The latest Underground Diagram: a fallen icon?

A new version of the Underground pocket diagram recently appeared, dated December 2018, and this incorporates another new feature which, whether good or not, adds further complexity to a diagram that is now overloaded with information. It is surely time to begin challenging the design of the pocket map and asking what it is for and whether this is the best solution. The present administration, incidentally, call it Tube Map, but it isn’t a map and not everyone recognizes the name ‘tube’, so I’m sticking with ‘Underground diagram’. Having said that, one of the reasons it has become overloaded is the dropping into it of the various other TfL services, so it is surely more than simply an Underground diagram?

My concerns, set out below, is that it fails on one level because it has become too complicated, and yet, at another level, it does not maximise the transport connectivity opportunities that exist and which would support the need to switch as many people as possible onto public transport.

First I examine some positives and then question, with examples, whether or not the map in its present form might be reaching the end of the road.

A 10-minute rule

In the latest diagram we see the introduction of a new interchange symbol that defines certain interchanges as ‘under a 10-minute walk between stations’. The stations concerned in these interchanges each have one (or more) interchange circles and these are connected by a broken black line, representing the walking portion. There are 23 of these, including interchanges with the cable car. Of these, perhaps a third had previously been shown as ordinary interchanges on earlier versions, while the rest are new. I will call this the 10-minute rule.

One can quite see the pressing need for such a device. The traditional Underground approach meant that sight of an interchange symbol implied a degree of simplicity. Overlooking notable exceptions (such as Green Park Piccadilly to Victoria Line) an interchange would be no more than a short walk, might sometimes involve an escalator, would be fully signed, in the dry and within the ticket barrier line. The incorporation of new ‘between stations’ interchanges, of a less convenient kind, somewhat undermines the idea of simplicity that the old type of symbol implied, yet this has been tolerated for some time.

Let us look at some examples. At West Hampstead (between Overground and Jubilee Lines) the stations are quite close and within sight, though separated by a busy road and an inadequate crossing. On the other hand, Upper Holloway to Archway is a 400m treck along Holloway Road, although the route is fairly direct. The interchange at Walthamstow between Central and Queens Road (300m) is more tortuous and involves an alley and part of a housing estate. You can see this might come as a surprise to people expecting a cross platform interchange such as that at Oxford Circus.


This shows the 10-minute rule interchange style at West Hampstead and Euston.  I can see why Finchley Road is included, but if you were on Jubilee you would want to know that the Finchley Road change is 450m whilst that at West Hampstead is only about 100m

I naturally look for some logic in the interchanges selected for this new 10-minute rule treatment but find only a succession of questions. My first, is ‘what is ten minutes’?

Inspection of the various new interchanges suggests, in distance terms, the longest interchange is about 740m (South Wimbledon and Morden Road). There may be a longer one but this will do. To walk this in no more than ten minutes, ignoring time waiting to cross the road, implies a walking speed of 1.23m/s, or 2.75mph. This seems feasible for most people and I would say 3mph would be reasonable (though I charge along at 4mph myself). It would seem that in round number terms a distance between stations of 750m would capture the spirit of ‘within ten minutes’ unless there are tortuous subways or road crossings to deal with. On that basis I can see that introducing this new class of interchange suggests (1) significant new transport connectivity and journey opportunities than previously, which is surely a good thing, and (2) a gradation in how interchange quality is shown, which is also a good thing. The 10-minute rule particularly favours the utility of the Overground where the old North London and Gospel Oak – Barking lines, in particular, failed to connect conveniently with anything much except at Highbury and Willesden Junction.

I have been quite unable to understand why at least some of these 10-minute rule interchanges have been identified, but not others. The Underground diagram is littered with places where connectivity appears to be completely absent, for example between the Piccadilly and Central Lines anywhere west of the central area. However, North Ealing to West Acton isn’t far: at 620m it is under ten minutes and might be felt more convenient than the awkward round-the-corner journey via Ealing Broadway, where one could easily wait ten minutes for the connecting District train. Equally, Park Royal to Hanger Lane is only 670m and makes for a handy round-the-corner journey. In east London, another useful link can be made between the Central Line and Gospel Oak to Barking Line, where today no interchange appears possible; this can be done at Leytonstone where the Central Line is about 750m from the High Road station. This is just within the ten minute rule and seems to make a connection that is difficult any other way.

