January 13, 2012 9:21 pm

British Institutions: London Underground

The Tube is more confident now than at any time in memory. What is going on?

Bank, Northern line

It is 8.24 on a winter’s morning. The world is in economic meltdown and the masters of the universe are arriving in the City of London, heading for the office, feeling very unmasterly indeed. And to get there they have to confront probably the busiest, most complicated pinch point on the entire London Underground system.

There had been a four-minute gap before the latest northbound train came in, depositing hundreds of dazed-looking passengers on to an unusually narrow platform to mingle with the changers from the other five lines that converge on the linked stations of what is officially called the Bank-Monument Complex.

This is London doing an imitation of the Tokyo subway, almost doing an imitation of a Calcutta tram. It is always the worst part of the day, the evening rush being far more elongated.

Apart from anything else, the noise is terrifying. There are three sets of conflicting instructions: from the blokes on the platform herding the cattle-passengers; from the live station announcer over the loudspeakers; and from the computerised message-system blurting out its eternal stream of drivel.

“Severe delays on the Victoria line.” “Please check for delays at the weekend.” “There will be no services at all on the Docklands Light Railway.” “The next train is approaching.” “This train is for High Barnet.” “Something or other is happening at Lambeth North.” (It must be a defective lift; it’s always the lifts at Lambeth North.)

“Please be advised you do not get Edgware trains from here in the morning.” “I appreciate you need to get to work but please let passengers off the train.” “When boarding please use all available doors.” “Look to your left and right, see if there are any empty doors.”

Had I stayed any longer, I doubtless would have been told that unattended luggage may be destroyed, that skateboarding is prohibited and possibly, that God is Love and The End is Nigh. Hasn’t London Underground ever heard of the wisdom of crowds? Don’t they know that humans are remarkably adept at sorting out difficult situations if officials just stop yelling instructions?

Northern Line control centre

A control centre for the Northern line near Euston that is soon to be decommissioned

Bank station has been a head-scratcher ever since it became London’s first major interchange shortly before the death of Queen Victoria in 1901. The new Central line (“the twopenny tube”) had headed east in as straight a line as you ever get in London: under Oxford Street and Holborn to avoid the problem of paying off property-owners overhead. This was fine until it hit the spider’s web of narrow streets that converge on the Bank of England.

The area was so built up that everything at the station had to be subterranean, ticket offices and all; and the platform space was so constricted that the Central line platforms are more horseshoe than straight, making Bank the “mind the gap” capital of the world (some say the track had to bend round the Bank of England vaults) and the Northern line congestion far worse than it ought to be.

“Are you ever going to sort this place out?” I asked Bob Fleming, an amiable Geordie in charge of modernising the six lifts and 15 escalators that serve Bank and Monument.

“By 2021,” he said. “It’ll be fantastic then.”

The weird thing is that he seemed to be telling the truth. There is a huge improvement programme: diabolical for passengers in the short term, but a potential game-changer after that – one that will eventually see one Northern line platform being diverted to create far more space. And Bank is not the only beneficiary.

. . .

Paddington, Hammersmith & City line

There are worse messes, and Paddington is one of them, where the District, Circle and Bakerloo lines are at one end of the main line station and the Hammersmith and City a solid hike away at the other. This has become even more of a nuisance since 2009, when the Circle line ceased to be a circle and trains began running on a frying-pan shape route between Hammersmith and Edgware Road. The journey from Paddington to King’s Cross and Farringdon – the world’s very first underground route – is now more difficult than it was in 1863. Edgware Road is a cold, baffling, inconvenient place to change.

The Hammersmith & City station still has direct trains, but it is a diabolical place. There is only one proper ticket machine, which had a long queue when I arrived: my Oyster card, naturally, had chosen this moment to run out. I asked a station man where the ticket office was. “Downstairs,” he said. This was not quite what Shakespeare called “the lie direct” but it was what he called “the lie circumstantial”. The office is indeed downstairs but also several hundred yards away, at the other station.

When I twigged that, trudged back, waited in the queue, reloaded the card and headed towards the platform, another station man – who was a New Yorker and thus perhaps instinctively officious – forced me to go back and walk the other way round the rails meant to ease the flow, even though rush hour had by now passed and there was no one else in sight.

“You know this station is a disgrace,” I said to one of his colleagues as I finally stomped down the steps to the platform.

This one was definitely not from New York. “Don’t tell me, mate. You tell the bosses.”

“Well, funnily enough,” I said. “I might just do that...”

Passengers taking the London Underground

. . .

London underground HQ, 55 Broadway

... Because the very next morning I had an appointment with Howard Collins, chief operating officer of London Underground. He listened indulgently to my Paddington story (I didn’t mention my Nemesis from New York). It was being sorted, he said. “If you look over the hoarding you’ll see a new ticket hall being built.”

