A Guide To Tube Pedantry

By M@ Last edited 18 months ago
A Guide To Tube Pedantry
...that this isn't regulation Johnston100 typeface.

Is there a difference between 'the tube' and 'the underground'?

Yes, and no. Today, the two terms are used interchangeably by most people. But that wasn't always the case.

The older lines, such as the Circle, District and Metropolitan, run through large tunnels, with relatively roomy trains. These lines were constructed by 'cut and cover' — in other words, a huge trench was gouged out of the earth, and then covered over. Hence, they're just below the surface, and are often covered by roads, such as Euston Road or Embankment. From the opening of the first line in 1863, the system was generally known as the London Underground Railway, or the Underground for short. (Pedantic sidenote: it's often said that William Gladstone was among the first to ride through the tunnels, as shown in the picture below. He wasn't.)

William Gladstone takes one of the first trains on the London Underground, 1862.

By contrast, the rest of the network runs through narrower, deep-level tunnels, which were bored rather than scooped. The first, what we now call the Northern line between Stockwell and Borough, opened in 1890. These tunnels were quickly dubbed 'tube railways' because of their circular profile. The Central line, opening in 1900, was nicknamed the 'Tuppenny Tube', thanks to its fare price.

For the first few decades of the 20th century, a clear distinction was made between the two types of tunnel. Newspapers talk of the 'underground and tube railways', as though they were separate systems. And they were separate systems, with different lines operated by different companies. The system finally came together (mostly) as a unified whole in 1933, with the formation of London Transport.

After this merger, and the publication of the first modern tube maps, passengers began to think of the underground tunnels as part of one, coherent network. The difference between 'tube' lines and 'underground' lines has since blurred, and only the most pedantic, point-scoring person will maintain the distinction. TfL itself concedes that the Tube is 'an acceptable colloquial shorthand for the London Underground'.

Should I write 'tube' with a capital letter?

Transport for London tends to capitalise the word 'Tube' in all instances. Some publications, such as The Times, follow suit, and this is also preferred in the BBC style guide. Many other publications (including Londonist and the Guardian) use lower case. A third way is to use upper case when talking about the Tube (as in, the whole network), while using lower case for its more generic attributes, like 'a tube line' or 'a tube station'. It's similar to how some writers will capitalise 'the Internet' or 'the Universe', bestowing the status of a proper noun on these systems.

King's Cross or Kings Cross? Earl's Court or Earls Court?

Apostrophes hold an endless fascination for the pedant. They're used with some inconsistency across the transport network, and we've had plenty of fun picking this apart before. You'll find a more detailed discussion on the link, but suffice it to say that both King's Cross and Earl's Court do carry apostrophes (at least on the tube map — Earls Court usually drops its punctuation elsewhere), while Queens Road (Peckham) and Barons Court do not.

Are the Overground routes classified as tube lines?

The London Overground network — the confusing tangle of orange on the tube map — launched in 2007 and has grown several times since. It lumps together numerous existing railways into one network, including the former East London line, which was once a bona fide part of the London Underground (see next section).

Despite appearing on the tube map, and containing former parts of the Underground, the London Overground is not classed as part of the tube network. It uses different rolling stock and livery (note the orange roundel versus the tube's red roundel), and is currently operated by LOROL under franchise (whereas the tube is operated by London Underground Ltd, a subsidiary of TfL).

Orange, not red, roundels are used on London Overground (even when its stations aren't in London, as here).

So if it's not part of the tube, why is the Overground on the tube map? What is both colloquially and officially known as the tube map (or Tube map) contains much more than tube lines. It's a way of visualising the services owned by TfL, and also includes the Docklands Light Railway, Emirates Airline (cable car), TfL Rail (part of the future Crossrail) and, the tram system. It does not show handy central services such as Thameslink and the Northern City line as these are not owned or operated by TfL.

It would be wrong to say the tube map shows all TfL services, however. The true pedant could point out that buses and cycle hire, for example, are not reflected on the map (with good reason). Nor would it be entirely correct to say that the map shows only TfL services. The diagram includes interchange symbols for mainline rail stations, Heathrow airport and Thames Clippers, not owned or operated by TfL — although the information is limited.

As a final pedantic note, not all London Overground stations are overground, and not all are in London. Likewise, London Underground is mostly overground, and extends beyond the bounds of the capital in several places.

Whitechapel station, where Underground services run over the Overground trains. If you know what we mean.

