The shiny new Elizabeth Line opened in May 2022. To mark the occasion, we decided to take every London Tube line to create the definitive ranking of the London Underground.
For all the division in the modern world, a simple fact remains indisputable: not all Tube lines were created equal.
Our sprawling underground network has grown unrecognisably since London Underground’s inception in 1863 to now accommodate roughly 2 million daily passengers. During those 159 years, expansion had allowed some lines to flourish and modernise while leaving others to revel in the glories of yesteryear; reminiscing over when they, too, were young and exciting and smelled of unrestrained opportunity – much like the Lizzy Line now – instead of stale urine.
Take, for example, the predicament of Mr Bakerloo – that he has grown old and rickety through no fault of his own, but it has happened nonetheless. Or examine the more peculiar case of Sr. Central – an ostensibly fast, modern, practical line, but one that renders all passengers depressed. It is commonly understood: nobody had ever disembarked from the Central Line feeling better about themselves or the world we live in than they did when they got on.
While these facts are known, there remains hesitancy to compile them. Hesitancy to voice or pen the known objectivity of London’s underworld. A smattering of internet articles purports to answer the question, only to trivialise this most serious of matters with humour and reckless use of opinion.
This vacuum of accountability necessitated action. So, to coincide with the grand opening of the Elizabeth Line, I conceived of a test; an examination so rigorous that any previous attempts at quantifying the Tube would pale by comparison, and the record of these results would take their place in history, a defining document of 21st Century London.
After researching and studying each line for weeks, I, and a fellow whynow adjudicator, would spend a day boarding every Tube on the official London Underground map. This included the Emirates Air Line, the Overground and the Docklands Light Railway (DLR). Each line would need to be taken for a minimum of two stops. Biases were to be put to the side. Notes were to be thorough and the journey vetted by my trusty companion. I assure you: this was certainly not two hungover blokes trying to get a day out of the office.
The scoring system was simple. Each service would earn a score out of ten based on how it performed in four categories. These categories, each worth 2.5 points, can be found below:
1. ‘Ambience of Tube’ – Is it a pleasant environment? Do you enjoy being on the train?
2. ‘Speed of Tube’ – Do the trains come frequently and do they travel quickly?
3. ‘Practicality of Route’ – Each line serves a purpose, but some more integral to traversing this fine city than others
4. ‘Personality of Tube’ – That intangible quality. That je ne sais quoi.
Without further ado, London’s Tube lines ranked:
15. Emirates Cable Car – 2.6/10
Practicality of Route: 0.1
It’s on the Tube map. It counts. However, I wish it didn’t because, after yesterday, I can confirm it’s a monstrosity. What a waste. If you enjoy heights, it could be a rather quaint, if unproductive, five minutes looking over London. Still, it was spine-chilling in the rain on a windy day, dangling above a swirling brown Thames. I made peace with my maker. Points are earned for the view on a sunny day and the speed at which it comes. Still, its purpose is negligible, and the service is devoid of the well-earned charm of the Tube.
14. Circle Line – 4.7/10
Practicality of Route: 0.8
The Circle Line doesn’t have a single unique stop. Not one. By its very definition, it is hanging on the coattails of other, better-established, more loveable lines. Depending on where you are, you could get the District, Hammersmith & City or Metropolitan instead. When it does appear, more often than not, the Circle Line seems to pop up and get in the way. Given it touches some useful locations, it’s a competitive world, and the Circle Line doesn’t do enough to elevate itself to the upper echelons of the London Underground. Its case was not helped by a chancer offering to sell me Class A drugs while we waited for a predictably delayed Circle Line train at Tower Hill.
13. Central Line – 4.8/10
Practicality of Route: 1.8
The Central pips the Circle, but what price are you willing to pay for your mental health? The aforementioned depression line is a pipeline of despair. I’m not sure what makes it quite so miserable. Perhaps it’s the dark glass, dirty seats, or the air of half-hearted melancholy that makes the anger caused by other Tube lines desirable? Likely all of the above. Despite Sr. Central’s lowly position on the list, it scores relatively well on speed and practicality. Even on personality, its air is so uniquely miserable that it offers something different. You don’t want to be there, and the ambience ensures the Central Line finishes where it does.
