An Idiot’s Guide to the London Underground

As a tourist in London using the London Underground, it is sometimes easy to fall victim to pranksters who claim that “Mind the Gap” is actually a warning to avoid the vicious and deadly ‘Gappe Bats’ that fly around in the underground tunnels of the network when you leave the trains. I often laugh when I see Japanese tourists ducking and diving on the platforms, as if they can see an imaginary wasp or something! Never once have I bothered to reassure them that it’s just a joke, but now I am writing this guide instead, so hopefully they can find it useful! Japanese translation not available!


The London Underground is a public rapid transit system serving a large part of Greater London and parts of the home counties of Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire, and Essex. The network is considered the oldest rapid transit system, incorporating the world’s first underground railway and the first line to operate underground electric traction trains. The network has expanded to 11 lines, and most recent figures available from 2014 show that the network carried 1.2 billion passengers, making the Underground the world’s 11th busiest metro system.

Official Tube Map 2016 (click for larger version)
Official Tube Map 2016 (click for larger version)

The system serves 270 stations and has 250 miles of track. Within London, the Underground mostly serves parts other than the South: less than 10% of Tube stations lie to the south bank of the River Thames. Despite its name, only 45% of the system is actually ‘underground’ in tunnels. The system’s first tunnels were built just below the surface using the cut and cover method, and are large enough to take trains of normal size. Later, smaller circular tunnels – which give rise to its nickname the Tube – were dug through the soil at a deeper level.



One thing all visitors to the Underground will notice is that there is no air conditioning anywhere on the network. This is in stark contrast to modern metro systems, like those found in China or the Singapore MRT. On hot summer’s days, it can be quite a painful experience to ride the London Underground, so I would always advise walking above ground between A and B, and at least that way you can breathe in some [comparatively] clean air rather than someone else’s B.O.! Oh, and another thing, on the deep-level station platforms in Central London, you will not get a WIFI or phone signal, so it’s best to put your phone away, just in case it gets stolen by a hungry ‘Gappe Bat’ (or a thief).



But first things first. Before you deal with the station platforms, you must actually purchase your tickets. Most people these days use an Oyster Card, and this especially convenient if you plan to make many journeys on the network. You buy an Oyster Card from a dedicated selling point, and then add some cash value to the card (say £20). Now all you have to do is touch on the turnstiles with your Oyster every time you enter and leave the network. The cost of your fare will be deducted from the balance that remains on your card. As an example, from Heathrow Airport to Epping (with a change of trains half way through), you can get from one side of the Tube map to the other, for no more than £4 as a one-way journey with your Oyster. When through the turnstiles, remember that in the UK we stand on the RIGHT on the escalator, so that faster-moving people can walk past us on the left! Do not put your Harrods’ shopping bags down on the escalator as it is a tripping hazard!


At any time of the year, it can get very crowded on London Underground’s trains. Some lines, such as the Metropolitan Line, the Victoria Line, and the Jubilee Line, have modern trains whereas others, such as the Bakerloo Line and Central Line (pictured above) have trains that are now nearly 40 years old in the case of the Bakerloo Line. Remember to give up your seat if an elderly or pregnant woman needs it, and at no times should you put your feet on the seats. However, unlike other metro systems in Asia, you ARE allowed to eat and drink on the trains, and most people seem to leave their rubbish on the seats most of the time!

A Northern Line train emerges from the tunnel at Golders Green – it’s a tight fit!

Taxis are too expensive in London, and buses can be unreliable at times, so most of the year it is always a good bet to use the fairly cheap London Underground. However, like I mentioned before, in the summer the heat can get unbearable down in the deep tunnels of the capital, so walking is always the best option! Wherever you plan to go, make sure you have a well-prepared and SAFE journey on the Tube – and watch out for those ‘Gappe Bats’!


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