The London Underground

I lived in London for a year (2008–2009) and though walking was my preferred mode of getting around the city, it wasn’t always possible to walk to my destination. So that’s where the Tube or the London Underground came in as the fastest, though not necessarily the cheapest, mode of travel. Travelling by the Tube made me re-look at perceiving public transport as only a means to get from point A to point B. It showed me that it could also be a place to showcase art, make a design statement, and a place that reflected the ethos/culture of the area it serviced.

Transport for London is the company overlooks the public transport in London through the Tube, buses, the Docklands Light Railway (DLR), trams, trains, etc. Though I used all these modes at some point during my stay in London, I loved the Tube and the DLR the most. I loved it so much that I photographed the unique aspects of the various tube stations I passed through, its various lines and routes, escalator and tube etiquette, etc. I never tired of admiring the little and big things that made each station unique and special. Even today, the Tube remains eminently gush-worthy. :-)

About 2-3 weeks back, BBC Entertainment channel in India started airing a programme on the London Underground. This programme, which airs every Saturday at 9.00 pm, looks at “London’s 140 year-old Underground system” and “what it’s like to run the world’s most complex train network”. In other words, it is a behind-the-scenes look at the people who run and manage the Tube.

Bond Street Station

Not surprisingly, this has become my favourite television programme and has inspired me to write this blog post today. But this post is not about the efficiency or a behind-the- scenes look of the Tube; it is simply a post on the beautiful tube stations of the London Underground — the ones that caught my eye with their unique design, art or architectural element.

So are you ready for some station hopping?

The Westminster Tube Station provides access to the Big Ben, the Houses of the Parliament, Westminster Abbey, Whitehall and the London Eye. The platforms at Westminster Tube Station are some 100 ft below the ground, making it one of the deepest on the tube network. The interiors of the station can be considered either as space age or industrial looking, depending on your viewpoint. When one comes out of the platform, the sight of towering concrete beams and the crisscrossing steel elevators and floors, and the gleam of steel in artificial lighting is quite a sight. I am not a steel and glass person, if you know what I mean (being more of a stone and brick person), but the sight is quite mesmerising.

Some stations are equipped with Platform Edge Doors. A safety feature, these are glass sliding doors which open only when a train halts and close when it is ready to leave. The Platform Edge Doors really do make you feel like a spectator to the world rushing by. When I first saw them, I went ‘WOW’.

Southwark Tube Station is where you get off if you are visiting the Tate Modern. Designed by Richard MacCormac, it has a sleek design that looks like the interiors of a ship?

Canary Wharf Tube Station is one of the busiest stations on the Tube network as it serves the central business district of London. It is no wonder then that this is also one of the largest and grandest stations with additional features like a mall and a food court at the station. The glass dome and escalators are the most striking features of this station.

The Tottenham Court Road Tube Station has a unique design element not seen in any of the other stations on the network. Its walls are covered with stunning, colourful mosaics of abstract designs, insects, musical instruments… you name it.

Gloucester Road Tube Station has a very ambiance. With a brick and plaster interiors lit up by soft sunlight streaming in from the roof, it is one of my favourite stations.

Holborn Tube Station is the stop for educational institutions like the LSE and King’s College as well as for the main office of the BBC and the Indian Embassy, among others. It is also the stop for the British Museum, and that is the theme that the station walls mange to convey very beautifully.

I love the vintage tile work at Covent Garden Tube Station and every time I passed through the station, I would always stop to look at the signs there.

St.John’s Wood Tube Station has these antique lamps and signs designed like the Tube roundel itself. I passed through this station only once, but spent so much time admiring the various design elements that I got late for an appointment and got penalised for spending so much time inside the station !

I like Tooting Broadway Tube Station for two things—the green and black tile design and its funny name. :-)

Then you have the interiors of Marble Arch Tube Station which literally dazzle with colour and how !

Northwick Park Tube Station was my stop to go to the University. It was a station that was above ground and on clear days the view around was breathtakingly beautiful. Though, I must admit, that if it were raining or snowing waiting for a tube to arrive was rather painful !

