An A-Z Of The London Underground

An A-Z Of The London Underground

Your print out and keep glossary of London Underground lingo. We promise you'll never look like a tourist again.

A is for Announcements

Mind the Gap written on a tube platform
Truest three words ever spoken. Image: iStock/georgeclerk

And may we say, the finest announcements in the world, thanks to the native wit of London's tube drivers and station staff. Where else would you hear a (hopefully) tongue-in-cheek: "Anyone know where the brakes are on this thing?". The tube's most famous announcement, of course, is 'Mind the Gap', first made by Minnie Smith of Peckham, a 61-year-old platform attendant who worked at Charing Cross.

A could also be for... Art on the Underground, the wonderful practise of adding colour to the network that began in 1987, with a poster campaign, and continues today with everything from pocket tube map cover art, to frogs on the platform at Gloucester Road station.

B is for Barriers

An old school ticket barrier
Hang on, how do I do Apple Pay on this thing? Image: TfL

Though turnstiles have been in operation on the tube from early, ahem, doors, it wasn't until 1964 that automatic barriers were trialled, and subsequently rolled out on the then-brand new Victoria line in 1968. That hasn't solved the problem of barrier jumping and 'doubling up' — TfL says that one in 25 tube journeys isn't paid for, robbing it of over £130 million a year. In 2023, TfL announced that AI face recognition would be used to tackle fare dodgers.

B could also be for... Bumper Harris, and there's more on him under E.

C is for Charles Holden

A black and white picture of the station illuminated at night
Southgate station is one of Holden's finest moments. Image: TfL

The daddy of modernist tube stations was behind such eye-opening creations as Southgate, Gants Hill and St James's Park tube stations. It's true Charles Holden wasn't shy of 'borrowing' ideas; he had a particularly fruitful trip to 1930's Stockholmsutställningen exhibition. Nonetheless, Holden's designs are so iconic, so instrumental, that we even created a map of his stations.

C could also be for... 'cut-and-cover', the original method of building Underground lines from 1863, and the favourite three words of tedious pedants who like to tell you that the Metropolitan line isn't a 'tube' line, because of this. C could also be for commute, but then who wants to talk about that? Oh, C could also be for Central line.

D is for dead man's handle

A tube driver at the controls
We think the red handle thing on the right is what we're talking about here. Image: Londonist

Your first bit of really geeky terminology. Although tube trains are largely automated these days, they all have drivers, and they're sometimes called on to engage in 'manual' mode (for instance when there's bad weather, an incident at a station, a fault with the train, etc), which means taking the tiller themselves. This is when the dead man's handle is employed, a 'stick' that must be manually engaged by the driver, otherwise the train's emergency brake is employed. The name is a grim reference to the fact that if the tube driver died in action, the train wouldn't keep speeding on.

D could also be for..................... delays. And District line.

E is for Escalators

Two very glum looking workmen in flat cap stand next to the spiral staircase
A shortlived spiral escalator, installed at Holloway Road station and shortly after abandoned. Image: TfL

The first escalators on the network arrived at Earls Court station in 1911; the story goes that a one-legged engineer called William 'Bumper' Harris was employed to ride them in front of passengers, to prove these moving staircases were perfectly safe. In fact, Harris wasn't employed to do this, but it's true he took a ride. There are now about 450 escalators on the tube (never ever all working at the same time). It takes a crazy amount of time to replace an escalator. As we write this, Kentish Town tube station has been out of action for six months, and could be for that again. More escalator trivia can be found on our article all about them.

E could also be for... Eduardo Paolozzi's multicoloured tiles mural at Tottenham Court Road. Glorious.

F is for Frank Pick

A glowing roundel with 'Frank Pick' written on it
Well, have you got YOUR own roundel? Image: Thierry Bal, © TFL.

We have this art-adoring publicity officer (and the galaxy of creative stars he pulled into his orbit) to thank for many of the world-renowned visuals of the London Underground — including the mighty roundel (see R). Like William Morris, Pick was a believer in beauty AND practicality: "The test of the goodness of a thing is its fitness for use," he said, "If it fails on this first test, no amount of ornamentation or finish will make it any better." Frank Pick is so darned important, he now has his own roundel at Piccadilly Circus. It lights up, too.

