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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