On The Line


My commuter life has turned from bus-centric to tube-centric, so there’s no better time to catch up with BBC’s The Tube on iPlayer.  For those of us intent on cursing through gritted, irritated teeth each time the tannoy tells us we are delayed due to technical issues or signalling faults, watch this programme.  The army of diligent night workers repairing tracks, ensuring safety with deft experience would chastise anyone.  One of the world’s most efficient transport networks runs with a 99% safety and delivery record thanks to the army of technical staff who maintain tracks and trains at night while London sleeps.  Then we wake up, chuck back a coffee and hop on the network without thinking twice about the nature of the work involved.  Perhaps this says something about the blase attitude of the urban traveller.  Perhaps this says something of the culture of the declining of respect in our public services.

Take, for example, Mike, who has an air rifle and ten children.  He also appears to have only ten teeth.  Mike was seen at 4 in the morning in Acton Town station, taking part in the war against pigeon crap as the only way to stop the line becoming filled with bird shit is to shoot the pigeons.  Their crap gets everywhere, making tracks and lines filthy and dangerous and occasionally, I learned, even managing to get into the tubes and shit on the seats.  “Shoot ’em straight in the head to go for the kill,” said Mike, as one perky pigeon bought the farm and flopped down out of the eaves.  Mike is one of 20,000 people trying to keep 4 million of us moving safely and swiftly throughout the network.

On Friday nights, the engineering works that cannot take place during commuter travel begin.  There is a 52 hour window in which vital work must be completed before the morning commute on Monday,  Harrow-on-The-Hill, Ealing Broadway, High Barnet – these suburban outposts suddenly get temporarily shut down so an army of bright-orange-jacketed men descend below stairs with hard hats to resolve track issues, replace electrical wiring and dance around the rats.  The words “Rail Replacement Bus Service” are usually enough to bring any suburban Londoner out in hives.  Such was the damage of the tube infrastructure during the years of fundamental under-investment in the 1980s and 1990s, that a fortune is now being poured into the system, and every single weekend vital – and expensive – works take place to render the underground truly fabulous.  £10billion will be spent over the next 15 years.  The chief engineers monitor progress scrupulously.  None of this explains why my morning train between Euston and Oxford Circus smells of undigested pie and week-old urine, however.

We saw a train announcer drily stating over the tannoy to a late Friday night crowd that he was sorry the last train was cancelled, but there was “significant vomit” in the carriages.  Other Friday Night Liverpool Street Station specials included people playing plastic guitars whilst dancing the wrong way down / up an escalator, random strangers hugging ticket inspectors and announcing they “loved” them,  and kindly, concerned Underground staff asking boozed up insurance brokers who were dribbling into the Burger King bags on the Westbound platform whether they were okay.  Most people, when alarmingly drunk, are very apologetic.  They’re sorry about the can of Grolsch they accidentally brought into the station and started swigging from.  They’re sorry they used their Visa Debit card to tap into the barriers rather than the Oyster, meaning an Underground employee had to run down the escalator after them.  They’re sorry they sang “Happy Birthday” to strangers six times before passing out in a puddle of their own bodily emissions.   Jane, the Station Supervisor, has a natural authority about her.  “It’s concerning really,” she says.  “These people hold our financial world in their hands,” she noted, watching a City broker fail on his fifth attempt to press his Oyster card against a barrier reader.

The Network Operations Centre stands as some kind of Orwellian omniscient eye over the entire network.  It’s like their masterminding a war from there.  A buzz of efficiency dominates the atmostphere as unintelligible, miniscule lights flash and beep and make pretty patterns.   All of London Underground’s 500 individually numbered trains are monitored and buzz around the screens like little underground PacMen.  Back at Liverpool Street, a station controller confirmed the tannoy codes:   Cleaner Code 1 = blood.  Cleaner Code 2 = urine / faeces.  Cleaner Code 3 – vomit.  90% of tourists to London brave the tube.  89% of them haven’t got a clue where they’re going and are convinced of mysterious truths, such as Big Ben being a station.  One French woman lost her husband, but then the tannoy told her they had located him at Goodge Street.  A station worker accompanied her to the right platform to be reunited with her family.  The map, although a feat of design (as covered in these blog pages before) heralds nothing but confusion and frustration to those unfamiliar with it’s eccentrities, line branches and short cuts.  “I don’t understand it at all,” announced a worldweary Newcastle housewife, seemingly close to tears.  One Australian man, who looked like a spitting image for Danny Baker, thought that the platform numbers on the indicators were train numbers and couldn’t understand why all the lines had to be different colours as well.   The fact that the Northern Line also runs south is a real bone of contention.    Fair enough that the tourists are confused but the natives?  Why are they so dim?  In The Tube it showed all kinds of people, most likely indigenous to these islands,  running like nutters because they had not realised that the last tube was at about twenty minutes after midnight.  The last tube has been at about twenty minutes after midnight for about 60 years, but you’d be amazed at the people who turn up at stations at 1.30am utterly dumbfounded, only to be faced with a disgruntled cleaner.

