The London Underground, affectionately known as the Tube since 1890, turns 150 years old on January 10. I have been known to complain about this form of transportation to anyone who will listen (ask the English Husband) and on this blog. My last entry called it ‘a vehicle for transporting germs’ destined to shorten my life. I am American and have always had a slight love affair with the comfort and convenience of cars, although I don’t like driving them any more.
While I still maintain that it can be an immensely frustrating experience for a daily commuter, the Tube is also an essential London rite of passage, without which the city would not be the same. It’s like a teenager coming of age. You are not a true Londoner unless you have used the Tube repeatedly, marching through its slightly depressing stations (all 270 of them) and cursing the crowds and the occasional filth.
My first Tube ride is not memorable. I reckon I was about 20 years old and it was 1994. I was most likely travelling to the Barbican theatre to watch Shakespeare, part of my summer studies in the UK. I was a wide-eyed student then, taken with the enormity and foreignness of London. The Tube was just the backdrop to the pulse of London life.
A few years later I was travelling on the Piccadilly Line to work on a Sunday morning. It was early and I was still feeling that zombie hangover of sleep. Suddenly, the Tube driver comes on the speaker and says mournfully, ‘This is the west-bound Piccadilly Line on this very, very sad day.’ I was suddenly alert – what was he talking about? I imagined this ambiguous message had something to do with a national holiday I knew nothing about. Everything was new to me back then.
It turned out to be the day Princess Diana died in a car crash in Paris, a day when the nation went into some sort of shock and collective mourning. I will never forget that Tube journey.
Other journeys that have stayed with me: the evening I was sick on the Tube. I vaguely remember an older couple, looking on horrified, while my English Husband (then a boyfriend) dug around in his backpack for what ended up being a sock to clean me up. Not a highlight but memorable with the Husband, who retells the story with glee.
Or the time a kind stranger I had never met before helped me as I collapsed at King’s Cross Station, fainting as I stumbled out of a train onto the platform. I don’t know who he was, but he helped me up and gave me his bottle of water. The staff at the station stayed with me until I felt better. Thank you.
There was the time, heavily pregnant on the Central Line, when a man I had never met before announced loudly to anyone who would listen: ‘Will no one give this pregnant woman a seat?’ Someone got up then.
There was also the very hot day in July when I got stuck in a Victoria Line tunnel on a packed train full of commuters. London trains can be unfriendly places at rush hour – no one makes eye contact and almost no one speaks. But this unnatural silence on a stifling train was broken by our shared experience of being stuck with nowhere to go. We were there for half an hour, temperatures soaring to nearly 100 degrees – and people started to hand out precious water to those who were feeling sick. Sometimes in London you can forget the decency of humans, but this brought it out.
I have also started and finished many books on London Underground trains. I am always thankful that reading on a train is my refuge, that moment of retreat from all the rushing around. It’s something I couldn’t do by car. I still, however, hate my switchover at Oxford Circus (from the Central Line to the Victoria Line for my trudge home). It’s hell at 5.30pm, and I could probably do it blindfolded if I wasn’t crushed by so many frenzied people, who have clipped my heels more times than I can count and then had the gall to tut at me.
Happy birthday, London Underground. Thanks for the memories. As we’ve been told many times, in many variations, it’s not the destination but how you get there.
A few facts
- The Metropolitan Railway, the first underground railway in the world, ran from Paddington (west London) to Farringdon (east London) and was opened on 10 January 1863
- Number of London Underground stations: 270
- Number of passengers carried per year: 1,107 million
- American talk show host Jerry Springer was born on the London Underground. His mother had taken shelter at Highgate from bombing during World War II
- Number of deaths on the Tube in the last decade, excluding deaths from natural causes and terrorist attacks: 265
- Chance of being involved in a fatal accident on the Tube: 1 in 300 million
- Chance of being in a fatal road accident: United States (13.9 per 100,000) and UK (5.4 per 100,000) – Global Status Report on Safety, 2009
- Proportion of the network in underground tunnels: 45%
Sources: London Underground/Guardian newspaper