New York Transitting

“You’ve been following the museum’s Twitter account for nearly four years and you don’t even live in the country??” 

It was at this moment that I realised one of my hosts did not fully appreciate the level of my public transportation geekdom. Yes, I had been following @NYTransitMuseum since 2011. No, I had not been to NYC since 2009. No, I did not think this was weird. [They post archive photos and tidbits of American transit knowledge – plus, every so often they have a chat with the @ltmuseum!]

Obviously, a trip to the museum had to be included on my travel itinerary, and by fortunate twist of fate, it happened to be only ten minutes walk from my hosts’ apartment in Brooklyn. Incredibly, they hadn’t visited in the year that they had been living in the neighbourhood! I mean, seriously?? But both felt like it was a suitable post Sunday brunch activity, and joined me in the transport geekery fun.

Three have fun in the NYC Transit Museum

For anyone who has experienced the multiple levels of the London Transport Museum, the New York version is on the small side. However (and it’s a big however) New York’s museum is only in a FLIPPING DISUSED SUBWAY STATION!!! Hello ultimate geek heaven! Transit history AND a disused station?? My goodness!

The disused (but still live) platforms are put to great use, housing a history of subway carriages – which, quite honestly, was a highlight for everyone. Carriage design doesn’t seem to have changed too dramatically in recent decades, but the adverts certainly have. I think we got as much joy out of their bizarre-ness and political incorrect-ness as a little kid dressed in his own MTA uniform had jumping on and off the carriages! [Seriously, I wish I’d asked to take a photo of him – it was clearly a clever home-made job for a transport mad 3 year old. Soooo cute!]  A selection are below, without comment…

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What the museum does a great job of is charting the progress of some pretty iconic NYC transit things – like the train carriages. We appreciated the collection of historic turnstiles and subway tokens immensely – working out which ones would have been functioning on previous visits to the Big Apple, and (obviously) discussing the relative merits of New York’s turnstiles and MetroCards versus London’s ticket barriers and Oyster cards. [Clearly London wins on that front, although NYC gets bonus points for not needing to touch out.]

Special mention should also be given to the current featured exhibition ‘Bringing back the City’, featuring three different disasters in recent years (9/11, Hurricane Sandy and a power outage that none of us had heard of!), their impact upon public transit, and the MTA’s response. The 9/11 section was particularly fascinating, partly because the impact was huge (some of the network still isn’t functioning properly) and partly because the response was incredible. Did you know that up to 40 new transit maps were issued PER DAY in the first days after the attack?? In a pre smartphone world, these, plus staff with loud hailers, were the only way in which to get information out to passengers.

My only regret about the visit was that my stay in NYC didn’t coincide with any of the tours they give of another abandoned station – the beautiful City Hall station which closed in 1945. It would have been worth a membership fee for the museum and the $50 ticket for that experience!

Borough Hall Station

Fortunately, the station I used the most (Brooklyn’s Borough Hall) is considered another excellent example of subway design… 

The Theology of Power – and a Tube map

[An earlier version of this post appeared briefly after my clumsy fingers accidentally published my draft while writing in on the bus home. Ignore it, read this!] 

MA studies continue apace – we’re half way through term two now and have just five official teaching sessions left. [This has literally just dawned on me and is TERRIFYING!! Next term is electives, which are more informal and in small groups.] This term’s main module is “Theology of Power” and it may be the most fun/intellectual stimulation I’ve had in theological college thus far…

Today, our seminar consisted of Show & Tell – that infant school staple. Students with surnames beginning A-H were asked to bring in an object, text or song that they could unpack in the context of ‘power’. The class would then discuss the item and we’d see where it took us. It resulted in 90 minutes of discussion that, quite frankly, were highly entertaining and the epitome of a great grad-school seminar.

There was the Hozier song that contrasts church & sex; a US passport belonging to a child; two syringes; and a couple of tube maps. Yes, I may have been responsible for the final items…

It was fascinating. The discussion from the song was probably fairly predictable from the lyrics (but was really interesting nonetheless, especially as I’d heard the song many times but misheard the words!). The passport prompted debate as to the nature of the USA’s power; the role of passports & citizenship; and whether nationality is a result of fallen humanity. Were the syringes powerful in and of themselves, or only when full of a substance & with a needle attached? How did they have the power to make some of us downright queasy? Vaccination versus drugs & the power of survival. The student who brought them in was a vet pre-theological college and raised the question of euthanasia – she’d used needles like these to end animals’ lives.

