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How to use the London Underground

Using your campervan in London

Whilst not impossible, the City of London are making it more and more expensive to take your vehicles into the centre of London. This post aims to educate you on how to use the London Underground instead and save time and money.

The congestion charge was introduced in 2003, initially a £5 a day tariff to drive your vehicle between 7am and 6pm Monday to Friday in the city centre. As it name indicates, the charge was set up to reduce the number of cars and journey length as people would not drive in the city and want to pay the tariff.

This fee has increased over the years to £11.50 and must be paid either in advance or on the day or travel (until Midnight). At the latest, you can pay up to midnight the next day with a surcharge but after that you will receive a fine.

Low Emission Zone

Low emission zones were introduced in April 2019 and this incurs a further charge if your vehicle does not meet the standards set out by the government for emissions. Essentially, for a diesel campervan over 15 years old, you are looking to pay another £12.50 on top of the congestion charge.

Parking is harder to come by for larger vehicles and the risk of theft, damage or break-ins rises sharply too. We recommend that you find a safe place to park and then make the most of London Transport. In this guide we tell you how to use the London Underground with confidence and clarity.

How to use the London Underground

London Underground
Photo by Luke Stackpoole on Unsplash

London is a major city with a population of almost 9 million people. The travel infrastructure is advanced with busses, over-ground trains, trams, Docklands light railway, a clipper boat and of course, the London Underground. This is essential to combat the traffic and pollution issues that large cities face. Sadly, even with the public transport in place, many still prefer to use cars to move around the city resulting in long road delays.

We highly recommend using public transport where possible as it is often easier and quicker than driving, plus your carbon footprint is reduced. It doesn’t matter how you use the London transport as long as you understand it consists of the Underground and overground components.

In this post we will be explaining how to use the London underground to navigate your way around the city easily, and with confidence. As someone who grew up in London I really took for granted how advanced our network is. Whilst it isn’t perfect, these frustrations come from the reliability of the service providers, weather causing delays an occasional strike action, not from the destinations or routes available.

Contents

History of the underground

                Origins

                War

                Royalty

                Postal

How to use the London Underground

                Different Lines

                Zones explained

                Tickets

                Navigating the stations

                Platforms and boarding

                Leaving the train

                Underground Etiquate

History of the Underground

Origins

I could talk all day about the history of the underground, it is part of the fabric of modern life and the oldest underground rail system in the world. Its origins stem back all the way to 1863, believe it or not!

I will give you a brief overview of where it all began but if you are interested in this, then there is so much more to explore and even some attractions you can visit, such as a 2 hour tour from the oldest to the futuristic stations at the Visit London website.

Metropolitan line

The Metropolitan line is the oldest underground line in London. Opening in 1863 and using steam locomotives pulling wooden gas lit carriages. In its first year, the Metropolitan line transported over 9 million individual journeys, with public calling for more to be built and with companies petitioning parliament for new lines.

Within 2 years, the circle line was completed alongside the district line. As the lines expanded, the metropolitan line reached as far as Buckinghamshire, ensuring a line 80km long could transport passengers into the city centre. They all had to learn how to use the London Underground from scratch where as we all grew up understanding the concept.

Different companies owned different lines and sometimes this caused friction, especially if they were sharing rail space. It wouldn’t be until much later that all of the networks would come together and run as one.

Electric trains

Before long, other lines were added and electric trains introduced in 1890. The development of the railway lines seemed to boom, spurred on from the industrial revolution. More people were drawn to the factory work in the city rather than the farming work of the country.

In the first half of the 1800’s, the population of London tripled, leading to more traffic and congestion. There were already 7 major over-ground lines meeting in the city bringing people in, so something had to be done to ease congestion.  

As technology improved, the tunnels became deeper. The first tunnels were mere meters underground, with trenches being built and roofs being laid on top. Now, the deepest tunnel is 58 meters underground and belongs to Hampstead heath on the Jubilee line.

The London Underground created jobs and revenue from those who knew how to use it. The city continued to grow.

The Tube during the War

London Underground as an air raid shelter.