12. Waterloo & City Line – 5.2/10
Practicality of Route: 0.4
An enigma, to say the least. Less a tube and more an airport-style person shuffler. I am happy to frequent neither Waterloo nor Bank. Therefore, I must confess to being entirely unfamiliar with the Waterloo & City Line before yesterday. However, I found it perfectly enjoyable, surrounded by fellow disinterested commuters. It’s a quick little shuttle, and if it were more reliable, it would score higher on speed, but ultimately the 1.47-mile total length means the Waterloo & City line will always dwell towards the bottom of this list. Gets some points for originality.
11. Bakerloo Line – 6.3/10
Practicality of Route: 1.5
Talking of personality, it’s about all Mr Bakerloo’s got left going for him. If you’re not in a rush, he’s a lovely chap who provides a charming look back at an era gone by. You can imagine people sitting opposite each other, smoking and reading the paper. Alas, this nostalgia only arrives if you’re on an empty train and it’s not too warm. Few Tfl experiences are less enjoyable than boarding a busy, sweaty Bakerloo train at Piccadilly Circus. Points for ambience on a quiet day, and useful that it gets you up towards Kensal, but still, it’s a C-tier tube at this point. Sad, really.
10. Northern Line – 6.6/10
Practicality of Route: 2.4
Lower than I thought, but coming in at the back of an incredibly tight mid-table, it’s the Northern Line. It’s just kind of revolting. Admittedly, not as bad as the Central, a voyage on the Northern remains an unpleasant experience. It can claim the coveted title of London’s most used Tube service. Still, the points it gains for practicality are levelled out by the points it loses for ambience. The Northern Line’s practicality score is not even higher because of the fiasco that goes on around Euston. Honestly, who came up with that? Changing trains on the Northern Line is like trying to decode a cryptic crossword while walking around a labyrinth. Up, down, left, right – walking through endless tunnels you could have sworn you walked down before. I’m sure, with practice, the technique would come, and it feels a tad silly having such an integral line so low on the list, but this is a holistic view. Can’t argue with the numbers.
9. Metropolitan Line – 6.7/10
Practicality of Route: 1.4
I wonder what percentage of people board the Metropolitan Line and ask themselves, Where’s Amersham? Buckinghamshire, it turns out. The Metropolitan remains my least chartered underground service, not just when it reaches beyond the confines of the M25. I learned it has a ‘Fast’ and ‘Semi-Fast’ system which I encourage more lines to try and incorporate. However, New York City’s ‘Express’ and ‘Local’ tags are clearly better. Why would I ever want to get on a train with ‘Semi-Fast’ on the side? A cosmetic issue, I suppose. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the Metropolitan Line offers some opposite seats and is not identical to the District and Circle Line trains, as I had previously believed. It hosts some useful stops in London, sure, but nothing you couldn’t live without. Points for maintaining its mysterious personality and also being the oldest Tube in London.
8. Hammersmith & City Line – 6.8/10
Practicality of Route: 1.5
A thoroughly enjoyable line to be on. Modern trains, above ground, air-conditioned and basking in sunlight. Not the best route and has the same lack of originality as Circle and Metropolitan, but the Hammersmith & City still catches Hammersmith, Shepherd’s Bush, Westfield, Ladbroke Grove, Edgware Road, Barbican and Liverpool Street. Rarely busy, it tops the ambience chart for me. Long waits, a rather forgettable personality, and the fact it can so often be covered by other lines leave in eighth, but don’t sleep on little Miss Hammersmith & City.
7. Docklands Light Railway – 6.8
Practicality of Route: 1.5
It’s like being on a roller coaster! You can sit at the front and feel like you’re driving, or you can sit at the back and see where you’ve come from. Up on its little tracks, winding its way around Southeast London, it feels less like a commute and more like a playground. Except when it is an actual commute. On the few occasions I have taken the DLR during a busy period, it’s not nice. The trains also take a while to come and don’t exactly put their foot down between stations, meaning it loses points here for speed. A great addition to the London Underground network, no doubt, but not quite pushing for the top spots.
6. Overground – 7.1/10
Practicality of Route: 2.1
What can you say about the Overground? It’s fine. The breadth of its route ensures its value, covering all the parts of town that underground mappers failed to do. Emotion dictates the Overground should score lower, but the stats speak for themselves. Where it really lacks is speed. Fast-moving when it gets there, but nothing worse than encountering a 20-minute wait for a service you conflated with the Tube, forgetting this is actually some hybrid between proper trains and Tfl. Strong personality score for the Overground, however. Forget Istanbul; I affectionately know Highbury & Islington as the real part of the world where East meets West. No greater contradiction can be found at a London station than between the cohort travelling on the Victoria too, and the Overground from, Highbury & Islington. Hipsters and commuters – separate yourselves!