But the station that I love the most and have a special corner for is Baker Street Tube Station. It was the closest to where I stayed and even if I did not travel by Tube on a particular day, I would at least pass by the station. This Tube station is an important hub and is serviced by the Metropolitan, Jubilee, Bakerloo, Hammersmith &City, Circle and District Lines and each having a distinct design. The stations for the Metropolitan and Bakerloo lines are the best as you will see in the photographs to follow. But first have a look at the photograph below—an erstwhile luncheon and tea room at Baker Street has been transformed into a space for purchasing tickets as well as for housing an ATM.

The Metropolitan Line Baker’s Street Station

A silhouette of Baker Street’s most famous resident on the walls of the Bakerloo Line’s Station

Many Londoners crib and complain a lot about the Tube—the fact that it is crowded, there are delays, and on weekends certain sections get suspended for line upgradation or repairs. Yes, all this happens. But for someone who is used to the Indian system, these were minor irritants, and besides delays and closures were always communicated in advance. In such a scenario, I would always make alternate arrangements for travel or avoid travel on those days completely. What I liked and appreciated the most about the Tube is that passenger safety is their topmost priority. Let me share with you this incident.

It was a Monday morning and Krithika, a friend, and I were walking to Trafalgar Square from Russell Square. As we passed the Russell Square Tube Station, we noticed a large crowd outside and station doors being shut. When we asked a passer-by as to what was happening, we received a rather surprising answer. “The station has been shut down due to overcrowding. It will be re-opened after some time.”

Krithika and I were stunned by the reply and fled from there giggling, because we found it extremely funny. I mean, imagine a Mumbai train station shut down because of overcrowding ! But then we sobered down almost immediately as we realised how much importance is given to human lives. Contrast this with the railway accidents that happen in India, and the attitude towards them.

I am a great fan of public transport and always advocate travel by buses and trains. Many years back I consciously took a decision to not buy a car and travel only by public transport as far as possible. Of course it helps that I live and work in Mumbai which has a good public transport system. I wonder what would have been the case if I lived in Pune! But it took me a year of living in London to realise what it means to have a great public transport system as it makes a big difference to the standard of living. Hopefully, with the metro and monorail coming to Mumbai, this difference might be bridged !

PS: The photographs posted here are only a sampling of a huge collection of photographs that I have. I had written two photo essays on the London Tube in 2009 (which you can access here and here), and one on the Docklands Light Railway (which you can read here). If you’d like to read more about the London Underground, then I would highly recommend this blog.

PPS: Which station did you like the most?

40 thoughts on “The London Underground

  1. Thats the most in depth post I have ever read on railways!! And its so beautiful… The pics, the narration everything is just perfect. The Totenhem Court road one is my favorite!

  2. Sudhagee, this post of your is an avalanche of treats! I lapped up each and every word and photograph hungrily. What else can an Anglophile (and a lover of law and order) could ask for! It is a beautiful post, more so because of the exquisite photographs. I am sure whenever I’ll board a train in the Tube I’ll smile for their familiarity, thanks to your post. Thanks for sharing and kindly give me more!

    • Thank you so much, Umashankar. Before you board and after you alight from a Tube, take time to see the station. Each one is unique. Actually a friend and I would buy a day’s pass and hop on and hop off tubes to explore stations. Check out the links given at the end of the post. I am planning a post on the Dockland Light Railways, but that will take some time.

    • Thanks, Srinayan.

      I’ve used public transport in London, Geneva, Milan and different Indian cities. I know it is not much comparison but for sheer scale, reach, efficiency and beauty London wins hands down. :-)

    • Sometimes I feel that it is art and creativity that makes all the difference to our lives. I wonder how many people actually stop and look at the places that we pass by. I have travelled by the Delhi Metro and found it to be really good. Am hoping that the Mumbai experience will be good too.

  3. Mmm! I seem to be missing quite a lot by being unobservant. This post has opened my eyes a wee bit:) But then, the only stations I have seen on the Tube are St.Pancras and whatever is near Lombard Street. Neither finds a mention here so maybe my eyes are not to blame after all:):)

    • :-) The Kings Cross Tube Station is ok and has nothing unusual to capture my interest. But the Kings Cross St. Pancras Railway Station is another story all together. I just might do a post on London Railway Stations :-)

    • Thanks, Puru. Yes, I do know about the many tubes that have not been used for decades and yearned to go for a walk in them. But that never happened. I only got a peek into one of the stations—Strand. Today, there are invited groups that are taken for a walk/tour of the stations and lines as well.