Many stations were utilised as air raid shelters during the wars. Additionally, the government made use of the tunnels to to hide some of the cities treasures as well as make administrative office space for them and the Army. Some of the tunnels were even turned into factories making munitions and aeroplane parts to assist in the war effort.

Although the tunnels were used for shelter during the first world war, it was discouraged for the 2nd. 10 massive air raid shelters were supposed to be built in the city housing thousands of civilians however only 8 were built and mostly used by government officials. Every time a siren would sound people would still head for the shelter of the tube tunnels.

The government reluctantly backtracked and allowed the stations to be used as air-raid shelters after a disastrous accident. Sadly, during an air raid siren test on 3rd March 1943, a surge of people trying to take shelter caused a panicked state at Bethnal Green station which resulted in the deaths of 173 people.

Royal Mail Trains – Mail Rail

Mail Rail – Take a ride on the train in the museum!

The Royal Mail – mail rail line, opened in 1927 it operated for over 75 years before closing in 2003. The line was designed to transport mail between sorting offices in the city was a narrow gauge, driverless train. With 8 stops between Whitechapel and Paddington, 50 driverless electric trains shifted 30,000 items each day a mere 70 ft beneath the surface between the main sorting offices around London.

Although now closed, you are able to still access the tunnels and take a ride on the train through the Postal Museum in London. Take a 15 minute ride on the small trains and see the largely unchanged 100 year old tunnels, see the station platforms and experience a 1:20 gradient from the lines to the stations used to help the trains slow down on approach and speed up on departure!

Trains for the Royal Family.

It may be just rumour, or it may be fact. The history books tell us long ago that secret tunnels were built within castles, churches and important buildings to aid escape in times of a siege or, in the modern age, bombing and terrorism.

People have spoken for years about a secret tube station underneath Buckingham Palace, linked to Parliament and Downing street, to aid the escape of the Queen during such an attack. The private tube is said to have its own network of tunnels under the city, one even reporting it goes as far as Scotland which is far fetched even for me.

A darker past

In some reports, the underground tunnels from the palace go to the darker corners of the city where princes and dukes would visit women of the night undetected. The Queen has visited stations as part of her royal duties and the thought of Her Maj popping on the tube to get to Gala Bingo has me in stitches. Does HRH know how to use the London Underground and sneak around the city?

It would make sense to have a network of tunnels to aid escape although these are unproven, or guarded so highly no one will tell us for fear they would be misused. We do know there are a warren of disused tunnels by London underground and likely used by the government for ‘storage’.

It is claimed that Buckingham Palace has its own cash point and post office inside and many have speculated that the Royal Mail train runs underneath Buckingham Palace and therefore providing an escape route for the Royals. I guess we will never know for sure, but it is a plausible case to argue that the Palace would have escape tunnels.

How the Underground Works

Different Lines

The underground is currently made up from 11 tube lines, not including over-ground, Emirates and Docklands Light Railway. The networks lines tend to cover different routes into the city like a spider’s web but once in the main sections, it is not uncommon for them to share train tracks. For instance, the circle line and district line share 18 stations on the same route from Edgeware road to tower hill. Similarly, the District and Hammersmith and city line then share 11.

Branches

Some lines go just from point A to point B with varying amount of stops in between. Nice and simple! You are either going forwards or backwards. Other lines break off into ‘branches’ and may go via another destination. The Northern line, for example, has two branches to it splitting off at Kennington and going via either Charring Cross or Bank, before joining briefly at Camden Town to terminate in either Edgeware or High Barnett.  

Do make sure you check which branch you require and always note the termination destination to keep yourself on the correct journey. Any ember of staff will help you if you are unsure.

Tube Map

Early geographical map before Henry Beck’s design.

Some lines go East/West, others North/South and some across the middle. At first glance, it looks like a plate of spaghetti however once you have a vague idea of the layout of London, it is easier to work out where you need to be. If you can find out where you are and where you need to get to you can easily trace the trainlines to find out your connections. If you are unsure on how to reach your destination, there are staff on hand to assist you that know the network inside out.

