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Old Father Thames Restored

Mark Easton | 13:02 UK time, Thursday, 17 September 2009

It was a tragic case of river blindness - but I can report the patient is cured!

Transport for London (TfL) has held crisis talks following fury at its decision to remove the Thames from tube maps. The river is to be reinstated in all TfL publications, with TfL saying that "it has listened to Londoners and would be reinstating the River Thames on the world famous Tube map".

Tube map before and after

The speed of the U-turn (perhaps it should be an ox-bow lake in this context?) reflects the depth of the miscalculation.

routemaster and taxiThe British public profoundly dislikes meddling with traditional symbols and nowhere more so than in the capital. Whether it be the design of London taxis, the old Routemaster buses or Harry Beck's world-famous schematic map of the tube, people will only put up with so much change. Over the years, attempts to re-design all of the above have been met with anger.

It is not simply conservatism; it is a belief that "if it ain't broke, why fix it?" The decision by Mayor of London Boris Johnson to get rid of single-decker bendy buses may ostensibly be about safety and operational effectiveness. But I think he knows that he's appealing to the nostalgic in all of us when he looks to bring back the old-style double-decker.

Heritage and history matter more in our fast changing world. We need things to cling to, constants that put our busy lives in some sort of context.

In both a psychological and graphical sense, the River Thames does just that on the tube map.


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  • 1. At 1:27pm on 17 Sep 2009, DisgustedOfMitcham2 wrote:

    That's good news. But what about the zones?

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  • 2. At 2:10pm on 17 Sep 2009, calmandhope wrote:

    A good choice to keep the Thames on there, but why did it even need to get to this point anyway?

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  • 3. At 2:35pm on 17 Sep 2009, Chris wrote:

    A daft decision. The great thing about the Tube map is that it is designed to show the layout of stations unhindered by geography. That means the layout can be simple and clear. I'd claim that whether a station is North or South of the Thames is of zero effect to most people planning their journey.

    Getting hid of it made eminent sense as a way of reducing clutter,so I'm sad to see the Thames back.

    Getting rid of the information about what zone a station is in, on the other hand is a bit daft.

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  • 4. At 3:17pm on 17 Sep 2009, delminister wrote:

    it shows public pressure can work :)

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  • 5. At 3:24pm on 17 Sep 2009, mittfh wrote:

    Zones are back as well - although in subtle grey / white as opposed to technicolour. Click on the map extracts above to go to TfL's official tube map site.

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  • 6. At 3:25pm on 17 Sep 2009, Omnibusologist wrote:

    Before retiring, I was, from time to time, affected by decisions made by representatives of TfL and found some of them to be amongst the most arrogant and self-satisfied individuals I had ever ever encountered. Accordingly, this controversy doesn't surprise me at all because the standards demanded by private enterprise very often isn't met by those in the public sector.

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  • 7. At 3:28pm on 17 Sep 2009, CaiusPhil wrote:

    I use tube maps to navigate at street level, just following signs from one station to the next to the next. Without the river shown I could come a cropper if I tried to walk from Canada Water to Canary Wharf

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  • 8. At 7:14pm on 17 Sep 2009, alex4D wrote:

    The advantage of the Thames on the map is not about day-to-day navigation - it supplies a baseline from which to understand the layout of the rest of the map.

    Up until the late 80s this used to be the consistent horizontal of the Central line. The next noticeable feature was the vertical of the Northern line (the Charing Cross branch leading to the High Barnet branch). All features could easily be classified as being in one of the four areas defined by those two lines. Now that these features have many kinks in them, the Thames is the only start point rare users of the map can work with.

    Given that the map looked so weak and unstructured without the Thames, reinstatement only goes some way to solve the problems it has.

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  • 9. At 9:24pm on 17 Sep 2009, Peter_R4fan wrote:

    A pretty major cockup, to omit the two most useful features of the map: the river and the zones (get them wrong, and it will cost you!)

    Of course if you really wanted to make the map more of a challenge, two other innovations woud be (a) to rotate the map through 90° (or 180°, or both, on different simultaneous versions of the map) and (b) to print all of the lines in the same colour.

    I look forward to the introduction these overlooked 'simplifications'.

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  • 10. At 9:37pm on 17 Sep 2009, Goldenherts wrote:

    A new Tube Map is produced at taxpayers' expense and after years of improving it, building on the iconic status it has enjoyed for decades, it's been stripped bare and is now only half as useful as before.

    Why the regressive step?
    What sort of customer feedback was received?
    If the map was too cluttered then why not tweak it rather than decimate it?

