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London Underground Design

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London Underground Design

There was a time, in the 1930s, when design on London Underground was held as one of the world-beating quality features of the system.  Many of these designs survive to the present day and still show the quality which can be achieved when it is held as important by a company's management.  There are signs that, given the will and the money, such design excellence can be achieved today.  Just look at the Jubilee Line Extension for further examples of good design on London Underground.  However, all is not well.   Some comments on London Underground designs are offered below.


The Roundel - Typeface - Posters - Jubilee Line Extension - 1938 Tube Stock - 1983 Tube Stock

The Roundel

The best known symbol of the Underground is the bar and circle, also known as the roundel. 

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The roundel was originally developed from the spoked wheel used by the London General Omnibus Company which had the word GENERAL displayed across it.  The LGOC was purchased by the Underground group in 1912 and in the following year an early version of the now familiar bar and circle device, which had a solid blue disc, appeared on station platforms as a means of displaying the station name.

A book about the logo has recently been published by Capital Transport Publishing called A Logo for London, ISBN 185414 232 1.

There is an on-line history of the roundel here:

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Shortly after the bar and disc device was introduced, a new corporate typeface was introduced on the Underground.  It was designed by Edward Johnston and was introduced on new signs and publicity from 1916.    It has remained in use to this day, although now modified and known as New Johnston.  Johnston also redesigned the bar and disc symbol so that it became the bar and circle device similar to that used today.  The typeface is available in PC software form. A version of it is available at where people can buy it.

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The London Underground became renowned throughout the world as a leader in the use of high quality art in its publicity.    Posters displayed on stations have been prominent in the use of works by artists specially commissioned by the Underground.  This tradition started in 1908 with the appearance of posters such as Hassell's "No need to ask a P'liceman", which depicted a policeman showing a lady the Underground map which had recently been introduced at stations.  The tradition continued throughout the 1920s and 1930s with work by such artists as Graham Sutherland, E McKnight Kauffer and many others.  The posters became so popular that they have been reproduced for sale to the public as well as revived for publicity purposes. 

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Jubilee Line Extension

The Jubilee Line extension (the JLE) was the most expensive railway ever built.  It cost USD 330 million per kilometre.    This is twice what Singapore is spending on their new underground metro line called the North East Line.  The costs are mostly in the infrastructure - the civil engineering and stations.  The JLE has the most impressive stations to be seen anywhere.  The architecture is superb, the finishes of high quality, the spaces large enough to cater for the heaviest traffic - except on the platforms.

Therein lies the rub.  The money was spent on the architecture but not on the railway.  The trains, control systems and station platform areas all show that they were neglected in favour of the architecture.    The platforms at many of the new stations are too narrow and the trains are too small. 

Bermondsey-platform.jpg (33628 bytes)Narrow platform at Bermondsey, Jubilee Line with platform edge doors.

Click on the image for the full size view


It would have been better to have widened the existing Jubilee tunnels to take larger trains and to have built longer and wider stations.  The London tube train is too small to carry a reasonable amount of people in rush hour conditions.  Remember, when the tube lines were first built in 1890-1907, people were smaller than they are today and they didn't require so much personal space as they do today.  That's why, building more tube lines is a mistake.    More full-size underground railways is what London needs now.

For more images on the JLE go to Jubilee Line Photos.

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1938 Tube Stock

This represents the biggest step in engineering design which London Underground ever took.  The equipment was all new and much smaller than ever used before.  The visual appearance was pleasing and the interiors were reasonably comfortable.  The transverse seats and the end door handles were perhaps the only interior errors which crept into the design.  The equipment did give a lot of trouble and there were over 1000 modification during the first few years of the stock's existence.  The compressors were the biggest headache, being of a rotary vane design originally intended for trolleybuses known as the Bernard Holland type KLL4.    They were too delicate for the rough service on London Underground and, in the late 1960s, they began to be replaced by reciprocating compressors.  The stock last ran in passenger service on LU in 1988.

38 TS at WH.jpg (69525 bytes)7-car train of 1938 Tube Stock on the Bakerloo Line at West Hampstead.

Click on the image for the full size view


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1983 Tube Stock

In a curious reversal, in opposition to the 1938 Tube Stock, its replacement, the 1983 Tube Stock, represented the nadir of London Underground's design ability.  The trains were poorly designed, looked terrible, were badly built, had inferior equipment and were unreliable.  The original batch were too big for the tunnels and had to be rebuilt.  The bogies were soon falling apart and the motor alternators were very unreliable.  In the end, the Jubilee Line extension gave LU the excuse to get rid of them and they were withdrawn about 10 years after the last of them was delivered. 

83 TS stored.jpg (26439 bytes)A 1983 Tube Stock train in store at Uxbridge sidings.  Others were stored elsewhere on the system - Cockfosters and South Harrow - but most have been scrapped.  Photo D. McGarr.

Click on the image for the full size view


Ten trains were being kept for a possible rebuild to make them useable on the Piccadilly Line.  In Tubeprune's view, this would have been a mistake.  They would never have been right and would have required additional spares and different maintenance procedures from the Piccadilly Line's own fleet of 1973 Stock trains.  It seems as if this idea was dropped by the Tubelines PPP contractor of the JNP group and sanity finally prevailed.


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