Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Passenger Blues

Well, as much I’ve tried to fight it, with industrial strength lemsip and my own body weight in oranges, I am now suffering my first proper cold of the winter. I am dosed up to the eyeballs with various sickly sweet remedies, all of which ‘may cause drowsiness’ and there is a lump in my throat the size of a grapefruit, that is making it rather difficult to swallow. I am fighting the urge to shut down the computer and just go home. But I don’t want my boss to think I’m skiving off to go Christmas shopping. Plus, when you’re under the weather, travelling on the tube is a nightmare and so I’m putting off the dreaded moment for as long as possible.

I hate travelling on the tube at the best of times. It’s dirty, unreliable and expensive. It forces us to get up-close-and-personal with the great unwashed (often, literally) of London, and brings out the very worst in all of us. I leave the house every morning in a good mood, raring to enjoy the new day, and after an hour on the tube I am snappy, irritable and ready to stab someone. I’d consider raising this with Mayor Livingstone, but he’d probably accuse me of being a Nazi.

There are dozens of reasons why the tube is a microcosm of hell on earth. Here are just five of them.

1. Tube commuters with out-of-credit Oyster cards.
There is nothing more annoying than queuing up to go through the electric barriers and finding yourself behind someone whose Oyster card is out of credit. They press the card on the scanner but the barrier doesn’t open, and instead the display screen tells them to “Seek Assistance”. At this point, two things happen. Firstly, you slam into the back of the said commuter because you expected them to walk through the barrier and so carried on walking at full speed behind them. They stop still and you crash into them, chin first. (If they are wearing a ruck sack this can be bloody painful.) The second thing that happens is that the commuter reads “Seek Assistance” and assumes it means “Try Again”. He places the card back on the scanner, but (surprise surprise) it still doesn’t open the barrier and the display still reads “Seek Assistance”. This time, the commuter thinks it means “Go on, give it another go. There are only 12 people behind you. And nobody’s in any kind of hurry”. After the third failed attempt the commuter finally realises that barrier is not going to open and tries to get out of the queue. He does this by pushing you out of the way (so that you now find yourself flung into the face of the person behind you) and swearing obscenities at you, like it’s your fault.

2. The battle of wills to sit down.
During rush hour tube seats are scarce. Unless you are pregnant, or live at the end of a line, you are not going to get a seat on the tube until at least half past nine. Your only chance of sitting down is to be in the right place at the right time. So you have to watch the other commuters and try to work out who looks like they’re getting ready to leave at the next station, and then position yourself in the right place to jump into their grave the minute they get up to leave. Anybody fiddling with their bags, putting on gloves or folding up a newspaper is a safe bet. You need to stand next to them and cling to the spot like glue. But while you’re doing this, you also have to keep half an eye out for the other standing commuters. Because there is nothing worse than eyeing up a potential empty seat, only to have it taken by somebody else while you are politely letting the previous occupant leave the train. So there is a constant battle of wills going on for every potential seat. Sometimes, if you position yourself cleverly enough, you can grab a newly vacant seat ahead of people who have been on the train for longer than you. This is great because most commuters think that the tube operates on a first-come-first-served basis, so if you manage to grab a seat before them the victory is even sweeter. Unless, of course, you’ve been on the train for ages and some jonny-come-lately gets the seat ahead of you. In which case, you give him daggers for the rest of the journey and hope that his Oyster card is out of credit.

3. London Underground Speak
Or, in other words, the inane and totally made-up English that tube staff insist on using, purely to bring out the Lynn Truss in everyone. For example, nobody travelling on the underground ever refers to the carriages as ‘cars’. This is because they are not cars but are, in fact, carriages. And yet you can guarantee that the platform staff will tell you to “Move right down inside the cars” whenever the train is particularly busy. What are they talking about? “Move right down inside the cars” is something they advise British journalists to do when travelling through a check-point in Baghdad to avoid sniper fire. We, on the other hand, are making our way through Camden Town. Another favourite of mine is the word “reduced” which is used by tube staff in its sense of “shit”. So, when they announce that “A reduced service is currently operating on the Jubilee line” what they actually mean is “A shit service is currently operating on the Jubilee line”. Not only do they use the wrong words but, on occasion, they just make words up, such as the verb “to non-stop”. So, tube announcers will never tell you that “This train will not be stopping at Kings Cross”, because that sentence makes perfect sense and shows an accurate command of the English language. Instead, they will explain that “This train will be non-stopping at Kings Cross”. This is not pure coincidence. There is a marketing theory that all negative messages should be worded in a positive way. So, instead of a train “not stopping” (negative) we are actually told that the train is (positive) non-stopping. Soon, we will no doubt be informed that the escalators are non-moving and the lifts are non-opening.

4. Service updates
You can only travel on one line at a time on the underground. Occasionally, you might change from one line to another in a single journey but, generally speaking, you use one line only. So, if the line you want to travel on is delayed, you derive absolutely no pleasure at all from the knowledge that “A good service is operating on all other lines”. If the line that takes you home is buggered, you are going to be late home. They could be serving a five-star silver-service meal with wine and providing an in-flight movie on all other lines for all you care. It makes no difference to you – you are still going to be late home. So, when you are standing on an over-crowded platform, trying to keep from falling onto the track, and the platform attendant is announcing that the next train is due to arrive in 17 minutes, how on earth does it help you to know that a good service is operating on all other lines? If anything, it just rubs salt in the wound. They might as well announce “Your journey home will be delayed by 24 minutes today. All other commuters are already at home, in their slippers and are currently watching Coronation Street”.
I once heard a station manager announce “There is currently a reduced service on the Piccadilly and Northern Lines. The Victoria and Bakerloo lines are part suspended, in both directions. The Central line is running a Saturday service due to essential engineering works. A good service is operating on all other lines.” Oh good. Because we wouldn’t want the capital’s entire travel network to grind to a halt, would we?

