Jul 15 2015

The Tube Versus The Metro


It is a steel cage death match of epic proportions.

In one corner is the venerable London Underground. Known as “The Tube” to locals and tourists alike, it weighs in at 1.2 billion passengers a year with 270 stops, and over 250 miles of track. It also holds the record as being the oldest underground train in the world with its beginning dating way back to 1863.

In the other corner is the Paris Metro. It boasts nearly 1.5 billion passengers a year over a comparatively paltry 133 miles of track, servicing 303 stops. At barely over a century in age (founded in 1900), it is cocky about its rise above The Tube and is gunning for the Moscow train system so it can be the undisputed king and heavyweight champion!!!

Pardon the histrionics, but the metaphor didn’t feel too stretched. Both of these public transit systems are big, heavy hitting players with the reach to span their respective iconic cities. They run just a touch differently, so it is good for a tourist to know the ins and outs of the respective systems before just jumping on the nearest train.



Everything in Central London can be reached with a Tube ride and a ten minute walk. Big Ben, Kensington, Harrod’s, St Paul’s, The Tower of London, even the Portobello Road Market are all within what is designated as Zones 1 and 2 on the Underground’s access map.

Keep in mind, when you are looking at the map of The Tube above it is not geographically accurate. Stops that look close on this map may not be at all, and the graphic artist has taken some liberties with the way things fall in reality. Having said that, it is really easy to stare at The Tube map and figure out how to get somewhere.

Lines like the Northern, Bakerloo and Piccadilly run roughly north and south while the Central is the main east and west route. The Circle line is a circle…sort of…and it is paralleled by the Hammersmith for a portion of its travel through London.

Oh yeah…the District line. It will break your heart. Be warned.

The trick for figuring out The Underground is looking at the last stop of a particular train. If you were to enter a station for the Piccadilly Line the (vaguely) eastbound train would be labeled Cockfosters, but the train going the other direction could be Uxbridge or it could be Heathrow. If you get on the Uxbridge train it will go towards the airport for a while, but it will never get all the way there. Some lines have trains that do not go all the way to the end of lines, depending on the time of day. Also, note that some stops may be closed on some days. The Harrod’s stop on the Piccadilly is a good example of this. If Harrod’s is closed, so is the stop.

Because the aforementioned District line has so many branches, it can be very easy to get on this line going the wrong way. Be sure to check twice before jumping on it, and look at the connection map on the train wall as soon as you get on the train. If in doubt, be prepared to jump right back off at the next stop and wait for the next train!

The little circles on the map indicate where you can connect to another train. If you are trying to get from one place to another, The Underground’s website has a good Journey Planner to guide you through all the steps you need to get there.

While you can pay for individual trips at any station that has a ticket booth, it is far more cost effective to buy an Oyster Card and load money on it or buy a TravelCard for the dates you will be in London.

The Oyster is a magnetic credit card style pass which you touch to the round sensor at the entrance and exit of The Tube. You only have to buzz out when you actually leave the train station, so transfers from train to train are easy. The amount you pay for a trip when you use The Oyster card represents about a 50% discount.

The Travel Card is available in one or seven day versions. The one day, off-peak version starts at £7.30 for unlimited rides from 9:30 AM to 4AM the next morning. Quite a good deal. The zone markings can be a bit confusing, but most of the touristy stuff is in Zone 1 and 2, and it may be easier to buy a ticket for a longer trip.

The Travel Card is a paper ticket with a magnetic strip that you feed into a slot on the gates to enter and exit The Underground. To be generous, the quality on these magnetic strips is marginal at best. Two of the five Travel Cards that I bought for my last trip to London were completely dead by the end of the first day. The Underground agent that I talked to laughed when I asked him about this, and described them as “uniformly horrible”.

They will not replace these. If you walk up to a gate and put it in you will get a “see attendant” message. There is almost always someone at the gate, and if you show them a ticket with valid dates printed on it they will buzz you through. If you get to an exit point without an attendant try the wheelchair gate. It should be unlocked so you can get out.

