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 other British cities can learn from the Tyne & Wear Metro

A Metro train at Monument. Image: Callum Cape/Wikipedia.

Ask any person on the street what they know about Newcastle, and they’ll list a few things. They’ll mention the accent; they’ll mention the football; they’ll mention brown ale and Sting and Greggs. They might even mention coal or shipbuilding, and then the conversation will inevitably turn political, and you’ll wish you hadn’t stopped to ask someone about Newcastle at all.

They won’t, however, mention the Tyne and Wear Metro, because they haven’t probably heard of it – which is a shame, because the Metro is one of the best things the north-east has to offer.

Two main issues plague suburban trains. One is frequency. Suburban rail networks often run on poor frequency; to take Birmingham for an example, most of its trains operate at 30-minute intervals.

The other is simplicity. Using Birmingham again, the entire system is built around New Street, leading to a very simple network. Actually, that’s not quite true: if you’re coming from Leamington Spa, Warwick, Stourbridge, Solihull or a host of other major minor (minor major?) towns, you don’t actually connect to New Street – no, you don’t even connect to the ENTIRE SYSTEM BUILT AROUND NEW STREET except at Smethwick Galton Bridge, miles away in the western suburbs, where the physical tracks don’t even connect – they pass over each other. Plus, what on earth is the blue line to Walsall doing?

An ageing map of the West Midlands rail network: click any of the images in this article to expand them. Image: Transport for the West Midlands/Centro.

But Newcastle has long been a hub of railway activity. Tragically, the north-east has fewer active railway lines than any other region of the UK. Less tragically, this is because Tyne and Wear has the Metro.


The Metro was formed in 1980 from a somewhat eccentric collection of railways, including freight-only lines, part of the old Tyneside Electrics route, underground tunnelling through the city centre, track-sharing on the National Rail route to Sunderland, and lines closed after the Beeching axe fell in the early 1960s.

From this random group of railway lines, the Metro has managed to produce a very simple network of two lines. Both take a somewhat circuitous route, the Yellow line especially, because it’s literally a circle for much of its route; but they get to most of the major population centres. And frequency is excellent – a basic 5 trains an hour, with 10 tph on the inner core, increasing at peak times (my local station sees 17 tph each way in the morning peak).

Fares are simple, too: there are only three zones, and they’re generally good value, whilst the Metro has been a national leader in pay-as-you-go technology (PAYG), with a tap-in, tap-out system. The Metro also shares many characteristics of European light rail systems – for example, it uses the metric system (although this will doubtless revert to miles and chains post-Brexit, whilst fares will be paid in shillings).

 

The Metro network. Image: Nexus.

Perhaps most importantly, the Metro has been the British pioneer for the Karlsruhe model, in which light rail trains share tracks with mainline services. This began in 2002 with the extension to Sunderland, and, with new bi-mode trains coming in the next ten years, the Metro could expand further around the northeast. The Sheffield Supertram also recently adopted this model with its expansion to Rotherham; other cities, like Manchester, are considering similar moves.

However, these cities aren’t considering what the Metro has done best – amalgamated local lines to allow people to get around a city easily. Most cities’ rail services are focused on those commuters who travel in from outside, instead of allowing travel within a city; there’s no coherent system of corridors allowing residents to travel within the limits of a city.

The Metro doesn’t only offer lessons to big cities. Oxford, for example, currently has dire public transport, focused on busy buses which share the same congested roads as private vehicles; the city currently has only two rail stations near the centre (red dots).

Image: Google.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. For a start, Oxford is a fairly lateral city, featuring lots of north-south movements, along broadly the same route the railway line follows. So, using some existing infrastructure and reinstating other parts, Oxford’s public transport could be drastically improved. With limited engineering work, new stations could be built on the current track (blue dots on the map below; with more extensive work, the Cowley branch could be reinstated, too (orange dots). Electrify this new six-station route and, hey presto, Oxford has a functioning metro system; the short length of the route also means that few trains would be necessary for a fequent service.

Image: Google.

Next up: Leeds. West Yorkshire is a densely populated area with a large number of railway lines. Perfect! I hear you cry. Imperfect! I cry in return. Waaaaaah! Cry the people of Leeds, who, after two cancelled rapid transit schemes, have had enough of imaginative public transport projects.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire:

Image: Google.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire’s railway network:

 ​

Image: West Yorkshire Metro.

The problem is that all of the lines go to major towns, places like Dewsbury, Halifax or Castleford, which need a mainline connection due to their size. Options for a metro service are limited.

But that’s not to say they’re non-existent. For example, the Leeds-Bradford Interchange line passes through densely populated areas; and anyway, Bradford Interchange is a terminus, so it’s poorly suited to service as a through station, as it’s currently being used.

Image: Google.

With several extra stops, this line could be converted to a higher frequency light rail operation. It would then enter an underground section just before Holbeck; trains from Halifax could now reach Leeds via the Dewsbury line. The underground section would pass underneath Leeds station, therefore freeing up capacity at the mainline station, potentially simplifying the track layout as well.

 

Image: Google.

Then you have the lines from Dewsbury and Wakefield, which nearly touch here:

Image: Google.

By building a chord, services from Morley northwards could run into Leeds via the Wakefield line, leaving the Dewsbury line north of Morley open for light rail operation, probably with an interchange at the aforementioned station.

Image: Google.

The Leeds-Micklefield section of the Leeds-York line could also be put into metro service, by building a chord west of Woodlesford over the River Aire and connecting at Neville Hill Depot (this would involve running services from York and Selby via Castleford instead):

The path of the proposed chord, in white. Image: Google.

With a section of underground track in Leeds city centre, and an underground line into the north-east of Leeds – an area completely unserved by rail transport at present – the overall map could look like this, with the pink and yellow dots representing different lines:

Et voila! Image: Google.

Leeds would then have a light-rail based public transport system, with potential for expansion using the Karlsruhe model. It wouldn’t even be too expensive, as it mainly uses existing infrastructure. (Okay, the northeastern tunnel would be pricey, but would deliver huge benefits for the area.)

Why aren’t more cities doing this? Local council leaders often talk about introducing “metro-style services” – but they avoid committing to real metro projects because they’re more expensive than piecemeal improvements to the local rail system, and they’re often more complex to deliver (with the lack of space in modern-day city centres, real metro systems need tunnels).

But metro systems can provide huge benefits to cities, with more stops, a joined-up network, and simpler fares. More cities should follow the example of the Tyne and Wear Metro.