I spend a lot of my time travelling around London on the underground. It might not be the cheapest way to get about but it’s almost always the fastest and most efficient – unless you happen to have a helicopter at your disposal! Unfortunately you can easily get caught out if your preferred route shuts down either for engineering works or faulty signals – we’ve all been there, and it sucks if you find out too late, so I use a selection of excellent London tube apps to make it all a bit less hassle and a bit more fun:
This is going to be a pretty lengthy review of each of these apps, so if you’re pressed for time here’s the lowdown: Tube Tracker and Tube Deluxe both do pretty much the same job of planning your route, finding nearby stations and tracking those pesky delays with a custom update pushed to your phone and while I personally favour Tube Tracker I can recommend you try out both; and Tube Exits is a genius app that tells you which carriage to get on to arrive directly opposite the station exist, shaving minutes off your journey especially during rush hour.
This post is ready to depart, please mind the closing doors…
Tube Tracker (£1.99) is definitely my favourite right now. I was already using Tube Deluxe and didn’t notice it until it launched version 2 in January 2013 with a big redesign in favour of a distinctive, flatter sort of look which I really like. It feels different to a lot of iOS 6 utility apps, going for neither a heavily skeuomorphic design, nor one that uses much, if any, of the standard iOS 6 glossiness.
Tools are collected in tabs along the bottom. First up, Stations presents a list of the nearest stations to you, each accompanied by a live compass arrow to point you in the right direction. Tapping a station name presents TfL live departure information (where available – as with all apps using TfL’s data, if it’s not available the app can’t do anything about that), while drilling down into particular trains presents an almost-live depiction of their location on the line which is pretty cool.
Maps is self-explanatory offering both a local, searchable copy of the official London Tube Map, and a Google map of the surrounding area along with a handy ‘5/15/30 minute walk’ radius. There’s no single-line maps like you find inside the tube trains themselves.
Lines displays the line status as you’d find on TfL’s Live Status web page but tap the clock in the top right and a timeline slider drops down, letting you swipe through the calendar and monitor planned engineering disruptions for the next three months all on one page. This is a good design choice – the other app I look at below splits the date selector and results across two pages, which is much less useful.
Plan uses TfL’s Journey Planner API to deliver results presented as neat swipe-able cards which drop into view. You can share the route with friends via email, or flip the card for a Google map complete with directions. A limited planning mode between stations only is available offline, and it saves every plan you create for reference any time, online or not.
While it remembers plenty of recently used stations and locations for your convenience there’s currently no ‘Favourites’ feature, nor an option to choose which methods of TfL transport the planner takes into account. However, I asked the developer, Andy Drizen, and he confirmed both are on the list for updates.
Finally, the More tab hides the settings and developer support details, as well as the Alerts tool that lets you choose which lines to watch and at what times during the day you want to be notified about problems on them.
Tube Tracker has a few fancy tricks up its sleeve such as live-updating lists of every train running on every line, and the ability to send a train-tracking link to friends running the app. They’re not essential but they’re fun and kind of geeky. But there’s a couple more features I really love.
Firstly, official custom URL support: Andy has added custom URL schemes you can use to create actions in apps like Launch Center Pro that take you directly to certain screens in the app such as a particular Line status or a pre-filled Plan request.
For example, I worked out my home location as a GPS coordinate and used the instructions to build a ‘Plan Home’ action for LCP that will open Tube Tracker and automatically work out a route home from wherever I am with just a couple of taps. I borrowed the idea from the second app I talk about below, but that’s the beauty of URL support.
(If you’re interested in Launch Center Pro I wrote about it here.)
And the other hidden gem in Tube Tracker is official Panic Status Board support. Tube Tracker is Universal which is nice but it looks best on the compact screen of the iPhone. However, if you’ve got Status Board installed and want something like the picture above you should visit this page to start setting up your very own Tube Tracker departure board, or read a bit more about what’s possible over at Panic’s blog.
It’s this kind of cool stuff that gets me excited about using an app to do something as mundane as plan my tube journeys, so Tube Tracker is now my favourite tube app and my top recommendation.
However, if you’d like to try a different take on the same sort of thing may I recommend you have a look at…
London Tube Deluxe (69p), by Malcolm Barclay, was my go-to tube app for years, one of the first apps I ever got actually. While it appears to fulfil largely the same purpose as Tube Tracker, or vice versa, it has it’s own handy features you might consider.