1950s Map

And the tube maps? You might think “well, that was predictable!”, but it wasn’t necessarily logical. (For a while I’d contemplated Celine Dion’s version of The Power of Love!) But I’d thought about my 1957 map and how it compared to the current version and how often we Londoners feel powerless in the face of London Transport.

[An example of this is contained in this tweet from late Friday night, post rugby watching.

We were stuck on a dark bus for at least 15mins with a potentially terrifying announcement blaring out across Stratford bus station, all thanks to a moody bus driver and a system that means a person with cash can’t board a bus…]

We have little control over TfL. Our weekend plans are moulded by engineering works. We feel like we can gain power through little victories – like knowing where to stand on a platform so that you alight your train at the exit. The tube map also demonstrates the influence it has had on the city – the Met line resulted in “Metro-Land” and new housing. It also demonstrates the influence on the map that is changes in power bases within the city –  compare 1957 with 2015 and you instantly spot the massive change in the east, with the growth of a financial district in Docklands.

The discussion also went off in tangents that had never even crossed my mind:

  • The merits of walking & cycling and the power they give us by escaping the tube.
  • The way the map demonstrates divisions within society – the power we attribute someone able to afford a zone 1 property.
  • That the tube can demonstrate power dynamics within society, particularly along ethnic lines. How you can see things about the communities above ground based upon the social make-up of the passengers below.

(You might be wondering where the theology comes in. I’m getting there, but it’s important to understand that the theology of power is in part to do with how we, as God created beings, relate to the powers and principalities of earth and heaven.)

The tube discussion took place immediately before lunch and on the stroke of 1pm, I was given the chance to have the final word. This have me the opportunity to share my last thought on the power demonstrated in the tube map – the lasting legacy of religion.

I’ve mentioned it here before, but a significant number of tube station names (and London place names) relate to the church. When we read the map, we get an insight into what has had power in the city throughout history.

Highgate in North London was the “high gate” marking the border of the Bishop of London’s land. The amount of London’s land still owned by the church (I’m guessing) is now significantly less! There are no longer black-cassocked monks praying by the river in Blackfriars. You could argue that, by stealth, the church still has power through its historical legacy on the tube map.

It’s a shame that only four people got chance to share their item this morning – it was a brilliant way to have a discussion that went off on numerous tangents and that everyone got on board with. In a couple of weeks time, the second half of the alphabet get their chance and I have high expectations of another fascinating 90 minutes. In the mean time, I’ll be trying to work out if there’s a way I can write a 5,000 word essay on the theology of the tube…

On tiles and fake houses

Leinster Gardens text

This text conversation took place on a Friday night, just over a week ago. It caused great excitement, much to the consternation of my companion at the time. It took rather a lot of explaining to help her understand the cause of my glee, and to be honest, I don’t think she ever got it entirely.

You, my lovely readers, will have understood though, surely? Leinster Gardens is famous and has been previously featured on this blog at least twice. I first discovered its secret during the tube’s 150th anniversary celebrations, courtesy of the fabulous 150 Great Things About the Underground blog. Then, thanks to Sherlock, the rest of the world discovered it this time last year. [In case you don’t remember, the location was one of Sherlock’s bolt holes.]

Sunday dawned bright and chilly – perfect conditions for some geeky exploring. It got off to a great start before I’d even joined my fellow geeks for brunch. My destination was Baker Street, and as I emerged from the Jubilee Line platforms (something that until three and a half years ago I had done six days a week), things felt different. Cleaner. Lighter. I thought perhaps the walls had undergone a deep-clean. As I reached the top of the escalator I realised that it wasn’t a lack of dirt, it was entirely new tiles. Not a big deal, you might think, but this part of Baker Street station had previously featured tiles reminding passengers of its most famous (yet entirely fictional) resident. Surely they hadn’t got rid of the Sherlock Holmes tiles??

Well yes, and no…
The tiles had gone, and been replaced by some classy, antique style tiles very much in keeping with Baker Street’s status as one of the oldest stations on the underground. BUT, one patch had been preserved – so sense had prevailed!

Baker St Tiles

Brunch over, we set off towards Paddington in search of Leinster Gardens. Should you want to find them yourself, they’re only 10 minutes walk from Paddington, so it’s very easy to do. So easy, I’m bemused that it’s taken me this long to get there!

Still unaware of the terraces’ secret? Take a look for yourself. Spot anything?

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How about from this angle?

Leinster Gardens

Got it? There’s something fishy about number 23. Did you spot the different roof in the first photo? The peculiar ‘glass’ of the windows in the second?