When I was a child I was always misspelling the word “modern” as “morden”in my homework and would then get irritated notes from the schoolteacher in the margin saying “You don’t mean Morden!  Morden is in SURREY.”  There are many randoms who get the last tube home on the Northern Line and end up falling asleep and waking up Morden, the Northern’s last stop.    “Wakey Wakey, rise and shine! It’s the end of the Northern Line!”  announces doughty Mark Jenner, Morden’s station supervisor, to three slumped figures, worse for wear, dressed in high street suits and clutching Sainsburys bags.   Most of his night routine involves waking North Londoners up to tell them it’s 1.30am and they are in Zone 6 at the wrong end of the city now unable to get the tube back in.  “I was at Chalk Farm.  I went out to dinner with some friends and then fell asleep, ” seems to be the most popular excuse.

After service, the 250 trains go into a depot to bedrooms and have a little sleep.  That’s of course, after the revellers have gone home.  On Saturday nights, Leicester Square station has the biggest incidences of crime related callouts, with almost Dickensian levels of pickpocketing through the evenings.  One Saturday evening at 11.30pm, a stabbing on Platform 4 of Leicester Square turned the station into a crime scene and left hundreds of revellers forced to seek alternative transport.  This crowd, the tired, drunk, surly, disobedient one,  renders the tube station supervisor most at risk from physical attack.  It was odd that the station supervisor at Leicester Square called patrons psychological states on entering the system as featuring  “tunnel vision.”  He believed that travellers see no other objectives other than their need to get to where they want to go.  His story about once witnessing patrons stepping down an escalator over a corpse, was offered in support of this, without ever realising that most of those travellers probably thought they were just stepping over another drunk.     Regular readers to this blog may have detected The Bluebird Ethic : not for us the prurience and macabre rubber-necking of some of our most blighted journalism.  Whilst certain daily periodicals in this green and pleasant land are intent on convincing you that society has self-combusted, that there is no such thing as decency any more, that we are all powerless in a vortex of mediocrity, fake tits and dysfunction, and that we have nothing to feel but futile negativity, we aim to show the fundamental decency in most of the population – and most of Londoners – and celebrate the aspects of our city life that work, that should be celebrated and that cause pleasure in those about their leisure, and how, put simply, if all the 70 million people on this island were flailing in their own moral vacuum, wearing hoodies, obsessing about the X factor and smoking crack whilst downloading porn then we wouldn’t actually still be here.

The patience, tolerance and humanity of those who work in the stations was a humbling thing and one that deserves to be celebrated.  It is difficult to think of a public service system that generates less grace or thanks than the London Underground service.  What this programme reveals is that none of us truly get the work that goes into settling us into our migraine-patterned seats.  Perhaps that is merely the blase attitude of the citydweller.  We have adjusted to excellence and subsequently none of us appreciate the excellent qualities of standards that go into a system that, despite its legions of men crawling around amidst electrical cables and wiring and signals, despite its unwillingness to truly burrow into the heart of Londoners with any sentiment or affection at all, despite the complaints so drearily heard about the heat of the Victoria Line, or the delays at Camden Town, remains one of the world’s safest, cleanest and most prompt subway systems.  Unfailingly polite in the face of the most jaded, hysterical and paraletic of our citizens whilst maintaining the kind of cleaning, safety and checking standards that I have yet to witness in any other profession, both tube drivers and frontline station workers see more madness than airline hostesses or transatlantic pilots.  The loneliness of the long distance tube driver must be a difficult aspect of the job to tolerate.  I doubt that the average pilot has 41 people try to kill themselves by flinging themselves under their mode of transport every week.   It seems peculiar that the public begrudges tube drivers their salaries whilst no one points out the cost of pilots flying everybody out around the world and destroying the environment in the process.  This programme succeeded in several ways : by painting a fascinating picture of the life lived underground by a section of society rarely seen and never praised, and making Joe Public realise the amount of tolerance and strength required to deal with all of us, and perhaps learn to respect it.  They deserve every penny they get.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday. 

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