Here in America, I was taught in the mid-60s by disc jockeys playing the Petula Clark song that in the UK "subway" means a pedestrian tunnel beneath a street, not an urban rail transit system. But on today's rerun of "The Saint", an episode set in London, a character with a British accent says to Mr. Templar, "She committed suicide. She stepped off a subway platform right in front of a train." This episode is in color, meaning it was made around 1968-69.

So can subway be used for the Tube as well?

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    I want to point out that this is not merely a US-UK thing. In New York City, the underground electric light rail system is called the "subway", but in Washington DC is called the "metro" and never called the "subway". In Chicago I believe it's called "the el" (or maybe "ell"). Dallas has no underground system, but the above ground system is called "DART". I think Los Angeles' system is called "metro" also. As far as I know, "subway" refers only to New York's system, when you're actually in the various cities in the US. Movies and TV shows often use "subway" regardless of the city. – Todd Wilcox Jun 4 '19 at 5:48
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    @ToddWilcox - isn't the Chicago one elevated (Hence "el") rather than underground, sort of making it the opposite of a subway? – colmde Jun 4 '19 at 7:48
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    I'll note that, while I understood The Saint to be set in Britain, it appeared to be targeted to a largely US audience. While the accents were largely British (though "toned down" to a degree) the dialog was often so American in word choice that it sometimes sounded fake (if that makes sense for fiction). I suspect that the writers were under orders to avoid using words that would confuse the American audience, even if they would not "ring true" to a British audience. – Hot Licks Jun 4 '19 at 12:02
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    @ToddWilcox To say DC folks never call the metro subway is a bit of a stretch. Metro is definitely the usual term however. – duct_tape_coder Jun 4 '19 at 16:25
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    @duct_tape_coder I would also add that everyone in DC understands that "the metro" IS a subway. They just call it the metro. It's not like if someone called it a subway, no one would know what they meant. The general term in the US for this type of travel is, in fact, "subway". It's just that certain cities call theirs by another name. – user91988 Jun 4 '19 at 19:03

Your understanding of the different uses of "subway' are correct. In the UK it means a passage (usually walkway) beneath something, often a street.

However with internationally marketed entertainment a different dynamic often comes into play. Whereas British audiences would mostly have understood the meaning of Americanisms, even in 1969, it was generally assumed that US audiences would not have understood the meaning of Britishisms, even if they were used in a strictly British context. Such shows often take the decision to use the American terminology even when it is illogical to do so.

For an extreme example consider the movie Sliding Doors, which constantly uses American references ("Jeopardy", "Class One drugs") even though it is entirely set in Britain and virtually all the characters are British.

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    Shouldn't it be "schedule", not "class" for something in the Controlled Substances Act? – K.A.Monica Jun 3 '19 at 23:43
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    Currently Glasgow is in the UK - spt.co.uk/subway – Pete Kirkham Jun 4 '19 at 7:36
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    @K.A The movie splts the difference between "Class A" (UK) and "Schedule I" (USA). – alephzero Jun 4 '19 at 9:03
  • @PeteKirkham And that's the only other underground railway network in the UK. But the question is, really, about London rather than the UK as a whole. – David Richerby Jun 4 '19 at 14:03
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    Yeah, the London Underground is always called The Underground or The Tube. In Glasgow (Scotland), "subway" would have the same meaning as in the US. The only other cities to have anything approaching 'subways' are Newcastle ("The Metro") and Liverpool (no specific name, treated as part of normal rail network). – Algy Taylor Jun 4 '19 at 15:05

I cannot account for The Saint, but as a native of England I would find it very strange to hear another of my countryfolk refer the London Underground system as the subway. It would almost always be referred to as the Underground or the Tube.

Take the underground for two stops, but be quick as the tube station closes early on weekends.

Subway in the UK tends to refer, as you say, to a path underground typically beneath a busy road system. Also referred to as a pedestrian underpass, with footbridges over busy roads often called a pedestrian overpass as an antonym.

If you don't want to cross through the traffic there is a subway you can use, or there's the overpass if you don't mind heights.

