Under the surface

Strikes, delays and more strikes – but the London Underground doesn’t compare too badly with other cities’ systems, says Hugh Pearman

How familiar it all seems. London Underground gets shut down at frequent intervals in a dispute about a few minute percentage fractions in a pay deal. Every day lost is said to cost the capital £60m. Meanwhile, the system is falling to bits and, when running, is kept going only by daily miracles. New Tube lines, when built at rare intervals, go wildly over budget and tend to go wrong. Everyone is getting a bit edgy over the level of dangerous air pollution down there. And for some reason Waterloo Tube station always smells strongly of vomit. This, of course, is an international gateway. Welcome to London.

Those are the headlines. What about actuality? Earlier this week I decided to use a bus and two Tube lines to get to a meeting and back. Everything worked like clockwork. All the rolling stock was new or refurbished. Every escalator was moving. There was no litter. I had to wait seconds only at each connection point. At such times, you can still believe that London has a public transport system that is the envy of the world.

Maybe I’m just lucky, but I use London Underground, and the surface buses, a lot, and the system does not often let me down. True, I’m in the fortunate position of being able to choose to avoid peak times. Then again, I’m familiar with the metro systems of other countries, so I can compare and contrast. And the Tube comes out of this comparison surprisingly well. If you are able-bodied, and not claustrophobic.

Because deep Tube lines, designed before World War, just do not meet today’s health, safety and access expectations. They are badly ventilated, awkwardly sited, and too small. Why do lifts and escalators hardly ever go right down to platform level?

There is only one Tube station on the whole network that feels it is correctly proportioned where it matters, and this is not on the new Jubilee Line. It is Angel, and it is amazingly grand, deep underground. Built during the 1980s boom, it was a trade-off for a huge office block above, so the private sector paid. It’s the nearest London comes to those palatial stations of the Moscow Metro, though its interior design quality is scarcely inspired.

Other cities don’t have this deep-tube problem. Paris and Berlin and New York all have metros that are broadly the equivalent of our shallow lines – Circle, District and Metropolitan. Indeed, they ride on viaducts above ground as much as under it. Ventilation is easy. You don’t have to descend far to get to the trains, which can be bigger because the sub-surface tunnels are bigger. The Tube, in contrast, is aptly named. Only Glasgow’s underground trains are smaller.

But we cannot possibly afford to rebuild them all to a bigger gauge. Which is probably why, when new lines are built, they keep close to the mean old tunnel dimensions. Otherwise we’d all notice how poky the old system is. So what to do? We need a technology that does for the Tube what broadband did for copper telephone wires: provide greater capacity and comfort on an existing network. Trains that are more like worms than strings of sausages. Nose-to-tail signalling. Chilled tunnel linings. Super-stairlifts. Such retro-fit solutions are badly needed. Though in the meantime, just not closing down the network at arbitrary intervals would be a big step forward.

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