Memoirs of a Young Traveler- The Underground

Tiny pictures of Sherlock Holmes sit on the tiles as you depart from the Baker Street Tube Station.  The Covent Garden station is one of several stations displaying the name of the station in the tile. There are colors and pictures. Each station is completely unique, representing the area around where it sits.  Plus, so many of them are just so…old!

I have little experience on public transportation outside of my time in Washington, DC. The only thing truly notable about the Washington, DC metro system is the towering escalators. Beyond this, they’re simple, boring, cement. They all look relatively the same, hardly anything unique about one station and the next. This made the London Underground System, completely fascinating for me. I had never seen that much color below ground before. To make it more impressive, many of the stations are in old buildings. It adds to the experience.  You’re not just walking into an incredible Underground, you’re walking into an incredible building. Who knew a subway station could actually be pretty?

This is not to say that there are not any ugly Tube Stations. On the contrary there are several. The stations are not always clean. The tunnels sometimes a bit run down. And yet, I easily looked over that, because the stations were just so cool (and maybe because it was just as cool that I was in London).

I’ll be the first to admit that in comparison to most major metropolitan cities Washington, DC has a very small, very simple metro map. London on the other hand does not. There are 11 London Tube lines, with names like “Hammersmith and City” and “Piccadilly.”  And lines that sound familiar like “Central” and “Circle.” When you look at a map you can’t simply look for the color, because it’s likely that at least one line is some other shade of blue or green than the one you’re looking for. There are hundreds of stations, meaning there are often 4 stations in a 1 block radius of each other (rarely on the same line). It means that my straight, no-train-change, trip from Hounslow to Central London took approximately 20 stops.  It only gets more confusing when you add in the fact that certain lines have more than 2 directions. The “District” line going westbound has some trains that go one way to Ealing Broadway, some that go to Richmond and some that go to Wimbledon, all going Westbound. Get on the wrong “District” westbound train and you could end up a 20 minute journey from where you actually meant to be.

I studied my Underground map about 5,000 times each time I ventured on.

Unfortunately the system, as I witnessed on multiple occasions in just 4 days, has numerous flaws. Topping off the list is the constant closures and breakdowns. On one of my first days in the city my return journey back to my hotel, took an extra 45 minutes and 3 train changes, because the Piccadilly Line (the line my hotel was on) was partially closed. My uncle was forced to be about an hour late to dinner on my last night in London, after there were multiple unexpected shutdowns. This doesn’t include the planned service interruptions that closed about 4 lines and partially closed 2 to 3 others the day I left London.

I always thought that Washington, DC poorly labeled their metro stations. The black columns just fade into the buildings, and you sometimes walk by without realizing you’ve just passed the metro. You would think with the giant circular signs in red and blue that this wouldn’t be a problem in London. Generally it’s not. Unfortunately, London hasn’t quite mastered the concept of always placing the sign where the Tube station is. On at least one account, I found the sign telling me about the Tube Station and then had to precede another couple of blocks before I actually found the tube station. I think this might be a flaw in the system.

In general the underground trains are smaller. Both vertically and horizontally. And yet somehow, I felt less claustrophobic and less violated, even at rush hour, than I do when riding the metro in Washington. It seems to be part of the British culture. People want to give you as much space as possible, because honestly who wants to accidentally grope the person standing next to them. They use softer voices in public places like the Underground too. As much as I’d gladly listen to someone discuss they’re most recent one night stand, it was nice being somewhere where people actually care about keeping their personal lives personal.

There also seems to be a culture of actually reading on the Tube. And, I don’t just mean Kindles. Everywhere I turned people were pulling out of their bags legitimate books. Actual newspapers. They did it standing or sitting, up until the last second they were on the train. People read here too. But, by sheer qualitative analysis I’d say the Brits win.

Pretty and confusing, unique and complicated: the London Underground, a culture unto its own.

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