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

Adventuring underground at Aldwych

It’s not often that I set an alarm to remind me to book tickets as soon as they go on sale, but when I heard (via Ian Visits) that Aldwych Tours were taking place this summer, it was an opportunity not to be missed. I confess, I booked the tickets during a Monday morning theology lecture, back in February.

Strand StationStrand Station – renamed Aldwych just 8 years after it opened – on the Strand.

Aldwych station is a special place. Closed since 1994, it’s one of the most visible and accessible of all of London’s (many) disused tube stations, largely thanks to it being on a branch line from Holborn that went nowhere else – meaning that trains don’t use it any more. The London Transport Museum runs tours a couple of times a year (as in blocks of tours, there were 3 weeks in this block), but booking is essential. Tickets went fast. Having previously hunted for abandoned stations above ground, I was finally going to explore one underground!

Last Thursday, with fellow geek Jenni in tow, we finally got inside and my goodness, it was worth the wait and the ticket price! [£25 for an adult, which will also give you 50% off entry at the LT museum, which then lasts a year – great deal.] Tours are led by volunteers, i.e. people who know a lot of information about the tube, just for fun. (Suddenly, I can see an activity for my retirement…) And our guides were great, very informative, willing to answer questions and obviously very passionate about their role.

There is SO much to say about the tour, but I don’t really want to spoil too much of it, because you really ought to go yourselves. Therefore, what follows are simply highlights…

1) Things are not always what they seem:

Fake PosterThe poster on the right is a classic LT poster, but this isn’t as old as it might look – it’s a replica from this century. 

Bakerloo Line SignThe Bakerloo Line has never passed through Aldwych Station (although the reason behind its renaming was owing to confusion to the nearby Strand station that eventually formed part of Charing Cross, which is on the Bakerloo Line). This is a left-over from one of Aldwych’s frequent film roles, this time for Mr Selfridge. 

2) The station was never particularly useful, to the extent that its second platform was never completely finished, nor were passageways between the two. Trains only ran between Holborn and Aldwych (not onwards), meaning that the line had very limited use. Apparently as a train was leaving Holborn, a bell would be rung alerting the lift manager at Aldwych to begin the journey down to platform level to pick up the tiny number of passengers that would be alighting.

Platform 2

The second platform instead found a use as a safe place to store national treasures during WW2 (including the Elgin Marbles), with the rest of the station used as an air raid shelter. Today, the platform has become an ideal place to test new tile patterns or materials used in tube infrastructure.

Piccadilly Line tile trialThe Piccadilly Line’s tiles in trial form.

3) It’s the little things that make a difference. Like an original 1907 sink & tap in the ladies’ toilets [a tube station with toilets!], and the iron work on the lift numbers.

1907 taps & sink

Lift 2

4)  Ultimately, it’s pretty cool to find yourself somewhere not everyone’s going to get to go!

Aldwych Platform 1Looking down platform 1.

Station Closed

Happy Geeks Happy geeks!

Oh, and, at the end of the tour you get handed a booklet chronicling the history of the station – just so you can check up on any facts you might have misheard.

More photos can be found on Flickr.

Short & sweet Friday Fun

I’m in the mire of two big deadlines (8,000 words in total) due next week, so I haven’t the time to do a ‘proper’ Friday Fun, despite having plenty fodder.

BUT, there is one thing that’s brought me respite at intervals through the week which I’d intended to share – given that it’s fun and transport related. Out there, some brilliant geeks are working on a metro game, where you can create your own transport system. You connect stations; cross rivers; resolve capacity issues; and ultimately aim to safely carry as many passengers as possible. The game is over if serious over-crowding occurs, just as in real life.

It’s in beta, so they’re welcoming feedback and in the course of the days that I’ve been playing it I’ve noticed both bugs and improvements, so you’d actually be contributing something too! This is what the developers have to say:

Mini Metro is an upcoming minimalistic subway layout game. Your small city starts with only three unconnected stations. Your task is to draw routes between the stations to connect them with subway lines. Everything but the line layout is handled automatically; trains run along the lines as quickly as they can, and the commuters decide which trains to board and where to make transfers.

Mini MetroThis was one of my more successful escapades. I think I got 397 passengers [note the number in the bottom right corner] before over-crowding shut down my system. The circle on the bottom left is a new station – they appear at intervals and you have to work out how to incorporate them. The symbols at the stations are passengers waiting for trains – panic ensues when those lines grow longer! But each time Sunday rolls along (see the clock in the top right corner) you are offered a choice of bonuses, from extra capacity trains, to additional river tunnels.

At times it seems fiendishly difficult, but practice improves things! (Although I did note that my friend Matt had already reached 471 when he sent me the link, but he is a techy nerd, so maybe he’s just better at these things!)

Anyway, there’s your challenge for the weekend! Enjoy!

Take the BART (man)

It wouldn’t be a trip to another major world city if I didn’t take some time to analyse the public transportation network. (On my 2009 trip to the US East Coast, I compared and contrasted the systems in Philadelphia, DC and NYC. No one accuse me of not taking this geekery seriously!)

I should confess that I only actually made one journey on the BART – the Bay Area Rapid Transit. It could have been two, but I managed to misread the map so badly on my penultimate day that I didn’t realise that I could catch the BART all the way into The City from our local station. However, my only journey proved to be a long one. Pleasant Hill to SFO airport is almost an entire line – 22 stops and 70 minutes long.

BART mapIt was the yellow line that proved useful. Sadly, the lines don’t have fun names – instead using the stations at either end. 

