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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The mountain in North Wales that tried to stop the UK’s blackout

Elidir Fawr, the mountain in question. Image: Jem Collins.

Last Friday, the UK’s National Grid turned to mush. Not the official term perhaps, but an accurate one after nearly one million people were left without power across the country, with hundreds more stranded at train stations – or even on trains (which isn’t nearly as fun as it might immediately sound). 

Traffic lights stopped working, back-up power failed in hospitals, and business secretary Andrea Leadsom launched an investigation into exactly what happened. So far though, the long and short of it is that a gas-fired power station in Bedfordshire failed just before 5 o’clock, followed just two minutes later by Hornsea offshore wind farm. 

However, amid the resulting chaos and inevitable search to find someone to blame for the outage, a set of mountains (yes, mountains) in North Wales were working extremely hard to keep the lights on.

From the outside, Elidir Fawr, doesn’t scream power generation. Sitting across from the slightly better known Mount Snowdon, it actually seems quite passive. After all, it is a mountain, and the last slate quarry in the area closed in 1969.

At a push, you’d probably guess the buildings at the base of the mountain were something to do with the area’s industrial past, mostly thanks to the blasting scars on its side, as I did when I first walked past last Saturday. 

But, buried deep into Elidir Fawr is the ability to generate an astounding 1,728 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 2.5 million homes, more than the entire population of the Liverpool region. And the plant is capable of running for five hours.

Dubbed by locals at the ‘Electric Mountain’, Dinorwig Power Station, is made up of 16km of underground tunnels (complete with their own traffic light system), in an excavation which could easily house St Paul’s Cathedral.

Instead, it’s home to six reversible pumps/turbines which are capable of reaching full capacity in just 16 seconds. Which is probably best, as Londoners would miss the view.

‘A Back-Up Facility for The National Grid’

And, just as it often is, the Electric Mountain was called into action on Friday. A spokesperson for First Hydro Company, which owns the generators at Dinorwig, and the slightly smaller Ffestiniog, both in Snowdonia, confirmed that last Friday they’d been asked to start generating by the National Grid.

But just how does a mountain help to ease the effects of a blackout? Or as it’s more regularly used, when there’s a surge in demand for electricity – most commonly when we all pop the kettle on at half-time during the World Cup, scientifically known as TV pick-up.

The answer lies in the lakes at both the top and bottom of Elidir Fawr. Marchlyn Mawr, at the top of the mountain, houses an incredible 7 million tonnes of water, which can be fed down through the mountain to the lake at the bottom, Llyn Peris, generating electricity as it goes.


“Pumped storage technology enables dynamic response electricity production – ofering a critical back-up facility during periods of mismatched supply and demand on the national grid system,” First Hydro Company explains.

The tech works essentially the same way as conventional hydro power – or if you want to be retro, a spruced up waterwheel. When the plant releases water from the upper reservoir, as well as having gravity on their side (the lakes are half a kilometre apart vertically) the water shafts become smaller and smaller, further ramping up the pressure. 

This, in turn, spins the turbines which are linked to the generators, with valves regulating the water flow. Unlike traditional UK power stations, which can take hours to get to full capacity, at Dinorwig it’s a matter of 16 seconds from a cold start, or as little as five if the plant is on standby.

And, designed with the UK’s 50hz frequency in mind, the generator is also built to shut off quickly and avoid overloading the network. Despite the immense water pressure, the valves are able to close off the supply within just 20 seconds. 

At night, the same thing simply happens in reverse, as low-cost, surplus energy from the grid is used to pump the water back up to where it came from, ready for another day of hectic TV scheduling. Or blackouts, take your pick.

Completed in 1984, the power station was the product of a decade of work, and the largest civil engineering project commissioned at the time – and it remains one of Europe’s largest manmade caverns. Not that you’d know it from the outside. And really, if we’ve learned anything from this, it’s that looks can be deceiving, and that mountains can actually be really damn good at making electricity. 

Jem Collins is a digital journalist and editor whose work focuses on human rights, rural stories and careers. She’s the founder and editor of Journo Resources, and you can also find her tweeting @Jem_Collins.