Sunday, 2 June 2013

Mind the Gap, avoid eye contact,
and move along the platform

Harry Beck’s map of the Underground, first produced in 1931, was inspired by electrical circuit diagrams

Patrick Comerford

For a few days recently, I took part in a number of meetings at the London offices of Us, the Anglican mission agency previously known as USPG (the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel), including a planning meeting for the annual conference of Us at the High Leigh Conference Centre later this month.

The offices of Us are on the top floor of a former factory building in Great Suffolk Street, Southwark. On one side, we were looking out at the London Eye; on the other side was the Gherkin, a modern iconic building in the financial heart of the City of London; below us, trains were trundling away into the Tube station at Southwark.

During that week, I made a number of cross-London journeys on the Underground between the stations at Southwark and Westbourne Park for the Anglican Communion Office at Tavistock Crescent.

My mild colour-blindness and short-sightedness make it difficult for me to read the Tube maps in the heave-ho of rush-hour commuting (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The map of the Underground is so familiar to many people, that even if they never visit London they easily associate the primary colours with different lines: Red (Central), Yellow (Circle), Green (District), Blue (Victoria), and so on.

Constantly, though, my mild colour-blindness and short-sightedness make it difficult for me to read the Tube maps, particularly in the heave-ho of rush-hour commuting, at times unable to distinguish between Northern Black and Piccadilly Dark Blue, between Victoria Blue and Piccadilly Dark Blue, and Metropolitan Dark Red and Central Red. But then, colour-blindness and ham-fisted efforts to use my pidgin Italian recently left me boarding the wrong train, on the wrong platform, at the wrong time in Tuscany.

Mapping the Underground

There are 426 escalators on the Underground and with 23 Waterloo has the most (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I suppose most of us who use the London Underground on a regular basis just keep our heads down, avoid eye contact and get into “auto-drive” mode as we work our way between stations and change lines. We never really get to appreciate where we are or where we are going.

At Southwark station one afternoon, a woman asked the cheapest way to her destination. “By walking” was the witty reply. “But it’s much slower.”

Many of us can read the London Underground map, but few of us would ever be able to follow the route if we had to walk between places more than one or two stations apart.

Mark Mason, in his new book Walk The Lines – The London Underground, Overground. has done precisely that. He has walked the entire length of the London Underground, but has walked it overground, passing every station on the way and flagging up all the sights, sounds and soul of what he claims is “the greatest city on earth.”

Underground mainly means overground ... waiting on the platform at Westbourne Park (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Standing at Wetsbourne Park station in warm sunshine recently, I realised the largest part of the London Underground runs overground. I was reminded of ‘The Wombling Song’ from The Wombles:

Underground, overground, wombling free,
The Wombles of Wimbledon Common are we.


And, of course, Uncle Bulgaria came to mind too, “with his map of the world” that would take him to Tobermory.

Indeed, almost 60 per cent of the Underground runs overground – 146 miles or 58% of the 253 miles of the tracks run above ground; only 93 miles run in deep tunnels, and a further 20 miles in shallow tunnels. There is a prevalent north/south divide, with less than 10 per cent of stations south of the Thames.

Celebrating a century and a half

Protesters can be found at many stations any day, but since 2003 buskers need a licence (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Earlier this year, London Underground marked the 150th anniversary of the first Tube journey on 9 January 1863. The London Underground was the vision of Charles Pearson (1793-1862), who first thought of a Fleet Valley rail tunnel in 1845.

The engineering designs were produced by Sir John Fowler (1817-1898), who also designed the Forth Railway Bridge. Most of the District Line was designed by Sir John Wolfe-Barry (1836-1918), who also designed Tower Bridge. But the first Tube journey did not take place for another 20 years.

The first Tube line was built by the Metropolitan Railway, a private company. It took 21 years to complete the Inner Circle, and when the Circle Line opened in 1884, The Times described travelling on it as “a form of mild torture.”

By then, over 800 trains were running on the Inner Circle each day. A full journey from Stockwell to the City on the City and South London Railway, now part of the Northern Line, took just 18 minutes.

The Waterloo and City Line was the only other line built before the turn of the century. The Great Northern and City Line, between Moorgate and Finsbury Park, was mostly completed by 1902.

The Underground became known as the “Tube” in the early 1900s, when the Central London Railway (now the Central Line) was nicknamed the “Twopenny Tube” by the Daily Mail five days after it opened.

The “Twopenny Tube” line significantly boosted profits for shops around Oxford Street and Regent Street, and in 1909, Selfridges lobbied – unsuccessfully – to have Bond Street station renamed after Selfridges.

War-time shelter

Passenger etiquette often demands “eyes down” and “avoid eye contact” (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Women began to make up staff shortages on the Underground during World War I. When Maida Vale station opened in 1915, it was entirely staffed by women.

Police reports estimate 300,000 people took shelter in Tube stations during the German bombing raids on London in 1917. A memorial at Baker Street commemorates 137 Metropolitan Line workers killed in World War I.