G is for ghost station

Two people standing in an abandoned tunnel
Love ourselves a good geisterbahnhöfe. Image: TfL

It was the Germans who coined the word geisterbahnhöfe — ghost station — but London is now home to some 40-odd Underground and Overground stations that are no longer in use (for their primary purpose, anyway). Go back 10 years, and we wonder how many people wouldn't recognise the phrase; now, thanks to the surging popularity of Hidden London tours, and shows like Secrets of the Underground, there's a whole industry centred around them.

H is for Hannah Dadds

A woman in uniform climbing up into a tube carriage
Hannah Dadds was the first woman to drive a tube train professionally. Image: TfL

Hannah Dadds made history in 1978 when she became the first woman to drive a tube train — and 50 years later a plaque was installed at Upton Park station to commemorate this feat. If you're being utterly pedantic (and please indulge us to be just that for a second), Dadds was the first woman to drive a tube train professionally; as we recently uncovered in our Londonist: Time Machine newsletter, Dadds was technically gazumped by some half century by the 17-year-old Marian Stanley, who piloted the first tube train on the rebuilt Northern line, in 1924. That said, we'd imagine Stanley wasn't exactly left to her own devices while at the controls.

H could also be for... Hidden London tours (see G), Harry Beck, Hainault Loop or Hammersmith & City line.

I is for Inspector Sands

A red fire extinguisher on a green wall
Chances are you've heard 'Inspector Sands' being called for. Image: Tak-Kei Wong via Unsplash

It is quite startling how many times you hear a call-out over the tube station PA for 'Inspector Sands', once you know that this means there's a fire — or at least that a fire alarm has gone off. A recent-ish FOI revealed that between November 2018 and November 2019, there were 57 fires on tube trains/in tube stations, although these incidents rarely escalated into anything serious. Other secret-not-so-secret codes have been revealed to mean blood; urine/faeces; vomit; general spillage; broken glass; litter; anything not fitting these categories. If you get called out to all of those in one day, TfL lets you retire on full pay for the rest of your life. (We made that up, but if you're reading, TfL, you should consider this.)

J is for Johnston typeface

A line of Johnson font is a huge long brass panel on a brick wall
A memorial to Johnston and his font at Farringdon. Image: Matt Brown/Londonist

Whether it's a sign telling you you've arrived at Holborn, or that dogs must be carried on the escalator, it's going to be written in Johnston. The san serif font, which straddles the urbane and the utilitarian, is named for its creator, Edward Johnston, who came up with it in 1916. After debuting on London Transport posters, the typeface was soon expanded to the new-look roundels, and has since seeped into every written aspect of the TfL style guide.

J could also be for... Jack Daniel's adverts — another instantly-recognisable font, and an avuncular staple on tube platforms, with roots in a 1950s American advertising campaign called Postcards from Lynchburg. Oh, or Jubilee line of course.

K is for Kennington Loop

An empty tube train departing Kensington station
All aboard... or not. Image: Londonist

The mother of all U turns, the Kennington Loop is how Northern line trains traditionally swing back round from south facing to north facing, after passing through Kennington station. And though passengers aren't supposed to be onboard for the ride, they often stay on, intentionally or otherwise. A few years back, we embarked on the adventure that is the Kennington Loop, running into an unwitting participant: "What’s happening? Where are we going?" he said. As of the opening of the Northern line extension in 2021, trains use the Kennington loop less, which in our opinion makes it even more of a holy grail.

K could also be for... King's Cross fire; a devastating conflagration in 1987, which killed 31 people, and led to sweeping reform of Underground stations, including the removal of wood panelling on escalators, and the installation of sprinklers.

L is for lost property

A wall of lost umbrellas
It never rains but it pours. © TfL from London Transport Museum's collection

And what a lot of it there is! Each year, Londoners leave almost a quarter of a million items on London Transport — with wallets, phones and e-cigarettes among the most-mislaid. Commuters' habit for losing things have changed over the years; umbrellas were once top dog; in 1902, on the Central line alone, some 560 brollies got left behind. As of October 2023, TfL's lost property office moved to a bigger site, in West Ham, in order to deal with things more efficiently.