Nearer central London some reflection is needed as many stations are within ten minutes of each other anyway. Even so there are some awkward journey possibilities that could be highlighted. The Central Line at Lancaster Gate is only 515m from Paddington, which compares favourably to having to change for the Circle at Notting Hill Gate. Hampstead Heath and Belsize Park is about 700m and would surely make a handy interchange with the Edgware branch, which is otherwise awkward for those coming from the west, or vice versa. Harringay Green Lanes and Turnpike Lane (720m) would appear to make a useful connection. I am sure there are other examples.

I  mention these out of puzzlement as to what the criteria are for including this class of interchange and because they seem as justifiable. However this does invite some other observations.

I would have thought the long-standing out-of-station interchange between Euston Square and Warren Street (200m) deserves including, since changing from the eastbound Circle route to southbound Northern (and vice versa) is awkward and doing it via Euston (425m) is perverse and very much a long way round. You might have noticed that someone has taken a drafting short cut by moving Euston Square station to the wrong side of Warren Street, which is not helpful to anyone changing line here. Professional draftsmen have generally attempted to keep geographical relationships correct at stations nearby where people might walk between them, even if this makes the drafting more of a challenge. This battle was probably lost in May 2001 when accuracy was sacrificed on the difficult Baker Street to Paddington section: we no longer seem to have designers who are able to handle this kind of finesse or who understand the local circumstances they are attempting to chart.

A puzzle attracts my attention at Heathrow 1,2 & 3 (or is it now officially just 2 & 3?). The interchange between TfL Rail and the Piccadilly Line is shown as a normal one. It isn’t. It is outside the barriers and a long walk through tedious airport subways and takes some minutes. This should surely be classed as a ‘10-minute rule’ type interchange. Moreover the diagram implies the only way to get from TfL rail to and from T5 is to use this awkward interchange and use the Piccadilly Line. The daggered note, however, invites those people to use the free rail transfer (in reality the Heathrow Express trains to T5 that also serve T2 & 3 TfL platforms). It might be me, but I think this is not at all clear and will at best confuse people (though I accept there are announcements on the train). What exactly is the objection to showing the free airport rail link on the map?

And what is going on at Southwark? This is a purpose-built interchange with Waterloo East and used to indicate it was the interchange for Waterloo East. Suddenly, from the September 2009 diagram, reference to the interchange disappeared and it lacks even the national rail symbol. Surely nobody would recommend changing to South Eastern via Waterloo main line, from which it is a right old treck, particularly if they were coming on the Jubilee Line anyway? If it was removed in error, a decade has passed during which nobody has apparently raised the matter.

Not an entirely new idea

It must be said that the Underground has wrestled for years about how to deal with the variable quality of interchanges on a map that is uncomfortable with anything other than the binary ‘there is’ or ‘there is not’ an interchange. Stingemore was grappling with this before Beck had a go and they showed interchanges at Hammersmith (two stations even now), Notting Hill Gate (then two stations opposite one another) and dear old Paddington (two stations not even very near each other); Paddington remains an interchange about which opinion as to how to deal with it has varied widely. See 1934 map shown later.

However, returning to the innovation of the 10-minute rule, that is not a new issue either and the restless minds at TfL had previously fiddled with something comparable and then given it up. The idea of promoting walking between nearby stations seems first to have insinuated its way into London Transport’s mind at Bow Church station on the Docklands Light Railway (DLR). This station first appeared when the DLR opened in 1987 and it was shown as an entirely separate station from any that pre-existed. From 1988 it was shown as an ordinary interchange station with Bow Road (District Line) station, even though it was 280m away. Something similar happened at Tower Gateway, also on the DLR. On opening, it, too, was shown as a quite independent station but in 1990 Tower Gateway also became shown as an ordinary interchange station with Tower Hill, even though the entrances are 100m apart and on opposite sides of a busy road. We thus have two early examples of stations where the lesser evil was to show nearby stations as full interchanges even though the interconnection was ‘low quality’ and involved a walk.