One of my criteria for grading international transit systems is how easy they are to navigate by a clueless tourist. I generally consider myself to be fairly savvy, what with my love of public transportation and all, unless I’m operating in a foreign language. The BART has a fairly easy map (unless you’re an idiot and forget where The City actually is), but what is utterly flummoxing is its ticketing system. When you look up a journey online, it tells you the exact cost – mine was $10.05 – which I thought was random. When I came to buy my ticket, I came unstuck – I couldn’t work out how to buy a single journey. There was no station finding option, just an automatic $20.00 added to a ticket. It took a trip to the ticket office (who wouldn’t sell me a ticket) to get an explanation. Apparently I needed  to use the +/- buttons to get my ticket to the correct amount for my desired journey. What?? How crazy! Can you imagine what would happen if you had that system in London?

However, the train itself was very pleasant. You know that mild sense of panic you feel whenever you attempt to take luggage on the underground? Will there be space? Will I annoy people? Will I be able to keep it safe? [Or is that just me?] There was none of that on the BART – there was oceans of room and, possibly because I got on at the 3rd stop, I had a seat where my luggage could easily be placed in front of me. It was clean, smelt pleasant and for most of the journey we were above ground, running parallel to the highway, with plenty of pretty views to consume.

BARTInside the BART. See, spacious! (Although it was Saturday…)

Within the BART, you have what seems to be a pretty good system – for a state in which the car is king. Admittedly, if you have the misfortune of living north of the Golden Gate Bridge, you have no link at all, but otherwise it might work out. Of course, during our trip we actually only met one family who regularly used it – even though our last week was spent within easy reach of stations. (It may have helped that the family were originally from New York and had lived in Paris, so public transport seemed more normal to begin with.)

Oh, and obviously, for a certain generation there is a near uncontrollable need to say ‘man’ immediately after the word ‘BART’. If you don’t understand why, simply Google ‘Bart Simpson Man’ and it should be explained to you…

How lovely is your dwelling place…

…oh, London Transport.

Today, I spent three exceptionally pleasant hours in the dwelling place of the history of London Transport. Astonishingly, given that:
(i) I love London Transport and all its works
(ii) I live just 10 minutes walk from its location
this was my very first visit to its premises in Covent Garden. Also surprisingly, when I mentioned the museum in yesterday’s Friday Fun, I had absolutely no idea that I’d be visiting it the following day. Unsurprisingly, I had a jolly good time.

Well, who wouldn’t? I got to drive three different types of tube train and a bus. (My tube driving improved slowly. By the third line, I’d mastered the art of stopping within the station – no mean feat on the Jubilee Line extension, I’ll have you know!) Needless to say, the driving was simulated – though the controls were exactly the same as the trains. In fact, if I can be permitted to gripe, the simulators are not suitable activities for small children – wielding the controls requires quite a strong right arm and three year olds don’t tend to possess such a thing.

Northern Line SimulatorComing up to the station. (I definitely overshot this one.)

Actually, another gripe regards the bus. A transport museum frequented by geeks of the first order is not the location in which to make a bus faux pas. The bus behind whose wheel one could sit was a number 9 on the outside, but a RV1 on the inside. As it was a modern double-decker, it would be impossible for it to be a RV1 as that particular route (which runs along the river – hence the ‘RV’) is only a small single-decker. [I’m not just being geeky, it happens to be one of my favourite routes.]

Bus driving joysSuper excited sitting on the driver’s seat & the peculiar bit of a bus for driving.

Anyway, the whole thing was a delight. From the lovely ticket office lady who allowed me a student ticket despite my lack of ID (I had a plethora of library cards and a believable story about being a student vicar); to the woman at the end who chatted with us while we completed her survey, it was lovely. The current exhibition of posters was as brilliant as I’d hoped – this was a favourite:

Heels - safety firstThe dangers of wearing heels..

We had clearly been identified as childish adults, as we each received a stamp card presumably designed to amuse children as they wend their way around the displays. Finding the relevant stamps certainly added a frisson of excitement to the visit.

Completed stampcardNote the presence of too many stamps in the bottom right corner. Someone couldn’t quite get the hang of the stamping machine…

There are myriad forms of London Transport – I guess that might be obvious – plus a fairly comprehensive history of how London Transport as an entity came to be. Given that I’m a geek, a lot of it wasn’t news, but it was terribly exciting to sit in old train stock and explore ancient buses. (I’m easily pleased.)

IMG_9861Ladies only to Rickmansworth

LT Roundel Coffee TableRoundel coffee table – I *need* this in my life!

On the Circle LineOn the District/Circle Line

Bus blinds What bus blinds look like when unrolled – I’m staggered they’re this long!

To be honest, my only disappointment was that there wasn’t anything about my favourite area of transport geekery – ghost stations. Surely that would be fun for all the family? Similarly, there was virtually nothing about the darker side of the transport network. There’s a small section on the two world wars and a blink-and-you’d-miss-it mention of the 1987 King’s Cross fire, but I didn’t spot any mention of 7/7. I guess it is a family destination, but plenty of other places manage to balance the harder aspects of history with the light-hearted.

Floating SignageFloating signage

Anyway, the brilliant thing about my ticket is that it lasts an entire year, so I can go back and practice my tube driving skills until I can safely drive a train, and catch up on all the artefacts and gems I no doubt missed. Normally I’d slightly resent paying £11.50 for a museum trip, but not when there’s plenty of scope for return visits. Oh, and ironically – given how many times I’ve visited it before – we didn’t have time to go to the shop, so that needs to be done too.

(There are a few more photos on Flickr.)