M is for moquette

A train full of bright yellow moquette
Wish we were around to sit on this moquette. Image: TfL

One of our favourite words, let alone things, moquette seems quintessentially Londony — thanks to the fact it upholsters seats on tube trains, buses and trams across the city. We don't know exactly when the first moquette was introduced on London transport, but it was certainly doing its thang by 1898. In fact (and the clue's in the name), this type of woven pile fabric was originally from France. Moquette (sorry, just had to write it again) is a world unto itself, with entire books written about the stuff, while true Londoners foam at the prospect of flumping their backside down on the latest design.

M could also be for... Mind the Gap (see A), and Metropolitan line.

N is for No Trousers on the Tube Day

A woman standing outside the entrance to Canary Wharf station, without any trousers on
Photo: Samantha Rea/Londonist

Annually, one of our most popular articles is about No Trousers on the Tube Day — an event which very much does what it says on the tin. It seems that the allure of flesh on moquette (see M) is too much for you to resist, although NTOTD also pulls off that rarest of things on the tube: inviting conversation. Namely: "Why no trousers?"

N could also be for... Northern line. You might've heard of it.

O is for Oyster cards

A hand holding up an Oyster card with a blurred tube train in the background
How not to use an Oyster card. Image: Shutterstock

The Oyster card's days, we think, are numbered, but since launching in 2003, the cards quickly grew to become a blue and, er, blue icon of the transport network. They were exciting times indeed when you no longer had to print out your own little tickets to hop on a tube, especially if you had a Kate and Wills one. Long after the last Oyster card has been melted down, we'll still be hearing that sweet 'bleep' they make on the card reader (largely because you still hear that sound when you touch in with your phone).

P is for pocket maps

Racks of the pocket maps
Do you still use pocket maps? Image: TfL

The first pocket tube map was issued in 1933, and in an era of phones/5G underground you might think they'd have been wiped off the face of London by now. Not so. Nothing can quite beat having a tangible, high res version of the map up your sleeve (quite literally, if you like), which you can pull out and study without having to concern yourself with getting a signal. The fact it has limited edition thought-provoking artworks on the front? Even better. Plus, these little pamphlets are a substantial source of income for TfL; IKEA forked out £800,000 as part of a deal that saw their logo scattered over some 10 million pocket maps.

P could also be for... passimeters, pickpockets, Private Rod. Up to you.

Q is for the Queen

Queen Elizabeth II rides on the DLR in 1987
"One shotguns front seat!" Queen Elizabeth II rides on the DLR in 1987. Image: TfL

For someone who had a habit of commuting by Rolls-Royce/golden state carriage, the late Elizabeth II certainly held a lot of sway over London's rail network: she became the first monarch to ride on the tube, when taking the Victoria line in 1969. She also shotgunned the front seat of the DLR when it opened in 1987. The Jubilee line's name is one almighty nod to her, as — would you believe it — is the Elizabeth line (not strictly a tube line, we know but you get the gist). Other royals who've ridden the tube include Princess Di, and her former hubby, King Charles III, who was a tube train anorak.

Q could also be for... quizzes! Ones like Metro Memory, which made one particular week in October 2023 far less dull/more teeth-grindingly frustrating.

R is for roundels

A small Battersea Power Station roundel being installed
One of the newest roundels on the network being installed. © TfL

What else could R stand for. Whether glowing atop a pole on a drizzly November eve, or simply looking massive stuck on the front of Brixton station, the iconic roundel is seared in the brains of Londoners. In fact, says design historian David Lawrence, "this single symbol has come to be one of the most pure and unique symbols representing a city, and a citizenry, anywhere in the world." Funnily enough, the ultimate London icon is manufactured at a little factory on the Isle of Wight.

