The London Underground is a fascinating place and an engineering marvel. Michael posted about the Underground a few weeks ago, but today we went on a walk with Harry from London Walks and he shared lots of information that we found interesting. For one thing, last year, over one billion people rode the London Underground. That’s quite a number!
If you have ever been to London and taken even one tube ride, you have heard, “Mind the gap” more times than you can count. It turns out that years ago, an employee named Mr. Lawrence was recorded saying this phrase and it was played at all the tube stops for many years. Later, after he passed away, the Transport for London (TFL) had another voice taped and played throughout the system. It came to their attention that Mrs. Lawrence had been going down into one of the tube stations every day just to hear her late husband’s voice. Upon learning this, the “powers that be” at TFL pulled out the old tapes and went back to playing Mr. Lawrence’s version of “Mind the gap” at two of the stations so that Mrs. Lawrence could continue hearing her late husband’s voice.
Let’s back up and run through a little historical data. London had the world’s first underground train system when they started operation in 1863. It was originally a steam train system. Over the years, the system has grown and many new lines added. Of course, they are all electric now. According to Harry, ventilation is provided by air being pushed through the system by the trains passing through the narrow “tubes” of the subway system.
The underground stations are unique and colorful places. The tiles were installed in different colors in every station because in the early 20th century, many people were illiterate. Since they could not read, they depended on being able to recognize which stop they were at by the tiles.
Every day, somewhere along your journey through Underground London, you will encounter at least one busker. He or she may be playing anything from a harp to an electric guitar. Believe it or not, these buskers are strictly vetted (they must audition) and given a license and a “pitch,” or place to play. Below is one such “pitch.”
Now I think that I must address tragedy in the tubes. Suicide by tube is rather common, especially from late November through early January. The newest lines have an extra set of glass doors that do not open until the train has stopped, making it hard to jump in front of an incoming train or jump onto the “hot” rail.
Back in 1987, there was a terrible fire at the Charing Cross Station. Several members of the Fire Brigade died as they tried to put out the fire. Apparently, the TFL refused to stop the trains and the trains continued to push fresh air into the station, fanning the flames. It was started by a match dropped on the escalator by a person lighting a cigarette. By this time, smoking had been prohibited on the trains, but was still allowed at the stations. After that fire, smoking was totally banned throughout the system.
During the Blitz, when the tube stations were used as shelters during Luftwaffe raids, a terrible tragedy occurred at the Bethnal Green stop. The tube stop was actually under construction, but when the air raid started, many people jumped the barricades and ran down into the dark. There they slipped on the dark, wet spiral staircase that was built for construction workers and had no rails. When the raid was over, 170 bodies were pulled from the pit of the construction site. Fifty four of the victims were children. Everyone died of suffocation as they fell on top of each other.
We have been to many large cities with intricate subway systems, but find the London Underground the most logical and user friendly. You can go to the TFL website and plug in where you are as well as where you want to go and they will give you the best route. Additionally, there is always a human being at every station, and they are quite nice and very helpful. Well, except for when I asked one man if it was raining. He replied, “Lady, how would I know? I spend my life underground!” Just kidding; he and I had a good laugh at that.
The TFL is all about branding. Don’t try to use their font. It is called Johnston Underground. You will get a “stiff” letter from them, according to Harry, if you try to steal it. Their logo is universally recognized. In fact, when the UK was joining the EU, Brussels sent an edict that London needed to change the name of the system to the Metro. According to Harry, London immediately declared that a “deal breaker.” The EU realized that England really meant it and backed off. So today we ride the tube!