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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Vanilla Skybus: George Romero and Pittsburgh’s metro to nowhere

A prototype Skybus on display near Pittsburgh. Image: BongWarrior/Wikimedia Commons.

The late director George A Romero’s films are mainly known for their zombies, an association stretching from his first film, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, to his last as director, 2009’s Survival of the Dead.

But many of them are also a record of Pittsburgh, the city he lived and worked in, and other locations in the state of Pennsylvania in the late 20th century. Martin (1978), for example, isn’t just a movie about a kid who thinks he’s a vampire: it’s a moving portrayal of the post-industrial decay of the Pittsburgh borough of Braddock.

Though born in New York, Romero studied in Pittsburgh and stayed in the city after graduation, shooting commercials as part of the successful Latent Image agency. It was in collaboration with advertising colleagues that he shot his debut Night of the Living Dead. On both that movie and subsequent films, Romero and his colleagues used their experience and connections from the agency to secure cheap and striking locations around the city and state. 

It’s in Romero’s little-seen second film, 1971’s romantic drama There’s Always Vanilla, that a crucial scene touches on a dead end in the history of urban transport in Steel City.

In the scene Vietnam vet Chris, only recently returned to town after a failed music career, sees his father off on a train platform, after an evening where Chris got his dad stoned and set him up with a stripper. (It was the early 1970s, remember.) An odd little two-carriage metro train pulls up on an elevated concrete platform, Chris’ father rides away on it, and then Chris literally bumps into Lynn, whom he then both gaslights and negs. (It was the ‘70s.) You can see the scene here.

A screenshot from There's Always Vanilla, showing the Skybus through a chain link fence.

If you don’t live in Pittsburgh, you might assume that funny little train, still futuristic forty years on, is just an everyday way of getting around in the exciting New World. Who knows what amazing technology they have over there, right?

In fact, the Transit Expressway Revenue Line, more snappily referred to as the Skybus, not only doesn’t exist today: it hardly existed at all, beyond what we see in that short scene. In the 1960s there were plans to replace Pittsburgh’s street car system with a more up to date urban transit system. The Skybus – driverless, running on rubber tires on an elevated concrete track with power provided with an under rail system – drew enough support from the Port Authority and Federal Government for them to fund a short demonstration track at the Allegheny County Fair, at that point a local institution.

It’s this demonstration track and train that appears in There’s Always Vanilla. Film makers love isolated systems like this, or the UK’s many heritage railways, because they allow for multiple takes and a controlled environment. So it made sense for Romero to use this local curio rather than seek access to an in-use station.


The sequence in Vanilla shows that the Skybus system worked, and as a potential metro system it looks quite striking to this day with its curved windows and distinctive logo. But the proposed system wasn’t popular with everyone, and cost concerns and political wrangling stalled the project – until it was finally rejected in favour of a more conventional steel wheel on steel rail transit system.

The demonstration track was pulled up in 1980, although the small station and platform seen in the movie remains: Romero expert Lawrence Devincentz narrates a photo tour of the building on the blu ray of There’s Always Vanilla.

Vanilla was renamed and barely seen on release, but is now available as part of a boxset of Romero’s early works from Arrow Video, in ridiculously pristine 2K digital transfer. The Skybus is there too, a curio of Pittsburgh history caught on a few short minutes of film. Neglected back then, both seem considerably more interesting now.

‘There’s Always Vanilla’ is available on blu ray as part of Arrow’s ‘George A. Romero: Between Night and Dawn’ box set, and will receive a standalone release later this year.

Mark Clapham used to work in rail regulation, but now writes things like this. He tweets as @markclapham.