Which London Underground line is the fastest?

Winter is coming on the Metropolitan line. Quickly. Well, quite quickly. We're not really sure. Image: Ed Webster

The average London Underground user's need for speed is a phenomenon as remarkable as the notion of shoving steam trains underground in the first place. Dog-eat-dog capitalism in its truest form, the cavalier, arge-barge willingness of Tube users to do anything they can to arrive at their destination 0.45 seconds earlier is formidable. 

But escalator jousting can only get you so far in this world. What you really need to know is which Tube line is the fastest. 

This, one would imagine, would be a simple case of looking at TfL's official figures and forever remaining content that your dinner party knowledge is a cut above everyone else's. But TfL remains coy about the speed of its services. The official website gives a figure for the average speed on the London Underground – 20.5mph, or 33kph – but no more detail than that.

To make any serious estimation of the fastest Tube line, then, we must look to other sources. 

There are two useful bits of information we do have – how long the tracks that comprise each line are, and how long it generally takes to do the whole thing in one go. 

To take one of the simple, branch-free lines as an example, the Jubilee runs between Stanmore and Stratford, along a total 22.5 miles of track. If you log onto TfL's journey planner, shove it a short time into the future so it can't account for any live service disruptions, and go, it'll tell you that the journey takes 57 minutes. 

TfL's not a liar: she keeps receipts. Image: TfL.

Do the maths, and that’ll tell you that (in theory) the Jubilee line’s overall average speed is 23.7mph.

In theory you can follow that line of inquiry for each line, accounting for the spurious branches of lines like the Central, Northern, Piccadilly, Circle, District and Metropolitan, and come up with a rough estimate for the average speed of the line based on how long it takes to get from one end to the other. 

Helpfully, someone else by the name of Michael McHugh has done that before now, and came up with this bar chart to show the results.

Mmmmm, data. Image: Michael McHugh.

The Central line is allegedly fastest, the Victoria and Jubilee are second and third fastest, and the Circle languishes at the bottom of the table. 

But it's hardly that illuminating. Some lines have stops closer together, and others have a habit of dithering in certain stations for a while along the way (think lots of District line trains in Earl's Court). 

What we do have is some rather patchy indications of where on the network the tube goes especially fast.

The longest gap between two stations is on the north-western end of the Metropolitan line, where the gap between Chesham and Chalfont & Latimer is 3.9 miles. It’s on this part of the network that some of the Tube’s true lovers – its anorak admirers – have gone out and measured speeds with amateur GPS devices.

As the network is above ground at this point (as it is for approximately 60 per cent of the entire London Underground system, ironically), you get pretty good signal, so you can clock up the speed that the train is travelling at.

With the old A-stock trains (the ones recently retired when the shiny, walk-through S7/S8 trains were introduced on the Hammersmith & City, District, Circle and Metropolitan lines), speeds of around 70mph have been allegedly recorded in running service – the allegedly is important, though. None of this is official test conditions, and it’s mostly the handiwork of a bloke spending a Saturday afternoon as God intended.

The old A-stock train, here near Chorleywood station. Image: Antje.

Disclaimer having been said, that’s an impressive speed, and it’s likely that this is the fastest part of the network. When you’ve got 3.9miles of track to play with, you can bounce along quite merrily before you have to slow down for the next station.

What we don’t have that many of are figures for the new trains, the S7 and S8 stock. Being new and shiny, the assumption might be that these trains can go faster, but in reality the opposite is true. The S-stock may benefit from faster acceleration than the A-stock trains, at 2.9mph per second; but the top speed is 8mph down on the older models, down to 62mph.

Looking at the maximum speeds that the rolling stock themselves are capable of is a useful tool. The Victoria line’s 2009 stock is capable of 50mph, while the Jubilee line’s 1996 stock can do 62mph, like the new S-stock trains.

Acceleration, acceleration, acceleration - an alternative Blair slogan. Image: Matt Buck.

The Northern line’s 1995 stock is theoretically capable of 62mph too, as is the Central and Waterloo & City line’s 1992 stock, but in practice this isn’t the case. The Northern line is deliberately limited to 45mph in its underground sections due to the infrastructure of the tunnels, and on most lines you won’t get the chance to go that fast because the stations are too close together.

What really does matter, though, is acceleration – which is why many people assume that the Victoria line is the fastest. While its acceleration is nominally the same as the S7 and S8 stock, at 2.9mph per second, the Victoria line itself was built with hump-backed stations, meaning trains decelerate uphill into stations, storing gravitational potential energy, and accelerate downhill out of them, releasing it and increasing acceleration.


In safety terms, too, it’s in passengers interests for trains not to run that fast. The slower trains run, the closer they can safely run together, as stopping a reasonably slow-running train from crashing into the one in front should something go awry is easier than halting a 62mph, 1996 stock from bumping into the back of the next train on the line.

Essentially, if you’re seeking thrills on the Underground underground, hop on the Central or Jubilee lines in their central sections. If you’re a speed-chaser who doesn’t mind being above ground, catch a Metropolitan line out in the sticks of the artist formerly known as MiddlesexBuckinghamshire. If you’re a fan of acceleration, the Victoria line will give you a quiet thrill.

But if you just like getting from A to B as quickly as possible, the question of which London Underground line runs the fastest probably won’t actually help you that much. Wonkish questions about acceleration, service frequency and station design almost certainly will.

Happy riding.

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

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What would an extended Glasgow Subway look like?

