London Underground

Too many bad experiences on the London Underground have given me cause to abandon it entirely; now I get around London via walking or bus alone.

For those of you outside London, who may not have much, if any, experience of the London Underground, or ‘the Tube’ as we Londoners endearingly call it, you should know only this: it’s the worst place on earth. There’s about 100% more people trying to use the service than the service can cope with, and 90% of those people are cast-iron idiots. They stop at the top or bottom of escalators to get their bearings then get in a strop as the rest of London piles into the back of them. They drag their granny bags twelve metres behind them, tripping up anybody trying to walk past them at an angle. They stop walking suddenly. They stop at the card readers and stare blankly at them as if it’s alien technology. They wait at the entrance to the platform instead of using its full length so the middle of the train is rammed with people while the beginning and end have about three passengers. They won’t wait for the next train; they have to get on this train, no matter how full it already is. They’ll get on the train and stop in the doorway, oblivious to everyone trying to board behind them. The tube carriage ends up looking like a jar of pickled people, but they don’t seem to care.

I think that last part is what bewilders me the most about the Tube; that people are willing to tolerate these conditions, accept them as a normal part of life. It’s horrible! Everyone pressed tightly up against you, cheap headphones leaking all over the place, everyone sweating and standing on your feet and trying to cheat their way into extra space by holding out newspapers as far as they can. You’re breathing in this warm, moist, human soup and you can almost feel the norovirus dripping down your throat. Every time I use the Tube I want to have a shower immediately after. I’ve seen people actually eat food down there. Imagine that!

It isn’t just the people, either. The trains are late, particularly on the Northern line, which is the only line that services my part of London. You’ll be standing there up to your eyeballs in commuters on the platform, waiting ten minutes for the next train, and there’ll be a happy announcement informing you that there is a good service on the Northern Line. This is a lie. A good service on the Northern line is a train every minute; a train every two minutes and it starts getting a little crowded but still manageable. But if the next train isn’t for three minutes? Well, then you’re in trouble. It’s going to get messy. Anything more than that, you may as well give up unless you want to spend your journey with your face in some stinking banker’s polyester armpit.

God, I could go on about this for hours. There isn’t a single aspect of the London Underground that doesn’t appall and sicken me. It hasn’t helped matters that the more I use it, the more claustrophobic I get. I never used to be claustrophobic, but that was probably as I hadn’t spent much time trapped in metal tubes with concrete wrapping. Familiarity with certain routes has meant my panic reflex kicks in the moment I feel us slowing down prematurely. For instance, if you’re between Mornington Crescent and Camden Town during peak time and the train starts slowing down before the announcement about what the next station is, then you’re going to be stuck for five to ten minutes. I guarantee it. That’s five to ten minutes in a hot, airless carriage with nowhere to go. The walls have, in fact, closed in around you. That’s by design. The driver may make an announcement about the delay, and it’ll be something like “I’m just trying to find out why we’ve stopped”, because nobody’s told him, nor will they.

Recently I was stuck between Kentish Town and Camden Town for a full 20 minutes. It doesn’t sound like much, but when I’m down there all I could think of was how I was trapped, entirely at the mercy of the Tube staff. It’s not like you can just say “fuck it” and open the doors to walk the rest of the way. So then I start thinking about how I can’t get any water, and can’t go to the toilet, which in turn makes me want to have some water, and go to the toilet. Then the temperature starts getting to me, and the crowd feels oppressive, and I start wondering what it’s like to have a panic attack, because I’ve never had a panic attack and I suspect that wondering what they’re like when I’m actually starting to panic is a pretty good way of setting one off.

So, it was obviously in the best interests of everyone that I stopped using the Tube, which I did a couple of months ago, finally deciding that paying £20-30 a week on my own personal hell was perhaps not cost-effective. I’ve started taking the bus, which is still shit but not as shit because the Londoner’s instinct is to use the Tube for everything, even for very short distances where it would be quicker to walk. Taking the bus means I can get off when I want, even between stops (the bus drivers won’t usually let you, but if you press the emergency door release button and disembark, what are they going to do? Drag you back on?), and if the bus is late or non-existent or full then I can just keep walking on to the next stop and try again a few minutes later. Eventually, I will reach my destination; it’s just a matter of time.