This shows how Tower Gateway and Bow Church were first dealt with, both shown as independent stations although they were within walking distance of pre-existing Underground stations.

A further change of policy occurred from the May 2001 edition of the diagram. This time the several notes relating to nearby main line stations were altered to give a specific walking distance (for example at Embankment where the ‘serves Charing Cross main line’ note was altered to show the distance instead, 100m in this instance). The opportunity was seized to treat the interchange at Bow Church the same way, a walking distance of 200m being added adjacent, though without altering the symbol. These distances were in very small type indeed and practically invisible. For some baffling reason the corresponding addition at Tower Gateway was not made. Whilst talking about the DLR, its display uniquely included the foot tunnel under the Thames to Greenwich (nothing then to do with LT), on the south bank, as a kind of hypothetical station, though it was marked as foot tunnel. Though a walk, no distance was offered.

For several years, therefore, we now only had the one form of interchange symbol, though some of them now included walking along the street. And so matters rested until the January 2008 map. For no obvious reason the interchanges at West Hampstead and Canary Wharf  (both out-of-station) were altered from ‘normal’ to a new type where the actual link between the two circles was formed by the distance between them in metres. The type size was impractically small and it must be doubted that anyone actually noticed it was a distance and not just a grey connecting line. The single interchange at Canary wharf, previously between the separate Jubilee and DLR stations of that name, now indicated interchange distance between Jubilee Line and Heron Quays as well as Canary Wharf (DLR). With masterful inconsistency the interchanges at Tower Gateway and Bow Church were not altered (though Bow Church was altered to conform in January 2009).

Very soon after this, the new stations at Wood Lane (H&C) and Shepherds Bush (Overground) came into use; these were both out-of-station and as at West Hampstead received the special interchange symbol including the walking distance (respectively 250m and 100m).


These extracts show (left) the style where distance is part of the connecting line and (right) the Bow Church treatment (and the Fenchurch Street distance). These distances are printed at 1.3 point size (under half a millimetre) and it defies believe anyone thought this was readable. The graphics quality on the left hand diagram is particularly hideous.

From September 2009 all of these ‘walking distance’ interchange symbols were dropped and they all became ordinary interchanges, just like the ordinary within-station ones. It is only now, as described at the beginning, that we see some of this revisited after many years of vacillation about how best to portray interchanges that are of secondary quality.

Why stop there?

If TfL is seriously interested in promoting public transport connectivity through more effective use of its existing services, there are other measures it might contemplate. Anyone looking at the Underground diagram can hardly fail to be struck by it being almost entirely focused around radial journeys, that is to say towards or away from central London. It is true we have the Circle Line forming an inner ring and London Overground’s old North, East, South and West London services, wholly in Zone 2, forming a kind of middle ring, and which the 10-minute rule interchanges will support. Beyond that the Underground has no apparent interest in connecting any of the separate branches and it doesn’t seem possible to make many through journeys without going towards London and then out again (or getting into the car).

I think we might do better than this. When, years ago, I was responsible for the Edgware branch I observed passengers whose whole knowledge of London was coloured by the Underground diagram and where other possible means of travel were either ‘difficult’, ‘non-existent’ or thought unsafe or unreliable. I have myself challenged someone wanting to go from Golders Green to Finchley Central by Underground and pointed out they could do the journey much faster and cheaper on a direct bus (there were lots along the Finchley Road and they would have been frequent, quick and not busy). I wonder, therefore, if one might consider a kind of virtual outer circle where obvious and potentially useful cross-branch bus links might be shown?

I have already suggested Golders Green to Finchley Central, but Edgware to Canons Park seems a reasonable connectivity option (or Queensbury to Burnt Oak). Mill Hill East to Edgware also beckons, and High Barnet with Oakwood would provide connectivity between these branches. Other possibilities suggesting themselves include Northwood Hills to Eastcote, West Ruislip to Ruislip, Uxbridge to West Drayton, Southall to Hounslow Central, Southfields to Richmond, Wimbledon to South Wimbledon, East Finchley to Bounds Green, Oakwood to Enfield Town and Southbury, Walthamstow Central to South Woodford, Gants Hill to Ilford, and Chadwell Heath to Becontree. I mention these only as connectional possibilities where the present diagram might work to discourage journeys between the various outer London branches because it looks hard (or time consuming) to make such journeys. There is no doubt plenty of scope for further debate about detail, it was the principle I am interested in.

