How did the tube lines get their colours?

The original Harry Beck map, from 1933. The artistry astounds. Image: Clarksbury Tube Map Archive

What if the Central line were blue? Or the Piccadilly was a lurid yellow?

Just for fun, let’s make the Metropolitan line red, too. Spice things up a bit.

If you’re not screaming in anguish by this point, I suggest you shut your laptop and continue with your day.

But if you are, it’s a vital question. Each tube line has its own colour; clear, defined, immutable.

So how did the tube lines get their colours?

The Beck Revolution

Harry Beck is the undisputed master of the tube map. In 1933 he changed the transport world – and, arguably, the design world, too – with his geometrically laid out map of the London Underground network.

Whereas all previous maps had been geographical representations of London, with the lines drawn between the stations actual locations, Beck understood that the above-surface geography cluttered the picture, providing the transport with unnecessary information that needlessly complicated a journey.

So he just eradicated it. Instead, he designed a clean, clear, crisp map. Each line charted a course of straight lines wherever possible, with interchanges between lines shown as hollow geometric diamonds, and the snaking of the Thames providing the only meaningful geographical marker.

The principles that guided his first map still govern the Underground network today, and have been adopted (often very closely) by almost every urban transport network in the world.

Image: TfL.

Much of his map is familiar to us, particularly in terms of colours and the basis of the network, which was reasonably well established by the 1930s.

The Metropolitan line floats off into the top left hand corner of the map in a deep purple, as it does today. The District line dominates the western stretch of the River Thames in its snaking green, and pushes out east from Whitechapel into the ether.

The Northern line straddles central London, with its two branches through Bank and Charing Cross in the black that we still use today. The Piccadilly runs in a deep blue U-shape from South Harrow to Cockfosters.

But other aspects are less familiar.

The Central line is a Trump-esque orange, and the Bakerloo, running all the way to Watford Junction, is in Central line red.

Weird, huh?

But the offensively wrong colours didn’t last long. By 1938, the Central line was in today’s red, and the Bakerloo line – the brown line – had taken on its right and proper hue.

Before introducing the lines that have been built or introduced since, however, it’s worth peering a little further back.

The earliest tube maps

One of the first tube maps you can find online these days is from 1908. And for today’s tube users, it is entirely horrifying.

The District line is still green, sure, and the Northern line (then only from South London to Euston via Bank) is black. Other than that, pretty much everything is wrong.

A 1908 geographical tube map. Image: Clarksbury Tube Map Archive.

The Charing Cross branch of today’s Northern line, from Charing Cross to Highgate and Golders Green, is a deep greyish blue, and today’s Piccadilly (from Hammersmith to Finsbury Park) is a putrid yellow.

The Metropolitan Railway is in red, and – most horrifyingly of all – the Central line is in Victoria line blue.

Weirdly, though, the Bakerloo (then running only from Edgware Road to Elephant and Castle) is brown. Despite the fact it would later stop being brown, for a bit.

Fixing the palette

The District line is the most colour-stable of them all. In every map I’ve seen – and that’s an awful lot of maps – it’s coloured green.

While there’s no set established historical reason for this, it doesn’t take a genius to figure that it’s one of the primary colours (of light, if not of paint), and therefore a good choice. Its also nicely emblematic of the leafy pastures of the pleasant west London suburbs from which it brought commuters to the centre of the gritty city.

The District line also has a lot of green on it. Though now only Turnham Green and Parsons Green survive, Fulham Broadway used to be called Walham Green. And with Chiswick Park, Wimbledon Park, Southfields, and Kew Gardens all along the line, it’s all pretty... green-sounding.

Scientific stuff.

The Metropolitan line has stayed resolutely purple since the first Beck map in 1933. It’s a similar colour in this rather overly artistic map from 1921.

A very art-deco looking tube, in 1921. Image: Clarksbury Tube Map Archive.

Again, there’s no historical decree as to why purple was the anointed hue, but many of the Metropolitan Railway’s locomotives – in its steam days – were painted purple. So it’s likely that the private railway company, as it was in those days, used purple as a company livery of sorts. This then got transferred over to the line when it became part of the wider London Underground network.

Plus, it contrasts pretty nicely with the green of the District line, which helps tell the two apart – especially as, in the early days of the underground, they spent a lot of time jostling against one another, both figuratively and literally.

The City and South London Railway was the first deep-level tube line to open, and was also the first electric railway in England, opened by the Prince of Wales (Edward VII) in 1890. The fact it was the deepest, darkest line seems as good an explanation as any for why today’s Northern line is black.


