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7 subway names explained

Many locals dubbed their underground railways with unique titles. From the Tube in London, to the clockwork orange in Glasgow, find out more about the reasons behind several unusual subway names.

London – the Tube

The first underground railway in the world was the Metropolitan railway, which began to run between Paddington and Farringdon Street and then on to Moorgate in 1863. Interestingly, the use of the word ‘tube’ in the context of the railway has been recorded before the underground railway even opened: the Oxford English Dictionary’s first quotation is from Queen Victoria’s journal, penned in 1847. It reads “We passed the famous Swilly Rocks, and saw the works they are making for the tube for the railroad.” By 1905, we see an example of a sentence that many of us might utter today: “The first part of my journey . . . was by Tube.”

This year also marks the one-hundredth anniversary of the commissioning of the London Underground’s iconic ‘Johnston’ font. Initially called ‘Underground’, this font uses a perfect circle to depict each letter ‘o’, which is unusual in font design, but complements the circular London Underground roundel.

Did you know that the Bakerloo Line was given its name by the London newspaper Evening Standard? Find out how people reacted when the name was first introduced, and learn more about the history of the names of other London Tube lines and stations on the OUPblog.

Paris – Métro

Métro is the abbreviated name of the company which originally operated most of the network, la Compagnie du chemin de fer métropolitain de Paris, literally ‘the metropolitan railway company of Paris’. Shortened to le Métropolitain, it was quickly abbreviated to le métro, which became a common word also used to designate many subway networks in France and elsewhere (a genericized trademark).

There are several stations that have names or decorations to reflect points in French history or aspects of French culture. The Cluny-La Sorbonne métro honours the great poets, writers, philosophers, artists, scientists, kings, and statesmen of France by displaying their signatures in tiles on the ceiling. There are stations, as well, that are named in honour of French writers and intellectuals, including Anatole France, Victor Hugo, and Alexandre Dumas.

France’s role in the two World Wars is also reflected in the names of several métro stations, usually in honour of a foreign ally. For example, during World War II when starvation was rampant in France, Argentina sent large shipments of grain and beef in aid, and the station Argentine was named so as a mark of respect. The stations George V and Franklin D. Roosevelt were named after the British King and the American president respectively, in appreciation for their support for France during the World Wars I and II.

Glasgow – Clockwork Orange

Having opened in 1896, the underground railway system of Glasgow is one of the oldest in the world; however, it is much less extensive than many of its forebears. It comprises two adjacent lines – the Outer and Inner circles – and trains run clockwise and anticlockwise in separate tunnels. Spread along the lines are only 15 stations, meaning that even if you were to hop on the wrong line, it wouldn’t take you long before you arrived at your intended destination. When you consider this alongside the famous vibrant orange livery of the 1980s (when it was reopened after a modernization programme), it’s easy to see how it gained the affectionate nickname of the Clockwork Orange. Locals, however, tend to refer to it as the subway.

Sophisticated it may not be, but it retains a special place in the heart of anyone who has lived in the city. It has been immortalized in verse and prose by many writers, including Edwin Morgan in Subway Budgie (about a bird living in the tunnels) and Tom Leonard in A Priest Came on at Merkland Street (Merkland Street being a former station which was replaced in 1980). It even has a poet in residence.

New York – Subway

The New York City Subway is the busiest rapid transit railway system in the United States, ushering over five million riders from station to station daily. Controlled by the Metropolitan Transit Authority, the subway consists of over 800 miles of tracks and 24 lettered and numbered service lines that connect four of the five boroughs in New York City (Staten Island, which operates a separate intra-borough railway, is accessible on public transit by bus or ferry). The subway—actually a combination of underground and above-ground railway lines, despite the terminology—has been in operation since 1863, with the first underground portion opening in 1904.

Chicago – ‘L’

Chicago’s rapid transit system is commonly known as the ‘L’, for ‘elevated line’, even though it now consists of both elevated and subway lines. When the first underground railways were constructed in the mid-20th century, their establishment initially had two aims: 1) to serve as bomb shelters during and post–World War II should the need arise and 2) to eventually supplant the older and slower elevated railways in the city’s center, the Loop. Thankfully, none of these outcomes came to pass; the denizens of Chicago so far have not required underground protection and the elevated tracks, in operation since 1892, have undergone substantial renovation and run in tandem with the subway.

DC – Metro

The Washington Metro opened in 1976, and was built as an alternative to a proposed freeway system that would have physically divided the District of Columbia. The underground railway now spans over 100 miles and connects the District to nearby counties in Maryland and Northern Virginia. The Metro is often praised for its architectural design and comparative cleanliness to other highly populated rapid transit rail systems.

San Francisco – Muni Metro

The Muni Metro is a light rail that runs street level and in underground stations throughout the city of San Francisco. Part of the San Francisco Municipal Railway, the Muni Metro officially began operating in 1980 and carries over facilities from the city’s storied trolley car system of the early 20th century , such as the Twin Peaks and Sunset subway tunnels, which opened in 1918 and 1928, respectively. The Muni Metro also connects at some stations to the BART, short for Bay Area Rapid Transit, which has serviced the San Francisco Bay Area since 1972. It is the first underground transit system in the United States to offer cellular service to passengers.

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