The London Underground

6 07 2012

Since I arrived in London nearly ten months ago I have tried my best to keep you updated on how I have adjusted to the city, what adventures I have embarked on, and how I have adapted to life across the pond, but one thing I haven’t gone into too much detail about is the London Underground. The tube, as it’s colloquially known, is a whole different world and I feel like it has taken me all this time to truly understand the significance it has on London.

When I first got to London I was very excited to board the Piccadilly line from Heathrow and head to my new (albeit temporary) home in Hammersmith, but the more I become accustomed to London the more I begin to realize that the tube isn’t much more than a necessity. When the system works well it is an incredible mode of transport that uses 11 different lines (plus 2 overground lines) to shift over 3.5 million people a day, but the key phrase in that sentence is “when the system works well”. Day after day I have noticed and experienced delays or closures throughout my commute and despite being the most expensive transit system in Europe it seems to actually be getting worse as the summer approaches. I will discuss this a bit more later in this blog but firstly I want to give you a sense of what the tube is like.

The typical routine of riding the tube is something I have previously described in A Day in the Life of a Supply Teacher  but what I will do here is discuss the tube in a more general capacity. The best word I can use to describe riding the tube is efficiency, the entire experience is based on passengers doing things in a quick manner and if you fail to learn the unwritten rules quickly you will cause an amazing amount of frustration to those waiting in the queue behind you. When I first experienced commuting during rush hour traffic I was overwhelmed by the amount of people, but within a few weeks I came to realize that commuting on weekends and in off peak hours can be much more exasperating as the platforms become full of people lackadaisically meandering on the wrong side of the escalator or looking completely perplexed right next to the turnstiles.  Admittedly the tube can be quite a daunting task when you first attempt to use it but for locals attempting to go about their day it gets rather infuriating.

While the tube is not the preferred mode of transport for many, it is the only option most Londoners have when they want to get around the city. The problem with this of course is that the workers of the London Underground are far too aware of this fact and have been using the threat of strike action to gain wage increases and bonuses for working during the Olympics. The threat of a strike, even for a day, causes panic in the city and eventually the government is forced to cave into the demands of the tube drivers, part of the reason the system has become so expensive!

One of the few benefits of the ever increasing fare hikes is that the tube does continue to expand.  Since its introduction in 1863 (the oldest underground railway in the world) the growth of the system has been continuous and this is only set to increase in the next few years. Since my last visit to London in 2006 the city has introduced the Overground section and the Docklands Light Railway, which has allowed the eastern part of London to develop and grow. While this expansion is still taking place the new plan for expanding the city limits of London has already begun. Crossrail, to be introduced in 2019, will essentially link Oxford and Cambridge to London via the tube system meaning daily commuting from these once quaint university towns will become commonplace. The rapid growth of the tube is certainly quite impressive for a person from Vancouver, a city that can’t seem to extend its rapid transit into the west side of the city.

One of the reasons I decided to write this blog now is that as the Olympics approach the tube is going to become a very hot topic. It will likely get global attention worldwide and will almost certainly be criticized by the international media and travelers. The tube is certainly not a perfect system, and during the games there will be delays and problems. If these problems are limited to overcrowding and being too hot it has to be deemed a success as the tube is overcrowded at the best of times, and if the weather cooperates it will be unbearably hot. More than likely however passengers during the games will face delays, temporary line closures and slow moving queues while boarding trains. I don’t think it will be nearly as bad as Atlanta was in the 1996 Olympics but I suspect the transport will be a point of contention. Within the last few weeks there has been a Central Line closure due to major flooding (2 million tonnes of water) in one of the tunnels and there was a train stuck in a tunnel in St John’s Wood on the Jubilee line that resulted in 800 people having to leave the train only to be led on foot via flashlight down the tunnel to the nearest exit. I fear London could become a laughing stock if similar incidents were to take place during the Olympics.

Although the tube is moaned about by most Londoners and usually only mentioned with negative connotations, there are some lighter points to riding the trains. The drivers and platform managers are quite often very colourful characters that will often crack jokes during announcements to lighten the mood. It truly is a fascinating mode of transport that, when working, is a very impressive way to travel.  In a city as dense as London such a complicated tube system is necessary and has far more positives than negatives. The system will certainly never be perfect but overall it is one of the better transport systems I’ve seen and something anyone who comes to London must experience…just please try and do so efficiently!

For more information on the tube, I highly recommend the BBC programme “The Tube”, a 6 part series all about the London Underground and the intricacies of such a complicated system

Also, while I have done my best to describe the tube I can’t hold a candle to the description by comedian Michael McIntyre. Check out this from Live at the Apollo on boarding the tube.

Finally, here is a blog focussed entirely on the London Underground. Going Underground.




2 responses

7 07 2012

Love those maps Jono – I teach the Tub map in my GIS class as an example of topology – and how frustrating it is when one tried to use to as a city map as it is so spatially distorted. I was so excited by my first tube experience – I did not have one good experience and would rather walk anywhere……

7 07 2012
Jonathan Wynn

The map is rather peculiar in that sense for sure, the problem is when you show the “actual” tube map it becomes that much more difficult for tourists to comprehend so they decided to simplify it. Below is the link to an alternative tube map that has become a bit more popular here recently.

As for the experience on the tube, they rarely are enjoyable, but it would be tough to find a better way to move all the traffic in an around this city. I personally prefer the bus if I have a few extra minutes, or a bike…but with the nature of my job I am quite dependent on the tube.

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