The map that we look at today is not geographically correct, but topological, formed to make an easier to read map with straight lines. The map was first designed by Henry Beck in 1931 and although ‘London Underground’ were sceptical of the initial design, they trialled it a few years later to see if people would accept it and found people preferred this type of map, with straight edges. It was easier to read and follow, everything was spaced out evenly and although not a true representation of the lines, it made navigation so much easier.

Circle line isn’t a circle anymore.

The circle line used to be just that, a loop of stations where you could get on either side and eventually get to the right station, which happened to someone one meeting me for a date! (I thought I had been stood up but turns out they went the wrong direction!). In 2009, an extension to the line now means that the line begins and ends in Edgeware road and Hammersmith, now resembling a no 6 shape flipped over.

Zones explained

‘Transport for London’ calculate your fares in accordance with a zone system. Whether you are using the tube, a bus, Docklands Light Railway (DLR) or over ground, you will find the zone system in place. This is in order to calculate fares. There are 6 main zones within central London and for national rail lines, these extend over-ground to 15 (but don’t worry about those for the moment).

Imagine Saturn’s rings. At the centre of the rings is a circle, this is zone 1. Every 3 miles out from the city centre, another zone comes into action. This then leads to 6 rings around London and a variation in fares depending on where you are travelling to.

How to use the London Underground

Disabled access

Only 78 of the 270 stations have some form of step free access to platforms although this may be a manual boarding ramp between lines. On the official TfL maps, stations marked with a white wheelchair symbol are step free to the platform but not all are step free to the train. Some still need manual ramps.

This is an area that TfL are trying to improve but with such an old network of tunnels accessibility is proving very hard for them to achieve.

Tickets

So how does this effect tickets?

Transport for London have tried several initiatives over the years, with the zones coming into force in the 1980’s. Beforehand, the price you paid depended on how far you were travelling and was calculated by the conductor. As the conductors were removed, the driver was responsible for collecting fares and time spent at bus stops calculating the route needed to change. Zones meant that the driver would know what zone they were going to and easily work out the fare.

Cash

You can use cash to purchase a ticket, however you must purchase them in advance. Drivers do not accept cash on board so collect your ticket from ticket machines at Tube, DLR or National rail stations.

Single and return tickets

These are still available to purchase although not often the most cost-effective way to travel. The fare for a single journey in central London zones 1-3 is £4.90 (Adult) each leg of the journey. Unless you are planning to make just 1 single journey on London transport then you are better off to purchase a travel card, Oyster card or use a contactless credit/debit card.

London Travel Card

Example of a travel card.

The older style of travel card is still operational in London. It is a simple card ticket that you pay up front for and it provides you with unlimited travel across the London Transport network for the duration of the card. You can purchase the 1 day travel card, the 7 day travel card, 1 month or 1 year. The days are consecutive and do expire.

The travel card provides you access to the London Underground, London Busses (the lovely nostalgic red London busses but not the tourist hopper bus), Network Rail, Docklands Light Railway, TFL railway and also a 33% discount on many scheduled river crossing services.

Heathrow and Gatwick express

You cannot use your travel card on the Heathrow express trains but you can for slower national rail trains departing from Heathrow station. Heathrow airport is in Zone 6. Gatwick, Luton and Stanstead are outside of London zones, in conclusion you can not use a travel card to reach these places.

For travel cards 7 days or longer, a passport sized photo is required. However, the cards can be made up on the spot and is free to do.

Oyster Cards Vs Contactless payment

Oyster Card

‘Tap and Go’ travel is simple and easy to use. No fiddling about with change, no paper tickets lost under a pile of tissues and sweet wrappers in your pocket, just a credit card sized piece of plastic with a chip in it to simply tap on the yellow circle, and go through the barriers.

There isn’t much difference between using contactless payment and an Oyster card (apparently called that because the shell of an Oyster is a hard protective shell, a metaphor for its security. There is also a nod to the Oyster beds from the Thames Estuary and probably a nod to the phrase “the world is your Oyster”).

There are not many differences between contactless and Oyster cards but I will list the main few.

Oyster card = Pre load a card with funds before you travel.

