In London, a Circle opens up



Coming soon: a break in the London Underground’s Circle Line

For New Yorkers accustomed to our snaking subway system, the concept of a feeder-style circle line is a foreign one. Our trains run from borough to borough, from the eastern-most reaches of Queens to the northern parts of Manhattan, from Coney Island to the Norwood, and the closest route we have to a circle are the short Shuttle routes in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

In London, though, the Circle Line is a way of life. This yellow line makes a loop around Zone 1 of the London Underground and offers passengers connection to every other Tube line. With no way out of the loop, this line is subject to frequent delays and is among the least reliable in London.

Yet, Londoners have a love-hate relationship with it. Apocryphal tales are told of drunk Londoners who ride around the line in circles until the Tubes shut down while tourists often board trains heading the wrong way around the loop. The Circle Line has even spawned an annual pub crawl requiring participants to down 28 drinks — one at a pub near each station and one on the train — in 12 hours.

But starting December 13, the Circle Line will be a circle no more. As The Times of London reports, Transport for London is cutting the loop with the aim of improving reliability along this delay-plagued line, and although riders will no longer be able to ride in a circle, the line will retain its iconic name. Fiona Hamilton writes:

In an upgrade to one of the capital’s oldest Tube lines, whose trains have previously travelled in loops, it is being extended to Hammersmith, in West London, with a tail added to the existing track. There will no longer be a through service between the west and north sides of the current Circle: accidental snoozers will be woken up to change trains at Edgware Road.

Transport for London (TfL) said that the changes would bring vast improvements. The Circle Line passes many of the capital’s landmarks, including the Tower of London and the Houses of Parliament, yet has been unreliable.

TfL said that during disruptions the line’s continuous nature had resulted in particularly severe delays: the lack of a start and a terminus meant that trains “backed up” along the track. As the District Line and Hammersmith and City Line share parts of its track, disruptions on those services also result in delays on the Circle Line. Under the new system, defective trains would be more easily removed from the line, resulting in less disruption as well as a more frequent service.

I’ve been to London a few times, and I’m always struck by the Circle Line stations. Many of them resemble the Notting Hill Gate station and feature open-air trenches with some beautifully built arches along the walls. I never had the chance to ride the complete circle and now never will.

Over at Human Transit, Jarrett Walker offers up his views on the end of the circle. There is a reason why none of New York’s subways run on a loop. It is an inefficient way to construct a reliable subway station and results in what Walker calls “awkward” provisions for layovers, recovery times and unexpected train problems.

In a way, then, the opening of the Circle Line reminds me of the Second Ave. Subway’s long-gone third track. With nowhere to go, stalled trains along Second Ave. will snare the entire route. It won’t be nearly as easy to fix as Transport for London’s Circle Line extension is.

13 Responses to “In London, a Circle opens up”

  1. Kid Twist says:

    I always thought of the G train as the closest thing New York has to a circle line.

  2. herenthere says:

    Isn’t Singapore constructing its very own Circle Line?

  3. A-W says:

    Thanks for the very interesting post and link. I’m also eager to see your post about the partial re-opening of the Cortlandt Street BMT station.

    Best wishes for a Happy Thanksgiving.

  4. Josh says:

    You’ll still be able to ride the full circle, you’ll just have to do it (in either direction) from Edgware Road to Edgware Road, rather than from any station.

  5. Brian says:

    Berlin has its own Ringbahn (circle line). The S41 operates clockwise around the circle, the S42 operates counter-clockwise.

  6. Alon Levy says:

    The reason New York has no circular line has nothing to do with operational issues – it has to do with wide rivers and a CBD that’s clustered in the west end of the city. Paris does fine with its pair of semicircles, and Tokyo does even better with its circular line, neither has had to deal with crossing rivers as wide as the East River or the Hudson, or with running the circle to suburbs in different states.

  7. Ed says:

    After spending too much time staring at subway maps, I thought of an idea for a New York circle line. It would run from JFK airport, through Jamaica, Flushing, and Astoria, across the East River near Harlem (possibly through Randall’s Island), down 125th Street, then down the West Side of Manhattan, as close to the Hudson River as possible. It would connect with the PATH at least at financial district station. It would continue through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, which would be converted from automobile use, into Brooklyn, through Red Hook, Bay Ridge, then across southern Brooklyn back to JFK.

    The idea would be to just extend the existing air train. The line would be mostly elevated, make fewer stops than even express trains, and cost $3. It would be used obviously primarily to get to the airport, but also provide for a faster commute to Manhattan for some Brooklyn and Queens neighborhoods underserved by subway service. It would improve access to the West Side Manhattan neighborhoods that are supposed to be the current or next big thing in real estate development, and provide connections, albeit at a higher fare between lots of lines outside Manhattan, something the current system is short on. By the way, you don’t have to build elevated trains now the same way they were built in 1900, there is quieter and cleaner technology available.

    I’ve not suggested it here because, given the state’s fiscal situation, it will never happen. Most of the current expansion plans will never happen. We should be focusing on which parts of the existing system we most want to save, and which should be abandoned when budgetary realities have to be dealt with.

    • Alon Levy says:

      Sorry, but what you’re proposing is just drawing lines on a map. The line you’re thinking of serves no transportation need. Most people don’t actually need to get to the airport – current JFK AirTrain ridership is less than 5 million per year, which doesn’t justify new rapid transit. For other purposes, the circle is too wide to be of use as a circumferential line; unlike the more serious circumferential proposal, Triboro RX, it doesn’t do much for Queens-Bronx travel.

      In addition, the current AirTrain technology is incompatible with the rest of the subway. It’s powered by linear induction motors, rather than the usual electric motors of the subway and commuter rail, and is not designed for high capacity.

  8. Julia says:

    Glasgow’s entire subway system is a single circle line! It’s kind of adorable, actually.

  9. Henry Man says:

    Wouldn’t such a move make the Hammersmith and City Line redundant?

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