Since the existing Underground diagram fails to mention the word ‘bus’ once, anywhere on the map itself or the accompanying blurb, I do not think it can be assumed anyone unfamiliar with London and using this diagram will quite grasp that journeys are possible that are not shown and that places a long way apart on the diagram might be quite close in real life. Uxbridge is quite close to Hayes, for example, and Wimbledon and South Wimbledon are well under a mile apart, but it looks a great deal more. In these circumstances perhaps it behoves TfL to do more to give potential passengers more visual clues about what is easy. It really is extraordinary that since TfL (and London Transport before it) began taking credit for ‘co-ordinating’ transport in London, the Underground diagram has studiously avoided mentioning the existence of the bus network.

And what about rail links?

In much the same vein, perhaps some key national rail lines should be included in our orbital aspirations. Clapham Junction to Richmond and to Wimbledon would seem likely candidates, providing ‘Metro’ type services and discouraging passengers from making silly circuitous journeys. Clapham Junction to Balham and Crystal Palace might avoid lengthy alternative journeys too. Sydenham (or Crystal Palace) to East Croydon would seem to integrate Tramlink more usefully with Overground. West Ealing to Greenford should be part of this.

Not an orbital example, but the Moorgate to Finsbury Park line would invite consideration. This had been an Underground line and when it transferred to British Rail in 1976 certain obligations were entered into to retain this section on the Underground map and to continue to portray it as part of the Underground system. I believe it was removed in error when the old North London line was removed in 1999 during a brief frenzy of decluttering. After an outcry, the North London line went back later in 1999 but the Moorgate to Finsbury Park line was not restored. For those in the City wanting Underground stations Highbury or north thereof the line from Moorgate is an attractive alternative to the awkward change via Kings Cross.

Existing diagram overloaded

These ideas for making London’s transport look a bit easier are open to obvious objection. There will be those who say ‘but it’s an Underground diagram’, or that ‘it would look complicated’, or that ‘there isn’t room’. Well, quite. However, I think those battles have been lost already, have they not?

It appears to me that after early experimentation based on the Beck design, the size was standardized as 9 inches by 3 inches in 1934 and is more or less the same today. To be more precise, the diagram area is actually 97.5% of that size today, a tad smaller. By my reckoning, the 1934 diagram incorporated 217 distinct stations whilst the 2018 version totals some 445. To be plain, there are more than double the stations on a map area a tad smaller. It is of course much more complicated as several flavours of TfL rail and tram services are now included but without inventing new colours they are portrayed differently in style and this contributes towards complexity. Incidentally, nowhere on the diagram is the significance of these modes explained—from passenger’s viewpont what is significance of the words Overground and TfL Rail and what differentiates these from Underground? National Rail is hinted at but not explained, and as already pointed out buses are just ignored. Riverboat ‘stations’ and services are mentioned but no further explanation is given.

The interchange issue alone has become very complicated. In 1934 there were 54 interchanges whilst in 2018 there were around 116. Interchanges have more than doubled, creating in their wake many extra design challenges to be faced. With all this overloading of material layout has inevitably suffered and with type sizes necessarily reduced by 14 per cent to fit everything in, the lettering is harder to read too. The current size is about 2.4 point, significantly less than that used by Beck on his designs, though his names were hand lettered. Beck lettered only in capitals whilst upper and lower case letters are used now. In practice this means that the lettering appears even smaller than the percentage reduction from Beck’s originals would indicate and I suggest the reality is that the type appears 30 per cent smaller. This is hardly calculated to make the diagram easy to read.