Contactless = Use your credit or debit card to pay after you travel.

A standard Oyster Card requires a non refundable £5 deposit. You then ‘top up’ the card as you go along and pre pay for your travel. The fees are then deducted immediately from your card where as the contactless way means your journey is totalled up at the end of the day and a single charge is then deducted from your card.

Visitor Oyster Card

Similar to the standard Oyster, this card is one of the cheapest ways to travel around London. It comes with some extra perks such as its ability to be used on Emirates Air Line cable car and River Bus services (MBNA Thames Clippers). You can also use the travel credit on your Visitor Oyster card to buy a ticket for Thames River Services and Circular Cruise Westminster at their ticket offices.

Different Caps for different cards.

This is where you tap your oyster card.

Contactless cards do have a weekly cap on them running Monday to Sunday. However it is important to remember that if you are travelling from overseas and using your credit or debit card, you may incur foreign exchange charges from your provider the same as any other payment in GBP.

The price of the weekly cap is the same as the 7 day travel card. The Oyster card caps after 3 journeys in one day. In other words, no mater how much you use your card, after the third trip you are no longer charged that day.  It is important to note that travelling at peak times will cost you more, so if your first few fares are within the peak tariff, expect to see your cap at a higher rate than if you set off a little later and travel in a cheaper fare bracket.

Tap in and out

With Oyster OR contactless, you still need to tap in and out of stations, even if the gates are open. Failure to do so will mean that you will pay the full price of a capped day even if you only used the train once that day. If you don’t touch in and out on a yellow card reader, you might be charged a maximum fare, charged a penalty fare or prosecuted.

Oyster cards do not have an expiry date. Any money you have left on the card can either be refunded at a train station kiosk or you can leave it on the card until you next visit.

Can I share my oyster card?

If you are travelling with a companion, they must have their own card. If you are not using your card, in theory you can pass it to someone else to use as they do not require a picture or a name stamp on them. However, for just £5 it may be worth investing in a card even if you are only visiting London once in a blue moon.


How to purchase and top up an Oyster card

Purchase

You can purchase an Oyster card from the ticket offices inside train stations, tube stations, TfL rail stations, some DLR and National rail stations, the Croydon Tramlink store and Newsagents around the city. It will cost you £5 to buy the card before a penny is added to the account. You do not need to give ID as you name is not written on the card. You can purchase the card, top it up and use it straight away when purchasing from a ticket office or newsagent.

Top Up

If you have a mobile phone, you can download the Transport for London app and top up your Oyster card on the move. The website said to allow 30 minutes for the money to show up, although it is often quicker. Please note, if you have a first-generation oyster card, that these are not compatible with the app.

If you wish to purchase by cash or card payment, ticket stations as above and most newsagents will be able to do that for you with funds immediately showing.

Navigating the stations

Escalator in a tube station

Now you know where the tube station is but how do you get into it and then get to the platform? The large red circle with the blue line across it is iconic. As soon as you see the logo, you know you it is the London tube sign, just like a yellow cab lets us know we are in New York. Entrances to Tube stations are usually well sign posted with this sign lit up and usually on busy streets.

Some station entrances are close to the surface so you may walk straight into a large area with ticket machines, ticket booth with humans in, and the barriers. The signs for the trains are all colour coded so that you can follow the directions of your colour of line if you forget the name of it. This is especially helpful in stations where multiple lines depart from the same station. It may not always be the same platform as different tube lines run at different depths.

There will inevitably be a decent involved. Usually, this involves quite steep escalators as many of the stations were built before lifts/elevators were being used. Some stations do now have lifts, such as the Heathrow airport station on the Piccadilly line, Kings Cross station and London Victoria.

Platforms and Boarding

Tube Map

Once you have taken the escalator down to the right line, you then need to locate the correct platform. Good news is there are usually only two! By the entrance to each platform you will find a map from the current station to the end of the line in the direction it is travelling, so if your arrival station is not listed, check the other platform.

Once on the correct platform, you will notice it is tunnel shaped, not with straight walls along the platform. Considering the amount of users on the network, the platform can easily get overcrowded in rush hour. It is always advisable to move down along the platform as far as you can to allow other users a more comfortable space.