If you walk to the end of the road, turn right and then right again, you soon discover what’s behind the windows:

Behind Leinster Gardens

That would be nothing. Well, not exactly nothing – the District & Circle lines run along here (although originally it was the Metropolitan Line). The line’s first trains were steam powered and needed space to let off steam (don’t we all??), but residents apparently didn’t want their lovely white terrace to have a massive hole in the middle of it. And thus, the facades were erected and the residents were happy. Until, presumably, lots of geeks turned up to take photos of it…

Why I ♥ London Transport

Two weeks ago, I was in a job interview type scenario [incidentally, no news on that front – this particular exploration didn’t work out] where I was asked what I liked doing for fun. Via a mutual friend, the interviewer had discovered my love of all things London Transport and so when I mentioned TfL geekery in response to this question, he wanted to know why. Given the context, I was keen to make the point that I wasn’t an anorak wearing, notebook toting geek – but what could I say?

I’m not sure I’d ever had to answer the question before. Possibly because in London, most people share the enthusiasm – it’s to do with being so utterly reliant upon a service, even though it drives us all nuts at times – life in London without public transport would be impossible. And that’s definitely where my passion began…

Bus GinBus AND gin! [Incidentally, the LT Museum now has a limited edition gin!!]

I was 11, had just started secondary school and had acquired a commute that involved a bus journey from the wilds of North London all the way to my school in Marylebone. In case of detours, terrorist action, rain or simply the eccentricities of London Transport, my mother suggested I get to know a few bus routes that might be useful. By the time we left London three years later, this had turned into a somewhat encyclopaedic knowledge of North London bus routes.

Westminster Station at Twilight

While the practicalities might begin a fondness for London Transport, they’re not enough to fuel full-on geek-dom. For me, the number one factor is the aesthetic – the font, the artwork, the style. Paris might come close, but honestly (and semi-unbiasedly) London wins in a contest of global public transit systems. It’s the simple things, like the Johnston font that became universal across the tube when it unified in 1933, and is now found wherever TfL rules the roost. And the roundel, introduced in 1933, which isn’t just a logo or an indication of a station, but a design classic.

Bethnal Green Roundel ClockThis clock is just one example of London Transport’s commitment to its house-style.

Cities like Paris and New York might keep their stations almost entirely underground, but not London. Possibly thanks to the evolution of the network over time, combined with the aesthetic passions of those in charge, the underground has a network of stations that are nearly entirely architectural icons. The earliest stations, with their platform canopies and painted columns, remain classic a century and a half on. Line extensions and renovations enabled some of the country’s best architects to leave the city with a lasting legacy.

Temple Station platform

Take Charles Holden – architect of Senate House and 55 Broadway (still, but not for much longer, TfL HQ) – he’s responsible for the northern end of the Piccadilly Line’s style. Arnos Grove, Bounds Green, Cockfosters – all slightly different, suited to their context and location. Oh, and he did the southern end of the Northern Line too, and would have done the north too, had the war not interfered with getting his plans completed. What I love too, is that time hasn’t changed London Transport’s design values either. The architecture of the Jubilee Line extension is just as impressive, but in a completely different way. All of the stations on the network seem to reflect the age in which they were created.

Charles Holden Piccadilly LineFound here.

Then there’s the inside of the stations. Every single one is different. True, there might be a particular colour palette for a certain line, or a particular style – like the red tile accents along parts of the Central Line – but each one has its own motif. The Bakerloo at Baker Street has Sherlock Holmes tiles. Finsbury Park’s Piccadilly Line platforms has the ascending hot air balloon mosaics. Charing Cross on the Northern Line is the home of Chaucer-like characters. You could spend days exploring the art gallery that is the London Underground. (And that’s before visiting the regular art exhibits at Gloucester Road!)

To the trainsI’m pretty sure this is Russell Square – it’s certainly the colour & style of that part of the Piccadilly Line.

But, the fire that helps this passion burn is the history. Seriously, if I’d thought about it sooner I’m sure there are many PhDs to be had out of TfL geekery! The art, design and architecture all contributes to its history, but the very simple fact that it’s been around for over a century and a half gives it huge status for a history nerd!

It’s the contribution it makes to London’s social history – how transport has been used, by whom and where. The fact that changing populations and two world wars impacted the way the network worked, and where its stations were. It’s charted the progress of technology and engineering, from horses, to tramlines, to driverless trains and hydrogen buses. Within all of this, obviously, are the fascinating worlds of disused stations and maps…

Embankment 1980's MapEmbankment’s 1980’s map.

Ah, the psycho-geography of London Transport!

