Stephen Rees's blog

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

Underground tourism

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Globe and Mail

A not very serious story from the travel section that claims “There’s no better way for travellers to tap into a city’s real centre than hopping on a subway.”

Actually I disagree. And I am a train enthusiast, and I always use subways – or rapid transit – when I can. But they are not “the real centre” – and they are remarkably similar in most respects. Though, of course, like all train geeks we obsess about the detail differences that I am sure the rest of the world is unaware of. For instance the Hollywood film industry regularly tries to pass off the TTC as NYCTA.

In London, the dank tiled stations resemble defunct psychiatric institutions, cruel mazes of narrow tunnels and long flammable escalators. (Martin Amis’s novel Success depicts someone afflicted with a fully rational fear of entering this troglodytic pit.)

No, this is only applicable to a few older stations. The “flammable escalators” were all taken out and replaced after the Kings Cross fire. Yes there are labyrinthine passages but mostly for changing trains (“transfers” in Amerispeak) but Paris exceeds London in these. The stations have been mostly modernised and some (like Baker Street on the original Metropolitan Railway which gave its name to all the imitators in other cities) have been very nicely restored. What is really striking (in comparison to, say, Edmonton) is the amount of advertising on the Undergound – and the posters have always been the major way to while away the time on a platform or escalator. Though I noticed on my last trip that the number of bra adverts on the escalators seems to have fallen foul of the feministas.

The new Jubilee Line through the docklands has some very impressive stations

Southwark Station Jubilee Line 2002_0804

Harry Beck’s iconic diagram of the Underground, a classic of 20th-century graphic design, indicates the scope of this challenge [to visit every station]. This map is not the territory; it is not even a map. Beck’s diagram does not pretend to correspond accurately to the city’s geography.

And is one reason why I advise tourists not to be guided by it. If you follow that diagram you can be making long journeys on several trains when it would be quicker to walk or take a bus. Even the famous pop song based on the underground (“Finchley Central is two and sixpence, from Golders Green change at Camden Town”) looks sensible on Beck’s diagram but is stupid as there is a much more direct route on the surface.

The tube from Heathrow to Central London is the cheapest way to travel – but the route is deliberately indirect. It was built by a property developer intent on maximising the number of semidetached houses he could get near to. Heathrow Express and the cheaper (and not much slower) Heathrow Connect only get you as far as Paddington, whereas the Piccadilly Line crosses the centre from south west to north east serving most major destinations and has interchanges with more of the other underground lines. But if you get to choose an airport, Gatwick may be further out but is quicker to get through than Heathrow and has direct non stop surface train service to Victoria. Of course, a lot of the suburban bits of the Underground are on the surface too: the original tube lines could not make enough money, so they either built – or more often took over – existing branch lines on the surface into the newly developing suburbs. Usually the trains arrived long before most of the people.

For tourists wanting to see the sights, walking, cycling or using the regular bus is usually the best option. In Paris velib would be my first choice now. Buses are not well integrated with the Metro, but in any event buy a ticket that gives you freedom to travel for however many days you plan to stay. You can still get a carnet of tickets but they are poor value by comparison. In London get an Oyster card. In either city the river boats are also essential – but in London they are better integrated with the rest of the system. Paris is also better connected to its airports by RER (a regional system of  fast electric trains) – but baggage can be a problem if you are not young and fit thanks to the barriers at stations.

Written by Stephen Rees

September 22, 2008 at 9:38 am

Posted in transit

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2 Responses

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  1. The “flammable escalators” The London Tube, once had (in the early 80’s at least) some platform pubs, a great place for watching the trains, alas they are now gone.

    A note on – The “flammable escalators” -, the horrid Kings Cross fire, where so many died, the actual wooden treads did not catch on fire, only charred from the intense heat from the oil and rubbish accumulated under the escalators, which did ignite.

    The wooden tread came from a very hard African wood that did not burn and was used in British Battleships and Cruisers in sensitive areas, such as the ammunition magazines and decking. What in fact did happened was decades old wiring with cloth insulation shorted and caught fire igniting the decades of rubbish and oil accumulated under the escalators. The fire was fed by a ‘forced draught’ by air pushed piston fashion by the TUBE trains (the same effect is noticeable in the SkyTrain subway), as people exited the trains they were met by the deadly smoke and succumbed.

    The head was so intense, it melted steel.

    Kings Cross showed the the nadir of the TUBE and the media used the scapegoat of the escalators with wooden treads as the cause for the disaster, in fact it was years of neglect by staff and management creating the fuel to burn and a lack of an emergency plan to stop trains in case of fire!.

    One of my Modern Railways magazine has the full account.

    A further note, the African wood, which name escapes me, actually lasted longer than the metal treads then in use!

    Malcolm J.

    September 22, 2008 at 12:35 pm

  2. Having returned from London and Paris, I did take a great delight in taking their underground systems, but mostly at the end of the day when I’m just exhausted from walking to all the major sites. I just can’t get over the £4.00 cash fare for a single ride on the tube.

    One bus I did take in London was route 24; it passes through Leicester Square, Trafalgar Square, Parliament, and Westminster Abbey and Cathedral on the way to Victoria bus station. This was a good overview of part of the city on my first day.

    I really love Beck’s tube map, but yeah, it’s not representative of the reality on the surface. RATP does have a tourist map that overlays métro and RER lines over a street plan of Paris.


    September 23, 2008 at 7:22 am

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