London Underground review
I am standing on the platform waiting for the train to come. Everyone is looking into the dingy tunnel for the first sign of the bright lights on the concrete wall. When it finally comes it is accompanied by a loud roar and a quick blast of wind as the train pushes the air along with it. Then you get the clacking and screeching of wheels as it speeds past your face at a surprising pace, until it finally comes to an abrupt halt further up the line. The doors will pause for a few seconds and then whoooosh—it’s open—and it’s every man for himself then. The fight is on!
Most of the trains in rush hour operate every 3-5 minutes, but nobody wants to wait that long. It’s this train, this train, gotta get THIS train, let me on, outta the way folks—move down the carriage! Everyone will cram in as tight as they can for fear of being left behind. It’s like the last train out of hell before the gates slam shut. The departing passengers all have to try and squeeze out in the scrum, through a surging crowd that won’t give them any space. Before they have even had time to step off we will all be cramming on, sucked into the gaps like a vacuum. Did we make it? Have I still got my hat and bag? What about my arms and legs? Yup, I am safely aboard—thank Christ for that.
I think a lot of Londoners take the tube for granted; but there is some nice stuff underground if you take the time to look. It’s not all rubble, mud and worms down there. I like a lot of the station architecture (my god I’m getting old… I’m turning into a saddo!). The traditional stations all have deep creamy tiles and tunnels running between the platforms. A lot of them look a bit art deco, from the 1920s/30s. That is what people picture when they think of the tube. But these days, of course, they have done away with all the pretty stuff because it’s too time consuming and expensive to build. So the modern stations are all glass, concrete and steel. It’s a bit like entering the body of an industrial machine, walking along their metal veins and down escalator arteries, until they pump the people out the other end. I suppose the idea is just to funnel people through as quickly as possible—they don’t want them hanging around the ticket halls taking up space.
Once you are safely on the train you can take ten seconds to check out your neighbours. Don’t stare at them for any longer than that, though, or they’ll think you’re a weirdo. Commuters don’t care if they are touching strangers on the underground. There is no “personal space” on the tube. I’ve had my face pressed up against the doors before, and morphed my body into the shape of the concave wall—as long as I get on, I don’t care.
If the train is less crowded and you manage to get a seat, then you’ll have the perennial problem of where to point your eyes. Tube train seats are usually arranged opposite each other, so you’ll always have someone staring directly into your face. You can’t look out the window, can you—because it’s underground. So what you need to develop is a sudden interest in their shoes, for example. Just stare at their shares for ten minutes, or whip out your mobile phone and play with that instead. One lady near me is currently applying some blusher in a handheld mirror—but that’s not really an option for me. I just stare at the floor instead. That is what I do.
If you turn your gaze down the carriage then you will see a big mix of facial expressions, ranging from animated tourist chatter to total boredom. My favourite ones are the solitary people who are replaying old conversations in their head. Sometimes they do the facial expressions that go with them as well, without thinking, and you can see them in the middle of a moody scowl, or perhaps even a victory smile. They are probably conversations where people have complimented them, or when they’ve argued with someone and won. But now they’ve embellished the conversations with words they never said, so they are ten times better than they actually were. I probably do this too sometimes—I think we all do. I’m in sour need of some new memories, I think. I’m getting bored with my ones; I’ve forgotten half of them. Dreams are just memories that you’ve made up. I wouldn’t have to dream at all if my memories weren’t so !!@$%$%.
If you were unfortunate enough to fall asleep on the tube, then I think it would be quite a scary place to wake up. It’s full of terrifying clacks and rumbles as it roars along the tunnel. It’s all screeches and sharp wheels grinding on metal. You can see little sparks of lightning illuminate the tunnel walls sometimes, and red stoplights rushing past the window. Every now and then the electricity will drop out for a few seconds and plunge the entire carriage into darkness.
As the train gets closer to your destination you have to start plotting your escape. If you’ve been a bit dumb up until this point then you will find yourself stranded halfway down the carriage, with a big fight on your hands to get out. You will have to squeeze past about twenty people with big bags and briefcases, whilst another bunch of people are simultaneously surging through the door. So what you have to do is take up your exit position in plenty of time. You have to plan it like a military operation—plot your route of escape, and be ready to move as soon as the opportunity arises. You don’t want to get barricaded behind a phalanx of enemy commuters plugging up your exit.
Even when you successfully get off the train, the battle is still not over. You’ll probably find yourself swimming in a sea of people all washing along the platform, flowing to the exit plughole. You’ll just have to hope that the people at the front know where they are going, because that’s where you’ll be going too, one way or another. Then it’s up the mile-long escalators, which gives you plenty of time to smile at the pretty women descending down the other way—safe in the knowledge that by the time they get to the bottom you will be safely at the top.
There is a rule on the escalators that you only stand on the righthand-side. The lefthand-side is reserved for people in a rush—the one’s who want to expend some energy running up the moving stairs. Every now and then you’ll get someone who doesn’t know the rule, and will stand there chatting to their mates, blocking up the aisle. But being British, of course, no one will dare to say anything. They’ll just bundle up behind in a big traffic jam and mutter obscenities in their head. When the blockage is popped at the top, everyone will rush across the ticket hall to make up lost time.
The buskers are pretty decent on the Underground. I think they must audition them or something, to make sure that they can actually play. You can usually hear them from 100-feet away—long before they come into view. The music carries through the tunnels and up the escalators, notes bouncing back off the brick walls and deep into the station. The noise gets gently louder until eventually you see them strumming their song, hoping for some money. I wonder why they are always musicians, though? You never see anyone telling jokes or doing card tricks. I suppose they don’t want people to stop and watch, and jamming up the tunnels. I reckon that the buskers are secretly wishing for a big crowd to grow, like they’re playing on a stage, but all they ever get is a never-ending stream of people’s fronts and backs, forever on their way to somewhere else. It must be quite dispiriting to see your audience fritter away every time a train comes by.
Guest – I'm a newbie to using an Oyster card on the tube and am only an occasional visitor to London, so I have just topped up my PAYG card which I purchased a couple of years ago. Cool, eh? I am planning a visit tomorrow and my friend and I are travelling from Victoria tube station to Wimbledon. I have checked the route planner and it tells me that I have to get the District line from Victoria to Earl's Court, then change trains but get on the District line again to Wimbledon. My question concerning the Oyster card is this: Having tapped the yellow 'thingy' to begin my journey at Victoria, then passed the card to my friend to allow him entry, when we exit the train and get on the other train to Wimbledon, do we have to tap anything and if so, what and where? I am just conscious that I may be charged more than the £2.30 off peak fare, which it should be running between zones 1-3 for this journey. Complicated stuff this tapping in and out with an Oyster! Many thanks. Wendy
this isn't going to work unfortunately. you each need your own ticket or pass. if you try and share one oyster card between the two of you then you could be done for fare evasion. i suppose it is common sense to think that if you tap the same card down twice then it will charge you twice, but it doesn't work like that. only one fare will be registered. you don't have to tap down again whilst changing trains at earl's court. you should be able to walk between the platforms without going through any barriers. (you only have to tap down if you leave the station) you will have to tap down again at wimbledon though, because that's the only way of opening the barrier to exit the station. but you don't have to worry about it charging you twice. that's how the system works — you have to tap down at each end so it knows what route you took.
Guest – Hi Craig Thanks! This was most helpful and yes, I just assumed that the two fares would be deducted from my Oyster card for the two journeys. Now I know not to share my Oyster card and my friend is going to purchase his own when we get to Victoria. I loved your blog about the tube - so true and funny! Happy travel! Wendy
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