Which is London's busiest tube station?

The cathedral of underground transport, courtesy of testosterone-fuelled Noughties design principles. Image: David Skinner

Editor's note: There's a sleight of hand with all these figures, of course: “entries and exits” is an imperfect measure of busy-ness. It’s theoretically possible that a major interchange station might have more people pass through, even if relatively few of them cross the gateline.

For the moment though these are the best figures we’ve got so, until someone comes up with a way of counting the number of people changing trains at Bank of a morning, this is our story and we’re sticking to it.

Love it or hate it – and if you’re reading an article on this website, let’s be honest, you probably love it – the tube is enormously popular.

Whether it’s the sweaty sardine-tinned masses of the morning northern line crush, or the surprisingly tragic dribbles on the 3am Victoria line night tube, the London Underground and its 270 stations are put to good use.

But which are the busiest?

The easy, simple answer is Waterloo.

According to TfL figures, Waterloo registered 95,138,400 entries and exits in 2015 (the most recent year for which data, at time of writing, is available). This isn’t surprising – it’s a huge railway terminus, and it also the busiest national rail station by passenger numbers in the country.

Intrinsically, rail termini are much more likely to come top of the passenger numbers. They’re the entry point for millions of people coming into London, both those who commute in for work, and for those who come from further afield for day trips and extended stays.

So it’s not surprising that six of the top ten busiest tube stations are also national rail termini: as well as Waterloo, thereKing’s Cross St. Pancras (2nd), Victoria (4th), Liverpool Street (5th), London Bridge (6th) and Paddington (10th)

That accounts for almost all of London’s main rail terminals, in fact. The only ones missing are either tiny (Marylebone, Cannon Street, Charing Cross), don't have a tube station (Fenchurch Street), or effectively have two, just wrecking the numbers (Euston).

But aside from the national rail termini, which are the busiest stations?

Come here for awful shopping and bumping into slow people. Image: Colin Smith.

Oxford Circus is in third place overall, while Bank and Monument (measured together) come in 8th. Then there are two stations outside central London: the vast transport hub of Stratford at 7th, and Canary Wharf is in 9th.

The complete top ten, with number of visits, looks like this: 

1. Waterloo – 95.13m

2. King's Cross St Pancras – 93.4m

3. Oxford Circus – 92.3m

4. Victoria – 82.8m

5. Liverpool Street – 73.2m

6. London Bridge – 71.9m

7. Stratford – 61.4m

8. Bank & Monument – 57.5m

9. Canary Wharf – 54.4m

10. Paddington – 49.6m

If you’re after particularly niche trivia, the busiest station that serves only one line, and has no national rail connection, is North Greenwich, with 26.3m passengers in 2015.

If you’re being really pedantic and counting the cable car as an interchange (which you shouldn’t), then the answer to that particularly niche question becomes Camden Town on the Northern Line, with 21.9m entries and exits.

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

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Why doesn’t London build an RER network, like Paris did?

A commuter walking by a map of the RER B line at the Chatelet-Les Halles station in Paris. Image: Getty.

I’ve heard many people make many different complaints about the Parisian transport system. That it does a bad job of linking a rich, white city with its poorer, more diverse suburbs. That, even as subway systems go, it’s a hostile environment for women. That the whole thing smells distractingly of urine.

I’m familiar with all of these complaints – I’ve often smelt the urine. And I’m aware that, in many ways, London’s is the superior transport network.

And yet I can’t help be jealous of Paris – In large part, because of the RER.

Central Paris. The Metro lines are thinner, and in pastel shades; the RER lines are thicker, and in brighter colours. Image: RATP.

Paris, you see, has not one but two underground railway systems. The more famous one is the original Paris Metro, opened in 1900: that’s the one with those fancy green portals with the word “metropolitain” written above them in a vaguely kooky font.

The Metro, though, mostly serves Paris Intra-muros: the official city, inside the Boulevard Périphérique ring road, site of the city’s last set of walls. As a result, it’s of very little use in most of the city’s suburbs. Its stations are very close together, which places a limit on how fast its trains can cross town. It was also, by the mid 20th century, becoming annoyingly overcrowded.

