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In an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Commander Riker was challenged by a subordinate. His response was “I bring all the options to the Captain.” This needs to be one of TfL’s map design’s guiding principles: passengers need to see all the central London rail options on the Tube Map.
It was ultimately pandemic related disruption severely affecting Tube services for extended periods that caused TfL to finally relent on Thameslink’s two decade banishment. The line’s reappearance in summer 2020 was predicated on providing much needed connectivity options, quicker trips, shorter trajectories, and less Tube overcrowding for better social distancing on often less than full services across the TfL network. It should be noted that the Thameslink’s operating company Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) has long pushed for the line to be reinstated on the Map, assisted recently by London TravelWatch. The line reinstatement also served to provide alternative routes during the Northern line Bank branch closure for the Bank station upgrade. By most accounts, Thameslink served admirably to optimise journeys and travel across London. So the initial 12 month trial period has been extended indefinitely.
It’s clear why TfL doesn’t want to acknowledge its step brother. It’s not that they don’t get along – they do, more than most urban railways of different parents. But the fear of Thameslink absconding with some Northern line passenger revenue led TfL’s predecessor London Regional Transport (LRT) to drop Thameslink off the Tube Map in 1999. The line had featured on London’s signature navigational diagram since the railway’s inception. It first appeared in July 1987, but only the central trunk from Kentish Town to Moorgate, London Bridge, and Elephant and Castle:
1998 Tube Map, showing part of the Thameslink trunk
The new millennium saw a new organisation, TfL, replace LRT. However, by default TfL continued with many LRT practices, and so inherited the Tube Map sans Thameslink. But TfL didn’t take positive action to change this. IanVisits has the Thamelink restoration to the Tube Map saga in more detail. Fortunately, the recent December 2020 TfL map restoration shows Thameslink services to Zones 1 to 8. This includes its services to Dartford, Bromley, Catford, Charlton, New Southgate, and Cricklewood which had never been on the Tube map before. A total of 49 additional stations have been added. As most of the added Thameslink stations are south of the river, this provides more equity in showing railway services in south London.
Central London on new Tube Map
The emergence of the new RER network has ramifications for the Tube Map. Unfortunately, the Map currently effectively de-emphasises the two these high capacity, higher speed lines. They are difficult to pick out in the above image, being less prominent than the slower and shorter, yet more visible Underground lines.
Even the Thames had been cartographically slighted
Father Thames himself was grossly slighted when he was suddenly dropped from the Tube Map in 2009, leaving Londoners aghast and confused by the loss of the map’s main navigational reference.
The Thames-less, anchorless Tube Map of 2009
Mayor Johnson had the Thames restored to the Tube Map, as even on a stylised diagram removal of the Thames was a step too far. In following years, River Bus pier interchanges with Underground stations have been discreetly added to the diagram, providing Londoners and visitors with the option of an uncrowded and much more scenic travel mode.
The mental perception of public transport geography
The aforementioned incident demonstrated that many Londoners’ and visitors’ mental map of London is based directly on the Tube Map. Another example is the London Overground network, starting with one of its component railways.
The ridership of the North London line went up when it was added, intermittently it turns out, to the Tube Map (as a hollow black line) in 1977. This also demonstrates the tendency for Londoners, and visitors, to believe that if an urban line does not appear on the Tube Map, it does not exist. Many Overground lines were added to the Map in the 2000s, featuring many such upgraded and re-opened peripheral urban lines, This increased awareness of the Overground lines tremendously, and ridership increased massively by expanding the reach of millions of Londoners on public transport. The revival of those hitherto somewhat moribund and under-utilised passenger lines and bringing them up to TfL’s signage and cleanliness standard was also a major factor. Often called the ‘Overground Effect’, it shews the enormous power an impact of adding lines to the Tube Map.
Now with Crossrail’s emergence, the capital’s public transport centre of gravity has arguably moved to Farringdon, which maximises regional mobility via Thameslink and Elizabeth lines.
