A nice primer on London Tube vs. MTA Subway
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September 28th 03, 06:43 AM posted to uk.transport.london
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First recorded activity at LondonBanter: Sep 2003
A nice primer on London Tube vs. MTA Subway
Just got this e-mail from someone who read my post, which was about how I as a
New Yorker was curious about the London subway differs from New York. It's a
You are welcome to post this to uk.transport.london for me if you wish;
I am unable to do so at present. My text is this message is in the
You write in the newsgroup:
Being conditioned by New York subway maps, I have to admit the London
schematic map drives me nuts. I can't get a true sense of direction of
how close a station is to a landmark.
That's true. You're expected to first find out what station is nearest
the place you want to go (directions to tourist attractions, for example,
will typically mention the nearest Underground station), then use the
schematic diagram to decide how to get there.
The thing is that the London Underground is characterized by a complex
layout (not at all resembling New York's rectangle-based grid) of lines
and interchanges in Central London, *and* a number of lines that extend
far into the suburbs. So a scale map with sufficient detail for good
legibility in Central London would need to be very large to show the
outermost parts of the system.
A possible compromise would have been a map where the scale gradually
changes as you move toward the central area, thus creating a false
impression when comparing central-area distances and suburban ones.
This is what the New York subway map does, and at least one of the
private companies that later became part of the Underground -- namely
the Metropolitan Railway -- also used that approach. It has its
advantages, but there are also people who find it seriously misleading.
Early 20th century maps of the system from other companies generally
were geographical but did not extend far beyond Central London -- the
outlying parts were just too hard to fit on the map. So around 1933
the honestly scaleless schematic approach was adopted instead, enabling
the whole system to be diagrammed.
Which leads to my next question ... do any geographic maps of the
tube exist? Where are they?
When you get there, look at some of the street maps available for sale,
and you'll see that some of them show the tube lines, although they're
usually subordinated to the streets. Of course, they'll only cover the
area being mapped.
Well, it should be an eye-opener riding the London tube for the
first time after 3 years of living with New York subways. Anyone
with experience commuting on both transit systems who can venture
opinions about the differences between the two cities?
I haven't commuted on either system, but I've used them enough as a
visitor to make the following comments.
* The New York system's express trains make it faster for long trips.
There are only two sections on the Underground where express and local
services are provided, and one of them is quite short. (You can see
them on the diagram, except that what it doesn't show is that as well
as bypassing the local Jubilee Line stations, some Metropolitan Line
trains bypass some stops on their own line too.) In addition, peak-
hour crowding sometimes makes for rather long station stops in London.
* London, like New York, has two sizes of trains -- but even the larger
ones, used on the subsurface lines (Circle, District, East London,
Hammersmith & City, Metropolitan), carry a lot fewer people than a
New York subway train, because they're shorter.
* London Underground trains have actual seats, not hard benches. On
some lines not all of the seats face sideways. However, they aren't
air-conditioned, and particularly on the smaller, deep-level tube
trains (the other 7 lines), standing room is quite constrained.
* The New York subway is noisier.
* All London Underground trains have full-width driving cabs, so there
is no view into the tunnels. If you want a driver's eye view, ride the
Docklands Light Railway, whose trains are fully automated and have no
cabs. (The DLR is mostly above-ground and has smaller trains.)
* London also has a substantial network of suburban (commuter) trains
like the LIRR and Metro-North services in New York. Particularly in
the southern half of London, some areas are much better served by
these than by the Underground. These are National Rail routes, which
means that, like the long-distance trains, they are now operated by a
variety of private companies (with considerable variation in quality,
one hears) using the former British Rail tracks. Some of these routes
have express and local services, typically not identified by those
words but only by listing the stations served.
* On London's deep-level tube lines, if the stations are not above
ground, they are generally at least 60 feet down, requiring a long ride
on an escalator or lift (elevator). (If you've used some of the deeper
stations on the Washington system, you have the idea.) This in turn
means that a breakdown of an escalator or lift can lead you to either
a long slog on the stairs, or to temporary closure of a station.
* Changing lines in London often involves a long walk because the sta-
tions were built by competing companies or one line was built long
after the other, and they weren't planned together. On the other
hand, London also has a number of stations where the tracks of one
line were made to straddle those of another, giving an easy interchange
by crossing the platform, or at least staying at the same level, if
you're traveling in the preferred direction.
* In New York all stations are open all the time. In London the whole
Underground closes down from roughly midnight to 5 am (there are night
buses) and all day on Christmas, some stations are open only 5 or
6 days a week, and so on; you'll see annotations on the diagram.
This is unlikely to be a problem for you; stations that close do so
when very few people would be using them.
* New York has many stations with two separate entrances for travel in
opposite directions; London does not, although a few stations do have
separate entrances for different lines, because they were originally
two separate stations.
* Parts of the system that aren't underground in New York are mostly
elevated over streets; in London they're generally at ground level.
* London's zonal fare system is more complicated than New York's flat
fare, which means the ticketing machines are more complicated and
you'll always need to carry your ticket with you while riding; also,
the single-ride fare within Zone 1 is cheaper than New York, and
a bus ride is cheaper yet if you don't need to transfer. But just
about any long Undergound trip will cost more than the New York
subway. I found the New York fare machines harder to use on my one
visit since they went in than I do London's, because of using touch-
screens rather than push buttons and having to pay with bills (in
England the smallest unit of paper money is 5 pounds), but I was
having to learn the new fare/pass system at the same time, so I may
have been biased.
* London has no free transfers to buses, or between buses either, but
a Travelcard (daily or longer period pass) is valid on buses -- and
National Rail trains too -- as well as the Underground. In fact,
Travelcards are valid on buses anywhere in Greater London, even
outside the zones you paid for. You may wish to read Martin Rich's
Travelcard FAQ at http://www.jackdaw.u-net.com/ukfaq/trcard.html.
* To my eye the average station in Central London is more attractive
than in New York, thanks to a major round of renovations in the
last 20-30 years as well as better attention to lighting. But both
cities have had problems with underfunded maintenance and with
vandalism, leaving some stations or parts of stations unattractive.
* In New York the same station name often occurs on several different
lines; in London this only happens in a few places.
* Unlike New York, station signage in London uses the American style
of distinguishing the directions of travel by compass points. In
both cities trains to different destinations may leave from the same
platform, but London trains do not carry signs for this on every car;
the primary way to tell them apart is the changing signs over the
platform, which also give an estimate of when the next few trains
(up to three) are coming.
* I think the London system is probably more prone to breakdowns and
other delays, but that may be a false impression because I follow
it more closely. To really know, one would need experience of day-
to-day riding on both systems, which I don't have.
Mark Brader There are people on that train!
Toronto Sure, they're Canadians, but they're still people!
-- Paul Gross, "Due South"
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