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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Here are eight thoughts on TfL’s proposed cuts to London’s bus network

A number 12 bus crosses Westminster Bridge. Image: Getty.

In 2016, the urbanism blog City Observatory had a modest proposal for how American cities could sort out their transport systems: “Londonize”.

Its theory, the name of which referenced another popular urbanism blog, Copenhagenize, was that the key plank of Transport for London’s success was something that even transport nerds did not consider very sexy: its buses.

Though the Tube might get more glamorous press, London’s bus service really is impressively massive: It carries roughly 2.3bn passengers per year—much more than the Tube (1.3bn), close to the New York City subway (2.8bn), and nearly half as much as every bus service in America combined (5.1bn), while serving a population roughly 1/35 as large.

How has TfL done this? By making its bus network high frequency, reliable, relatively easy to understand and comprehensive. We rarely talk about this, because the tube map is far more fun – but the reason it’s so difficult to fall off the transport network in Greater London is because you’re never that far from a bus.

Given all that, we should probably talk about TfL’s plans to rethink – and in most cases, cut – as many as 36 different central London bus services over the next few months.

I’m not going to rehash details of the changes on which TfL is consulting from next month: there are just too many of them, and anyway it’s someone else’s scoop. The story was originally broken by Darryl Chamberlain over on 853 London; there’s also some fascinating analysis on Diamond Geezer’s blog. You should read both of those stories, though preferably not before you’ve finished reading this one.

Before offering my own analysis of the proposed changes, though, I should offer a few examples. More than a dozen routes are facing a trim: the 59 from King’s Cross back to Euston, the 113 from Oxford Circle to Marble Arch, the 171 from Holborn all the way down to Elephant & Castle and so on. A couple – the 10, the 48, the C2, and at most times the special routemaster version of the 15 – are being withdrawn altogether.

On, and one new route is planned – the 311, from Fulham Broadway to Oxford Circus. This will help plug some of the cuts to the 11, 19 and 22.

So, what does all this mean? Some thoughts:

1) This might not quite be as awful as it initially sounds

TfL says that demand for buses has fallen by around 10 per cent in London in recent years. It predicts it’ll fall further when Crossrail opens, as passengers switch to the new line, or to the tube routes relieved by the new line. So: the idea of taking some unwanted capacity out of the system is not, in itself, terrible.

Striping out unnecessary buses should also improve air quality in some of London’s worst pollution hot spots, and improve traffic flow, hopefully speeding up journeys on those buses that remain. 

A map from the presentation in which TfL explained its plans, showing the reduction in bus numbers on key arteries. Hilariously, notes Darryl Chamberlain, “It no longer produces its own maps, so has had to use one prepared by a bus enthusiast”.

The plans might even free up buses and staff to increase frequencies in outer London where demand hasn’t fallen – though these plans won’t be unveiled until next year and, for reasons I’ll come to below, I’ll believe it when we see it.

2) For many bus users, a lot of these changes will pass almost unnoticed

By my count, I use nine of the affected routes with any regularity – but only three of the changes are things that I’m likely to be at all inconvenienced by. Most of the changes either affect a part of the route I don’t take, or one where there are easy, and pain free, alternatives.

This is anecdotal, obviously – perhaps I’m just lucky. But my suspicion is that a lot of these changes will go unnoticed by most passengers. It’s only the sheer number of them happening at once that makes this look like a big deal.

3) The Hopper fare makes this easier...

Once upon a time, if you had to switch buses, you had to pay a second fare. This isn’t true of journeys on the tube or railways – and since bus passengers have, on average, less money than tube passengers, it amounted to a pretty unfair tax on poorer Londoners.

But in January, in what is probably his most notable policy achievement of his two years in office so far, London’s mayor Sadiq Khan changed the rules. Now you can take as many buses as you want within an hour, for a single fare: that means you can switch buses without paying a penalty.

That will have made it easier for TfL to cut routes back: replacing a direct bus journey with one that requires a change no longer means imposing a financial penalty on passengers.


4) ...but not that easy

That’s about where the good news stops, though – because there are reasons other than cost why people prefer direct bus routes. Needing to change buses will be difficult for anyone with any form of mobility impairment, for example. Even for those of us lucky enough not to fall into that category, it’ll be annoying: it’s just easier to stay in one seat for 40 minutes than to get turfed off and have to fight for a new one halfway through.

More than that, from the passengers’ point of view, excess capacity feels quite good a lot of the time: it means your bus may well be nice and empty. Reducing the number of buses along those key corridors will also make those that remain more crowded.

5) The motive is almost certainly financial

Another of Sadiq Khan’s big policy promises was to freeze fares. He made this promise at a time when central government is massively reducing the financial support it gives TfL (the work, Chamberlain notes, of Evening Standard editor George Osborne, back when he was chancellor). And the Hopper fare, while a great idea in many ways, means a further reduction in income.

So: TfL is scrambling for cash: this is why I remain cynical about those new outer London bus routes. I would be amazed if money wasn’t a motivation here, not least because...

6) TfL thinks no one will notice

Any attempt to reduce tube frequencies, let alone close a station, would result in uproar. Hashtag campaigners! Angry people pointing at things in local newspapers! Damning reports on the front of the Evening Standard from the bloke who made it happen!

Buses, though? Their routes change, slightly, all the time. And do you really notice whether your local route comes every 10 minutes or every 12? That’s not to mention the fact that bus passengers, as previously noted, tend to be poorer – and so, less vocal – than tube passengers.

So cuts, and the savings they bring, are much easier to sneak through. TfL probably would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for those meddling bloggers.

Although...

7) Scrapping the C2 might be a mistake

The C2 runs from Parliament Hill, through Kentish Town and Camden to Oxford Circus. In other words, it links north London, where a lot of journalists live, to the offices of the BBC and Buzzfeed.

As occasional New Statesman writer James Ball notes, this is probably not the easiest route to quietly shelve.

8) None of this is set in stone

The consultation doesn’t even begin until next month and then will run for six weeks – so all these plans may yet be forgotten. We shall see.

Anyway – here’s Darryl Chamberlain’s original scoop, and here’s some detailed analysis on Diamond Geezer. Please support your local bloggers by reading them.

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

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