Good lord. I’m sure I’m not the only one who occasionally, or rather frequently, steps off the London Underground feeling like I’ve just been through some sordid affair that sadly must be often repeated by necessity. It’s not a question of snobbery, the Tube isn’t some strange world full of people I wouldn’t daaaa to associate with for fear of social graces, it’s practically an intrinsic part of my life as a Londoner, as well as the buses and most forms of public transport the city offers. No amount of use however will ever shake the feeling that the Tube system itself is a fairly woeful thing that for the duration of whatever journey, fundamentally changes its passengers.
This phenomena is probably worthy of its own psychological profile. The nigh on feral clamber for a space really not suitable for a person to squeeze themselves into in regular circumstances, the sudden disappearance of any sense of spacial awareness that prompts a platform full of people to relentlessly press into the carriages that are already actually very full… the temporarily abandoned convention that a matter of inches or less is a bit too close a proximity for one’s face to another. And residing over all of this, the complete lack of communication between all these people sharing a commonly unpleasant experience. Try for a knowing smile towards a fellow sardine and you may get some sort of coy recognition, if you’re lucky.
Anything so bold as striking up a conversation is more times than otherwise going to elicit a marginal look of fear or confusion, masked sometimes by a nervous smile, followed by the minimum of number of words required to disengage without being overtly dismissive. No other place in the city will stir up that sense of being solitary in a sea of people. Rarely if ever is there a sense of camaraderie, despite this being the plight of hundreds of thousands of people every day. Around 1.229 billion people, and growing, use the Tube annually, but compared to other services around the world this isn’t all that much. God help the people of Seoul, Tokyo, Shanghai, Beijing, New York, Paris, Mexico City or Hong Kong.
Or perhaps rather, adequately-serviced-metropolitan-rail-links-with-remotely-sufficient-capacity help these people… and it seems in some cases this alien concept actually does. I don’t want to rant, rave and give wholesale condemnation to TFL, as I know perfectly well that there are structural inhibitions that severely hamstring any hopes of London sporting the same kind of facilities as say, Taipei, where the boulevard-like platforms sparkle underfoot as you await a high speed train that arrives with pinpoint precision and invites you into truly spacious and immaculate carriages. The MRT, as it is known in that city, only came into service in 1996 and had the benefit of being planned and constructed with modern transportation expectations in mind.
Its annual “ridership” is also only about half of what London is required to accommodate, but still… memories of those journeys can’t help but spring up every time I’m directly inhaling the sweat vapours of some beleaguered, besuited professional entirely transfixed on the screen of their iPad in a hopeless bid to suppress the genuine discomfort and frustration of the commute. I think to Tokyo or Seoul also, where either by the military precision of operations, and perhaps by some unspoken communal contract between passengers that order trumps chaos, things seem to work relatively well, and generally speaking while managing around twice the numbers of voyagers as London.
I do not think it is unfair to say that the London Underground is deficient, a problem that will only become more obvious as the already strained service is further put under pressure in the years to come. There are and have been dribs and drabs of alleviation from TFL, such as the DLR, Tramlink, improvements to the Overground, the utterly gimmicky Emirates Air Line… and we can look forward to the unveiling of Crossrail, but is it all enough? Are updated fleets for the Metropolitan Line and Hammersmith & City really going to tackle this looming crisis of critical over-congestion? The Piccadilly Line at rush hour screams no.
I wonder if it’s inevitable that the planners will one day have to bite the bullet and think about tackling the core issue of the blatantly outdated and constrictive tunnels that worm their way through the city with a quaint sort of Victorian character, but are albeit insufficient to cope with future needs. I dread to think of the disruption caused by a project of such magnitude, and even wonder if it’s actually feasible at all. But if it was possible I could only ever conclude that it should, if not must be an undertaking worth pursuing. And not just because it would ultimately make life that much more pleasant for the residents of this global city.
Every Tube journey brings with it the sight of a legion of tourists, which lends itself to the “Where are they from?” guessing game. Integral to these inner queries is also the somewhat forlorn thought of their probably less than impressed judgements of London’s facilities. There’s no question of the city’s high standing in the league of international hotspots, but when it comes to the Underground you can only help but feel we’re at best slightly ashamed pretenders. On a similar note, Heathrow Airport is probably a more shocking indictment of the same kind of failure. If HS2 does go belly up then I have some fairly reasonable suggestions for what to do with that loose £50 billion.