Bad luck about my regular Paddington-King’s Cross trip, though. I was, he said, one of the losers from the Circle no longer being circular: “But if you look at the overall picture, the Circle line was one of the most unreliable in the world because there was no recovery time. When a District line gets to its terminus at Richmond there is 10 minutes recovery time, so any losses can be made up. On the old Circle you couldn’t get any time back.”

I still don’t think the Underground is ever entitled to say “there is a good service operating on all lines” when the Circle is never any good. But Collins is a beguiling, soothing interviewee, and a great enthusiast. He is an Underground lifer who joined as a trainee 35 years ago and has done just about every job on the system, including toilet cleaning.

Back then, London was losing population – the most ubiquitous ads on the trains came from the Location of Offices Bureau whose job was to encourage businesses to get the hell out and settle in faraway places, such as Milton Keynes. The capital’s transport was gently decaying, and its executives appeared to be in the business of managing decline.

Number 55 Broadway is a charming art-deco building above St James’s Park Station. I had been here before, in 1988, when I was engaged to write a feature on the Underground for the Illustrated London News. It was a year after the King’s Cross escalator fire, which killed 31 people, not the system’s worst disaster in terms of fatalities (though the record on the trains themselves is astonishingly good) but the most traumatic in what it revealed. The headline on the article was “THE TUBE: A tale of neglect and stupendous incompetence.”

Now, I can hardly keep up with what I am hearing: fewer than two million people a day used the Underground in 1982; these days it is well over four million and heading towards five million. Neglect hardly seems the word. The Jubilee line has just started running up to 30 trains an hour in time for the Olympics; there is a large upgrade coming on the Victoria line and new trains already on the Metropolitan line; contactless bank cards are the next step along from Oyster cards (no ticket hall needed); there will be “driverless” trains throughout the system by 2021; plus all the station refurbishments.

And beyond the core system extraordinary things are happening. The east-west Crossrail line which should have been built at least 50 years ago, is at last too far advanced for any government to renege. There is the Overground, which involved relatively small investment and a great deal of rebranding to put together a serviceable suburban system from a mishmash of obsolete and half-forgotten old lines. Even the buses, which Margaret Thatcher supposedly said were inappropriate for anyone over 30, are thriving, almost fashionable.

The Northern line used to be known as “the misery line”; officials would say it was impossibly complicated due to the different limbs that were all dependent on the vital organs at Camden Town and Kennington. Now there is talk of yet another limb: a new branch to Battersea. The Illustrated London News is long defunct. (A pity. It was a nice magazine at the end.) But London Underground is brimful of confidence.

. . .

What on earth is going on?

This is the sixth in my irregular series on British Institutions. After I finished the fifth, I noticed that the themes were becoming familiar: all five I examined (the BBC, royalty, local government, the Church and the turf) seemed to be telling the same story: the glory days were over; it was a fight to maintain popularity and relevance; and money was getting ever tighter.

Howard Collins

Howard Collins, chief operating officer of London Underground

The national rail network (and there is no institution more British than that), would produce a variation on that theme: a historically problematic operation made infinitely worse by a blundering privatisation that has cost the country billions – mostly hidden – but which suits the politicians because they can shovel all the blame elsewhere. It is so difficult either to open or to close a station that, in England at least, almost the entire railway has become fossilised as it was 40 years ago.

But London Underground is different. It is more expansive and confident now than at any time in memory. How on earth has this happened?

There seem to be three explanations. The first is the horror of King’s Cross, which brought forth the Fennell Report and a realisation that years of under-investment and complacency had been at the heart of the disaster. “It was a big turning point,” says the railway writer and historian Christian Wolmar. “It showed up that the Underground was really in a disgraceful state. So the government did start investing money, but it was still very patchy.”

Wolmar says that Peter Ford, chairman of London Transport in the mid-1990s, still had to pay an annual visit to the Department for Transport, where he would be handed an envelope giving him his budget for the year ahead. It would vary according to the pressure on the Treasury and the electoral cycle; Ford’s requirements were not deemed relevant.

But after Labour was elected in 1997, Gordon Brown committed himself to funding the Underground through a Public-Private Partnership, a variant on the normal government accountancy hocus-pocus of the Private Finance Initiative. The Underground PPP was almost the reverse of the national railway privatisation in that the state retained control of the trains but not the maintenance of the system.

Since the private consortia were not running the trains, they had no incentive to adapt their repairs to the needs of the passengers. To general relief that transcended party politics, the last remnant of the deal collapsed in 2010. However, setting up PPP did force the government to commit itself to investment and, to that extent, was the second boost to the Underground.