As an aside, TfL had considered taking over the Northern City Line in 2016, in the report A new approach to rail passenger services in London and the South East, published jointly by TfL, DfT, and the Mayor of London in 2021. If that had occurred, there is a good chance that this line would also have been added back to the Tube Map.
Elizabeth both is, and isn’t, a Tube line
TfL constructed the Elizabeth Line to seamlessly integrate with its Tube network, in terms of operations, passenger flow, and branding. Passengers know Crossrail as a faster, roomier, more comfortable, and farther travelling line. As such, the mode of train vs tube train no longer matters – the passengers certainly don’t care. Effectively, Crossrail is a fast, large capacity Tube line.
The genesis of London’s regional express rail network
Crossrail’s opening heralds the start of the higher order, express Tube network, building on Thameslink’s success. Similar, but decades behind, the Parisian Réseau express régionale (RER) network. The Parisian equivalent opened in 1971 with the same sense of spaciousness and rapid cross-city travel. Paris now has five RER lines on various axes. Like the Elizarail Line, it also has some lengthy interchanges, which cannot always be avoided – it would cost additional billions.
Thameslink is London’s original RER opened in 1988, only 17 years after Paris. It is important to note that the original Thameslink concept, as developed by Network SouthEast, was intended as the north-south component of a regional RER network to put nearly all the major settlements in Greater London within one interchange and less than 90 minutes apart. That was the way it was sold to the politicians. And it still fulfils that role in great part today
Crossrail comes 32 years after Thameslink. Crossrail is a game changer, as Thameslink was. Passengers benefit by having Thameslink on all TfL maps and signage, by providing many more destinations, and faster trips than the Underground and Overground. Isn’t it for the passengers that public transport is operated?
Unfortunately, there is considerable lack of consensus over Crossrail 2’s route, as we examined previously. So any addition to the Capital’s regional express rail network will takes decades, despite Londoners’ enthusiasm for expanding upon Crossrail 1’s success.
Crossrail Zero inspired Crossrail 1
Thameslink is the first high capacity, mainline passenger railway passing through and serving central London. It is the de facto first Crossrail, or Crossrail 0. The north-south spine has earned its place on the Tube Map – it has greatly shrunken time and distance for millions annually.
Thameslink has many branches north and south of London. Whilst that greatly increases its coverage, the drawback is that a delay on one branch can adversely affect a number of others. Crossrail designers learned much from its predecessor, opting for the much simpler two branches on either side of central London for greater reliability.
Now with Crossrail finally opening, London will have high capacity, limited stop express metros in all four cardinal directions. The two routes complement each other well. In networks, the sum is much greater than its constituent parts. And TfL has kept Thameslink in place on the Tube Map.
The same cannot be said of the Crossrail (okay, Elizabeth Line if you must, but I’m going to capitalise “Line”) strip map – the major north-south artery is near invisible as an entity there. It is only implied as the anonymous line to Luton and Gatwick. But Thameslink serves dozens more destinations than those airports.
Thameslink is much more than an airport line (at Farringdon)
Going back even further
Historically, longer distance and especially regional travel have always been clearly sorted by operator. London Underground considered itself the provider of travel within greater London. But that is no longer the case – Thameslink and Thames Clippers River Bus piers are also shown. TfL cartographers have begrudgingly added these to the Tube Map, but the institutional and commercial arrangements have always kept LU and other public transport companies apart – ever since the days of the Combine really.
Thameslink deserves map respect. But even more so, passengers deserve the respect of having all the cross-Greater London travel options available to them on the standard Tube Map.
Blogger NotQuiteTangible created the following regional express rail only map in the TfL manner a few years ago (ignore the pink northeast to southwest Crossrail 3 line – nothing official has been decided on its status or route):
Thameslink Crossrails map (including planned Crossrail 2). NotQuiteTangible.
What is the goal of the Tube Map?
Is it primarily to sell TfL services?
Or to provide passengers with the rapid transport options to get around London?
Traditionally, it’s been the former.
