Kate Allen London Underground superlatives: the oldest … the largest?

By Kate Allen. Interactive map by Callum Locke.

The London Underground celebrates its much-publicised 150th birthday this week. The system is the oldest in the world – nearly four decades older than any of the world’s other large metro systems – and has been lauded as a model of public infrastructure investment. But how does it measure up to its younger imitators?

In passenger and station numbers, it’s dwarfed by some of the new kids on the block.

Metro systems by passengers and stations


But perhaps surprisingly, the creaky old Tube bucks the global trend of “newer = bigger” when it comes to area covered. Its total track length is far longer* than that of other older systems and almost on a par with the newest metro systems in the world – those of China and South Korea.

World's largest metro systems


So the Tube is pretty big, by global standards. But it was previously even bigger. Quite a few stations have been closed in its long history (although many were replaced by new sites nearby).

One area in particular has been lost from the network. In the early 20th century the countryside in Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire and Middlesex, to the north-west of London, was actively promoted by the Metropolitan Railway as a leafy suburban haven for London’s tired commuters. Famously the area became known as Metroland, and was immortalised by later poet laureate John Betjeman.

But after the Met became part of London Transport in 1933 its train services were scaled back. A swathe of stations closed. Over 50 miles away from central London, these now-demolished stops represent the greatest geographical distance that London’s Underground reached. Today’s system, while still a world-beater, has shrunk.

Despite this, the Tube is as big as ever. A contradiction? Not quite. While it doesn’t cover as broad a geographical area as previously, it has laid more track since the Metroland closures – notably through the creation of the Victoria Line in 1968, the Jubilee Line in 1979 and its eastward extension in 1999. The network is now more extensive, despite being smaller.

So, happy birthday London Underground – including your ghostly past glories. Gone, but not forgotten.


* Update, 11/1/13: My colleague, former FT transport correspondent and current US industry correspondent Robert Wright, has pointed out that there is a fine distinction to be made here. He comments: “The metro with the greatest amount of track is the New York City subway – because nearly all the trunk lines through Manhattan and in many other places are four-track. London is far longer by route miles – the total length of the routes it covers is longer.” An important distinction.