When railways began to be the dominant form of long-distance public transport, London was then the world’s largest city, so the upheaval and costs that would have incurred by the creation of a dominant city centre rail station, were too prohibitive.
As a result central London is ringed by 11 stations and at each of them (except London Bridge and St Pancras), all or most of the long-distance trains which use them, reverse direction to head back out of the city.
Therefore when travelling between a main London station and a location in the city centre, the fastest and often cheapest option is to use the Underground.
But taking the Underground often isn’t the easiest way to go, particularly if you’ll be arriving at a London station with luggage, strollers, young children or anything else that will be tricky to manoeuvre up and down escalators and staircases.
So this guide to arriving, departing and travelling within London by train will focus on the alternatives to ‘taking the tube’.
Worth knowing when taking a rail journey to and from the UK’s capital city is that there are two different types of Underground lines:
These are the Underground lines which cross the city’s central area and use tunnels deep beneath the streets.
Because they’re buried far down under the city, the access to and from the parts of the stations that these trains use, typically involves taking long escalators, though some of the lesser used stops only have elevators.
Though be warned that step-free elevator access between street level and the platforms, from which the trains can be boarded, is comparatively rare across the Underground.
The tube lines are:
*= the Tube lines are the only type of Underground line available at these central London railway stations.
Aside from the Piccadilly, the tube trains don’t have luggage racks, though what are becoming more common are spaces by the train doors with flip-up seats, which are ideal for accommodating large bags, folded pushchairs etc; when they are not full of standing passengers who have squeezed onto the trains.
The other Underground trains are similar to full size commuter trains and they use railway which loops around the city in a tunnel just below street level; hence they known as the sub-surface trains.
The Circle, District, Hammersmith & City and Metropolitan lines use this tunnel.
On the northern edge of central London, the Circle, Hammersmith & City and Metropolitan lines all serve Liverpool Street; King's Cross and St Pancras stations directly; while Euston Square station is a short walk from Euston.
Both the Circle and Hammersmith & City lines also serve Paddington
Towards the southern side of central London the Circle and District Lines serve Cannon St, Blackfriars and Victoria.
Because these lines are not far below the surface, staircases provide most of the access to the trains at the stations.
Though elevators are becoming more common, they’re available when accessing the trains on these lines at Cannon Street, King’s Cross St Pancras, Paddington (not the eastbound District line) and Victoria railway stations.
A feature to be aware of when using these different sub-surface lines is that they share tracks, so trains on different lines follow each other in and out of the platforms at the stations.
Meaning that, for example, when taking the Underground from Kings Cross to Paddington you need to avoid boarding a Metropolitan Line train; and when heading to Paddington from Victoria you need to take a Circle Line train.
Though on other journeys such as Liverpool Street ↔ King's Cross, because the lines share the track, it doesn't matter which specific 'line' is taken, instead it's possible to simply hop on the first train to arrive.
Transferring to the tube lines, particularly the Central, Jubilee, Northern, Piccadilly and Victoria lines when arriving by train in London is often best avoided.
The tube stations at the mainline stations tend to be exceptionally busy and the trains are usually crowded with the people they’ve picked up outside the city centre.
Plus accessing the trains can take a while with multiple escalators and corridors to be negotiated, in the summer temperatures rise and neither the tube trains, or the stations, have air-conditioning.
However, central London is not devoid of conventional railway lines and now there are three routes which can be highly useful alternatives to taking the Underground, particularly as Oyster cards can also be used to travel by the mainline trains in the London area.
The brand new Elizabeth line which is opening on May 24th links Paddington and Liverpool Street stations and it also connects with the Thameslink trains (see below) at Farringdon.
So when travelling from both Paddington and Liverpool Street stations to and from both King’s Cross and St Pancras, this interchange at Farringdon provides a new step-free alternative route compared to travelling direct by Underground.
Also when taking trains which are travelling to and from Liverpool Street, it will be easier to make the connection in and out of the Elizabeth Line at Stratford, if your train will be calling there; particularly when heading towards London.