    • Gloucester Road Tube Station is my favorite :-)
      How about changing the Baker Street Station in a way that you are given clues to find the ticket counter, correct platform etc and you have to find it out yourself using the art of deduction :P

      • Baker Street is not your favourite? :-(

        I like your idea about changing Baker Street station. Though I suspect that the commuters will not be amused at all. :-) BTW, did you know that Baker street is where the Lost and Found Office is located? And that they manage to get some 10,000 mobiles as lost property in 4-5 months?

    • I can understand what you mean. I would always avoid the Central Line whenever possible. But still, the lure of the tube stations proved irresistible at times :-)

  4. Wow, how many pictures of the tube stations! For almost 20 yrs, I travelled all the time in metro in London and had little idea of actual topography of the city. Only recently I have started walking around in London and I am slowly discovering a very different city!

    • London is a beautiful city, both above and below the ground. Enjoy your walks, and I’ll look forward to your posts as you write about your sightings. :-)

  5. Sudha ji wow such amazing photographs and for you to reveal about each station. It was so informative. I have spent my growing years in Mumbai and only traveled by buses and local trains. But, it is almost impossible to do so in Bangalore. I do take the Volvos whenever possible. And, yes what hits me most when I go to foreign countries is the value they place on people’s lives. Have you been to the NL? They have an amazing tram service, along with buses, trains and bike lanes. I felt like I had gone to heaven when I lived there for a month and a half. Loved your post!

    • Thanks, Rachna. As you would have guessed, I love, love, love the London public transport system. The few times I have been to Bangalore, I have not dared to travel by public transport there. Though the next time, I am there I will try the Metro. How is the metro system in Bangalore?

      And sorry, what is the NL?

      • The Metro is on just one route from MG Road. Since I don’t commute on that route, I haven’t had the good fortune of traveling on it. The NL stands for The Netherlands :).

  6. What a post, Sudha!!! Your photographs are amazing–amazing!!! Yes, a good public transport makes such a huge difference. I used to get that in Kolkata which also has very artistic stations for its Metro rail…I have spent hours observing and reading the notes on the wall. Outside India, I guess my favorite is Chicago–it does not have as exquisite and charming a station like the ones you portray–but there was something so earthy about it..
    Station closed due to overcrowding?? Oh my–never ever heard of such a thing…
    As usual an unusual and delightful post from a delightful and very observant writer!!!

    • Thanks, Bhavana. :-) I travelled by the Cal metro when I had visited it in 1999 and had loved it. At that time I found it irritating how the locals would not allow me to photograph the Metro, but today I find that protective trait rather endearing—it’s rare to find Indians caring public space and property.

      Oh ! It’s not uncommon for tube stations to be closed due to overcrowding or for trains to skip stations if it is full :-) Can you imagine something like this happening here? There would be a riot or stone throwing at the very least !

  7. Thank you for taking us station hopping. That was fun. I fell in love with that Mosaic wall and the silhouette in the last picture and the above-the-ground station (that is breathtakingly beautiful) and … almost everything :D.

  8. Oh, beautiful blog..so well penned! The pics made me nostalgic.. I concur with all the others who have commended you on this post, you truly deserve it. Enjoyed reading ~ sudhajee

  9. Northwick Park tube station – that’s my favorite :) The view is outstanding. It must dazzle in spring and fall. Speaking of interesting train stations, I like the Metro in Kolkata. Rabindra Saran has poetry by Rabindranath Tagore in mosaic on the walls in Bengali. Several other stations similarly have art and city specific murals. You should check it out when you are able to visit. :D

    • Oh the underground in Paris, I used it for a day and a half when we were there. It is ancient (I think it has been in existence since pre World War I) and it does show its age. But nothing can beat it for sheer history. There are spots where you can see damage from bombing during the wars. It is an incredibly efficient system and cheap, too. I forgot to add all this in my previous comment, hence the additional one :)

    • You can’t see it in the photo, but one can get a fantastic view of the Wembley Football Stadium from Northwick Park. One of my brothers, the sports crazy one, almost cried when I told him that saw this stadium practically every day on my way to the University and back. :-) I travelled in the Calcutta Metro only once, way back in 1999. That was the first time I was travelling by a metro and was too fascinated with the whole concept for the beauty of individual stations to register properly. But the next time I go to Calcutta, I will definitely go metro station hopping.

  10. Pingback: The Docklands Light Railway and the London Docklands | My Favourite Things

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