The Piccadilly line is also one of the oldest, which is why it was also gifted with a primary colour – blue. The 1920s seems to be when the Piccadilly and Central made the switch, with Piccadilly taking over a mid-blue that would later shift to our current dark blue, and Central occupying the hearty red we have today. Beck’s first map is a bit of a blip for the Central line.

The Circle line is an early entry to the map, and given its proximity to the Metropolitan and District lines was an obvious choice for yellow – it contrasts well with both, helping the visibility of the lines on the map, and making it much more intuitive for passengers.

As mentioned earlier, the Bakerloo flirted with various colours before settling on the brown. Perhaps that just made alliterative sense.

More interesting are the newer lines. Despite the fact that Queen Victoria’s favourite colour was almost certainly purple, the 60s-built line is a light blue. This, if you look at the other colours already in use, seems a logical distinction – but it did mean that the Piccadilly line’s darker hue had to be formalised as a darker blue, rather than the mid blue used in some of Beck’s maps.

The Jubilee line, carved out of a branch of the Bakerloo with an extension to Charing Cross in the 1970s, has the most definitive story behind its colour.

Originally intended to be called the Fleet line – as it was supposed to have connected north-west with south-east London over the subterranean River Fleet – the planned colour was a steely grey to make a clever pun on fleet, the river, and fleet, as in ships.

A 1985 map, showing the Jubilee line to Charing Cross. Image: Clarksbury Tube Map Archive

But when the Queen’s Silver Jubilee came around, and the Conservatives won the Greater London Council election of 1977, the line was renamed the Jubilee Line. The colour was accordingly adjusted – with just a few shades of lightening, it transformed from a steely, Labour, hardworking sort of grey to a bougie, Conservative, metro-liberal-elite sort of silver. Or something.

The last formal entry to the tube map, the Hammersmith & City line, came along in 1990 and rather aptly demonstrates the problem of having too many lines: it’s salmon pink.

But having said that, it works. It contrasts enough with the lines that it straddles from Barking to Hammersmith, and doesn’t really come into enough contact with the lines it might clash with – namely, the Central – for that to be a problem.

Essentially, the tube map is a hodge-podge of colours that accidentally fell into place over decades, many of them for no good reason, and are now so resolutely stuck that changing one would probably incite a revolution. 

So, there we go.

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

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What other British cities can learn from the Tyne & Wear Metro

A Metro train at Monument. Image: Callum Cape/Wikipedia.

Ask any person on the street what they know about Newcastle, and they’ll list a few things. They’ll mention the accent; they’ll mention the football; they’ll mention brown ale and Sting and Greggs. They might even mention coal or shipbuilding, and then the conversation will inevitably turn political, and you’ll wish you hadn’t stopped to ask someone about Newcastle at all.

They won’t, however, mention the Tyne and Wear Metro, because they haven’t probably heard of it – which is a shame, because the Metro is one of the best things the north-east has to offer.

Two main issues plague suburban trains. One is frequency. Suburban rail networks often run on poor frequency; to take Birmingham for an example, most of its trains operate at 30-minute intervals.

The other is simplicity. Using Birmingham again, the entire system is built around New Street, leading to a very simple network. Actually, that’s not quite true: if you’re coming from Leamington Spa, Warwick, Stourbridge, Solihull or a host of other major minor (minor major?) towns, you don’t actually connect to New Street – no, you don’t even connect to the ENTIRE SYSTEM BUILT AROUND NEW STREET except at Smethwick Galton Bridge, miles away in the western suburbs, where the physical tracks don’t even connect – they pass over each other. Plus, what on earth is the blue line to Walsall doing?

An ageing map of the West Midlands rail network: click any of the images in this article to expand them. Image: Transport for the West Midlands/Centro.

But Newcastle has long been a hub of railway activity. Tragically, the north-east has fewer active railway lines than any other region of the UK. Less tragically, this is because Tyne and Wear has the Metro.


The Metro was formed in 1980 from a somewhat eccentric collection of railways, including freight-only lines, part of the old Tyneside Electrics route, underground tunnelling through the city centre, track-sharing on the National Rail route to Sunderland, and lines closed after the Beeching axe fell in the early 1960s.

From this random group of railway lines, the Metro has managed to produce a very simple network of two lines. Both take a somewhat circuitous route, the Yellow line especially, because it’s literally a circle for much of its route; but they get to most of the major population centres. And frequency is excellent – a basic 5 trains an hour, with 10 tph on the inner core, increasing at peak times (my local station sees 17 tph each way in the morning peak).