Above all, stay behind the yellow lines on the platform as this is very close to the platform edge. It is very dangerous to stay here and the draft from the trains can sometimes be quite forceful. Consequently, the tight fit of the train within the tunnel was designed to keep the network ventilated and the moving train in the tunnel forces the air forwards, you will feel the pressure change as trains are arriving to the station.

How to use the underground during rush hour

If you can avoid rush hour, please do. For your own sake. Imagine a can of sweaty sardines all crammed in together. In the summer the temperatures sore underground (reports indicate the temperatures are so high it would be illegal to transport animals in those temperatures) and this leads to a lot of perspiration. It isn’t made any better when you are all crammed in so tight that you are wedged under someone’s armpit just trying to find something to hold on to. Travelling off peak isn’t only cheaper, its more user friendly and you are often able to move around the carriage/ find a seat.

There isn’t an orderly queueing system for getting on the tube in rush hour, it is a free for all as the worker bees are trying to get home to their families. You have to push and shove your way on. I am not telling you this to put you off, rather persuade you to allow the commuters to elbow each other for a good position and allow yourself an hour extra to enjoy the shops, restaurants, museums and other activities in the city. Trust me you will be glad you stayed out for that extra Martini!

Automated messages

Usually, above you on the platform will be an electronic notice board advising what train is arriving next (and the one after that) as well as the time. The arriving trains will also be announced over the loudspeaker.  

On the train also, an automated message is played when the doors are about to close and also to alert you of the next station (as well as any connecting lines at the approaching station for connections).

Leaving the train

When the train comes to a stop, there is a dash for the doors. Many people will be making their way along the carriage on its approach ready to disembark. Do be careful of trying to manouver yourself on a moving train as they can be a little unsteady! Only do if safe to do so.

When the train comes to a complete stop, you will notice a green push button lights up for you to activate the doors opening. Don’t bother pushing it, they don’t do anything and the driver will open all of the doors automatically. You should be able to exit the train before others enter it and exit signs should be clearly displayed on the platform. If you are unsure, just follow the crowd and you will end up either at an exit or another platform – you won’t get too lost!

Some train stations have multiple exits depending on their location, for example, if they are underneath a cross roads they will usually have an exit on each of the corners. Connecting lines will also be sign posted in the station.

Do not forget to tap your card on the yellow circle for the contactless or oyster card!

Underground Etiquette

Just a couple of pointers on tube etiquette, the unspoken rules of how to to get along with your fellow tube users.

  1. Make sure you invest in a good deodorant! It gets very hot down there and having a good deodorant will be a great help to all. More so when you have the awkward moment of standing, holding on to the bars and feeling nervous about sweat patches!
  2. Always have your ‘ticket’ or card ready for when you reach the barriers. Everyone in the city is in a rush to get somewhere and they don’t appreciate being help up whilst others look for their ticket.
  3. On the escalator, always stand on the right. The left hand side of the escalator is the ‘moving’ lane so that people can walk down the escalator.
  4. When trains arrive, ensure to let everyone off before you try to embark. If someone has stepped off to allow people behind them to depart, they are allowed back on the train first before anyone else.
  5. Move down the train. It can cause delays to services when drivers are not able to close the doors and depart on time.
  6. Priority seating. Most importantly, signs tell you that selected seats in every carriage are priority seats for pregnant women, people with young children, disabled or elderly users. Failure to do so will see several people glaring at you for the remainder of your journey in a disastrously British way that not even a cup of tea and a digestive will fix!
  7. Don’t stop at the top of an escalator. If you get to the top of an escalator and don’t know which way to go, keep moving forward and find a safe place to ‘pull over’. Think of it as a motorway exit for example, you wouldn’t just stop on the slip road. In addition, any slight slowing down or hesitation can be serious if people behind you can not get off of the moving escalator and pile ups can have nasty consequences.
Mind the Gap

In addition

Meanwhile, if you are in London, why not check out where to buy cheap attraction tickets, what happened when we visited London and destroyed my parents house or other locations.

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