5. Reasons given for poor service.
A delayed journey is bad enough. Being told that all other lines are running perfectly doesn’t help. But when the tube announcers try to explain away the delay by making up any old rot they think we’ll swallow, I see red. Often, they just make the excuses up. We’ve all been in the situation of starting a tube journey in, say, Golders Green, grinding to a halt in a tunnel four stops later, only to be told that the delay is due to engineering works in the Golders Green area. When you know for a fact that there were no such engineering works at all. Sometimes, not only do they make up the excuse, but they change it as the journey progresses. So, a delay that is initially caused by engineering works in the Hendon area becomes a delay caused by flooding in Kentish Town. By the time you finally arrive (late) in Waterloo, you’ve been held up by signal failure in Kings Cross, a power cut in Hammersmith and a fire in Euston. And you don’t even travel through Hammersmith or Euston.
And, when they finally run out of excuses, they play their joker – the excuse that really makes my blood boil. “Passenger Action”. Because, at the end of the day, it’s all our own fault, isn’t it? I’ve never actually discovered what they mean by “Passenger Action”. But if a commuter has been slammed into a fellow passenger in the barrier queue, been left standing while someone has taken the last available seat, had to endure umpteen fictional excuses to explain away the poor service, only to be reassured that all other lines are fully operational, I’d hazard a guess that the said passenger action is probably justified. And I hope that it’s absolutely spectacular.

And with that in mind, I am off home, via the tube, to make myself a hot Ribena and put myself to bed. I’ll be back (in a less grumpy mood) when the Lemsip Max-Strength kicks in.


Blogger bangedmyhead said...

get well soon.

6:08 pm  
Blogger baldricka said...

I wish you better! Enjoy the hot Ribena! Just thinking about it makes me smile.

7:37 pm  
Blogger Elster said...

You sure you aren't talking about the New York City Subway RX? Of course you aren't they are on strike. So there IS no subway. So at least you have got THAt going for you.

9:57 pm  
Anonymous Pet Shop Boy said...

I sense much anger in you, young skywalker. Fabulous writing though. Feel better soon.

11:36 pm  
Blogger Jameel @ The Muqata said...

RX: I haven't felt that in-tune with the Tube since...probably the last time I rode it.

Feel better! We're all enjoying your writing.

11:10 am  
Blogger R.x said...

Bangedmyhead - thanks - feeling much better now (after a hot low cal)

Baldricka - which do you prefer, ribena or vimto?

elster - so you get subway strikes too?? we have SO much in common!

PSB - hello - great monicker - shall we have a drink when i'm better and let bygones be bygones?

jameel - too kind, as always...

12:55 pm  
Anonymous Plony said...

Don't forget the excuse of 'reduced staff'. Makes perfect sense now!

Elster - of course the Tube staff are not on strike now. They only strike on:
- the hottest days in summer(for their benefit and our suffering),
- days immediately before or after public holidays (or for extra fun,both),
- and when there is an important football match on!

1:11 pm  
Blogger MC Aryeh said...

"They could be serving a five-star silver-service meal with wine and providing an in-flight movie on all other lines for all you care."

Actually, if I found that to be the case, I think I might switch jobs just in order to switch lines. Just be thankful you are not in NY - our subways not only come with the requisite filth and fight for seats, but usually smell like urine, come with several disheveled beggars and general malcontents, are always either stiflingly hot or freezing cold, and the announcements are mumbled, to keep you not only uninformed, but frustrated to bits as well. And we in NY don't even know what Ribena is, so even that small measure of comfort is denied to us upon coming home...

Feel better.

4:00 pm  
Blogger baldricka said...

How could you even ask such a question! Ribena of course!

5:13 pm  
Blogger tafka PP said...

I’d consider raising this with Mayor Livingstone, but he’d probably accuse me of being a Nazi.

Even when you're ill, you still raise a chortle or seven hundred. And now I want some Vimto! Feel better.

8:58 am  
Blogger Karl said...

I hope you are feeling better now, and have a few days break away from the soot covered, rat infested commute.

For those that don't know, Ribena is made by GlaxoSmithKline - one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world, which makes it probably the best medicine around (after chicken soup). Well, thats my theory at least!

A common excuse nowadays often heard for a delay on the tube: "We are sorry for the delay, but there was a person under the train at ..... "
It is so inconsiderate.

2:31 am  
Anonymous G from 143 said...

I encountered a case of "reduced" staff at Edgware station this week. The ticket office was closed, the ticket machine was not accepting banknotes, and the 30-strong queue stretched out the door.

It took me 20 minutes to top up my oyster card.

Ironically there were two members of staff in the ticket hall, one of whom was showing people how to use the ticket machine, the other seemed to be loitering about with nowt to do.

Despite the fact that the ticket machine was clearly flashing the words "NO NOTES" for all to see, I actually counted at least three people in the queue before me, whom - despite the presence of a staff member - repeatedly attempted to feed the ticket machine with banknotes before giving up and letting out some exasperated comment. Talk about time wasting....

9:20 am  

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