Thursday, 20 June 2013

You don’t have to be Orpheus to descend to Hell, you just need a ticket

Most major cities pride themselves on putting in underground railway systems.

Odd, really, since when you plunge into any of them they generally turn out to be pretty ghastly places. They show how right most religions are to place Hell underground.

The London tube is one of the worst. It always seems to be horribly crowded.

Now I know it
’s a bit of a paradox to say that. I mean, if I weren’t there to experience how crowded it was, it would be marginally less crowded. But like most others, I suspect, I view myself and anyone with me as travellers, and everyone else as a crowd.

Even without the crowd, the tube is painful. It’s hot and clammy and claustrophobic, partly no doubt because it’s really squeezed into its tunnels: there are often only inches between the edge of tube cars and the tunnel side.

The London Tube: no margin for comfort
Still, in being uncomfortable, the London underground’s no worse than most others.

For instance, I’m always amazed that people write in such flattering terms about the New York subway. It’s always struck me as desperately old-fashioned, noisy and bone-rattling. Badly out of place in the home of technological innovation.

As for the Paris metro, it’s particularly dismal. First of all, it stinks. I don’t know whether it’s burning brake pads or what, but the smell is one of the most unpleasant I’ve come across in any city’s underground system. Everyone always looks absolutely miserable too; again, I realise that I’m guilty of some kind of solipsism here: I regard all the others as being miserable, and making me miserable by contagion, but I appreciate that others might see things the other way round.

Occasionally, underground systems can be quite interesting. For instance, before the wall came down, the Berlin U-Bahn had quite a few ‘ghost stations’. These were closed stops on the eastern side of the wall, their names still in Gothic script from the thirties, no adverts up on the wall or the tattered remnants of posters decades old, dim lighting, armed police on the platforms making absolutely certain that no-one got off the trains from the west or, more important, tried to get on.

Ghost station on the U-Bahn in the bad old days.
Fascinating but spooky
That was pretty spooky and interesting, but it wasn’t exactly pleasant.

In fact, the only metro system that I’ve been on recently and found relatively tolerable is the one in Madrid. It’s one of the more modern ones, so that’s perhaps not so surprising, but it does show that things could be less awful.

What makes the Madrid metro more attractive? There really is space in the tunnels around the carriages, and the carriages themselves are wider. Stretch out on the London tube, and even I with my short little legs am practically touching the passenger opposite. In Madrid there’s space between the rows to fit in people, legs, luggage, whatever.

Madrid Metro: room to breathe. Until it fills up at least
The greater width and the clearance in the tunnels makes the whole system much airier and fresher. That’s helped by air conditioning which is actually switched on from time to time. And they even have mobile signal down in the tunnels.

It still isn’t exactly fun, particularly when the carriages fill. But it’s a lot better than Paris or London.

Still, to be fair to poor old London, at least the tube does have a couple of jokes associated with it.

‘Do you know the way to Turnham Green?’ is one. The answer is, of course, ‘Leave 
em out in the rain.’

And the classic ‘Is this Cockfosters?’ to which the answer is 
well, it’s certainly not mine.

And the tone of that joke probably reflects pretty accurately the quality of the experience of travelling on the system.

Unusual passenger in Madrid


Bob Patterson said...

Several times a week you spin out 750+ words on a variety of topics that you make interesting, you write fluently and cogently, and Luton appears to have a print-media outlet or two (not that you should limit yourself geographically), so why not submit a few for publication? Just a thought.

David Beeson said...

Thank you Bob, you overwhelm me with your kindness. I must see if I can find a way to persuade anyone to publish me...