Underground Maps After Beck

by Maxwell J. Roberts

The story of the London Underground Map in the hands of Henry Beck’s successors

The London Underground is one of the most important rail networks in the world. In a single day, as many people travel on it as the rest of Britain’s railways put together. To help them find their way, over 15,000,000 Underground maps are printed every year, descendants of Henry Beck’s groundbreaking design, first published in 1933.

The London Underground is unique, with its disorganised lines, far-reaching termini, and uneven station distances. These make a diagrammatic map essential but also make one hard to design. Good maps guide people in the right direction, contributing to the efficiency of the system. The worst will be hard to decipher, even sending people the wrong way. However, the best maps don’t just summarise the essentials of the world with clarity and precision, they are attractive in their own right.

This book picks up where Ken Garland completed his work (Mr Beck’s Underground Map, Capital Transport, 1996) to take the story of the map from when Henry Beck’s services were dispensed with for good, to the present day. Based upon extensive research of London Transport archives and at the London Transport Museum, this book surveys the major changes that have taken place over the years, and the reasoning and political background that led to them.


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How the book came to be written

I am a lecturer in cognitive psychology at the University of Essex. I obtained a BSc in psychology in 1988, and a PhD in 1991, both at the University of Nottingham. I’m interested in reasoning and intelligence, and in many ways the Underground map is a logic puzzle that has to be solved to plan a journey.

As a Londoner born and bred, but in the wrong part (Dulwich), a trip by Underground was always a special occasion, and to a five year old boy, it was almost Tolkienesque. The journey down impossibly deep escalators, along seemingly endless corridors (with mystery forbidden passages gated off at every corner), to meet subterranean steel serpents snaking their way through dark, dank tunnels was a striking experience. But normally, visiting London would involve a lengthy trip on the 12 and Routemaster buses, a long wait for the 176 but a faster journey and the possible treat of an RT bus, or the primitive decrepit stations and 4EPB slam-door trains of British Rail Southern Region.

But if I couldn’t travel by Underground, there was at least the Underground map. Simple, clear, and logical. Even at a young age I noticed that there were very different designs. There has always been talk of new lines and extensions, and I found that trying to pencil them into a current map and get them to fit well was sometimes very difficult: designing an Underground map is not always easy.

Fast forward 30 years, and my personal computer system was now powerful enough for me to have a go myself. Many additions to the map in the intervening period have put the design under pressure, and I wonder whether it might be possible to improve it. I sent some of my efforts to the London Underground Railway Society who invited me to give a short presentation, and later published the maps in Underground News magazine. These led to an invitation to author this book, and after some false starts, and two years of research and writing, it finally hit the shelves.