Which London Underground line is the busiest?

This is the Overground and very much not the Tube, but it's pretty busy, so go figure. Image: Matt Buck

All London commuters are perpetually convinced that their commute – theirs, not yours – is the most hellish, the most jam-packed, the most arduous and hard-going.

But not all commutes are born equal. Some lines are hotter than others, some lines have older trains than others, and some lines are busier than others.

So what is the truth? Which route is the busiest?

Part of the problem is that we don’t have all the data – the beautiful, cold, hard data – we need to make this calculation properly, because TfL doesn’t divulge everything. So though you can publicly access a very nerdy document called the London Underground Performance Data Almanac, which is published every year with juicy stats about ‘lost customer hours’ and ‘number of engineering runs’ and suchlike, the data on passenger journeys is rather lacking.

The document will tell you that there were 1,377,850,000 journeys made on the London Underground network in 2016-17; but it won’t break down that data for you by individual line. Which is rather annoying.

It wasn’t always this way, though.

You can still find archived copies of this document from previous years, in which these figures are given. The last set of figures we have are from 2011112, and show a total of 1,170,512,000 journeys across the London Underground network, broken down into individual lines.

This will tell you which line was the busiest in overall terms – how many journeys were taken on it – which runs as follows, from busiest to least-used.

1. Central, 260.9m

2. Northern, 252.3m

3. Jubilee, 213.6m

4. Piccadilly, 210.2m

5. District, 208.3m

6. Victoria, 200.0m

7. Circle and Hammersmith & City lines, 114.6m

8. Bakerloo, 111.1m

9. Metropolitan, 66.8m

10. Waterloo & City, 15.9m

But this raises all sorts of questions.

The Central Line, looking not that busy. Image: Twyman1998.

One, of course, is why the Circle and Hammersmith & City lines have been lumped together, when they perform reasonably different functions and spend a lot of time apart (despite clinging to each other at times).

The other of which is why do 111,136,000 people enjoy inflicting pain on themselves so much that they would willingly use the Bakerloo line.

(Am I joking? Am I not? Who knows.)

On a more serious note, this way of looking at things is obviously flawed. The Waterloo & City lines, with its two stations and 1.5 miles of track, cannot sensibly be considered in the same terms as the Metropolitan line, with its 34 stations and 41.4 miles of track.

The Metropolitan Line, speeding along. Image: Matt Buck

We must think again.

The logical thing to do at this point is to take the total number of passenger journeys per year, and divide it by the number of miles of track there are. Then, you can tell – in a roundabout way – how many people there are per mile of track. Thus, you work out how busy the line is.

Working through this system obviously reveals starkly different results. Here we go:

1. Victoria, 15.1m per mile

2. Waterloo & City, 10.6m per mile

3. Jubilee, 9.5m per mile

4. Bakerloo, 7.7m per mile

5. Northern, 7.0m per mile

6. Central, 5.7m per mile

7. District, 5.2m per mile

8. Piccadilly, 4.7m per mile

9. Circle and Hammermith & City, 4.7m per mile

10. Metropolitan, 1.6m per mile

So there, apparently, you have it. The Victoria is the busiest, the diddly little Waterloo & City is next, and the dribbly Metropolitan (read: Rural) Line might as well be empty.

The Victoria Line at Brixton, looking not at all busy. Image: Oxfordian Kissuth.

Of course, the world has changed a lot since 2011. Heck, we didn’t even know about avocados in 2011, so who knows what the shape of the network is nowadays. Perhaps the Metropolitan has got even more empty, or the troupe of masochists on the Bakerloo has thinned out.

At a guess, I’d imagine that the parts of the network serving the eastern inner London boroughs – like the eastern chunk of the Central and District lines – may have become busier, but as we don’t have the facts, that’s nothing more than an idle guess.


It’s also slightly unclear as to how these figures are reached, as beyond station entries and exits, TfL doesn’t actually have that much info on which lines you take – at least, it didn’t until recently when it worked out how to track you if you used the Tube’s WiFi.

So in 2011, the tube didn’t know if you went from Baker Street to Mansion House via one change at Westminster, two changes at Moorgate and Bank/Monument, or some spurious combination of Euston Square, Charing Cross, and Embankment (weird, but why not?).

After a TfL pilot tracking depersonalised WiFi data, we may soon better understand not only which lines are the busiest, but which specific sections of track are the busiest: it may, for example, emerge that the Victoria line between Oxford Circus and Warren Street is the busiest part of the Tube.

For now, we don't know. As ever, in life, attempting to know anything only reveals how little you know about everything.

Cheerful, huh?

Enjoy your neighbours’ armpits all you Victorianas. 

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

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“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

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

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