I love walking down a street and knowing that there’s an abandoned station along it. That once upon a time, this was a place deemed worthy of a station. But that once upon a time, a few years later, it wasn’t. [Or, in the case of Aldwych, was never really worthy of a station in the first place!] Perhaps the building’s still there; perhaps it’s been converted into something else, but still bears the tell-tale brickwork or signage; or perhaps it’s just a memory and a chapter in the nerdy book station of the London Transport museum.

Aldwych StationThe side entrance of the now unused Aldwych.

And that’s the final thing. I love London Transport because it loves itself! As we approach the end of the Year of the Bus (and the inevitable museum shop new year sale in which I think I will be very happy), a year that followed the tube’s 150th birthday, it’s clear that its history really is worth celebrating. I think knowing and understanding the history helps Londoners to appreciate what they have. We still use the same stations built 151 years ago. I regularly stand on a platform at the start of a tunnel that Brunel built in the 19th Century. The tube’s map still has a huge amount it owes to Beck, despite regular changes and updates.

Year of the BusYear of the Bus celebrated on Regent’s Street.

Honestly, where would we be without you London Transport??

1950s Map1950’s Map

The joy of detective work

I’ve said it before and no doubt I’ll say it again: it pays to be public about your tube geekery. Only weeks ago it resulted in the delights of the Embankment map, this week it’s gifted me an old map discovered while clearing out a father’s belongings. With no date on it, it was ripe for a bit of detective work…

As I mentioned with the Embankment map, there are plenty of clues to the age of a tube map – you just need to find them and start sorting through them in order to come with a date window. So, for this one (which is a corker) I’m going to give you the map first and let you play. If you want to try and work out the date yourself, go ahead! The process of deduction I went through will be shown below the photo, so feel free to maximise the photo and get busy with all your accumulated tube knowledge and the aid of Wikipedia. Honestly, it’s a lot of fun!

Here’s the map:

Antique MapOk, it’s not brilliant quality – I blame the unfortunate combination of iPhone & artificial light.

When I first opened this up, my first observation (mainly just because of how I unfolded it) was that we were looking at the network before the creation of the separate East London and Hammersmith & City Lines – both were still in the beautiful purple of the Metropolitan Line. But, as I looked, I saw plenty of other matters of interest that could help me with the date.

  • Missing lines are a MASSIVE indicator of age. What’s missing from this map? The Jubilee and the Victoria Lines – immediately (once you’ve checked the date of the Victoria’s opening) you’ve gone back decades.
  • Are any lines longer or shorter than they are now? The Piccadilly Line is pre-Heathrow; the Central carries on up to Ongar; the Metropolitan goes all the way to Aylesbury; and the Bakerloo includes Watford.
  • Is there anything else completely random that takes you by surprise? In this instance, I was taken aback by the inclusion of Finsbury Park as a branch on the Northern Line.
  • Are any lines different colours compared to modern maps? See above for the ELL and H&C, but on this map the Waterloo & City is white, not teal.

Once you’ve got your list, it’s time for the vortex that is the Wikipedia London Transport portal. Simply looking up the name of a line or a station will answer most questions about dates – its reliable thanks to the hoards of geeks who update the articles. And thus, I was able to establish these key facts:

  • The Victoria Line opened in 1968.
  • Hatton Cross (the precursor to the Heathrow stations) opened in 1975.
  • The Epping-Ongar extension closed in 1994.
  • The Metropolitan extension to Aylesbury closed in 1961.
  • Finsbury Park left the Northern Line in 1964 (ready for the Victoria Line).

Thus, I was able to arrive at an latest possible date of 1961. Could I get any more specific? Well, while Googling the colour of the W&C Line, I discovered a rather fabulous website that chronicles the changes of the tube map, complete with as many examples as possible. There wasn’t a map published in 1961, so it was a choice between the 19561958, 1959 and 1960 versions. My deductions continued…

  • 1958 and 1960 had ‘River Thames’ written on the river, mine did not.
  • 1956 was labelled ‘Railways’; 1960 ‘Underground’ – mine was the latter.

It therefore seemed clear that what I held in my hands dated back to 1959. A map that was over half a century old!

1959 Tube Map

It’s a special thing – not least because it’s one of the last to have actually been designed by Beck (1960 was his last – apparently London Underground disagreed with his proposal for how to insert the Victoria Line). It’s also special because it’s been annotated. My friend Sally’s Dad clearly used it well, noting down times and prices on its cover and obliterating Shoreditch station. (For good reason, apparently it was ‘often closed’ – Wikipedia doesn’t get more specific about why, unfortunately.) It’s a real map, used for actual travelling, and for that reason I utterly love it!