Can I still refer to the East London line?

For decades, the East London line ran from New Cross to Shoreditch. It closed in 2007, got stretched up to Dalston, then reopened in 2010. Many people still refer to the route as the East London Line. TfL does not. Not officially anyhow. According to its editorial style guide:

'East London line' is now 'Overground Dalston/Highbury & Islington - West Croydon/Crystal Palace/New Cross'.

Which is, of course, utterly ludicrous, quite possibly the longest name for a railway in the world, and surely the only line to have more forward slashes than a typical internet address. It even boasts more characters than the famously verbose Welsh station of Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch.

Even TfL rarely uses the official name in public communications. Tannoy announcements refer, for example, to 'the Overground to New Cross Gate', rather than the laborious technical name.

In case you're wondering, other parts of the Overground network have similarly tortuous official names:

  • 'North London line' is now 'Overground Richmond/Clapham Junction - Stratford'
  • 'West London line' is now 'Overground Willesden Junction - Clapham Junction'
  • 'DC line/Watford Euston DC' is now 'Overground Watford Junction - Euston'
  • 'Gospel Oak to Barking (GOB)' is now 'Overground Gospel Oak - Barking'

So, in answer to the original question: yes, use the East London line. Use the North London line. And most especially use 'the GOBLIN' to refer to the Gospel Oak to Barking LINe.

When does the tube end and the night tube begin?

Diamond Geezer has this one covered, with a nitpicky look at TfL's timetables. In summary: it's complicated.

Got any other pedantic questions about the tube? Ask below, and we'll see if we can find an answer.

Last Updated 14 December 2016

William Sutton

I love a bit of underground pedantry. Glad to say I knew the Gladstone trip wasn't the first.
I'd never heard of the first underground murder.
Wish I had, because I would have included it in my novel, Lawless and the Devil of Euston Square.

What I did use, though, are the underground crashes during the trial runs.
Likewise the inburst of Bazalgette's sewerage workings into the diggings.
And the thousands who lost their homes through the clearance of Euston Road slums. Not re-housed.

There are great photographs of early collapses of the works.

If M@ would be interested, I'd be happy to send him a copy of the novel (published by Titan Books).


The Overground official names are worse than useless, they are confusing. For an organisation like TfL that has done so well in clarifying information, it's an appalling gaffe that's gone on years too long.


Gladstone wasn't on the first tip, because journalists were on an earlier one? Let me be truly pediantic and point out the bleedin' obvious: Journalists Don't Count.

Also, what's confusing about the orange lines on the map? A damn sight easier to follow than the rest of them. The only complicated bits are the tube's fault, like the pretence that orange and grey lines interchange at West Hampstead, when they do nothing of the sort. But you do not, as far as I know, have two Overground stations bearing the same name, unlike the Edgware Roads.

Jim Good

Still unable to work out the difference between Overground and TFL Rail

Laurence Scales

The route through the tunnel between Wapping and Rotherhithe should have become the Brunel Line.


The other day, the destination boards on the platform at Hoxton weren't working, so they defaulted to say East London line. Guess the full name doesn't fit!

Robert Wright

My father worked for the London Underground for around 15 years before going to work for the Glasgow Underground. He was always absolutely insistent that it was wrong to call the whole system the tube and that it could apply only to the deep-level tube lines. He died, tragically early, a few months before I became the Financial Times' transport correspondent for the first time. So I have insisted ever since on trying to use "underground" for the whole system, as a sort of tribute to him. I think it's a distinction worth preserving because most times I write about the system it's necessary to make some kind of distinction between its different parts. But Transport for London's adoption of Tube as their term for the whole system is not helping in this regard...


Further Overground pedantry - when they build Wandsworth Road station (and possibly others on the southern bit), they didn't pay too close attention to the style guide, as the signs point to the Way Out rather than the Way out. It annoys me more than it should.

Ash Elford

Point of information. On 13th November 2016, Arriva Rail London Ltd took over from London Overground Rail Operations Ltd as the operator of the London Overground concession.

John Airey

I loved the "more forward slashes than the typical Internet address" line. I came here looking for the bit where the underground runs over the overground. I knew it happened on the "East London Line" I just couldn't remember where. Confused myself with Shadwell for a moment.

On a similar pedantic note the overground is probably the best way to cross the Thames to Rotherhithe from Wapping on foot. Unless you want to chance the fumes of the Rotherhithe tunnel that is.