Your night is my day: London Underground never sleeps

With recent chatter about running the London Underground overnight during next year’s Olympics, there was a talk given last week which was due to explain what happens on the Underground overnight – and hopefully explain why a permanent 24-hour tube is not really viable.

Actually, the representative from Tube Lines had to pull out, and the Transport Museum’s designated “speaker at public lectures”, Oliver Green stepped in to give a similar talk instead.

Starting with a 20 minute film, “Under Night Streets“, filmed in 1958 by British Transport Films, following the 800 night-shift workers and includes the discovery of a broken rail in the middle of the night. Quite interesting in a sort of “Mr Cholmondley-Warner” sort of way, and I am sure some of the work procedures would have the RMT seething in rage about lack of red tape.

The sight of the boss in full office suit and hat cycling along the tunnel is quite memorable though.

I’ve noticed that Oliver Green likes using film in his lectures, but rather than maybe grabbing just the pertinent clips, he shows the entire film – which is a cunning way of padding out a talk.

As noted in the video, the famous “fluffers” who clean the tunnels are there as a fire prevention measure – one spark from the electric rails and the greasy waste could be a dire problem – as was tragically shown later elsewhere when dirt in the escalators was ignited by a stray cigarette in Kings Cross.

Although London Underground does have a “big yellow duster” to automatically clean the tunnels, its efficiency is debatable, and fluffers are still used to manually clean the tunnels, although sex equality means that the teams now include men cleaning the tunnels as well.

London Underground Fluffers in the 1950s

Curiously, he noted that at the time there were hardly any ever overrunning engineering works – whereas today, it is almost a weekly occurrence. How much of that is due to modern red-tape, or the lack of investment between the 1950s and 2000s, I leave to your political preferences.

After that short film, he really spent the rest of the lecture less on what happens after it closes than on what happened to the network as a whole after the film was made.

Although capital investments did get carried out, the 1980s is when the stations reached their lowest point in terms of cleanliness, and the “anti-suicide” pits were often filled with rubbish as no one cleaned them up each evening. Passenger numbers were plummeting, and it was only the introduction of the travel zones and simpler ticketing that finally turned the network around in terms of passenger numbers, and thus eventually, the revenues to fund maintenance.

He noted that complaints about how dirty the stations and trains are today is as nothing compared to what it once looked like.

Frankly, I do wish people would take their rubbish with them (newspapers included) and not discard it in the trains so we would not only have cleaner trains, but have to spend less on cleaning them. With the exception of Westminster, it can’t be that difficult to find a waste bin near the exit of a tube station – can it?

Although the talk was meant to be about, and headlined as what happens on the tube after it closes, apart from a few comments and the old film clip, the talk was really a 40 minute romp through the history of the tube network since the 1950s.

Interesting, but not quite as interesting as it could have been – in my opinion.

If you want to watch the lecture, and the rarely seen 1958 B&W film – the whole thing was can be watched at the Gresham College website.

Strangely, he ends on a very negative tone about the Northern Line extension and Crossrail 2 (Chelsea/Hackney) – which is completely at variance to the information I am getting from people at TfL about the likelihood of them being built.

The Northern Line extension is agreed in principle, although they are still sorting out the exact funding mechanism to use for it, and while Crossrail 2 is not widely talked about – as Peter Hendy noted last year, it is almost essential if you want to build the High Speed rail link as the tube network simply can’t cope with the passenger numbers that will be arriving (in theory) at Euston station.

I’ve not had the “pleasure” of an early morning visit to the Underground, but Londonist and Annie Mole have been in there. As have Time magazine.

Incidentally, I noticed the video on the Gresham website is delivered by a company called tubemogul, which is sadly just a naming coincidence and not anything to do with the London Tube network.

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5 Comments

  1. Chris Duck

    As a tourist traveling via the underground last fall, I did notice it was quite difficult to locate a bin at most of the stations I was at, but I did manage to get by without leaving anything on the trains.

    • IanVisits

      Following terrorist scares in the 1990s, there are now few bins on the Underground – but usually plenty when people leave the station.

  2. All litter bins in the Tube were removed or blocked up after the IRA bomb at Victoria mainline station in February 1991 on the instructions of the police. Since then they have permitted those transparent plastic bag bin-things to be installed at certain non-Zone 1 locations but still nothing in central London.

    The “red tape” was brought in after the Fennell Report highlighted how slack procedure and government cutbacks led to 31 people dying in the King’s Cross fire. Note, none of the cleaners on the stations or litter-pickers on the trains are employed by LUL, they all work for private cleaning firms, another legacy of those 80s cutbacks.

    • IanVisits

      The red tape I was referring to was nothing to do with a single specific incident, but to do with the general culture of form filling and bureaucracy that slows even the most mundane of tasks to an unacceptable crawl.

      As to the cleaners being employed by Company X instead of Company Y – I’ve never really understood why people get so fussed about that. It is 9 times out of 10 just a change in the colour of the wage slip, that is all.

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