So starting in the 1960s, the city transport authorities began planning a second underground railway network. The Réseau Express Régional – Regional Express Network – would link suburban lines on either side of Paris, through new heavy rail tunnels beneath the city. Its stations would be much further apart than those of the metro – roughly one every 3km, rather than every 600m – so its trains can run faster.

And fifty years and five lines later, it means that 224 stations in the suburbs of Paris are served by trains which, rather than terminating on the edge of the city, now continue directly through tunnels to its centre.

The RER network today. Image: RATP.

London is, belatedly, doing something similar. The Elizabeth Line, due to open in stages from later this year, will offer express-tube style services linking the suburban lines which run west from Paddington to those which run east from Liverpool Street. And Thameslink has offered cross-town services for 30 years now (albeit not at tube-level frequencies). That, too, is going to add more routes to its network over the next few years, meaning direct trains from the southern suburbs to north London and vice versa.

Yet the vast majority of suburban National Rail services in London still terminate at big mainline stations, most of which are on the edge of the centre. For many journeys, especially from the south of the city, you still need to change to the London Underground.

So, could London ape Paris – and make Thameslink and Crossrail the first element of its own RER network?

In a limited way, of course, it’s doing just that. The next big project after Crossrail is likely to be (original name, this) Crossrail 2. If that gets funding, it’ll be a new south-west to north-east route, connecting some of the suburban lines into Waterloo to those in the Lea Valley.

The proposed route of Crossrail 2. Click to expand.

But it’s not immediately obvious where you could go next – what Crossails 3, 4 or 5 should cover.

That’s because there’s an imbalance in the distribution of the remaining mainline rail services in London. Anyone who’s even remotely familiar with the geography of the city will know that there are far more tube lines to its north. But the corollary of that is that there are far more mainlines to the south.

To usefully absorb some of those, Crossrail 3 would probably need to run south to south in some way. There is actually an obvious way of doing this: build a new tunnel from roughly Battersea to roughly Bermondsey, and take over the Richmond lines in the west and North Kent lines in the east, as a sort of London equivalent of RER C:

Our suggestion for Crossrail 3. Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

But that still leaves a whole load of lines in south and south east London with nowhere to send them beyond their current terminal stations.

In fact, there are reasons for thinking that the whole RER concept doesn’t really fit the British capital. It was designed, remember, for a city in which the Metro only served the centre (roughly equivalent of London’s zones 1 & 2).

But London Underground wasn’t like that. From very early in its history, it served outer London too: it was not just a way of getting people around the centre, but for getting them there from their suburban homes too.

This is turn is at least in part a function of the economic geography of the two cities. Rich Parisians have generally wanted to live in the centre, pushing poorer people out to the banlieues. In London, though, the suburbs were where the good life was to be found.

To that end, the original operators of some lines weren’t just railway companies, but housing developers, too. The Metropolitan Railway effectively built large chunks of north west London (“Metroland”), partly to guarantee the market for its trains, but partly too because, well, housing is profitable.

In other parts of town, existing main line railways were simply added to the new underground lines. The Central line swallowed routes originally built by the Great Western Railway and London & North Eastern Railway. The District line absorbed part of the London, Tilbury & Southend Railway.

At any rate: the Tube was playing the same role as the RER as early as the 1930s. London could still benefit from some RER-type services, so hopefully the Elizbaeth Line won’t be the last. But it doesn’t need an entire second metro network in the way 1960s Paris did.

There is another idea we could more profitably steal from Paris. Those suburban railways which aren’t connected to the RER are still run by the national rail operator, SNCF. But it uses the Transilien brand name, to mark them out as a part of the Parisian transport network, and – as with the RER – each route has its own letter and its own colour.

The Transilien & RER networks in Paris. Image: Maximilian Dörrbecker/Wikimedia Commons.

This would not have the transformative effect on London that building another half a dozen Crossrails would. But it would make the network much easier to navigate, and would be almost infinitely cheaper. Perhaps we should be starting there.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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