Friday, July 08, 2005

An Ode to the Underground

A few days ago, as I surfed the internet to try and figure out which London Walk I should embark on later in the morning, a series of bombs ripped through the Underground (and one exploded on a bus). At least 50 people are now known to have died. Many more were hurt. As I walked home from the post office, I saw the first signs that something was wrong. People were streaming out of the tube station, some with soot on their faces, many of them in hysterical tears. I heard something about a blast, but the scale of the incident (with typical British understatement, the announcements referred to 'several incidents on the Underground')was not yet clear. In a few minutes, though, news began to filter through. A bomb had exploded two stops on the tube from where I was. Not just that, the line where two of the bombs had gone off were on the same line that I took into town every day. Many people I know work in Central London; several of them were likely to have been on one of the affected lines, if not trains, commuting in to work (Thankfully, as far as I know, nobody I know was injured. As far as I know). Never had something like this seemed so close, and so personal. I think this is partly because of my somewhat irrational fondness for the London Underground. In other cities, subways or trams or whatever are just a means to an end, a way to get from A to B with minimum inconvenience. Somehow the Tube has never seemed like that. London never quite feels like London until I've rushed out of the Covent Garden station, trying to outrun others on the way to the lifts up to the turnstiles, readying my travelcard for the inevitable (and ridiculous) rush to swipe and exit, ridiculous because it's actually quite absurd that the exit from such a major station should be so narrow. But that's part of the charm of a system that is so old that it has all sorts of features that the designers of a more modern system would veto.

Being a secret (okay, not-so-secret) public transport geek, there's very little in the world to compare with the intricacy and reach and sheer scale of the London Underground. Unlike other systems, this doesn't just run the length or breadth of the city. It spreads out like tentacles, going to pretty much every corner of a really big city (the track length is around 600km). I love that the lines have names evocative of the places they connect (the Bakerloo line originally connected Baker Street and Waterloo)instead of just being called by numbers or colours. I like the idiosyncratic announcements to 'Mind the Gap'. I love the variety of stations, from the Victorian tiling and panelling of many central stations on the Circle and Piccadilly Lines, to the minimalist glass-and-steel modernity of the newer Jubilee Line stations. My mental map of the city is not about buildings and bridges, though these do feature, but is really a condensed version of the Underground map. When someone gives me an address in London, I think not of how long it would take to drive there, but rather of the quickest way to get there on the underground, and how many changes it will involve, and whether the Circle Line is actually slower than the Central Line. I love emerging from the gloom of the truly underground stations of the Picadilly Line into the filtered light of the Circle Line. It's probably the one thing about London - more than any of the historic monuments or pubs or bridges - that is both a fascinating bit of history and yet completely a part of the fabric of daily life there.

Today's Guardian carries the perspective of someone who feels about London buses as i do about the underground. I really enjoyed reading it so here it is.


Blogger Not Applicable said...

You really should check out the Delhi Metro next time you have a chance. Not fair to call it an Underground since most of it is elevated. Pretty neatand zippy, complete with "mind the gap" announcements.

Hope that all your acquaintances are okay!

11:17 AM  
Blogger SomeOl'Guy said...

n.a.: i have been on the metro - in fact i rode the kashmere gate to shahdara section several times. haven't been able to use the underground section yet, that'll have to wait till next time, by when hopefully the other east-west line will be open too. i love that they say 'mind the gap' ... actually the delhi metro's probably the niftiest system i've been on, period.

9:27 AM  

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