnders: The show's setting is beside a London Underground Viaduct (despite the name, much of the Underground is elevated) and there is even a fictional station (named Walford East, which replaces Bromley-by-Bow station on the show's fictional tube maps) in the show's setting. A mock up of an elevated station has been built as part of the show's exterior sets to represent Walford East, although this only consists of ground floor level of the station house. There are no platforms as part of this set, and the show very rarely has scenes set at platform level, due to the fact that they would have to shoot these scenes on location at a real station.
Primeval, episode two, has giant prehistoric bugs getting into the Underground via time anomaly and killing people. However, said station is very clearly a mock-up, as it doesn't even have the standard station name logos on the side of the tunnel opposite the platform.
Neverwhere had many scenes set in underground stations, including the long-closed British Museum station. Aldwych station was used for much of the filming. Several of the locations and characters are literalisations of the names of Underground station, such as the Angel called Islington, the monastery of the Black Friars, and the Earl's Court.
It's probably worth noting that, historically, most of these stops are named after things that actually used to be there — there was a monastery at Blackfriars, for example. Sadly, The Angel, Islington and Elephant and Castle are just named after old pubs.
It should be noted that there is (or was) more than one Elephant and Castle pub in London — there used to be one by Vauxhall station. The area south of Waterloo is formally called Newington, but nobody ever calls it that; the pub after which it's named is still there (it may not be the original) and was itself named because the land was owned in the Middle Ages by the Infanta de Castile.
The 'Infanta de Castile' etymology is unsubstatiated. There are several versions of the story, but that land was certainly never owned by a Spanish princess!
In the seventh series finale of Spooks, Lucas, Ros and Connie use a mix of abandoned and active Underground lines to cross the Thames while trying to get to a nuke at the US Embassy. A Russian hit squad is also down there, trying to chase down and kill them all.
The first episode of the third season of Sherlock heavily features the London Underground. It was much mocked for severe confusion between the sub-surface and tube lines, including one pivotal scene in which the train carriage featured is a tube car in the exterior scenes and a full-size sub-surface car when the characters get on board.
In 1978, The Jam released a single in which the narrator is attacked by thugs while "Down in the Tube Station at Midnight".
Also in 1978, 10cc released "Shock on the Tube (Don't Want Love)" on their Bloody Tourists album. The singer thinks he's seen his dream girl on the Underground, but it turns out to be All Just a Dream.
There have been British rock bands named The London Underground, Subway Sect, Tubeway Army (led by Gary Numan) and Bakerloo.
Duffy's "Warwick Avenue" mentions the Tube station of the same name in the lyrics.
Music videos filmed at Underground stations include Howard Jones' "New Song" and Aqua's "Turn Back Time" (from the Sliding Doors soundtrack), both filmed at Holborn station; Boris Gardiner's "I Want To Wake Up With You", filmed at Westbourne Park station; and The Prodigy's "Firestarter", filmed on the Aldwych branch.
Madness is associated with a roundel for the invented Cairo East station, which appeared on the cover of their second album and shows up in concerts and music videos every so often.
Godsmack made a song called Someone in London, which consists solely of a sweet guitar riff and sound samples from the Tube, including "Mind the gap!".
In a similar vein, Judge Dread (no, nothim) recorded a reggae song called "Mind the Gap"
Marillion's song "Fugazi" contains references to "Drowning in the liquid seize on the Piccadilly Line" while "Sheathed within the Walkman, wear a halo of distortion/An aural contraceptive aborting pregnant conversation".
Mornington Crescent is a Calvinball sort of game invented by Im Sorry I Havent A Clue where the "players" name stations off the Underground according to a "complex system of rules and strategies", the first to call "Mornington Crescent" being the winner. The calling of stations is entirely random and there is no logic to it; the "gameplay" consists of convincing uninformed observers otherwise, or simply being entertaining in your citation of the non-existent rules.
At least, that's what veteran players want new blood to think, so they can more effectively catch them in an arcane trap
The station Mornington Cresent was apparently chosen because of its erratic opening hours (which have varied between fully open, fully closed, closed Sundays, peak hours only, and exit only during peaks) and the difficulty in getting there by train — there are two Northern Line routes between Euston and Camden Town, but Mornington Crescent is only on the Charing Cross branch, which leads to a somewhat eccentric service pattern. Bewildered fans can occassionally be found standing on the Northern Line platforms trying to figure it out.
Bizarrely, Mornington Crescent is shown on the wrong side on the tube map. However, this is because for simplicity's sake the tube map doesn't show the fact that the Bank and Charing Cross branches cross over between Euston and Camden Town. Mornington Crescent is on the east side, but at this point the east-side branch is the Charing Cross branch. Do not mention this fact to a tourist, it will only confuse them.
Undone. The episode 'Underground' is set mostly on the tube system.
In The London Game, players compete to travel around the Underground map, visiting a list of randomly-selected stations. Rail Enthusiasts have been known to play it by actually taking trains to the stations, rather than moving counters on a board.
In On The Underground, players compete to get points by building Underground lines and having the (yes, there's just one!) passenger ride their trains. One variant ending rule involves ending the game when the passenger token reaches Mornington Crescent.
In Hellgate: London, the London Underground is the base for the humans who have survived the Demon Invasion. Shame none of the overground stuff remotely resembles London.
A James Bond video game (The World is Not Enough) has part of a level set on an underground platform and an underground train.
A map in the Half-Life mod The Specialists takes place in a run-down London Underground station, complete with cheerful "Mind the Gap!" reminders when approaching the (stationary) subway car.
Broken Sword 2 had a section set in the defunct station underneath the British Museum. There's a ghost. And a train comes even though. (While British Museum is closed, the line it's on is still very much open.)
Uncharted 3 has the heroes escape from an underground base in London by breaking out into an abandoned tube station.
One of the levels in Modern Warfare 3 involves the SAS being drawn into a pickup vs. train chase through an Underground tunnel, then a violent crash and a running gunfight through the station.
One of the four areas of the shareware game MasterSpy was themed after the London Underground, with screens having punny names such as "Eastminster" or "Henfosters".
Gunnerkrigg Court has a subway system. While the Gunnerkrigg Underground is clearly a distinct system (the trains all use magnetic levitation), both the sign and the general design of the station are unmistakable Shout Outs to the London Underground.
Geoff Ryman's hypertext novel 253 is a description of all of the passengers on a Bakerloo Line tube train, leading up to a disastrous crash (based on the real-world Moorgate disaster of 1975).
Underground Ernie is a little-kids CGI cartoon starring Gary Lineker (former footy star and now Match of the Day presenter) as the driver of a train-with-a-face on the fictional "International Underground" which is clearly modeled on the London one, complete with London Transport logo, and the living trains being named after Tube lines.
Tube Mice was a cartoon in the 1990s about a group of mice living in the London Underground. Notable mainly for the villains being played by George Cole and Dennis Waterman, in a clear parody of their Minder characters.
One episode of Thunderbirds invovles Scott and Virgil having to use abandoned London Underground Tunnels in order to get into the Bank of England's Vault. This is surprisingly realistic as the Central line in Central London (i.e., from Shepherds Bush to Liverpool Street) features many sharp curves to follow the streets above and avoid the basements of the many buildings already there when the line was built. One of the buildings it curves to avoid is the Bank of England, served by Bank station. Then they go and ruin it by starting at Piccadilly Circus.