The Underground staff that I encountered were uniformly nice and helpful and will go out of their way to help a tourist with these issues. It is only a pain during rush hour when you are in a mob of people and have to fight your way over to the attendant.

A Tube Travel Card next to a Metro single use ticket for comparison

A tube TravelCard next to a Metro single use ticket for comparison

The Metro


I found The Metro slightly more difficult to navigate than The Tube. All of the routes start on one side of the city and terminate roughly on the opposite side. They may meander some, but there are not any circular routes like on The Tube. There are also less connection points between lines.

Similar to The Tube, The Metro names its routes by their endpoint, but they are numbered instead of named. For instance, The 5 will have a route labeled Bobigny Pablo Picasso and one labeled Place d’Italie.

You will see locations labeled Gare on the map. These are stations where multiple trains converge. The Gare du Nord is where The Eurostar connects, and was where we debarked from the train from London.

Tickets can be purchased in various forms. Unlimited tickets can be purchased in 1-5 day increments. These allow you to travel all you want on The Metro, RER, bus, tramway, and regional SNCF trains within Paris. If you are going to Euro-Disney or other outer locations you will want to choose the Zone 1-6 pass, but most of key Parisian attractions can be reached with the Zone 1-3 pass. A one day pass for Zones 1-3 is €9.75 or for Zones 1-6, €20.50.

This ticket will also get you a discount on entry into many famous landmarks in Paris.

You can also buy a package of single use tickets that are good on The Metro, bus or tram routes called a Carnet. “Un carnet, si’l vous plait”, will get you a discount down to €13.30 or a little over 20% off the regular single ticket fare.

The package of 10 comes in cellophane and looks much like a pack of gum. It is good for a ride and one transfer, but you have to hold onto the ticket, as you will have to run it through the machine at the change point and the exit. Because of the way it works, you can use a single use ticket to get on one of the RER trains, but it will not open the exit gate. This is a challenge if you have used the last of your tickets to get to the airport. There is not an attendant at these gates, and nowhere to buy another ticket at that point. This can be more than a little stress inducing if you are already running late for a flight at Charles de Gaulle.

The Carnet was a better choice for us on our last trip, as we were only in Paris for a day and a half. We bought two Carnets and shared them among our family and it worked out perfectly. They are small so they can be harder to keep track or. Just remember, you have to have one to get out.

When you arrive at a station you can buy The Carnet(s) from a machine. However, if the line is long, go straight to one of the news stands as they keep them in stock, as well.

Some of The Metro trains have lights which show you which stop you are coming up on, and they announce them verbally, although the French accent can make it a bit of a challenge. I would NEVER have understood them calling the stop for Franklin D Roosevelt if my wife had not nudged me.

The gates into the stations are smaller and tighter than the ones in London and operate very quickly. If you are carrying luggage you should always push it in front of you through the gate and don’t delay. It is very easy to get your luggage stuck, and once the gates close, your Carnet has been used.


On the whole, both systems are well designed and thought out, although they are both occasionally marked by long marches or stairways to get from one stop to another. The Tube generally has escalators, but The Metro has no guarantee of that. If you take the number 4 to Montmartre and get off at Abbesses, you may want to wait for the elevator. The stairs up to the street felt like six stories when we climbed them.

It might be a language thing, but I find The Tube a little more “customer friendly”. Both London and Paris are densely packed and have professional traffic, so I vastly prefer the train to driving in either place.

So the winner in fifteen rounds by decision? The Tube…by a very slim margin.

1 comment

  1. tom

    Paris Metro is efficient and fast, and was built for the metropolitan city centre.
    London Tube was build for the working class from the suburbs, bringing the working class to “the city”

    Also the city of London *downtown is only 1 square mile.
    Paris centre is 10 times the size of London centre.

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