Furthermore, TfL and its predecessors have a long history with the Tube Map. And as such, it has taken on different meanings and uses for the transport authority over the decades:
So TfL itself has little to no interest in replacing the Tube Map – it’s too familiar, being almost a century old, and it brings them lots of revenue. Impossible to say how much, but it’s significant.
Metcalfe’s Law states that the value or utility of a network is proportional to the square of nodes of the network. Initially developed for phone networks, it has been applied to railway networks as well. Whilst the actual mathematical relationship in most applications tends to be more logarithmic, the general concept remains – the more nodes, or stations on a railway network, the greater the connectivity value. Which is one of the great aims of almost every public transport authority – to get people where they want to go.
Crossrail’s opening means a fundamental redefinition of Greater London mobility – the high capacity corridors and network will stimulate more passenger demand. This in turn induces demand and revenue. Thus, TfL ignores Thameslink as its own revenue risk — and at London’s risk as well.
The following diagram demonstrates a conceptual hierarchy of lines:
Crossrail (red) & Thameslink (green) as part of an integrated rail strategy
Whilst passengers likely treat Crossrail and Thameslink as long distance and/or express Tube lines, TfL considers the former to be a new mode. As such, shouldn’t this faster, more spacious, cross-London longer distance line be visible as higher hierarchy travel on TfL’s signature map?
The chances are that a person taking Thameslink will transfer to one or more TfL services – mobility works better as a network, not individual lines. As Albert Stanley’s 1907 implementation of coordinated fares throughout all of London’s Underground railways demonstrated, providing free transfers between lines increases ridership.
How to fix this
At a distance, both Crossrail and its north-south older step-brother are almost invisible on the current Tube Map. Some TfL maps show Elizabeth as hollow purple, which does not cut through the map clutter. On other maps the Elizabeth line is solid purple, which is much clearer, and should be standard for all of the authority’s maps. This demonstrates how ‘low in the mix’ they are, as a music producer would say. These lines need to be more visible than the lower capacity Underground lines.
Passengers don’t really care that it’s “not a Tube line”, which apparently is why TfL made it a hollow purple line. As we explained, passengers are using it as a Tube line, and are already referring to it as one.
Good design needs to keep up with new circumstances. The Elizabeth Line’s opening adds a new strategic high capacity, express corridor, and needs to be prioritised visually as a new east-west trunk of the capital’s rail public transport network. Correspondingly, Thameslink also needs to be equally visible and prominent as the north-south trunk line.
The following map from the LR Crossrail 2 Part 2 article shews what a more emphasised Elizabeth line could look like (as well as the planned Crossrail 2). Thameslink, on the other hand, isn’t even as prominent as the Underground lines:
Crossrails 1 & 2 with emphasis. jrc
Thameslink’s dashed, hollow line, weaves and ducks through Tube lines like a striker zigzagging through an entire defence. It’s suburban line camouflage, lost in the thicket of Central London lines. Which may well have been the intention.
To make it more prominent, it may be worth looking at its previous incarnation – as a hollow black line. This holds its own against the solid Underground lines when looking at the Map up close, as we saw in the 1998 Tube Map at the top of this article. And it is chromatically consistent with the similarly north-south Northern Line. But the clarity of hollow lines is sometimes lost in the overall view of the Map. Perhaps a solid colour would be best for Thameslink, although the easily distinguishable TfL line colour palette is close to reaching its end game.
It needs to be noted that making lines thicker causes many problems in the geometric relation of interchange rings. Jonathan Roberts (JRC) is his map above made his Crossrail 1 and 2 lines thicker to make quite visible, not as an actual suggestion for the Tube Map. We reproduce this map with the same intent – not as a suggestion. However, there are several ways of differentiating lines (and interchanges) and they all come with their own compromises. Thickening a line is only one of them.
Other Tube Map thoughts
TfL expects a large interchange of passengers at Farringdon at the core of the high capacity network, bringing a lot of new passengers to TfL services from outer London. Unfortunately, there is generally poor awareness of Thameslink of those not in its service area. No doubt in great part due to TfL exiling it’s rival urban railway from the Tube Map between 1999 and 2020.
