Sunday, March 10, 2013

My love affair with a 150 year old dame - the love hate relationship between Londoners and the Tube

London King's Cross St Pancras Underground Tube station
Rushing through the London Underground

The rocky relationship with the Tube didn't start off on a good note to say the least. Creaking and screeching through the decade old tunnels with flickering lights and newspapers a strewn didn't exactly create a good first impression. At a princely sum of £1.50 back then for the privilege, it was highway robbery.

Fast forward a few years, two free newspapers - London Lite and The London Paper, now defunct, littering problem in the Tube's train carriages has improved. Even though Evening Standard now becomes free, it is more substantial in news and it normally lasts beyond a mere Tube journey. On the flipside, the Tube fare across has increased to £1.90 in central London.

Like many Londoners, a ride on the Tube has become part of my daily routine. I began to seek out the path of least resistance to my destination with the least effort - which exits to take where the crowd is at its thinnest, where to stand on the platform so that train doors open right beside me, the best standing spot in the cabin that will allow me to spread my newspaper. The list just goes on.

I guess there will always be this love hate relationship between Londoners and the Tube, which may sound peculiar to visitors. But there are good reasons for this.

London Underground Tube 150 years anniversary
From the open air carriages hardly bigger than coal cars, the Tube has come a long way

The human touch

There is widespread support for Boris' driverless trains when Tube drivers went on strike on Boxing Day last year, their third in as many years.

But I would dread to have the drivers replaced by soulless machines. Just the other day, the driver chuckled and announced that the train would stop temporarily at the middle of Bank's station platform as "a staff is trying to retrieve something from the track". I was trying to imagine what landed onto the tracks. Looking at the others' amused expressions, I wasn't alone.

The "Old Street station lady" is my favourite. There used to be a lady who manned the northbound platform Northern Line at Old Street station who never failed to put a smile on my face with her chirpy announcements whenever I was heading home. She's not there anymore though and is replaced by a chap who would rather be elsewhere.

Lean on me

Installing elevators and escalators were apparently not on the planners mind when the Tube stations were built, especially those ageing ones. But countless of people manage to negotiate the often treacherous staircases, often with the help of fellow passengers. I literally have to fend off good Samaritans whenever I'm out with a buggy - simply because that is really the only exercise I get these days.

After awhile, you tend to be on a lookout for fellow passengers who need a hand. You can't help it, it's almost contagious.

Internet free

Virgin is now giving its customers wifi access in the underground Tube stations. It's a double edged sword if you ask me - access to the Internet is simply a distraction and adds on to the information overload that hits us the moment we are "online".

For those who are fortunate enough not to be with Virgin, the choice to go online is taken out of our hands. We get to devote sometime to our Kindles, novels and newspapers. Or spend our journey in quiet contemplation.

Not too crowded. Serious. 

The common grouse is that the Tube is overloaded during peak hours. Seriously? Well, I've not had to wait for more than two consecutive trains to board even at the busiest times in central London. Even at Canary Wharf where the queues look horrendously long clears up pretty fast if you stick to the same line. There's an unspoken rule about forming a line and that works well. Fine, there was once I waited till the third train but only because a joker decided to move his entire life's possessions via Tube.

No matter how bad it is, I'd somehow manage to squeeze in and find space to carry on my reading albeit in a manner that a contortionist would be proud of. Thank goodness I've not had a "face to face" encounter, yet.

There, I did my bit. Hopefully the Tube will still be around in another 150 years. That will be another story altogether.

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