West Street station. Image: Finlay McWalter/Wikimedia Commons.

There are many notable things about Glasgow’s historic Subway.

It is the third oldest in the world. It is the only one in the UK that runs entirely underground. It runs on a rare 4ft gauge. For reasons passing human understanding, it shuts at teatime on a Sunday.

But more significantly, it’s the only metro system never to have been expanded since its original development. A couple of stations have come and gone in the 122 years since the Subway opened (and promptly shut again following a serious accident before the first day was out). But Glasgow’s Subway has remained a frustratingly closed loop. Indeed, while a Scottish newspaper recently estimated there have been more than 50 proposed new stations for Glasgow's iconic Subway since it first opened, all we’ve had are a couple of replacements for closed stops. 

The original route map. Image: SPT.

It’s not for a lack of trying, or at the least discussion. Glasgow’s SNP-led council pledged a major expansion of the Subway as part of their election pledge last year, for example, vowing to find the funding to take the network beyond the existing route.

All this sounds very familiar, of course. A decade ago, with the 2014 Commonwealth Games in mind, operators SPT began looking into a near-£3bn expansion of the Subway into the East End of the city, primarily to serve the new Velodrome complex and Celtic Park.

In the end, the plans — like so many discussed for expanding the Subway – failed to materialised, despite then SPT chairman Alistair Watson claiming at the time: “We will deliver the East End extension for 2014. I am being unequivocal about that.”

As detailed previously on CityMetric, that extension would have seen seven new stations being opened along a second, eastern-centric loop, crossing over with the original Subway at two city centre sites. Had that gone ahead, we would by now have had a new route looking something like this:

The 2007 proposals for an eastern circle. Image: Iain Hepburn.

St Mungo’s would have been close to Glasgow Cathedral. Onslow, presumably located on or near Onslow Drive, would have principally served Dennistoun, as would have a link-up with the existing Duke St overground station.

Gorbals, benefiting from the ongoing redevelopment and residential expansion that’s all but erased it’s No Mean City reputation, would have gained a station, while Newhall would have been next to Glasgow Green. Dalmarnock station would, like Duke Street, become an interchange with Scotrail’s services, while crucially Celtic Park would have gained the final stop, serving both the football stadium, the nearby Emirates Arena and velodrome, and the Forge shopping centre.


Those plans, though, were drawn up more than a decade ago. And if the SNP administration is serious about looking again at the expansion of the Subway, then there’s more than a few changes needing made to those plans.

For starters, one stop at the far end of the loop serving Celtic, the new sports arenas and the Forge feels a bit like underselling the area, particularly with so much new residential development nearby.

Two feels more realistic: one serving the Forge and the rest of Dennistoun, and the other sited on London Road to serve the mass volumes of football and sports traffic. And if Ibrox can have a stop, then it seems churlish not to give the other of the Old Firm clubs their own named halt.

That’s another thing. The naming of the proposed stations is… arbitrary, to say the least. You’d struggle to find many Glaswegians who’d immediately identify where Newhall or Onslow were, off the top of their head. 

The former, especially, seems like there’s a more natural alternative name, Glasgow Green; while the latter, with a second Forge stop also serving Dennistoun, would perhaps benefit from named for the nearby Alexandra Place and park.

(Actually, if we’re renaming stations from their unlikely original choices, let’s say goodbye Hillhead and a big hiya to Byres Road on the original Subway while we’re at it…)

So, what would a realistic, 2017-developed version of that original 2007 proposal give us? Probably something like this:

Better. Image: Iain Hepburn.

One glaring issue with the original 2007 study was the crossover with the… let’s call it the Western Subway. The original proposal had St Enoch and Buchanan St as the crossover points, meaning that, if you wanted to go out east from, say, the Shields Road park and ride, you had to go into town and double back. 

Using Bridge Street as a third interchange feels a more realistic, and sensible, approach to alleviating city centre crowding and making the journey convenient for folk travelling directly from west to east.

There’s a good case to be made for another south east of the river station, depending on where the Gorbals stop is sited. But these are austere times and with the cost of the expansion now likely more than £5bn at current rates, an expanded Bridge Street would do much of that legwork.

Putting all that together, you’d end up with something looking like this:

 

Ooooh. Image: Iain Hepburn.

Ahead of last year’s election, SNP councillor Kenny McLean vowed the party “[would] look at possible extension of the Subway and consider innovative funding methods, such as City Bonds, to fund this work. The subway is over 120 years old. It is high time that we look to connect communities in the north and east of Glasgow.”

Whether Glasgow could raise the £5bn it would probably need to make the 2007 proposal, or an updated variation of it remains, to be seen. And this still doesn’t solve how many places are left off the system. While a line all the way out to Glasgow Airport is unrealistic – after all, an overground rail service to the airport from Paisley has failed to materialise after 30 years of discussion and planning – there’s plenty of places in the city not well served by the Subway, from Maryhill in the north to Hampden in the south, or the riverside developments that have seen flats replace factories and new media hubs, museums and hotels line the Clyde.


Image: Iain Hepburn.

Key city landmarks like the Barrowlands, the Riverside Museum – with its own, fake, vintage subway stop, or the Merchant City are woefully underserved by the subway. But their incorporation – or connection with a Glasgow Crossrail – seems a very expensive pipe dream.

Instead, two adjoining loops, one to Ibrox and one to Celtic Park, seems the most plausible future for an extended Subway. At least colour coding the lines would be easy…

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