London's Forgotten Tube Line

By M@ Last edited 17 months ago
London's Forgotten Tube Line

Have you ever caught the Northern City line?

That's right, the Northern City line. London's forgotten tube line still runs out of Moorgate, through Old Street, Essex Road, Highbury, Drayton Park and Finsbury Park, where it joins the East Coast Mainline to such exotic places as Hertford and the garden cities of Letchworth and Welwyn.

Unusually for a national rail route, the inner London stations are all deep underground. Below, for example, is Old Street. A soot-smeared sinusoidal subway leads to the platforms. It curves its grubby way around who-knows-what subterranean impediments.

Both the platforms and the trains are a 1970s throwback. This clearly looks like a tube stop, but with a garish livery that pairs bold blues and reds with a meek salmon background. The lower border sports a shade of green familiar to anyone who's ever regurgitated absinthe. It's like meeting a twin-brother of the tube, which was separated from its sibling four decades ago, and never quite moved on with the times.

Our train pulls in. They're every 10 minutes on weekdays — effectively a turn-up-and-go service like elsewhere on the underground. But these trains are too big for the rest of the deep-level tube. These are National Rail carriages, operated by Govia Thameslink. They are the oldest on the national network, and entered service in August 1976. Regular passengers may like to draw comparisons with the Muppet Show, which debuted a few days later.

Midday on a Tuesday, and our carriage is all but empty. It's a different story during rush hour, or when Arsenal are playing at home (Drayton Park). Although largely forgotten by the rest of London, the route is supremely useful if you work in the City and live in London's northern suburbs. You can be at Finsbury Park in 12 minutes. Moorgate to New Barnet is 10 minutes quicker than a similar journey (Moorgate to High Barnet) on the Northern line.  

If the route shares similarities with a tube line, that's because it used to be one. Between 1904 and 1975, the line was a bone fide part of the London Underground. It appeared on the tube map under various guises, finally settling as the Northern line (Highbury Branch) before its handover to National Rail. Most people today call it the Northern City line, although its official designation is the Moorgate line. It's not on official tube maps these days, but still carries murky route posters in a similar vein.

Even if you've not heard of the Northern City line, you've probably encountered some of its history. The most serious accident on the London Underground occurred at the Moorgate terminus on 28 February 1975. A passenger train hurtled into the station without braking, hitting the dead-end wall at speed. 43 people were killed and many seriously injured. The circumstances behind the crash are still debated. Memorials can be found outside the station, and in nearby Finsbury Square.

Several extensions to the line were proposed, including a link-up to the Finsbury Park to Highgate railway. It never happened, but the latter route is preserved as the Parkland Walk, a linear green space that comes with its own tube-style map.

The trains still rumble on between Finsbury Park and Moorgate, but change is a-coming to this antiquated line. New carriages are on order. These babies should enter service in 2018. Thereafter, the Northern City line would be a likely target for Transport for London, which hopes to pull further suburban train lines under its control. If the tube map still exists in a decade's time, we might once again see the Northern City line snaking north between the Piccadilly and Victoria.

Last Updated 07 December 2016


Regardless of who operates them, this line and the central section of Thameslink should be on the Tube map like they used to be until the late '90s. An unsuspecting visitor wanting to get from Finsbury Park to Moorgate would think they have to use the Victoria and Circle/Met/H&C lines instead.


There's a nice video of this line here, by the way:


Wow! Trains older than Worst Great Western's "beloved" (by anorak trainspotters) HSTs! Amazing


In my opinion, the 313 has the comfiest seats on any of London's rolling stock.

Melvyn Windebank

This line will have a direct interchange with Crossrail/Elizabeth Line at Moorgate . I remember when it was part of Northern Line and lived above the line during my early childhood .

This line along with central section of Thameslink should be shown on standard tube maps but it seems more about TFL not wanting to show lines they don't control than interests of passengers .


The "1970s" platforms are distinctly Network SouthEast, which means they're probably more likely 1980s. There's an old NSE sign on the platform at Highbury & Islington directing passengers to the "North London Link" (now Overground). Also these trains are still widely used across the country and there are trains even older than these... Chiltern Trains still have some 1960s diesels and don't forget the Isle of Wight's 1938 ex-LU trains (and the earliest HSTs). I think that absinthe vom green is probably luminescent to guide passengers to the exit in a power failure.


So much the long term it should be extended to south London and link with one of the many suburban lines there. "Thameslink 2", shall we say?


Used them when I lived on Essex Road but they only run every 15 mins even in rush hour

Michael O'Neill

Use it every week day to get to work. Rush hour trains are all full to bursting in the morning so it doesn't feel all that hidden when squeezed in like all other Londoners at that time. The recent change in service so that the line covers Highbury to Moorgate at the weekend rather than only going to Kings X has been a welcome update as well. The old Network Southeast livery is a reminder of my childhood and I hope that they will be kept if the line ever gets taken over LO.


I have to say that this line has confused me for decades, because of it's "tube" look but with train (i.e. "Network South East") livery. To find out that it WAS a Tube line until the 70s explains so much to me.


It'd be nice to see TfL relay the tracks between Finsbury Park and East Finchley, with every spare train path out of Moorgate used for services to East Finchley.

It'd relieve the Northern Line through Kings Cross, and when the Northern Line is finally split into two, the reopening will allow City workers to commute from the High Barnet branch
without contributing to crowding at Camden Town.

If the Victoria Line can handle a 36 train per hour service frequency, then so can Moorgate.

And then services from Moorgate could be put into platforms under the bus
stand at FInsbury Park to release much needed capacity at the FInsbury Park high level station..


Growing up, I lived in Hertfordshire with my family and when I was working in London this train link was a really useful addition on the timetable if you had to get into the City. Cutting out all the crowds at Kings Cross and the need to change to a packed Underground was good.

David Scard

This line has such a unique atmosphere compared to others under London. These photos may be of interest to some.... | The Creepy Line


Let me tell you about my near-pain experience at Essex Road:

Andy Carter

"The 1970's throwback" is actually decor from the 1980's from the old Network SouthEast British Rail sector. I feature it here...

Ric Euteneuer

I catch this nearly every day. The trains - given their unreliability - are in dire need of replacement. That said, the changeover (strangely not covered above) between overhead line and third rail - is done in 10 seconds, whereas on Thameslink, the whole train has to be rebooted and takes 90 seconds, minimum.


Many years ago, I switched from using the Northern Line at East Finchley to this line from Ally Pally (to get to Old Street) - it was glorious - half the cost and twice the space and faster too. Shame you had to cross the line to enter/exit the Ally Pally station from the other side of the tracks every day.

Flying cow

When I moved to London in 2000 it was known as the WAGN (West Anglia and Great Northern) and I got it from Finsbury Park to Old Street every day for work. When this happened I got an unexpected rebate on my travelcard in the post because of the delays caused by the crash, simply because I'd bought it from the train end of Finsbury Park, not the TfL end. I later moved to another job near Old Street where I learned a clever trick from my boss - If you're travelling from Moorgate or Old Street to Finsbury Park, get off the train at H&I and you can nip across to the Victoria Line platform. This way you miss out the Drayton Park stop, and save yourself all the stairs at the FP end.