Fares are simple, too: there are only three zones, and they’re generally good value, whilst the Metro has been a national leader in pay-as-you-go technology (PAYG), with a tap-in, tap-out system. The Metro also shares many characteristics of European light rail systems – for example, it uses the metric system (although this will doubtless revert to miles and chains post-Brexit, whilst fares will be paid in shillings).

 

The Metro network. Image: Nexus.

Perhaps most importantly, the Metro has been the British pioneer for the Karlsruhe model, in which light rail trains share tracks with mainline services. This began in 2002 with the extension to Sunderland, and, with new bi-mode trains coming in the next ten years, the Metro could expand further around the northeast. The Sheffield Supertram also recently adopted this model with its expansion to Rotherham; other cities, like Manchester, are considering similar moves.

However, these cities aren’t considering what the Metro has done best – amalgamated local lines to allow people to get around a city easily. Most cities’ rail services are focused on those commuters who travel in from outside, instead of allowing travel within a city; there’s no coherent system of corridors allowing residents to travel within the limits of a city.

The Metro doesn’t only offer lessons to big cities. Oxford, for example, currently has dire public transport, focused on busy buses which share the same congested roads as private vehicles; the city currently has only two rail stations near the centre (red dots).

Image: Google.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. For a start, Oxford is a fairly lateral city, featuring lots of north-south movements, along broadly the same route the railway line follows. So, using some existing infrastructure and reinstating other parts, Oxford’s public transport could be drastically improved. With limited engineering work, new stations could be built on the current track (blue dots on the map below; with more extensive work, the Cowley branch could be reinstated, too (orange dots). Electrify this new six-station route and, hey presto, Oxford has a functioning metro system; the short length of the route also means that few trains would be necessary for a fequent service.

Image: Google.

Next up: Leeds. West Yorkshire is a densely populated area with a large number of railway lines. Perfect! I hear you cry. Imperfect! I cry in return. Waaaaaah! Cry the people of Leeds, who, after two cancelled rapid transit schemes, have had enough of imaginative public transport projects.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire:

Image: Google.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire’s railway network:

 ​

Image: West Yorkshire Metro.

The problem is that all of the lines go to major towns, places like Dewsbury, Halifax or Castleford, which need a mainline connection due to their size. Options for a metro service are limited.

But that’s not to say they’re non-existent. For example, the Leeds-Bradford Interchange line passes through densely populated areas; and anyway, Bradford Interchange is a terminus, so it’s poorly suited to service as a through station, as it’s currently being used.

Image: Google.

With several extra stops, this line could be converted to a higher frequency light rail operation. It would then enter an underground section just before Holbeck; trains from Halifax could now reach Leeds via the Dewsbury line. The underground section would pass underneath Leeds station, therefore freeing up capacity at the mainline station, potentially simplifying the track layout as well.

 

Image: Google.

Then you have the lines from Dewsbury and Wakefield, which nearly touch here:

Image: Google.

By building a chord, services from Morley northwards could run into Leeds via the Wakefield line, leaving the Dewsbury line north of Morley open for light rail operation, probably with an interchange at the aforementioned station.

Image: Google.

The Leeds-Micklefield section of the Leeds-York line could also be put into metro service, by building a chord west of Woodlesford over the River Aire and connecting at Neville Hill Depot (this would involve running services from York and Selby via Castleford instead):

The path of the proposed chord, in white. Image: Google.

With a section of underground track in Leeds city centre, and an underground line into the north-east of Leeds – an area completely unserved by rail transport at present – the overall map could look like this, with the pink and yellow dots representing different lines:

Et voila! Image: Google.

Leeds would then have a light-rail based public transport system, with potential for expansion using the Karlsruhe model. It wouldn’t even be too expensive, as it mainly uses existing infrastructure. (Okay, the northeastern tunnel would be pricey, but would deliver huge benefits for the area.)

Why aren’t more cities doing this? Local council leaders often talk about introducing “metro-style services” – but they avoid committing to real metro projects because they’re more expensive than piecemeal improvements to the local rail system, and they’re often more complex to deliver (with the lack of space in modern-day city centres, real metro systems need tunnels).

But metro systems can provide huge benefits to cities, with more stops, a joined-up network, and simpler fares. More cities should follow the example of the Tyne and Wear Metro.