16 December 2005

Hell Is Edgware Road

There are eight million horror stories on the London Underground, more or less coinciding with the number of Londoners. My own particular one centres around the station at Edgware Road.

Rather than unnecessarily indict the innocent, let me point out that there are actually two Edgware Road stations. I suspect this was yet another of the clever plots, like removing most of the city's street signs and changing street names on an average of every two blocks, aimed at confusing Johnny Foreigner should he ever attempt to make himself too much at home.

The Edgware Road station serving the Bakerloo Line is a perfectly innocuous and nondescript one, but its evil twin, some 300 metres to the south, is a confluence of utter vileness (not to mention the Hammersmith & City, Circle and District lines). It's also a station I need to pass through on an almost daily basis.

I find myself holding my breath and saying a silent prayer every time my train pulls into Edgware Road. If, as happens on rare occasions, the train stops, disgorges and takes on passengers, and then moves on, my whole day is brightened. If I've escaped the Curse of Edgware Road, I reason, I must be leading a charmed existence.

Of course nothing really horrible has ever happened to me there, nothing like last summer's terrorist bombing that killed seven people. The closest thing I've had to a truly bad experience was when an incompetent and unarmed kid tried to mug me as we pulled into the station. To give you an idea of his skills as a mugger, I told him to go away and leave me alone, and he did.

No, nearly all my Edgware Road torment involves trains that stop there, and then for no apparent reason, go no further. Or, after sitting there a long time while the passengers seethe in that peculiarly voiceless English way (i.e., much sighing and looking suspiciously about as if the man sitting across from you might secretly be responsible for the delay), an announcement will tell us that this train is now going in the opposite direction, and that if we want to continue our journey, we must get off, climb the stairs and cross over to the other platform. Sometimes, for extra added delight, a second announcement will come as we arrive on the other platform telling us to return to our original train. Which will close its doors and pull away just as we get there.

Edgware Road is also where train drivers change places. This wouldn't be a problem if a new driver were waiting when the train arrives, but as often as not, he's up in the lunchroom or taking a nap somewhere. When he does show up, he often finds it necessary to have a long conversation with the driver he's replacing. "How's the missus, then? And the kids? The dog? Reckon Spurs will do the business tomorrow?" they'll ask, while 300 people sit and stew and get later and later.

Of course it wouldn't be fair to blame it all on the drivers, and I don't say that only because several of my friends drive for the Underground. In fact the main cause of delays and cancellations and reversing trains is the antiquated signalling system (consisting, one suspects, of superannuated lollipop ladies wielding a set of badly smudged semaphore flags) and the collapsing infrastructure. The system, over 140 years old, is in such a state that engineers have had to resort to searching on eBay or cannibalising exhibits in the London Transport Museum for spare parts.

It's not just the physical infrastructure, either. One could make a good argument that the real problem with the Underground is an unholy collusion between a corrupt and incompetent management and obstreperous and voracious unions, providing the hapless passengers with the worst of two worlds: monopoly capitalism on one hand, and pigheaded Marxism on the other.

This brings us regular strikes or threats of strikes by the drivers and station staff, already among the best-paid transport workers in the world, and management decisions to spend tens of millions of pounds on redecorating stations and new uniforms for staff (and, as if they weren't enough, a set of billboards telling us how happy we should be that the staff had new uniforms) and almost nothing on improving train service, which compares unfavourably with the 19th century in terms of speed and reliability.

Add to this the highest fares in the world, a service that shuts down shortly after midnight, and train carriages that in summer exceed temperatures allowed for the transportation of livestock, and you have to wonder if we're still living in the country that invented the train, the underground railroad, and the industrial revolution. Bob Kiley, who used to run the New York subway system, was brought over a few years ago to sort things out, prompting one transport official to sniff, "We don't need some guy from New York coming over telling us how to run our trains." Considering that New York manages to run a safer, cleaner, air-conditioned, 24-hour service for about half the fare that Londoners pay, no, I can't imagine why we'd have anything to learn from "some guy from New York."

But now Kiley's gone, fallen victim to a power struggle with Mayor Ken Livingstone, and about the best that can be said for his legacy is that the trains haven't got any worse, which considering the trend of the previous couple decades, probably qualifies as an improvement.

One redeeming feature of the London Underground is that fares, while astronomical, are also optional. My guess, based on much observation, is that no more than half the passengers pay full fare. The rest either pay nothing at all or ride on illegally obtained children's tickets or used tickets sold by touts outside of stations. Guards on trains and ticket checkers at the gates have almost completely disappeared, replaced by the "station staff" in their shiny new blue uniforms whose job consists largely of standing around in case someone has a question. Hint to tourists: don't ask them how to get where you're going; most of them have no clue.

In answer to your next question, yes, I still buy a ticket. I'm either too timid or too honest not to. But I have to admit feeling like a bit of a mug as I queue at the fare gates while a few dozen less challenged folks casually push their way through without paying. Ah well, end of rant. Unfortunately, I have a train to catch.

2 comments:

Joseph said...

"...an announcement will tell us that this train is now going in the opposite direction, and that if we want to continue our journey, we must get off, climb the stairs and cross over to the other platform. Sometimes, for extra added delight, a second announcement will come as we arrive on the other platform telling us to return to our original train. Which will close its doors and pull away just as we get there."

Larry... I swear this happened to me about three weeks ago while riding BART. The system was evidently suffering from a switching malfunction. Have you ever heard a BART employee make an announcement? It is invariably an incoherent, heavily distorted, barely audible mess. I'm fairly certain BART equipped its platforms and trains with PAs discarded by 1970s garage bands (guh raj, not gare ij). Then they hired folks with severe speech impediments to make announcements. Yet another hideous government plot to annoy the bejeezus out of me.

Anonymous said...

I've had similar experiences to yours, racing back and forth across the bridge connecting the two pairs of platforms and each time just missing the train - on one occasion, I missed three in a row. It really didn't help that the automatic signs and the tannoy announcements kept contradicting each other. I've literally had nightmares about Edgware Road - one of which was a fever-induced hallucination, in which it kept sprouting new platforms so that I could never escape. It was so convincing that I briefly believed the fever had killed me and I was experiencing the eternal torment of Hell in the form of Edgware Road.