Saturday, 28 March 2009

Tube tales

Following the stunning success of my earlier post about airports, which was literally inundated with a comment, I’ve decided to offer you a few disconnected thoughts/quotations about the Underground, prompted by a recent trip to London to see my publisher and those nice people at the Guardian.

1. The PA systems on the London Underground use the voices of professional actors, digitally recorded and stored on computer. The operator can programme the computer to play several different messages (‘Stand clear of the train doors please …’, ‘Please remember to keep all your belongings with you …’, ‘London Underground wishes to apologise …’) at pre-set intervals. ‘Mind the Gap’, reiterated ad infinitum over the PA system to customers alighting from trains and now emblazoned on sweatshirts and baseball caps, is an uncomfortable reminder that the trains do not quite fit the platforms. (The phrase originated on the Northern Line at Embankment, where the gap between the curved platforms and the train was particularly wide.)

2. With its fluctuating levels of decrepitude and renovation, the Tube is a case study in the unevenness of progress. The contrast is most marked at Stratford, where the scruffy old Central Line platform stands next to a new glass-and-aluminum terminus serving the Jubilee Line Extension. The Underground is full of the residues of past lives: seats with depressed springs from being sat on by countless bottoms, headrests blackened by hair oil and dirt, skeletons of defunct roundels, disused lift shafts, ghost stations with darkened platforms which trains pass through without stopping.

3. ‘For most travellers, distant locations such as Cockfosters, Morden and Upminster are of little consequence; these places, if they exist at all, have a conceptual rather than a physical life, prompted only by illuminated destination boards and the unremitting automated litany of train Tannoy systems.’ – Simon James

4. Even the humblest London office workers have air-conditioning, water coolers and a reasonable amount of desk space. But a Tube train on one of the deep-level lines can squeeze 1600 passengers through tunnels less than twelve feet in diameter. The transport of live animals within the EU is subject to rules about minimum space and maximum temperature that would be the envy of most rush-hour Tube passengers in the summer. The overcrowding on the Tube was brought home to me quite starkly during one journey a few years ago, when I saw a passenger angrily accuse another of using his back as a bookrest.

5. Tube travellers practise what the Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman calls ‘dead-eyeing’, in which two individuals accidentally exchange eye contact but ‘do not ratify the exchange of lookings with the ritual of “social recognition”’. The unspoken rule about not staring at one’s fellow passengers exists in spite of, or perhaps because of, the fact that the layout of the carriages, with longitudinal rather than transverse seating as in most mainline trains, actually encourages staring.

6. There is not enough room on the Underground to undertake essential maintenance when the trains are running. So it’s in the middle of the night that delivery people refill the chocolate machines; cleaners sweep the platforms and remove the 15 tons of rubbish left by passengers every day; bill stickers change the large posters lining the tunnels opposite the platforms; and a train nicknamed the ‘big yellow duster’ sweeps the tunnels of daily debris such as dust, hair, skin cells and particles of brake lining left by passing trains.

7. The absence of published train times – it runs a ‘metro service’, which means that (hopefully) trains turn up too regularly to warrant a timetable - reinforces the sense that the Underground exists outside the normal chronology of the overground world. The principal indicators of time on the platforms are the dot-matrix information displays hung from the ceiling, which tell people how many minutes they will have to wait for the next train. But these minutes are a notoriously contractable or (more usually) expandable resource, because their accuracy depends on incomplete signalling information and boarding delays on stations further up the line. There is an urban myth that London Underground ‘minutes’ are decimalised to last 100 seconds, but in fact they often last even longer than this.

8. The adverts placed above people’s heads in the Tube carriages often provide a barbed counterpoint to the journey: ‘You are here. You should be here [arrow pointing to a picture of a beach].’ ‘Scotland by Air. 1½ hours from this poster.’ ‘After a hard way’s work, I love to ride the tube’ [an advert promoting tourism in the West Country with a photo of a bronzed surfer riding a tubular wave].

9. When escalators first appeared on the Underground in 1911, at Earl’s Court, many passengers worried that their feet would be trapped in the machinery. ‘Bumper’ Harris, a man with a wooden leg, was drafted in to demonstrate how easy and safe it was to travel on them. Soon the escalators were a tourist attraction. People stopped at Earl’s Court deliberately to try them out. When a second escalator was installed at Paddington station, staff directed passengers to it with megaphones: ‘This way to everywhere! Moving staircase in operation – the world’s wonder!’ London Underground began the stand-on-the-right rule on escalators in 1944: ‘Here’s another bright suggestion, standing right avoids congestion.’ Today the Underground’s escalators carry passengers at a maximum speed of 145 feet a minute. Above 160 feet per minute, people hesitate before getting on them. (Source: Peter Campbell, ‘Why Does It Take So Long to Mend an Escalator?’, London Review of Books, 7 March 2002)

10. The notion that our lives can be irrevocably changed by a chance encounter is a recurring theme of Underground narratives – like Tube Tales, a series of short films set on the Underground in which narrative possibilities are sparked by out-of-the-ordinary events, such as a drunken woman vomiting on other passengers or a group of people debating what to do about a bird trapped in a carriage. Then there is Sliding Doors which, like Kieslowski’s Blind Chance, uses two parallel plotlines based on whether or not the central character (Gwyneth Paltrow) manages to catch a train. Many narratives about the Tube overcompensate for its sense of communal loneliness by pointing to the possibility of romantic encounters - like the recent advert on the Tube for Dateline which showed a man and woman passing each other on adjoining escalators with the lines: ‘Don’t let love pass you by. The person you go past or the person sitting next to you could be your future partner.’


  1. wow! i didn't know all of that...and i thought that the London towers and the Big-Ben are the main Sightseeings there..i must find time to share with the underground a real touristic visit!

  2. Someone linked me to this after I tweeted about how tube minutes don't seem to resemble GMT minutes. And since I've just be most entertained by your piece and since I'll be regaling people with my new tube-facts until their eyes glaze over, I thought I'd let you know how much I enjoyed it!