The third explanation is nakedly political. In 2000, Ken Livingstone became London’s first mayor. Since then, Livingstone and his successor Boris Johnson have consolidated their power over transport. Nationally, railways have never been an electoral issue. But transport is the mayor of London’s prime responsibility and the Underground is the most crucial part of that. Livingstone, campaigning to wrest his old job back in May, is promising to cut fares. He may actually be killed by his own baby, the Oyster card, since it makes fare rises less noticeable.

But the two contenders have far more in common than they would ever let on: both are intent on using their high profile to ensure the Underground is never neglected again. “Even if you don’t come from London, it is self-evident that it has to be kept up to date,” says Tony Travers, resident expert on the capital at the London School of Economics. “There has already been the largest, most consistent investment in the tube that’s ever been achieved and that has been maintained even in the current financial climate. It’s inevitably to do with the lobbying power of the mayor.”

A journey on the Northern line is still some way from a trip to Nirvana, even if you can avoid the post-dawn hell of Bank. The soft London clay made it possible to build small-bore tube lines deep under the city, creating a network that would have been impossible in other conditions (south London was trickier geologically, which is why it largely missed out). But it was all done on the cheap by dubious entrepreneurs, creating problems still bedevilling Howard Collins and his colleagues. Air conditioning has only just arrived on the new Metropolitan line trains: and disconcerting they are, comprising just one long carriage like an endless bendy-bus. But the technical problems of installing air-con on the deep lines seem overwhelming.

It is not global warming but body heat – the press of four million bodies rather than two million – that has made summertime tube travel so sweaty. An Olympic heatwave in July and August may not be an unmitigated boon for ticket holders. Collins is an optimist. “Does the Olympics keep you awake at night?” “Only because I’m excited,” he replies.

But always, one has the sense of a system that is constantly teetering on the edge. A single passenger feeling ill can threaten the city as surely as King Kong. As Collins explains: “Four or five people will have epileptic fits on the tube every day.” Not because they are on the tube – it’s just a statistical average. “We have to react very quickly to ensure that the good intentions of other passengers and the ambulance crew – lie still, stay on the train – do not overwhelm us. We have to say ‘No, get them off as safely as possible’. And we do all we can to get them on the platform. Otherwise, the capital seizes up.”

The pressure to keep London moving at all costs has been a boon to the unions. The train drivers now have a pay deal that will take them to £52,000 a year by 2015 for a job that is in effect obsolete. Indeed, drivers have not been needed on the Victoria line since it was opened in 1968. But managers sense a certain terror among passengers at the idea of hurtling into a dark tunnel with no one to act as their eyes and ears. Furthermore, the management is very frightened of the rail unions.

Now the Jubilee can be automatically operated as well. Every boy traditionally wants to sneak into a train driver’s cab. But on the Tube it is a strange, disorientating experience. “There are no mice, no insects in these tunnels,” one Northern line driver explained to me. “It’s a dead zone.” But it is even stranger on the Jubilee because the driver is not actually driving. Computer controls make the train go faster as it is not held back by human caution.

Justin Thomas, a Jubilee man almost throughout his 28 years on the Underground, sat there, staring at three separate screens – one showing relevant data and two showing the platforms – plus his windscreen, so he can see the road ahead. He can override the computer if he deems it essential; and sometimes track work makes it necessary for him to take command. And he does have to act as the guard. But mostly he sits there, arms folded on his lap, looking sagacious.

“These are much better trains,” he insisted (a press officer was listening). “Having said that, I do like it when we have to drive them manually.”

. . .

Roding Valley, Central line

Back in 1988, I fulfilled a minor ambition by using the Illustrated London News commission as an excuse to head out to the uttermost outpost of the system: the rural Essex branch of the Central line that ran from Epping through ferny glades and rabbit-haunted fields to Ongar, a charming station that was said to have its own (harmless) breed of scorpion.

Had he been allowed near the Underground, the railway axeman Dr Beeching would have closed the line years earlier. Instead it lingered – maybe no one remembered it was still there – until it was finally dispatched in 1994. (It may reopen as a heritage line.)

Roding Valley station

Roding Valley on the rural Essex branch of the Central line is officially the least busy station

The quietest station now is officially Roding Valley on the Hainault loop, used by 200,000 passengers a year – as many as use Victoria every day. I nipped out there hoping to find a vestige of Ongar’s forgotten delights. Mid-morning it was quiet enough and the wintry trees looked pretty beyond the cream-and-green footbridge. But the roads outside were packed with cars.

“The station’s in zone four rather than five, so a lot of people further up the line find it’s cheaper to commute from here,” said Davendra Patel, who runs Valley News just outside the station. “Also, there are no parking restrictions, so by 7am the area is completely full.”

“Good for business,” I mused.

“No!” he insisted. “My regulars can’t find anywhere to stop. We’ve been fighting this for three years.”

It is what you might call a problem of success. In that sense Roding Valley is a microcosm of the entire London Underground.

To comment on this article, please email magazineletters@ft.com

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