The access with many areas in central London has been transformed, particularly when taking trains to and from Paddington, thanks to that station’s somewhat distant location.
The Elizabeth Line station at Tottenham Court Road is within easy walking distance of The British Museum, Covent Garden and Chinatown.
Kings Cross is across the street from St Pancras and in that station the Thameslink southbound platform has super easy access by escalators and elevators; though not all trains from platform A at St Pancras go to London Bridge station, but most do, typically providing a minimum of 12 trains per hour.
Escalators and elevators are also available at London Bridge, where the Thameslink trains share the part of the station used by Southeastern’s train services.
London Bridge station is within a 10 min walk of Borough Market, Tower Bridge and The Shard.
Thameslink trains also call at Blackfriars where there is an entrance/exit on the south bank which offers easy access to the Tate Modern and The Festival Hall; board by the front of the trains at St Pancras.
At Blackfriars interchange is available with the Circle and District Lines, so a combination of Thameslink and those lines is the best route from Kings Cross/St Pancras (board at the rear of the trains) to a swathe of destinations including Embankment (for Trafalgar Square), Tower Hill and Westminster.
The south entrance of City Thameslink station on Ludgate Hill is a 5 min walk from St Paul’s cathedral.
In recent years the number of bus routes (lines) in central London has been extensively reduced, but for visitors to the city this is no bad thing.
Fewer routes mean both less confusing choices; and less congestion, particularly now that on many central sections of the journeys, the buses are separated from the cars.
Bus travel has been transformed for the better in central London in other ways; access on to the buses has become easier, they have luggage storage and also have on-board info, both audio and visual, which informs passengers of the stop they’re about to arrive at.
Plus asking the driver where you need to leave the bus is of course still an option.
Taking the bus is also cheaper than taking the Underground, the bus fare is £1.50, but a Zone 1 journey by Underground is £2.40 when using an Oyster Card.
Avoid having to make an indirect journey by Underground
Buses can also often provide a direct service between a main rail station and areas of central London, which otherwise require a connection between tube lines.
London Bridge ↔ Liverpool Street (routes 149 & 388)
Euston and Waterloo ↔ Holborn (routes 59, 68 & 168)
Kings Cross/St Pancras ↔ Tottenham Court Road (route 73) and Trafalgar Square (route 91)
Victoria ↔ Knightsbridge (route 52) and Piccadilly Circus (route 38)
Waterloo ↔ St Pauls (routes 26 & 76), Liverpool Street (route 26) and Islington (route 341).
Good to know:
The two key obstacles to taking a bus are:
You can’t pay for a ride with cash, so have to use a bank debit card (beware of international bank fees) or Oyster Cards which can’t be purchased from the driver, but can be issued by machines in the Underground station.
Finding the bus you need to take at a station.
At Euston, London Bridge and Victoria there are bus stations in front of the main rail station exits; though they’re not used by most of the bus routes (lines) which serve the stations.
So at these and the other stations multiple bus stops are scattered around the immediate are, but most stops have diagrams which show which bus leaves from each stop; the stops have letters to help you find them.
These diagrams which show which bus route leaves from each stop are also available on the relevant ShowMeTheJourney station guides.
Other bus routes can provide alternatives to taking the Underground when having to make transfers between the railway stations; though on some routes these bus alternatives are particularly useful when travelling in one direction and not the other:
The particularly handy alternatives include:
Euston to Waterloo:
On routes 59 and 68 from stop E in the bus station at Euston.
On arrival at Waterloo you will need to cross the road and enter the part of the station which gives access to the Jubilee Line; from there escalators and elevators can take you up to the main station concourse.
Euston to Liverpool Street:
By route 205; it leaves from stop D in the bus station,.
This bus route also an alternative to taking the Northern Line when travelling from Euston to Angel (Islington) and Old Street.
Victoria to Euston and St Pancras:
By route 390 which leaves from stop C in the bus bays right in front of the rail station, it stops in the bus station just in front of Euston station; and on the same block as St Pancras station.
