Opinion and Editorial

Mind the gap: London tube opens new doors

Prasun Sonwalkar/London
Filed on September 30, 2021
Reuters photo

The London tube and its map continue to resonate globally as one of Britain's most popular icons

Big cities absorb you. Moving from a small town to mega cities with distinct auras — such as New York, Dubai, Mumbai or London — can initially seem daunting and a challenge, but when the move happens, many are surprised how easy it is. The transition to a new everyday life usually happens smoothly, aided by established services, popular locations and rapid transport systems that are rarely available in smaller towns. Soon after moving, you seamlessly join the millions of professionals and people in the vibrant, ever-moving cities that never sleep, that sustain lives at various levels, with much to do and enjoy. One of the things that makes London tick is its vast, busy transport system: the iconic red buses, black cabs, overground train network, trams, boats on the Thames and the London Underground, which connect all parts of the metropolis, allowing its residents to daily experience and test Samuel Johnson’s claim that “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford”. It is fair to say that the development of London into the pre-eminent global city since the late 19th century would not have been possible without the mobility provided by the London Underground, popularly known as the Tube.

On any day, you see excited tourists on the Tube network, taking in the many examples of art and music along its corridors, noting the popular audio-visual caution at every station, to ‘Mind the Gap’ between the carriage door and the platform. The freely-available pocket Tube map is one of the favourites to take back home after visiting almost every station in central London that have their own local histories and attractions, such as Covent Garden, Holborn, Oxford Circus, Green Park, Victoria, Baker Street, Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square. The simple, colourful map designed in 1933 by electrical draughtsman Henry Beck is recognised globally, now printed extensively on mugs, diaries, T-shirts and other memorabilia. The Tube has clearly travelled some distance since 1863, when the first underground railway, the Metropolitan Railway, opened between Paddington and Farringdon, connecting six stations. Today, it has 11 Lines covering 402km, serving 272 stations, stretching deep into the capital’s suburbs and beyond, handling up to five million passenger journeys a day.

Last week, in the first major extension in this century, two new stations were added in Zone 1: Nine Elms and Battersea Power Station on the Northern Line, bringing key parts of south London within 15 minutes of the West End and City, the financial district. The last such extension was on the Jubilee Line, which opened in 1999. Major construction on the Northern Line’s 3km twin-tunnel railway between Kennington and Battersea Power Station, via Nine Elms, began in 2015, at a final estimated cost of nearly £1.1 billion. Despite the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic, the construction project stayed on track. It excavated around 850,000 tonnes of waste material — equivalent to the weight of two Empire State Buildings — most of which was carried in nearly 700 barge journeys along the Thames to East Tilbury in Essex where it was used to create arable farmland. Officials say transporting the excavated material by barge removed around 47,000 lorry journeys from the capital’s busy roads, reducing traffic congestion.

London mayor Sadiq Khan and transport secretary Grant Shapps were among those on the first journey to the new stations. Khan said: “I’m delighted that we’re able to open the Northern Line Extension and it was great to have the chance to travel on one of the first trains between Nine Elms and Battersea Power Station. This extension will hugely improve the links between these vibrant, growing south London neighbourhoods and the rest of the capital, and will also help to support thousands of new jobs and homes as we move forward with London’s recovery from the pandemic. The new stations are beautiful and I encourage Londoners and visitors to start using the Northern Line Extension to get around and help them enjoy everything the capital has to offer.”

Art and music, tube-style

One of the delights of travelling on the Tube is the artwork installed in various stations, seen by millions of people each day, contributing to the ways in which people experience the city. The Tube has been one of London’s pioneering public sector patrons due to a commitment to the arts led by Frank Pick, its managing director in the early 20th century. Every aspect of its architecture, poster design, train livery and upholstery as well as its site-specific art commissions in stations has been contributed by several artists, designers and craftspeople over the decades, including large-scale commissions at Gloucester Road station.

The new Battersea Power Station also unveiled a commissioned artwork titled Sunset, Sunrise, Sunset from Brazil-born artist Alexandre da Cunha, stretching to over 150m inside the ticket hall. Da Cunha uses an outdated advertising mechanism — the rotating billboard — to create two friezes of colour which face each other along the length of the ticket hall. Inspired by the decommissioned coal-fired Battersea Power Station nearby and its system of vertical bars that regulated the production and output of electricity and, informed by the colours of London sunsets and sunrises, his art work seeks to reflect cycles, routine, the everyday and eternity. The three words of the title refer to the three faces of the vertical panels, their cyclical rotation and repetition. With over 3,500 individual panels, Sunset, Sunrise, Sunset creates an ever-changing environment within the station. Da Cunha says: “Although the core of this piece is colour and its reference to landscape, the work focuses on the idea of movement, cycle and repetition. The analogue aspect of the panels functions as an antidote to our constant relationship with digital media, a counterpoint to screens acting an extension of our bodies.”