S is for signal failure

A screen showing various tube delays
It's for your own good. Image: Tom Page via creative commons

The arch enemy of the regular commuter, 'signal failure' appears to be the catchall term for a balls-up on the network, meaning you're not going to make it to that meeting after all. Signal failures are for our own good — the system means that trains stop running if there's a perceived fault with the track, or if a train is about to encroach into another train's space. But it doesn't half happen a lot.

T is for ticket halls

An older man in a coat strolling through a new looking ticket office
Ticket Hall ain't what they were. Image: TfL

Or rather, the lack of them. In 2015, ticket offices at 256 tube stations (so basically all of all of them) were closed, as part of a cash-saving operation signed off by then-mayor Boris Johnson (who'd promised he'd keep them open). Today's ticket halls are liminal spaces that are difficult to get excited about.

T could also be for... travelcards — something else that's facing extinction.

U is for 'UndergrounD'

A mosaic UndergrounD roundel
Now THAT is a roundel. Image: Jonas Magnus Lystad via creative commons

If we're not saying 'tube', we're probably saying 'Underground'. In fact it's difficult to imagine a London without it. With this one word, Frank Pick (see F) basically unified London Underground's branding back in 1908. What makes it even cooler is that it's pretty much entirely London centric, with other cities tending to go with 'metro' or 'subway' (although Buenos Aires bucks that trend). As fledgling tube nerds are all too keen to point out, over half of the London Underground is firmly above ground.

V is for Victoria line tiles

A cross of crowns at kings cross station
Each station on the line comes with its own location-specific tile pattern, here King's Cross.

As Siddy Holloway will tell you, the London Underground is heaven for tile-aphiles. There's the bottle green/oxblood combo of Leslie Green stations. Erstwhile names like 'Gillespie Road' (Arsenal) and 'Heath Street' (Hampstead) emblazoned in glorious ceramic on platform walls. Surely the most iconic tiles, though, are the 16 stations of the Victoria line, which offer a fun visual game for waiting passengers — for example, crowns formed into a cross for, you guessed it, King's Cross. The cleverest of all? Brixton.

V could also be for... Victoria line, d'uh.

W is for Waterloo & City line

The Bank travolator
The travelator is possibly the most fun part of the Waterloo & City line. Image: Londonist

'The Drain', if you insist on calling it that, is, by all accounts, the oddest tube line there is; consisting of a single stop between two tube stations, which — to be fair — are separated by a major river. In the mid 1930s, there were actually plans to plug the Waterloo & City line into Blackfriars, Liverpool Street and Shoreditch, before it was decided they wanted to keep things minimalist. A few years back, we joined W&C commuters, one of them telling us: "The best thing that ever happened to me? Getting a seat." still, it's fun riding that steep travelator.

W could also be for... waiting rooms.

X is for Charing X

Part of a medieval looking wall mural
David Gentleman's mural of workers building the Eleanor Cross appears to show someone taking a selfie... Image: Matt Brown/Londonist

Listen, if you can come up with a better one we'd like to hear it. To be fair, Charing Cross (or Charing X as it's sometime called on the front of train) is an incredibly interesting station. It used to be not one, but two, stations (Trafalgar Square and Strand), and was only rebranded in 1979. David Gentleman's 1998 mural of the construction of the Eleanor Cross is one of the finest pieces of art on the tube (and comes with an integrated bin). There's also a disused Jubilee line section of the station, used for filming things like Bond movies.

X could also be for... Yes, yes X signals, but we think that's a little too niche.

Y is for yellow line

A yellow line on a tube platform
Remain behind it, yeah? Image: super_pat via creative commons

The thing you must remain behind at all times. Or, if you're brand new to London, the Circle line.

Z is for 'For the Zoo'

A poster showing penguins, with the tagline For The Zoo
Image: TfL

Despite being nowhere near a tube station, London Zoo — so London Transport Museum tell us — features on more Underground posters than any other subject. No image, though, is as famous as Charles Paine's loveable colony of penguins, originally commissioned by the Underground Electric Railway Company. But really, this entry speaks for the thousands of tube posters which give the tube its identity, and don't just inform us, but inspire us to travel... or even move somewhere new. In 2019, we picked 16 GOATs.

Last Updated 30 January 2024

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