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Underground interests

From urban explorers and Tube Challengers to spatial analysts, the London Underground exerts a curious fascination. To celebrate its 150th anniversary, we meet some true Tube obsessives

Underground interests

Text by Peter Watts

Photos Louise Haywood-Schiefer


The London Underground attracts nutters. That might not be the politest way of putting it, but there's something about this 150-year-old transport system that draws the obsessive, the curious, the completist and the competitive. Perhaps it is the sheer legacy - that long, deep history - but there is something compelling about the network of intestinal steel tunnels and entombed stations. From the Tube Challengers, who dash round the network trying to visit all 270 stations in a single day, to the man who marched 403 miles along every line above ground, people are always seeking peculiar new methods to engage with the Tube's complexities.

Christian Wolmar, whose The Subterranean Railway is one of the most popular histories of the Underground, believes people are enthralled by the ways in which the Tube imposes itself on London. "I don't think there's any other transport system that encompasses so many things, from fantastic station design to the amazing posters and the iconic map. It continually fascinates."

Wolmar believes this enduring passion is down to history more than size. "It's by no means the biggest network in the world, but the age is crucial," he says. "There is a lot of history encapsulated within it and there's also this image that has been intertwined with London." The Tube's "brand" was created in the first half of the 20th century with the introduction of the roundel, posters, stations, map and typeface that came to define the network. "It was a very early piece of branding and it has become London's brand, not just the Underground's," says Wolmar. "That is what separates it from the Paris Metro and New York Subway. They are important to their cities, but they don't have the same style and history, or draw the affection of the people."

Ben Pedroche

Ghost station expert

"Ever since I was young I was fascinated by the Tube. My brother told me about the abandoned 'ghost stations' and the more I read about them the more fascinated I became.

"There are about 25 ghost stations. There are some great ones on the Piccadilly line, where they built too many stations. One of them, Down Street, has a great history: it was used as a temporary cabinet war room during World War II. The best known one is Aldwych, where the London Transport Museum hosts occasional tours. Some have completely disappeared, like British Museum - you can glimpse the platforms on the Central line, but there's no building. The only people with a good idea of what infrastructure remains are the urban explorers. These guys have explored every abandoned station on the network. Sometimes they break in or they slip in when engineers are working at night.

"I decided to write a series of walks that take you past some of the remaining parts of stations at street level, and I also included some train rides where you can still see platforms. The best train journey is the Metropolitan line from Finchley Road to Liverpool Street, where you pass three ghost stations and then a load of unused platforms. A lot of trains go through these ghost stations, so hundreds of thousands of people pass through them every day and don't even know they are there." 

Ben Pedroche's Do Not Alight Here: Walking London's Lost Underground and Railway Stations is published by Capital Transport Publishing

James Cheshire

Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis

University College London

"We're interested in how cities work and particularly how London works, and the Tube is a huge part of that - if you didn't have the Tube, you'd have all kinds of problems. We map data about the Tube because people respond well to maps, especially Tube maps. People love any map related to the Tube and they trust maps.

"We get the data that Transport for London (London's transport governing body) uses for departure boards and use that to run a live map showing an approximate position of where every single train is on the system at any particular time. We also have that data on every single individual journey taken in London. We use these to map large-scale flows of people to find out which are the busiest stations. Then we can model specific situations - such as what might happen if King's Cross had to close. We are interested in what happens when things don't work so when we got the data from the (London 2012) Olympic Games we were secretly hoping something would go wrong, but the network held up really well so all you have is data showing everybody moving around easily.

"We are working towards finding more sophisticated ways to model the data. At the moment if there's a problem on the Tube you find out too late and aren't presented with an alternative journey. We want to be able to tell people in advance about problems while presenting useful alternatives."

Know your Tube

The busiest station is Waterloo, which serves 82 million passengers each year.

The length of the Tube network is 402km, 45 per cent of which is in tunnels.

Andi James

Tube Challenge champion

"The Tube Challenge is visiting all 270 stations by Tube. If you are on a train, you don't have to physically step onto the platform just pass through the station, and you can use buses or run between stations if you wish. The first official record was set in 1959. I heard about it in 2007 and have been doing it ever since. I've done it about 46 times now. My winning time (held with Steve Wilson) is 16 hours 29 minutes and 13 seconds, and that's stood since 2011.

"If you are going to do it, it needs to be when all the lines are running - that's Monday to Friday - you need to have a good route and no delays. There are some places that are difficult like Kensington Olympia, where there are only nine trains a day. You have to be fit as some of the runs are very long, so prepare for a lot of pain. Research your door positions because you don't want to get offat the wrong end and waste five minutes fighting through hundreds of people. I know door positions for every platform in London.

"The first time I did the challenge, I spent three weeks calculating all the exchanges and another week physically researching the different runs. I can improve on my winning route, but so can a lot of other people. About 100 people try each year. Whenever I see people running from Finchley Central to Mill Hill East, I know they are either on the Tube Challenge or they are really desperate to go to Mill Hill East."

Mark Mason

Tube-line walker

"I wanted to do a book about London and the only way to discover any great city - except possibly Los Angeles - is by walking. I was looking for a route, and then I looked at the Tube map and decided to walk the whole network, all 403 miles. When I started, I thought each line would have its own character, but that's not how London works. Even within each neighbourhood there are great differences and most of these lines go from one side of London to another. Walking the lines taught me how little about London I already knew.

"The stations were a constant reminder that I was staying on the line; they provided a discipline, a logic, and also a nice sense of achievement. They are beautiful buildings, as well. At Southgate, they still have to use period lettering above the shops near Charles Holden's 1933 station so one has the words 'Fried Chicken Outlet' spelt out in art-deco lettering.

"The longest walk I did in one day was the Piccadilly line, all 39.5miles (63.5km) of it. It was hard work, but now when I take people on guided walks along sections of some of the lines, a few of them tell me they are going to carry on until the end." Walk the Lines: The London Underground, Overground (2011) is published by Random House

Know your Tube

London's first underground line opened on 9 January 1863, running from Paddington Station to Farringdon Street.

In the 1930s, the spirit of an Egyptian mummy was said to haunt the disused British Museum stop, near today's Tottenham Court Road.


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