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Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Archive for December 9th, 2007

London Transport

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Jon Henley left London in July 1987. That’s a bit before I did in October 1988 but I recognize his reasons for leaving. He has now returned and is living in London and writes in the Guardian about what has changed – and what hasn’t. One of the interesting aspects of yesterday’s Transit Camp was how often London was held up as example. Mr Henley is unimpressed by the Underground but likes the buses

Why is the London Underground still such utter shite?

Twenty years ago the District line was diabolical; the Northern line was a nightmare; the Central line was OK, except when it wasn’t, in which case it just stopped; and the Piccadilly line was fast, but felt like travelling in a badly overcrowded sauna. These days, amazingly, the District line is diabolical; the Northern line is a nightmare; the Central line is OK, except when it isn’t, in which case it just stops; and the Piccadilly line is fast, but like travelling in a badly overcrowded sauna.

Why do Londoners put up with this? In any other major European city there would be a massed and bloody uprising. A protest movement would be launched; tens of thousands of commuters would collectively refuse to pay for their tickets; the offices of TfL (who?) would be comprehensively trashed and effigies of its so-called managers burned on bonfires lit on that gruesome stretch of track where the Hammersmith & City, Circle and Metropolitan lines merge, and trains take, on average, four long and agonising days to pass through five stations.

When you have waited 22 minutes for a District line train, spent three-quarters of an hour on the Piccadilly line (where temperatures regularly reach 147C), changed platforms four times at Camden because no one knows where the hell the next train is coming from (or whether it will come at all); when, above all, you have paid £4 (versus Paris, €1.50, ie £1; New York, $1,50, ie 75p) for the privilege, you have to wonder. For the Parisienne in my life, this is beyond even Gallic sarcasm. (“Hah!” I thrust. “At least in London the whole Underground doesn’t simply come to a halt because the drivers are defending their right to retire at 50.” “No,” she ripostes, “but that’s mainly because in London they won’t be able to afford to retire till they’re 80.”)

Hey, but guess what: the buses are brilliant!

I love London’s buses! There are so many of them! You never have to wait more than five minutes! When did that happen? (I know, actually; it was to do with the congestion charge, wasn’t it?) Well, it’s worked. In 1987, if you suggested someone take the bus, they would look at you as if you’d suggested they take a blunt knife to a particularly treasured body part. Then, buses were like an endangered species; for days on end you’d see none, then all of a sudden along would come eight. Now they are everywhere. So that’s excitingly new and different.

A minor caveat to the above

My friend Caroline, who left Britain in 1993, came back last summer after spells in Berlin, Moscow and Paris and furnished several fine ideas for this article, would like to point out that there is one bad thing about the buses (and in fact it also applies to the tube) and it’s the fact that these days, people eat burgers in them. Also kebabs, and yes, even classic pan-baked pizzas with BBQ sauce, bacon, chicken, cherry tomatoes, red onions and an extra drizzle of rich authentic-tasting sauce from the farm of our, etc. Just when did it become socially acceptable, I often wonder, to eat your main meal of the day on the top of the number 43?

Written by Stephen Rees

December 9, 2007 at 5:27 pm

Posted in transit, Transportation

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