At first look it’s fairly plain, but maybe you like that. Tube Deluxe’s look and feel is very much the iOS 6 standard, familiar table layouts, pinstripes, header bars and buttons. It’s done well and feels solid.
Down in the navigation tabs we start with Status, which provides line updates and access to custom Alerts. One advantage over Tube Tracker is the ability to re-order the lines to put your most-used at the top of the display. This would be a good screen to also view future disruption plans, as in Tube Tracker, but they’re hidden elsewhere.
Maps offers separate offline maps for the Underground, every individual Underground line, Overground, DLR, Tramlink and all rail connections, everything you’ll need. There’s also a geolocating Google map available but again it’s hidden elsewhere rather than being accessible from the Maps tab. One nit-pick: unlike Tube Tracker there’s no ability to search the map – you have to zoom in and scroll around looking for the station you want.
The Plan tab offers as near as dammit the most complete Journey Planner experience on the iPhone. After setting the usual travel info you can dive into the settings to adjust preferred modes of transport, preferred numbers of connections, maximum walking and cycling distances, mobility requirements, and save Favourite locations. Tube Tracker doesn’t yet have this level of customisation.
The killer feature here is the built-in Plan Home button. Set up a Home location in Favourites and when you’re out and about and completely lost, tap this button and the app plans a route back home from wherever you are, just like that. Now that’s magic. It doesn’t work offline, but you can’t have everything and that’s what offline maps are for.
(Yes, that’s the function I nicked for my Tube Tracker/LCP action, which perfectly makes up for TT not nicking the idea itself.)
Moving on, the Departures tab provides live station arrival and departure information from TfL, and as such it’s about as accurate as Tube Tracker, just less the fun display of the train moving between stations. There’s also no option to save favourite stations although you can quickly select the last four recently-viewed ones.
It seems odd that favourite stations from elsewhere don’t apply here, especially as I can easily push my ‘home’ station off the recently-viewed list in a day, and searching for it again involves a lot of tapping and swiping
Tucked away in More are various bits that didn’t fit elsewhere, including the Google map, a plain list of nearby stations, and planned closures by line and date (which splits the info and the date selection over two screens, awkwardly).
But there’s also a couple of invaluable hidden gems: full timetables of all TfL transport sorted by station, transit type, and date; and most pleasingly a comprehensive London bus route list with all stops for every route laid out on a Google map with geolocation so you can follow your bus journey and know when to get off.
These last two things are the sole content of some other apps, and it’s just tucked away in the back here!
So… Tube Tracker or Tube Deluxe?
It’s clear these two do pretty much the same things but right now I just love using Tube Tracker the most, for the look and feel, the more logical and efficient (to my mind) layout of features, and definitely all the really cool stuff like live compasses, train tracking, and Launch Center Pro and Status Board support. It makes navigating London by tube feel fun.
But for the completist in you, Tube Deluxe is unofficially pretty much TfL In Your Pocket in a familiar iOS 6 uniform. It just needs a bit of a feature reshuffle and then I want to see how it takes to iOS 7. And to be fair that’s probably what most app designers are thinking about at this very moment.
My solution to the conundrum faced by those seeking the best experience for their money is… get both! £2.68 buys you both the coolest and the safest pair of hands for travelling London both above and below ground. That’s less than the price of a Zone 1-2 peak single so you know what to do.
I use both of these in combination with this third app to master the tube and become a London Underground Ninja…
Tube Exits (69p) – if there’s one app that emerged in the initial ‘there’s an app for that’ goldrush that made me sit up and go "Why didn’t I think of that?" it was this one. Believe me when I tell you that once you’ve used this app a few times you will curse yourself when you forget to.
You tell it your route (just the start and end will do, it does everything else) and it tells you exactly which carriage to get on at each station so that when you change lines or arrive at your destination, when the doors slide open you’re always right next to the appropriate exit. It also provides the latest line status and a tube map
If you’re a tube traveller yet to experience being at the wrong end of a platform at rush hour, get this app and spare yourself the misery. If you have, you’ve probably not even finished reading this page before heading to the App Store – you’re welcome!
Do what I do and combine Tube Exits with either Tube Tracker or Tube Deluxe and you’ll pretty much have London transport cracked. You’ll know which lines have delays, what route you need to take, and which carriages to get on for the quickest transfers and exit. Sorted!