It is possible that TfL also allowed the central section of Thameslink to appear on the pandemic map as an experiment to see if it helps grow its own Underground ridership. Additionally, airport connectivity from outside Zone 6 might also become a new market for Farringdon interchange, given the journey time reductions via the new trunk route network. To wit, Farringdon is the second London urban rail station to provide direct connections to three of the London airports and to Eurostar, after King’s Cross-St Pancras.
TfL may also be keen to reduce interchange at Tube interchange pressure points by having Thameslink on the map, to avoid spending billions on upgrades at busy Underground stations such as Kings Cross-St Pancras and Finsbury Park. TfL is also considering including other Network Rail metro services onto the Tube Map to address the apparent lack of rail transport in south London and in some parts of north-east London.
Positives, and negatives, of the new Tube Map
The new map is messier than it should be, due to Crossrail’s temporary three section operation. Once Elizabeth through trains start running in the fall, its line will be straightened out.
Thameslink has many fully accessible stations with level access to the Class 700 trains – so having Thameslink on the Map opens up many journeys for disabled and mobility challenged (with prams, luggage, pushchairs, bulky items &c) users.
Thameslink – Crossrail fare integration problems
Surprisingly, given the massive work that TfL has put into integrating Crossrail into the Tube network, some Thameslink passengers have been experiencing fare overcharges. Those passengers coming from beyond the Pay-As-You-Go fare payment area found that they have been charged the maximum Zone 6 fare when changing to the Elizabeth line at Farringdon. TfL then realised the problem, and had staff instruct such passengers to leave Farringdon station, re-enter, and tap in again to be charged the correct fare. The short term issue is missing fare validators. Apparently, TfL didn’t believe that such distant Thameslink passengers would transfer to the Elizabeth Line in appreciable numbers.
TfL then issued a Media Briefing acknowledging the issue, clarifying that this occurs for Thameslink passengers originating outside the PAYG purview. The London authority is working on a more permanent solution, but in the meantime suggest that transferees touch in at the fare barrier line or at the Underground platform validators. Furthermore, TfL will be installing additional signage at Farringdon, as well as locating more TfL Ambassadors at this station, to assist. Online amending of the journey or contacting TfL Customer Services are also means by which passengers can correct the fare error.
Some passengers have noted that TfL limits users to only three online fare corrections per month, but this has not been confirmed. Diamond Geezer goes into more detail on the missing validators issue.
Mayor Khan, Tear down this Thameslink wall!
Nevertheless, to maximise public transport ridership in these over-driven, over-polluted, and over-Uber’d times, both regional express lines need to be on the Tube Map permanently. And prominently.
Let’s hope Mayor Khan does what his predecessor did and push for a complete integration of Thameslink on all TfL maps and signage.
Epilogue – We are not yet post-Beck in Cartoland
We are likely stuck with the Tube Map for the foreseeable future. No-one has come up with a better design, and there is over 90 years of instant recognition and familiarity with the Beck-based design. Simon Garfield’s book On The Map claims that the Tube Map has “In its various forms… been printed more than any other map in history – perhaps half a billion times”, presumably including personal printing. It is instantly recognisable, even without any text:
straw tube map. kyle bean
The map has also spawned many imitations and variations for other cities, railways, non-public transport networks, as well as parodies and art works, such as The Great Bear:
The great bear (1992), detail. Simon Patterson
As TfL makes considerable revenue from licensing the Tube Map image on hundreds of products, and the Tube Map is one of graphical icons of London, it does not appear that this map design will be replaced anytime soon.
Whilst the Tube Map is far from perfect, and has been subject to decades of compromises as lines, interchanges, modes, and information have been added, it is not likely to be replaced for a long time yet. Which leaves the way forward as make do and mend.
We shall brook no discussion of redesigning the Tube Map, as that’s a far larger scope, with no urgency at TfL to consider it.
This article first appeared on www.londonreconnections.com
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