I should add that counting interchanges on the present map is problematic, particularly  at accessible stations. The decision to include two grades of accessibility with no difference between interchanges and ordinary stations makes one have to work harder to work out what is going on; it also makes interchanges look more complicated, for example both Victoria and Bond Street require two interchange blobs where in fact only one circle was hitherto thought necessary. There are places (Bank is one) where it is quite hard to work out what is going on. This arrangement is complicated and not really very satisfactory. These have an impact on overall geometry.

Without question the task required of today’s diagram is much more challenging than it was when the concept was invented: it is a challenge I am not sure is well met. Surely nobody really expects that trying to cram so much more information on a design format that hasn’t changed in 84 years could be expected to work well?


This design shows the 1934 version of the diagram after the card size had been fixed. The network was much smaller then, but even so, stations on lines projecting a long way beyond centre were shown in a box, avoiding the need either to reduce central area clarity or introduce excessive distortion. Although interchange symbols are also used at main line interchanges, nowhere is this explained.


This is today’s diagram, covering the same size of card. The only way to get everything on is to deploy considerable distortion so as to spread the material out as evenly as possible. The result does not seem to be entirely satisfactory. I fear Beck might not have been very happy with this approach

To me it seems that so much damage has already been inflicted on this once model of simplicity that maybe the time has come to rethink all this? I have already made suggestions about new features that might be included on a diagram serious about improving knowledge about transport connectivity.

Should the Underground diagram be reinvented to show just London Underground services, for example, whilst a more comprehensive map be produced showing other/all TfL rail (and core bus?) services, but on larger paper? I do think that a larger paper size would be helpful anyway: it is not simply about making the existing mess bigger (though larger type would help) but about allowing a more elegant design to be drawn, which would be possible if there was a bit of space in which it could breathe.

And what of the old London Connections diagram which shows all rail services in the Greater London area (ie including Underground, Tramlink and DLR as well as main line services). This map is still produced and maintained as a joint TfL/National Rail product (just called London’s Rail and Tube Services and it also incorporates the 10-minute rule interchanges) but I have never seen one on an Underground station and cannot honestly say I’ve noticed them at main line stations. What is it for? Who is it for? Why is it a secret? This diagram appears to fulfil the need for an all-systems map that most tickets can be used on, and if this were efficiently distributed I think it could plausibly be argued much of the clutter on the present Underground diagram could be removed, restoring its usability. Whatever the specific solution, the existing easily-available diagram is too small for what is now being asked of it and I think we should be asking even more. It needs to change. Whilst TfL constantly lauds Henry Beck and his map design (which we are told is an ‘icon’), it is nevertheless content (at least of late) to destroy Beck’s aim at simplicity at every opportunity.

I suspect TfL regards the diagram as a cost and it is only grudgingly produced at all in these financially challenging times. It is, of course, not free, but it is surely a cost of service in the same way as the electricity or the provision of escalators? Indeed if it were improved it would become an investment either because it generated travel by public transport or it contributed to some other transport initiative. I would be very interested to see what research TfL has done about the value of the pocket diagram. I hope I am wrong about TfL simply regarding the diagram as a cost, but having seen the demise of the bus map (which has directly impeded my use of buses) I am afraid that I do not entirely trust the organization to do things without external encouragement.

The addition of Crossrail to Reading will have to be undertaken in due course. That really will not aid legibility if this paper size is to be maintained. I attach the current artwork proposal (on grey rather than full colour base) that shows this and it seems to me that this has only been possible by yet further slight reduction to some of the other features.


Whether this is the final proposal for the diagram layout remains to be seen. It seems to have required moving the existing artwork to the right (making room for Reading) and a consequential tightening up of the space towards the right hand end. The Reading addition does seem to look like an afterthought (especially given how far away it is).

This poor old ‘icon’ is really quite full up. Surely we have reached the point where another solution is required? Perhaps the need to incorporate Crossrail might be an excellent opportunity to rethink all this?


About machorne

I have always lived in London and taken a great interest in its history and ongoing development. This extended into the history of its transport services, about which I have written a number of books - I have spent most of my working life working in the industry and observing changes from within, mostly to the good, but not always so. I continue to write, and have a website with half finished stuff in it so that it is at least available, if not complete. Several new books are in hand. I have many 'works in progress' and some of these can be found on my website; the we address is
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1 Response to The latest Underground Diagram: a fallen icon?