**London Bridge to Liverpool Street:((
Routes 149 and 388 leave from the bus station in front of the upper level exit from the rail station, which is by The Shard.
The stop at Liverpool Street is by some escalators which lead down to the station concourse.
Paddington to Victoria or Euston:
Take the main street exit from the station concourse and turn left when you reach the road, you’re looking for stop H.
From here route 36 goes to Victoria, it stops right in front of the station; and route 205 goes to the bus station in front of Euston railway station.
Unlike Paris, London doesn't have an express train route which avoids the city, but when travelling between the two key routes, which link the capital with the North of England , and destinations to the south of London, alternative cross-city rail routes are available.
Taking either of them results in a slower and more expensive journey, but they're particularly good options if you want to avoid taking heavy luggage, kids and strollers etc on a deep-level tube line across central London by Underground; or if you'll simply be more comfortable taking lifts/elevators to and from the trains, rather than negotiating a passage involving long escalators.
Many of the trains operated by Avanti West Coast between London and a swathe of destinations including Birmingham, Blackpool, Glasgow and Manchester call at Milton Keynes Central.
Hourly trains operated by Southern provide a link between Milton Keynes and Clapham Junction, which happens to have more departures per hour than any other station in Britain.
It has direct trains to and from numerous destinations including Brighton, Gatwick Airport, Guilford Hastings, Portsmouth, Richmond and Salisbury.
So as an alternative to having transfer by Underground between Euston and Victoria or Waterloo stations; where those trains calling at Clapham Junction commence and finish their journeys, an easier option is to travel between Milton Keynes and Clapham Junction by train instead.
Both of these stations have elevators/lifts connections to all platforms, so the transfer by this route is step-free.
The end-to-end journey time will likely be more than an hour longer, but it can be a good option if you have heavy luggage etc, so would rather avoid taking the Underground across the city centre.
These trains are temporarily only operating between Watford Junction and Clapham Junction.
At Stevenage station, which is to the north of London, trains operated by LNER and Thameslink share the same sets of platforms/tracks, so when connecting between trains there, all that’s required is to wait on the same platform for the next train you will be taking to depart.
LNER trains provide fairly frequent services between Stevenage and the likes of Leeds, Newcastle and York, while four Thameslink trains per hour usually call at Stevenage.
All four of these trains link Stevenage with London Bridge and Gatwick Airport, and two of them also serve Brighton.
Other destinations with frequent trains from London Bridge station include Ashford, Greenwich, Canterbury and Dover, and all platforms at London Bridge have elevator/lift access.
So taking the train between Stevenage and London Bridge avoids both;
The historical centre of Greenwich isn’t served by the Underground; the Jubilee Line station at North Greenwich serves The 02 entertainment complex.
Cutty Sark station in central Greenwich has a great location and it served by very frequent DLR trains (a Mini-Metro) from Bank station, which is located towards the eastern edge of the city centre.
It’s a fun ride, though the transfer between the Central Line and DLR station at Bank is particularly awkward, but there are a number of faster and easier alternatives for accessing Greenwich by train.
Four to six trains per hour travel along London’s oldest railway between London Bridge and Greenwich station; which is less than a 10 min walk from central Greenwich and the journey time by train is only nine minutes.
At London Bridge station some of these trains leave from platform (track) 1 while others use platform 4.
Two Thameslink trains per hour now link St Pancras, Farringdon, City Thameslink and Blackfriars stations with Greenwich.
From the West End Of London, the easiest option is to take a train from Charing Cross station to Lewisham (typically four trains per hour) and transfer there into a DLR train to Island Gardens’ total journey time will be around 25 – 30mins.
I wanted to share my passion for train travel and explain how anyone can take the fantastic journeys I have taken.
This is one of more than 100 train travel guides available on ShowMeTheJourney, which will make it easier to take the train journeys you want or need to make. As always, all images were captured on trips taken by ShowMeTheJourney.