A brief history
The first section of the Underground was opened in 1863, between the stations that are today called Paddington and Farringdon. It was operated by the Baker Street & Metropolitan railway, which continued to extend its network in the late 19th and early 20th century, and soon other companies began to build their own lines as well. In 1933, all the competing operators were merged under the London Transport Board, which is the predecessor to the current operator of the Underground: Transport for London.
The first sections of the tube were built by digging up the street above the new line, laying down all the tracks and infrastructure, then covering it back up. This method was known as the 'cut-and-cover' method, and the Metropolitan, Circle, Hammersmith & City and District lines were built using this method. Other lines are known as the 'deep tube' lines, which were built using tunnel boring machines. These tunnels are much smaller, and the trains are as well. The latest addition to the Tube is the Jubilee line extension from Westminster to Stratford, opened in 1999, and the newest station on the Tube is Wood Lane, opened in 2008.
|A Piccadilly Line train at Barons Court. Source: Wikimedia Commons|
One of the most recognisable features of the network is the map. Unfortunately, due to copyright issues, I cannot post the famous 'Tube map' here. You can find the latest on the website of Transport for London. I will, however, describe as much as I can.
The London Underground has 11 lines, and operates in all boroughs of London, and extends outside of Greater London as well. The service is very frequent in all parts of the network, with even the outer reaches having trains every 5 minutes nearly throughout the day. The Tube shuts down for weeknights, but there's a limited Night Tube service on Friday and Saturday nights on select lines.
|A Victoria Line train at Highbury & Islington|
The Tube has 270 stations, and the sprawl and fame of the network has led to many enthusiasts want to visit all the stations in as little time as possible. This is known as The Tube Challenge, and requires a person to either enter or exit a station, or be on a train stopping at it, for all 270 stations of the network in as little time as possible. This is record is officially tracked by Guinness World Records, with the current record at 15 hours, 45 minutes and 38 seconds held by Steven Wilson. Can you beat his time?
The Tube operates a zone-based fare system, with the fare amount depending on how many and which zones you travel through. Single fares can be bought from ticket machines at any station from anywhere to anywhere on the network, and you can find out the cost by using TfL's Single Fare Finder.
There are many ways to pay for your journey, however I recommend visitors to use the Oyster card, which is a stored-value smart card that automatically charges you the cheapest fare for your journey by recording the stations you entered and exited from. There is also a daily fare cap, which varies depending on the zones you travel through - if you hit the cap, all other journeys on that day are free. Visitors who have contactless payment cards (NFC-capable) can also use them to pay for fares, just by tapping them on the same Oyster card readers. TfL adds up all your journeys at the end of each day, and charges for all of them at once. Both of them are also valid on buses and other trains in the London area, including Heathrow and Gatwick Express (although they charge expensive, premium fares).
|On board a Norther Line train|
For people who wish to not use the Oyster card, paper tickets are also available. Day travelcards from Zones 1 to 4, 6 or 9 can be bought at any ticket machine, or single tickets between two stations. Keep in mind that this is more expensive than using Oyster.
The London Underground, being the oldest underground system in the world, has a lot of old infrastructure, but it is being heavily modernised. The sub-surface lines (Circle, District, Hammersmith & City, Metropolitan) lines use new S stock trains, which have walk-through carriages and air conditioning. On the other hand; Northern, Central, Jubilee and Victoria lines have automatic train operation: all the driver does is press operate the doors, and start the automated system. This means that trains can now run faster and more frequently, and TfL runs 40 trains per hour on the Victoria Line in peak hours - a train every 90 seconds.
However, Bakerloo and Piccadilly lines use 1972 and 1973 Stock trains respectively - the oldest trains on any mass transit network in the world. TfL is in the process of acquiring new trains, but they aren't expected to enter service until 2023. These lines are also prone to more failures, as they still use old signalling systems.
I've been a fan of the London Underground since 2011, and what I really like the most about it is the high frequency - you can get from anywhere to anywhere on the network, without even having to check the schedule. Many passengers don't even know that there is one! What I also like is the Oyster card system - it's simple to use and understand, and is also integrated with other rail operators in London.
However, the Tube isn't perfect. Due to the age of the network, there can be failures, or planned engineering works, especially on weekends. Always check your travel at the TfL website. Also, while Osyter seems simple at first, the exact calculation for a fare is very complicated, and can vary depending on what route you take or which rail operator (or combination of those) you use.
Still, I recommend all visitors of London to use the Tube, since it's much better than the alternative - driving. And the Tube is very cheap off-peak - you can travel between zones 2 and 6 for only £1.50.