  1. Doug Rose says:

    There is little in this piece I can find to disagree with, but I fear most of its observations will go straight over the heads of those responsible.

    I was tasked with solving some of the poor geometry and given an (almost) open brief to fix the cumulative failings of the diagram back in 2004. One of the stated objectives was that typesizes should be a minimum of 12pt. (I will not weary you here with why this in itself is a nonsense, suffice to say that TfL’s corporate New Johnston had to be used, despite it being quite unsuited to the job.)

    I created a new design and it was agreed the paper size could be enlarged. It was all but ready to go to print when I was asked to add London Overground, not then on the diagram, and explained this would require starting from scratch to incorporate so much more new and complex geometry. The project was ditched, the stated reason being it had to go to press ‘next week’. The sudden urgency was never explained to me and the existing diagram has soldiered on getting progressively less and less functional to real people wishing to actually go somewhere, as opposed to, I fear, TfL’s motive of it being, as Mike Horne has said their ‘icon’. It has become corporate wallpaper I am saddened to say.

    There are some fundamental principles to designing an easy-to-use diagram and almost all are lost now. To mention just a few:

    The ‘hideous graphics’ in the above review have become a feature of this diagram in the last 20 or so years, where both the client and the supplier have not grasped that the main criterion is NOT straightening the lines, but instead is minimising the number of kinks. A series of zig-zags is no easier for the eye/brain to process than a series of wiggly lines. In some ways, too many zig-zags are actually harder to negotiate than wiggly lines because the changes of direction are not smooth but jagged to the eye.

    The existing diagram has many crushed areas in the layout, and also noticeable visual holes; these subliminally draw the readers attention, where a good design should be as even as possible on the eye and retain some semblance of spatial reality fitting users’ expectations and model of their surroundings. The high-level features should be those which attract attention – the line trajectories and the station names. The mass of low-level supporting information is heavily subduing (some might say ‘drowning’) the important ones.

    Corporate identity is, in my view, far more important to its owner than its audience as a general concept. The persistence of using New Johnston is contributing to the inappropriateness of the shape of the map referred to. This typeface is space hungry and best suited to large size signs and absolutely not to small text. A suitable typeface for the task would calm down the overall dense look of the diagram but I can say with certainty this would not be countenanced.

    All names are wider than they are tall – even a short one like ‘Oval’. The last thing that is wanted is a paper format that is so constrained in width as it is. Anyone who has any serious professional aspirations to undertake this sort of design work will be all too familiar with this significant problem.

    It is also well known by psychologists that blue type is harder to read than black (all other aspect being equal of course). New Johnston also inherently suffers from being a bit too heavy and the version used on the diagram might, believe it or not, be New Johnston Light, though I cannot be sure of this. Either way, it is the wrong typeface for the job. Furthermore, how on earth can TfL preach the virtues of ‘inclusion’ and print literally millions of Underground diagrams every year with typesizes so illegibly small?

    The clean ups of such diagrams are nothing new, where what I call visual noise (low-level help supporting information) is removed and I was instrumental in the 2007 ‘spring clean’ after dinner with Tim O’Toole, then Managing Director of London Underground. Sadly this was misunderstood by those tasked with the clean up, who elected to remove the River Thames as well and thus remove a very unobtrusive feature that actually gave context to London. It was quickly restored.

    The problem with these cyclic ‘spring cleans’ is that they encourage low-level information to creep back into the space salivating to be filled.

    Mike Horne refers to ‘vacillation’ and here, whilst I agree and acknowledge the issue, I fear too much credence is being given, suggesting there is a conscious progression of design and function thought.

    There is no evolutionary thought process, just different people coming to it cold every few years and mindlessly following the straight-line diagrammatic concept, understanding neither the benefits nor pitfalls, but simply worshipping its ‘iconic’ status.

    And finally, I must respond to the comment about buses almost not seemingly existing and TfL providing no bus map for one of the busiest cities in the world. For my own two-pennyworth to those who think there is no need for a bus map, because so many people use smartphones and journey planners, why then do we need an Underground diagram?


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