Shoved into someone’s armpit, driven to distraction by another bloke’s iPod, and stuck in the dark cos of another mysterious signal failure.

Ah, the London Underground — we love to hate it. But whatever your sentiments there’s no denying the tube is an engineering marvel with enough trivia to send you one stop past Barking.

Was it the first?

Yep, the London Underground was the world’s first subterranean rail network. The House of Commons approved a bill in 1853 to build the Metropolitan line between Paddington and Farringdon.

Was it a hit?
Hell, no! The Times described the initial idea as an “insult to common sense”. Then why was it built? Necessity. London roads were overcrowded and reeked of horse poo, plus all the main line railways stopped on the city’s outskirts. So it covers a fair bit of the capital? Too bloody right! The Jubilee line extensions, which finished in 2000, brought the total distance of the network to 407km.

Was it always one big system?
Far from it. Individual lines were originally built by individual companies or entrepreneurs. It wasn’t until 1933 that the various lines were integrated. I bet the tube was pretty grim back in the day. The sulphurous pollution from early steam locomotives was so bad in the 1800s that drivers were told to grow beards to filter the fumes.

What happened during World War II?

Underground tube stations doubled as bomb shelters.

Any creepy stories or surprising facts?
Aldgate station was built on the site of a plague pit where about 1000 bodies were buried in 1665.The entire Westbourne River passes the Sloane Square station platform through a big iron pipe.

Any weird stuff left in the lost property office?
Uh-huh. A courier once left a set of breast implants on the Circle line. The lost property office has also been home to a wedding dress, two human skulls in a bag, a vasectomy kit, a lawn mower, a 14-foot boat, an urn of ashes, hundreds of sets of false teeth and a suitcase with £10,000 in cash.

What wildlife lives on the network?
Transport for London says woodpeckers, sparrowhawks, deer, bats, grass snakes and crested newts have been sighted on carriages or in tunnels.

How many people ride the tube every day?
3.4 million. Count ’em.

Why is it so stinking hot in summer?

Getting rid of all that heat when you’re 50m underground is costly, and the tube is the victim of decades of under investment.

Will we get new trains?
The first ones (with air conditioning!) will be on the Jubilee line in 2009, followed by trains on the Northern and Victoria lines.

What happens to the old train carriages?
Ones that aren’t sold to other railways are recycled — they’re mostly made of aluminium which is turned into drink cans.

Will the tube ever run for 24 hours?
Tube bosses have said “never”, though they do want trains to run later at night, subject to negotiations with unions.

What is the story behind the tube map?
It was drawn up by a young draftsman, Harry Beck, who told his biographer: “Looking at the old map of the railways, it occurred to me that it might be possible to tidy it up by straightening the lines, experimenting with diagonals and evening out the distances between stations.”

What’s with the delays?
Old equipment. Signal failures happen because today’s trains are faster than the network they were built for, and the equipment used to tell controllers the location of each train often stuffs up, which means checks need to be made on where each train is.

Will it ever be reliable?
Supposedly by 2020, when the final stage of the £1 billion-a-year tube refurb is completed.

Why is it so unloved by Londoners?
The dirt, delays, heat, overcrowding, irregular service, breakdowns, strikes and expense, for a start. Still, it’s usually the best way to get you where you’re going.

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The Tube In Numbers

1.014 billion: passengers travelling on the tube every year.
408km: length of network.
33km/hr: average train speed.
412: number of escalators.
275: number of stations served.
73 million: people using Victoria, London’s busiest tube station, each year.
48,800: people using Waterloo station during the three-hour morning rush.
146,000: people entering the tube system every hour.
£5 billion: investment in the tube over the next five years.
70 million km: Distance travelled by all the tube trains in 12 months. It’s the equivalent distance of 1735 times around the world or 90 trips to the moon and back.
67.4m: maximum depth of the network below ground level, at Hampstead on the Northern line.
68.9g: amount of carbon dioxide produced per person per km travelled on the tube.
45 seconds: the shortest tube journey, from Leicester Square to Covent Garden on the Piccadilly line.

Ghost Stations

The tube was constructed haphazardly over the years, so stations were often built without a great deal of planning.

Down Street on the Piccadilly line, for example, was so close to Hyde Park Corner the rich folk living nearby didn’t think that it was appropriate for the ‘hood. It shut in 1932.
There are about 40 similar ‘ghost stations’ on the network.

This is a branch of the Piccadilly line, running one stop south from Holborn. The station is now used for film shoots and by the fire brigade.

Bull and Bush
Visible between Golders Green and Hampstead on the Northern line. It was built in 1907 but never used.

Wood Lane
You can see this on the Central line after you leave White City heading towards Shepherd’s Bush. It was the western terminus of the line before it shut in 1947.

York Road
A station between the long run from King’s Cross to Caledonian Road on the Piccadilly line would be very handy — but it shut back in 1932.

British Museum
This station can be seen on the Central line between Tottenham Court Road and Holborn. It closed in 1933, on the day the new Holborn station opened.