Finding the right line is a problem for anyone who is colour-blind

The Underground expanded rapidly in the 1930s. But this came to an abrupt halt with the outbreak of World War II. Within a few days, the Underground was used to evacuate 600,000 Londoners, mainly children and pregnant women, to the countryside.

During the war, signs at Underground stations warned passengers to carry their gas masks, and .posters warned them not to use the stations as air-raid shelters. However, when the East End suffered the first of many heavy bombing raids on 7 September 1940, there was a rush to the Underground stations.

Many got round the sheltering ban by buying cheap penny travel tickets and then refusing to leave the platforms. Trains continued to run throughout the Blitz, leading to crowded stations. Soon, about 177,000 people were sheltering in the Underground each night. A government U-turn on 8 October 1940 brought an end to the unenforceable ban on sheltering in the Tube.

Between September 1940 and May 1941, 198 people were killed when Tube shelters were hit directly by bombs. In one of the worst incidents, 64 people were killed. When Bank station was hit on 13 January 1941, 56 people were killed, but details were strictly censored. In the worst single incident on 3 March 1943, 173 people were crushed to death in a stairwell at Bethnal Green station – but not one bomb was dropped on London that night.

Maps and designs

The Underground’s red circle logo first appeared in 1908 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In the 1860s, there was only basic signage, with the station name and exit. The Underground’s red circle logo first appeared in 1908, although about 60 stations on the Metropolitan line continued to use a red diamond until the 1970s.

One of the first rail maps, produced by the District line in 1892, featured the slogan “Time Is Money.” The first free Underground map was published collaboratively in 1908 by companies running separate lines.

Harry Beck’s map of the Underground, first produced in 1931, was inspired by electrical circuit diagrams. He was paid 10 guineas (£10 10s) for his design. Beck’s map was received enthusiastically, and he remained involved with changes and updates for over 25 years. Eventually, he fell out with London Transport and his name was removed from the map in 1959. But his name reappeared on the map in the 1990s, when he was once again acknowledged as its designer.

In 2006, the London Underground map came second in a BBC competition to find the public’s favourite British design of the 20th century. The angular representation of the River Thames was briefly removed from the map in 2009, but was quickly replaced after a public outcry.

During the three-hour morning peak, the busiest Tube station is Waterloo, with 57,000 people moving through (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Scottish sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi designed the mosaic murals at Tottenham Court Road station, which were completed in 1984. The ceramics on the City and South London Railway, now part of the Northern line, were inspired by the work of William Morris. Charles Holden based his design for Arnos Grove on Stockholm Public Library, while Gants Hill was inspired by the Moscow Metro.

Southwark Station’s blue cone wall, built as part of the Jubilee line extension’s new generation of stations, was inspired by an 1816 stage set for Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Victoria Line commissioned artists to produce original tile motifs for each station, including the seven trees that give Seven Sisters its name. All 46 stations designed by Leslie Green have distinctive tile patterns and all his stations – such as Covent Garden – were steel-clad to allow premises to be built on top of them.

Rush hours and busy hours

Due to a rise in graffiti, the silver tube trains were replaced in the 1990s with the red, white and blue ones seen today (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

About 1.1 billion passengers now use the Underground each year. The busiest station is Waterloo, with 57,000 people passing through during the three-hour morning peak and 82 million passengers travelling through each year.

The average speed of a Tube train is 33 kph (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Each year, each Tube train travels 184,269 km, and the average speed is 33 kph. The longest distance between two stations is between Chesham and Chalfont and Latimer on the Metropolitan Line, which are 6.3 km apart. The shortest distance between two stations is from Leicester Square to Covent Garden on the Piccadilly Line, which are 300 metres apart. If you pay the full cash fare between Covent Garden and Leicester Square, a mere 0.16 miles, it works out at the equivalent of over £28 a mile.

Advertising hoardings at Saint Paul’s Underground station (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The longest journey you can take without changing is 59.4 km from West Ruislip to Epping on the Central Line. The longest continuous tunnel, between East Finchley and Morden (via Bank), is 27.8 km long. The total number of stations in use today is 270; Waterloo station alone has 23 escalators, and Baker Street has 10 platforms.

In central London, trains cannot drive faster than 30-40mph because of the short distances between stations. But the Victoria Line can reach speeds of up to 50 mph because the stations are further apart. And the Metropolitan line has the fastest speeds, sometimes reaching over 60 mph.

‘Mind the Gap’

Rush-hour traffic and pressure can make it difficult to read maps and find your way (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

But wherever you go this summer – underground or overground, slowly or at speed – always remember: “Mind the Gap.”

The original recording of “Mind the Gap” was made in 1968 featuring the voice of Peter Lodge. Most lines still use Peter Lodge’s recording, but others use a recording by voice artist Emma Clarke, and the Piccadilly Line uses the voice of Tim Bentinck, better known as David Archer from The Archers.

● Further reading: David Bownes, Oliver Green and Sam Mullins, Underground: How the Tube Shaped London (Allen Lane, £25); Andrew Martin, Underground Overground: A Passenger’s History of the Tube (Profile, £8.99); Mark Ovenden, London Underground by Design (Particular, £20).

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin. This essay was first published in the June 2013 editions of the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel and Ossory.