Besides artwork and many finding love during regular commuter journeys, you also get to enjoy live music as you move around corridors underground. The Busking Scheme has long been a hit with performers and the travelling public. Passengers enjoy more than 100,000 hours of live music, performed every year by professional, talented buskers, enlivening their otherwise drab journeys through the network. Big names such as Ed Sheeran, Jessie J, Bob Geldof and Katherine Jenkins have performed on the Tube. Licensed buskers have a unique audience of millions of Tube passengers every day, with many showing their appreciation by dropping a few coins in the hat. On one journey, I was pleasantly surprised to hear rapid exposition of complex tabla rhythms resounding in the corridors, until I found the player around a bend, Shiv Dhyanam, of Indian-African heritage, who learnt yoga in Bihar, tabla in Benaras, knows Hindi, spends summer in Britain and winter in India. Some buskers are regularly booked for events and recording sessions, while others have gone on to perform in front of royalty or work with established musicians, ranging from Simply Red to principals of the English National Opera.

The cross-cultural lines

The Tube’s 11 Lines have their unique histories. Rumour has it that the Bakerloo Line that opened in 1906 was created after a group of businessmen complained that they couldn’t get to and from the Lord’s cricket ground quickly enough. Records show that much of the central London network was completed in the first 50 years, all through private development, when the first routes were built in shallow cut-and-cover tunnels along existing thoroughfares that needed plenty of vents to allow smoke and steam from the engines to escape. Later, the development of electric traction allowed much deeper tunnels to penetrate the heart of London, leading to a second wave of construction. Over the decades, private companies involved in the Tube’s development were amalgamated into a body called London Underground, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of the local government body, Transport for London (TfL), which operates under the London mayor. Most of its funding comes from fares (nearly £5 billion annually).

Given the changes due to the development of new technology, at least 40 overground and underground stations are still in existence but no longer used for travel. During World War II, many stations were used as public shelters and offices for London Underground and government staff. Down Street station was transformed into an underground facility with phone lines; it hosted a meeting of the War Cabinet. Another station, Brompton Road, was sold to the War Office in 1938 and is still used by the Ministry of Defence. The stations have also played a part in Britain’s cultural life. Aldwych station, for example, was used to house the National Gallery’s collection during World War I and British Museum artefacts during World War II. In more recent years, Aldwych doubled up as a filming location for productions as diverse as The Prodigy’s Firestarter music video and the zombie movie 28 Weeks Later.

The abandoned Kingsway underground tram station in the centre of London was opened to the public for the first time earlier this year since it was closed almost 70 years ago. Double-decker trams used to ply along the station that was part of the network north and south of the Thames. It was closed after World War II in 1952, by when it was overtaken by the speed and efficiency of the Tube. Some tram services continue in Croydon in south London while there are proposals to operate trams through the busy Oxford Street. Historians, Tube lovers and regular users have collected several of the Tube’s unique features: the network is used by 1.35 billion passengers annually; the station with most platforms is Baker Street (10); the shortest distance between stations is between Leicester Square and Covent Garden on the Piccadilly Line (0.3km); the station with the most escalators is Waterloo (23); the deepest lift shaft is in Hampstead (55.2m) and the shortest at King’s Cross St Pancras (2.3m).

The Tube has also been the target for protestors over the decades, facing bomb attacks from the suffragettes, the Irish groups and the terror attacks in 2005. Three bombs were detonated within 50 seconds of each other on July 7, 2005 on the Circle and Piccadilly Lines in central London. Tony Blair, prime minister at the time, said: “The timing of the Tube explosions was designed to be at the peak of the rush hour and thus to cause maximum death and injury…July 7 will always be remembered as a day of terrible sadness for our country and for London. Yet it is true that just four days later, London’s buses, trains and as much of its Underground as is possible, are back on normal schedules; its businesses, shops and schools are open; its millions of people are coming to work with a steely determination that is genuinely remarkable.”

A large number of the Tube’s Asian staff has kept London on the move over the decades. Several portraits were put up in August across the corridors in several stations with images and stories of staff of Asian origin. One poster recalled the example of one of the earliest Asian employees, Amar Singh. In 1964, he showed up for work wearing a turban and was sent home for violating the company dress code. He continued on wearing it to work until the company then, London Transport, allowed turban as part of the uniform. Rajdeep Ghatora, overground concession contract manager, says she never expected to work in transport, but loves her job: “When I’m out and about on the London Overground network, I can point at changes which have been made to enhance the customer experience and say ‘I had something to do with that’.”

Marcia Williams, TfL’s director of diversity, inclusion and talent, says: “These strikingly powerful portraits, combined with the moving stories of pioneers from the Asian communities such as Amar Singh in the 60s who drove change in the organisation, remind us that London’s diversity in all its forms is what keeps it moving. We pay tribute to colleagues past and present and thank them for their service and their commitment to ensuring that equality and inclusivity are embedded in everything we do. I hope these portraits will inspire others to join us too.”

(Prasun is a journalist based in London. He tweets @PrasunSonwalkar.)

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