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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Why doesn’t London build an RER network, like Paris did?

A commuter walking by a map of the RER B line at the Chatelet-Les Halles station in Paris. Image: Getty.

I’ve heard many people make many different complaints about the Parisian transport system. That it does a bad job of linking a rich, white city with its poorer, more diverse suburbs. That, even as subway systems go, it’s a hostile environment for women. That the whole thing smells distractingly of urine.

I’m familiar with all of these complaints – I’ve often smelt the urine. And I’m aware that, in many ways, London’s is the superior transport network.

And yet I can’t help be jealous of Paris – In large part, because of the RER.

Central Paris. The Metro lines are thinner, and in pastel shades; the RER lines are thicker, and in brighter colours. Image: RATP.

Paris, you see, has not one but two underground railway systems. The more famous one is the original Paris Metro, opened in 1900: that’s the one with those fancy green portals with the word “metropolitain” written above them in a vaguely kooky font.

The Metro, though, mostly serves Paris Intra-muros: the official city, inside the Boulevard Périphérique ring road, site of the city’s last set of walls. As a result, it’s of very little use in most of the city’s suburbs. Its stations are very close together, which places a limit on how fast its trains can cross town. It was also, by the mid 20th century, becoming annoyingly overcrowded.

So starting in the 1960s, the city transport authorities began planning a second underground railway network. The Réseau Express Régional – Regional Express Network – would link suburban lines on either side of Paris, through new heavy rail tunnels beneath the city. Its stations would be much further apart than those of the metro – roughly one every 3km, rather than every 600m – so its trains can run faster.

And fifty years and five lines later, it means that 224 stations in the suburbs of Paris are served by trains which, rather than terminating on the edge of the city, now continue directly through tunnels to its centre.

The RER network today. Image: RATP.

London is, belatedly, doing something similar. The Elizabeth Line, due to open in stages from later this year, will offer express-tube style services linking the suburban lines which run west from Paddington to those which run east from Liverpool Street. And Thameslink has offered cross-town services for 30 years now (albeit not at tube-level frequencies). That, too, is going to add more routes to its network over the next few years, meaning direct trains from the southern suburbs to north London and vice versa.

Yet the vast majority of suburban National Rail services in London still terminate at big mainline stations, most of which are on the edge of the centre. For many journeys, especially from the south of the city, you still need to change to the London Underground.

So, could London ape Paris – and make Thameslink and Crossrail the first element of its own RER network?

In a limited way, of course, it’s doing just that. The next big project after Crossrail is likely to be (original name, this) Crossrail 2. If that gets funding, it’ll be a new south-west to north-east route, connecting some of the suburban lines into Waterloo to those in the Lea Valley.

The proposed route of Crossrail 2. Click to expand.

But it’s not immediately obvious where you could go next – what Crossails 3, 4 or 5 should cover.

That’s because there’s an imbalance in the distribution of the remaining mainline rail services in London. Anyone who’s even remotely familiar with the geography of the city will know that there are far more tube lines to its north. But the corollary of that is that there are far more mainlines to the south.

To usefully absorb some of those, Crossrail 3 would probably need to run south to south in some way. There is actually an obvious way of doing this: build a new tunnel from roughly Battersea to roughly Bermondsey, and take over the Richmond lines in the west and North Kent lines in the east, as a sort of London equivalent of RER C:

Our suggestion for Crossrail 3. Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

But that still leaves a whole load of lines in south and south east London with nowhere to send them beyond their current terminal stations.

In fact, there are reasons for thinking that the whole RER concept doesn’t really fit the British capital. It was designed, remember, for a city in which the Metro only served the centre (roughly equivalent of London’s zones 1 & 2).

But London Underground wasn’t like that. From very early in its history, it served outer London too: it was not just a way of getting people around the centre, but for getting them there from their suburban homes too.

This is turn is at least in part a function of the economic geography of the two cities. Rich Parisians have generally wanted to live in the centre, pushing poorer people out to the banlieues. In London, though, the suburbs were where the good life was to be found.

To that end, the original operators of some lines weren’t just railway companies, but housing developers, too. The Metropolitan Railway effectively built large chunks of north west London (“Metroland”), partly to guarantee the market for its trains, but partly too because, well, housing is profitable.

In other parts of town, existing main line railways were simply added to the new underground lines. The Central line swallowed routes originally built by the Great Western Railway and London & North Eastern Railway. The District line absorbed part of the London, Tilbury & Southend Railway.

At any rate: the Tube was playing the same role as the RER as early as the 1930s. London could still benefit from some RER-type services, so hopefully the Elizbaeth Line won’t be the last. But it doesn’t need an entire second metro network in the way 1960s Paris did.

There is another idea we could more profitably steal from Paris. Those suburban railways which aren’t connected to the RER are still run by the national rail operator, SNCF. But it uses the Transilien brand name, to mark them out as a part of the Parisian transport network, and – as with the RER – each route has its own letter and its own colour.

The Transilien & RER networks in Paris. Image: Maximilian Dörrbecker/Wikimedia Commons.

This would not have the transformative effect on London that building another half a dozen Crossrails would. But it would make the network much easier to navigate, and would be almost infinitely cheaper. Perhaps we should be starting there.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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