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    FWIW "pedestrian underpass" would be perfectly normal in American English as well, at least for a short tunnel that dips under one road (or highway). A tunnel connecting, say, two buildings and not necessarily bypassing anything in specific wouldn't normally be an underpass. – mattdm Jun 4 '19 at 13:46

The author of the Saint novels, while not being American did live in the states for most of the period that he was producing the books, so it is possible that the particular usage you have picked up bled into the author's vocabulary during that time.

Leslie Charteris was born in Singapore to a Chinese father and English mother. He was educated in the north of England and briefly at Cambridge before moving to the US where he spent most of the rest of his life, so his familiarity with the niceties of the usage in regard to the London underground may have been limited by lack of exposure.

Of course, the line may be attributable to a script writer rather than Charteris, but even within the UK at that time the distinction between 'Underground' and 'subway' was, to an extent, peculiar to the London Underground. Glasgow's underground railway (the world's third oldest) has included 'Subway' in its name at its inception and currently.

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    "Since its inception"... apart from the period 1936-2003, when its name was Glasgow Underground. – Toby Speight Jun 4 '19 at 8:37
  • And I believe locals still tend to call it the "Underground" (though I could be wrong). – Muzer Jun 4 '19 at 9:14
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    @TobySpeight Fair enough, I used it regularly during that period and everyone I knew called it the subway. – Spagirl Jun 4 '19 at 9:50
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    Yes, the reason they changed it back was because it was still being called that. – Toby Speight Jun 4 '19 at 10:02

As a term subway applies to many passages that occur beneath ("sub") street-level. The Oxford English Dictionary lists three usages that all have the general sense of a tunnel under something else:

1 a. Chiefly British. An underground tunnel providing access to sewers and other subterranean public utilities, or used to convey water and gas pipes, telegraph wires, etc.

b. A tunnel (esp. a walkway) beneath a road, river, railway, etc., permitting easy movement from one side to the other. The usual term in North America is tunnel.

2 An underground railway. Cf. earlier sub-railway n. 2. The usual term for the underground railways in North America, and for that in Glasgow. Often applied to other similar railways in non-English speaking countries (see quot. 1960), although metro n.2 is also a common designation. Cf. tube n. 7b, underground n. 3.

All three have notes for regional use. In North America, underground passages tend to be tunnels. In the UK, these passages are subways. Meanwhile, underground rail would be called subway in most of North America and Glasgow but have specific terms in other places (the London Underground or Tube, the DC Metro, and so on).

It would be unusual to call London's underground rail a subway except by analogy. That said, it's possible that person using the tube was from Glasgow, that they associated the platform with the underground walkways connecting platforms (of which there are many!) rather than the train platform, or something else semantically consistent but odd usage-wise.


There is some confusion here between proper and improper nouns here. "metro" is widely used in Britain is a similar sense the USA to refer an urban railway or train service with frequent trains and stops. "subway" is likely to be understood in it's American sense (metro with a significant underground section) if there is sufficient context to exclude the British sense of a pedestrian tunnel.

A "subway station" could be either an metro station that is underground, or a station on a subway line.

"(the) London Underground", "the Underground", and "the Tube" are proper nouns and refer to an organisation (currently part of Transport for London, part of the London government) and the railways and train services it runs. "tube" may also refer to the small diameter trains and tunnels used on some London Underground lines.

"the London metro" is undefined, except for the Docklands Light Railway there is no set of railway lines with stops closer together, High Speed 1 is the only dedicated express line which not next to a metro line. See an old geographical map or the current plan. Compare with Paris, Brussels, Hamburg, New York and Washington DC.

Since London has no metro, can it have a subway? Possibly, but there are railway lines outside of London Underground with significant underground sections including the East London Line (since 2010), Elizabeth Line (under construction) and Waterloo & City Line (before 1995).

In summary, you can call many London Underground and some non-London Underground station "subway stations", but London Underground is not the "London Subway" and is definitely not the metro.

The reason the journeys in central London often involve the Underground, is that it and the Thameslink route are the only railways that cross central London.

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