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An American’s guide to: London transportation

Filed in Blog, United Kingdom by on July 16, 2018
by Alaina W.

London’s public transportation is one of the greatest systems in the world. It keeps you from having to Uber to all of the best destinations (I’m looking at you, Paris) and it’s a part of immersing yourself in the culture as numerous people commute to and from work via the great Transport for London vehicles. To be honest — after visiting London once — it’s one of the major things that made me want to come back. However, that’s another story for another day.

What isn’t charming about the bumbling train cars and rearing buses is the absolute confusion you get when you stare at a map. How to get from point A to point B? Your easiest option is to use City Mapper, but that takes a slightly more seasoned individual. Understanding that app can open a whole new can of worms. But, I digress. Back to basics!

The Underground

In order to use the Underground, which may also be referred to as “the Tube” or simply “the train,” you have to get an Oyster card or travel ticket. I’ll explain which option I chose upon arrival here. It’s best to look ahead on your journey so you know: where the closest station is, what train lines it has, what stop/station you’re getting off at and what direction you’re going. Once you’ve got that figured out, you’re ready to be on your way to the station.

Underground tunnel with white brick.

Views from underground.

For first timers, it’s important to start getting your Oyster card out and ready before you approach the turnstiles. People will get easily frustrated if you’re holding up the line by fumbling around in your wallet. Also, head to one that has a green arrow pointing at it (rather than a red X) to show that it is an entry point and not an exit. Touch your card onto the yellow circle and wait until the little light next to it turns green. The gates will open and you’re in! If you have a ticket, there’s a slot slightly below the yellow circle. Slide your paper ticket in there and it will pop up on top. Grab it and the gates will open for you.

A white sign with a red circle on blue wall that reads "Camden Town."

Camden Town Station

This is where you may begin to follow the signs if you have a good idea of where you’re going. Look above and you’ll see ones directing you to the “Piccadilly Line” or “Northern Line” this way or that. Sooner or later, you’ll hopefully happen upon a map that shows all the stations that line is going to stop at. Take a quick count of how many until you need to hop off from this station to the next. Sometimes, you’ll also have the option of going northbound or southbound, eastbound or westbound. It’s obviously important that you’re traveling in the right direction.

Another thing to pay attention to is branches. These occur when there’s a “fork in the road” where two trains on the same line diverge. Pay attention to this if your destination is on one of the “sides” or branches. The train will be named according to one of those stations on that side of the branch. I’ll refer back to this “naming” system in a bit!

An occurrence you may come across after that is the escalators. Yes, I know we have these in the United States. But you’ve been warned! The right side of the escalator is for people to stand. I’m a fan of riding those all way to the top, especially on some of the larger ones. On the left side, you’ll see people walking (often quickly) as they’re in a rush or want some extra exercise. I take the left side myself when my impatience gets the best of me. And therefore, you can see it’s a good idea to stay out of the way.

By now, you’ve wandered deep underground and arrived at the platform. Signs hanging from above will indicate when the next train arrives and where it’s going. Where it’s going?! So, in the Tube they have this thing where they “name” or refer to a train by where it’ll end up, so to speak. For example, the sign will refer to the Piccadilly line train going northbound as “Cockfosters” on the sign. Why? It goes through all the stops and stations in between but it ultimately will end up at Cockfosters. (Where the trains go at the end is still a mystery to me.)

Mind the gap and step aboard the train. Keep in mind that the train cars closest to the middle or near the platform entrance tend to be more crowded. During those busy times it’s important to be aware of your surroundings. Not only for pickpockets, but also anyone that you could (and should) give up your seat for. Some are specially marked as priority seats, but that can extend in rush hour. They intend for you to give up your seat to someone who needs it more than you do, such as someone with kids, a pregnant woman or an elderly person.

Listen closely for your stop and you’ve just about done it! Snake on through the maze of stairs and escalators back out into the sunshine. Don’t forget to tap your card on the way out and enjoy the destination.

An empty train platform with a small red light in the entrance of the dark tunnel.

Here comes the train!

About the blogger

Alaina W. is studying abroad on the Global Mizzou Internship: London program in London, United Kingdom.

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