5. District Line – 7.5/10
Practicality of Route: 1.8
Rock solid line, the District. It gets a bad rep, but it more than does the job and is as enjoyable a ride as you could hope for. Yes, it dilly-dallies at Earl’s Court; yes, they occasionally stick an Edgware Road or Wimbledon-bound train on the main line and leave you scrambling. Yes, it’s certainly not the fastest-moving service. Still, the District Line is a staple. In need of a facelift a few years back, it now has nice modern trains to reliably potter through London. It’s not a sports car like some of the lines down below, but the District is that trusty old friend you can rely on. Its case is helped further by the fact it never gets too busy, and only loses points on ambience for the amount of school-trips you encounter. Dozens of little children, swarming at you in neon vests, off to South Kensington and the museums…not pleasant.
4. Elizabeth Line – 7.7/10
Practicality of Route: 1.8
Here she is, Elizabeth II getting a titular Tube line in her most celebratory of years. First impression? Very good. Not quite strong enough to creep onto the podium, but when you take a proper look at the three services below, you’ll see why Her Majesty Queen Lizzy doesn’t warrant a place there quite yet.
READ MORE: The Absolute State of the Elizabeth Line
The system is sleek. The stations are nice, the trains are quick, and I am a fan of the platform-edge see-through doors (more on that to come). Despite not covering that many stops, it touches on some key spots. It has massive potential to be a rapid, East-to-West traverser. Similar to New York City’s express and local trains, this is just a rapid-fire bullet that will propel you from one side of town to the other, all in the name of Her Majesty.
Not a fan of the interior design, must be said and still working on that personality. For now, it scores okay in that department – just because of the novelty factor – but as the shiny new seats grow brown with attrition, it may be years before the Elizabeth Line is really integrated as a cherished arm of the tube system.
3. Piccadilly Line – 7.9/10
Practicality of Route: 2.2
For me, the most consistent of all. No real weaknesses with Lord Piccadilly, and a moderately enjoyable ride to boot. Occasionally, you encounter a Midwestern tourist who feels entitled to block off the entire aisle with their cling-film-wrapped suitcase. Other than that, the passengers are solid. It’s busy but bearable; it comes frequently, but you’re still excited to see it. The route is practical but not confusing, both fast and efficient; Lord Piccadilly covers Heathrow at one end and takes you up to King’s Cross, Arsenal, and beyond. Though it doesn’t excel anywhere, it performs across the board and deserves the bronze medal position.
2. Victoria Line – 8.0/10
Another queen-inspired line where pace is ungodly. The only reason Lady Victoria doesn’t score a perfect 2.5 for speed is that the trains come too quickly to give you time to line up your carriage with your exit. A small problem, I realise, but to the countless commuters the Victoria Line ships each day, a problem worth appreciating. In fact, the standard the Victoria Line sets itself is so high a wait of two minutes seems cumbersome. Though Victoria’s is not the longest of lines, it covers King’s Cross, Euston, Warren Street, Oxford Circus, Green Park and Victoria herself in a matter of minutes. Not to forget its role in bringing Brixton to the world; it’s a pretty essential north-to-south service.
For all the speed, the Victoria Line is too busy, and the fact it moves so quickly means that you never get the extended, ruminating journey you need to appreciate the personality of a tube. It’s a fantastic vessel, the Victoria Line, but it’s a vessel, nothing more.
1. Jubilee Line – 8.1/10
Practicality of Route: 2.2
By a measly 0.1, but the undisputed winner: Mrs. Jubilee. A surprise victor, perhaps not the line I expected to be crowning champion, even when setting off yesterday morning. But boy, Mrs Jubilee sure is impressive. I knew the coverage was good – the line can’t be pigeonholed; it is perhaps the only Tube to genuinely venture into North, South, East and West London – but I had forgotten just how fast and clean it is. Add 4G service, platform-edge doors and modern stations to this great foundation, and ladies and gentlemen, we’ve got our winner. Ambience points are lost only for the howl she makes and the relative lack of daylight, but it is the underground, after all. The system is still shiny, now without the glare of being brand new. The Jubilee line is just a pleasure to be on.