    Pick up a National Rail London Connections leaflet - it may be larger than the pocket Tube map but is also available online via and shows both the river and zones as well as all the Tube lines!

    If Boris is "furious" with the new map, as has been broadcasted, then one wonders what his role as Mayor actually is, seeing as TfL comes under his control......

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  • 11. At 00:23am on 18 Sep 2009, alex4D wrote:

    Goldenherts, you are entitled to your opinion, and responses to design are very personal, I also think that the Tube Map has been produced at the taxpayers expense for many years, however they have been steadily making it worse for twenty years or so.

    This has become obvious even to those with the most entrenched positions within TfL. This map might be the first attempt for them to get back to basics.

    As regards Boris' role, I don't think the quarterly design process for keeping the map up to date has included the Mayor's office (despite the logo in the bottom-left of the design). They might take a more direct interest in TfL's method from now on...

    ...there could even be a competition to come up with an improved design. Once everyone agrees that this bit of intellectual property isn't doing London as much as it used to, we can throw it out and start again.

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  • 12. At 10:36am on 18 Sep 2009, Matthew Cain wrote:

    Or it could all have been a sham 'controversy' in order for the Mayor to look "in touch with the public mood".

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  • 13. At 12:19pm on 20 Sep 2009, Briantist wrote:

    Nice to see that polymath Boris knows more about information design that the professionals.

    And I thought he would know about "minor plus est".

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  • 14. At 8:19pm on 20 Sep 2009, threnodio wrote:

    #4 - delminister

    'it shows public pressure can work :)'

    If only:-(

    What it proves is that, even in these financially contrained time there is still money to pay people for 'fixing things which ain't broke'. The decision was never going to stand. There question is whay you were expected to pay for it in the first place.

    It's P45 time.

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  • 15. At 01:30am on 22 Sep 2009, StamfordKPR wrote:

    Omnibusologist - I suggest that you talk to the back room public sector workers. Having worked in the public sector for 20 years, those I have met have been the most dedicated and selfless people and with standards just as high as private sector employees. May I suggest that you have your chip surgically removed?

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  • 16. At 12:11pm on 22 Sep 2009, MarkMcIntyre wrote:

    Hooray! As for the commenter who said its unimportant whether you're north or south of the river, on the map Pimlico is the closest stop to Nine Elms, and don't you think its relevant that Southwark is on the opposite side of the Thames to St Pauls? Plus the river /defines/ London. Its the single biggest landmark.

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  • 17. At 1:56pm on 22 Sep 2009, fresh_meat wrote:

    Londoners are not the only ones who use the tube.
    Think of all the tourists that would be lost around London trying to find the capitals biggest landmark?

    TFL, thanks for finally realising the folly of your ways!

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  • 18. At 5:32pm on 22 Sep 2009, Gergiev wrote:

    "It is not simply conservatism; it is a belief that "if it ain't broke, why fix it?" Mark, "if it ain't broke why fix it?" is an essential element of conservatism.

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  • 19. At 8:17pm on 22 Sep 2009, Leviticus wrote:

    For those of us that visit London, but don't live there, the river on the map was probably the single most important feature in working out where you actually were!

    Now if only TfL would also get into their heads that those of us who live north of Watford have no idea what the rules are on how to pay the congestion charge, as not a single one of us has ever had a leaflet through our doors...

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  • 20. At 9:37pm on 22 Sep 2009, chateaulafite wrote:

    @Omnibusologist: "Accordingly, this controversy doesn't surprise me at all because the standards demanded by private enterprise very often isn't met by those in the public sector."

    Well, one of the standards demanded by private enterprise is evidently not the ability to write a sentence in which the subject and verb agree. Or one that even makes sense, come to that.

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  • 21. At 1:29pm on 24 Sep 2009, Lee_Douglas wrote:

    Angostura the thing about information is that it's use is highly relative. I for one like to see what side of the Thames I'm on. Being a native SE Londoner I always let out a little sigh of contentment when I again reach the homely shores of the South side, ahhh, thinks I, proper London once again, I am home.

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  • 22. At 11:05am on 01 Oct 2009, Steve - Iver wrote:

    I, for one, am happy, in my own small way, that Father Thames has been reinstated. Everyone has their own opinion, but as much as some don't care, there are equal numbers that do care, so thanks TfL, you've done the right thing in the end.

    As someone who lives out west, the river is important for getting ones bearings. I speak for myself, and if you don't agree, fantastic - you don't need it, but for me, it all depends on where I'm going. If I use the Waterloo overland line it goes south of the river - I know where I am. If I use the Paddington overland line, it goes north of the river, and again, I know where I am.

    Brilliant - long live Father Thames

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