Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
If it’s all about the journey, London holds key to life
The first time my trembling (quivering?) hand touched yours …
The woman with alabaster skin is translating Japanese love poems into slender-pencilled English, a tiny kanji-calculator balanced on her knee. Three spaces along, a large corporate type, pink-faced and shirt to match, in pinstripes, backpack and an incipient identity crisis jots, in round schoolboy hand: “ABN Transition Management Proposal. Dot point: what is it? Dot point: how far does it overlap with X’s?”
Beside him, a moon-faced goth chews hair while memorising the physiology of the kidney, probably human, while at the far end of the carriage, a group of wholesome-looking Dutch punks, only 30 years late for the party, exchange Nederlandish grunts.
It’s the Northern line, naturally. Years ago, arriving in London, I was instructed as follows: “On the tube, the one thing you never do is look. Read a paper, do your nails, but never, ever raise your eyes. This is why newspapers exist, why Fleet Street is Fleet Street. Looking at people, like talking politics, is simply not done.” It was clearly a sensible rule, and one I immediately and repeatedly broke.
For the Northern line is more than mere transport. It’s an entire culture. It has its own reading matter – proper newspapers having been almost entirely replaced by celebrity-stuffed, tube-targeted “freesheets”, 9.5 tonnes of which Northern, Jubilee and Piccadilly line commuters “read” and discard daily. It has its own air – that never, ever mingles with the free atoms above – and its own unmistakable smell. It also has its own fashions.
The Northern line look – quite unlike the casual glamour of Holland Park, the cheap “chav” look of the East End or the studied dowdiness of the gentry – hasn’t changed for a quarter century. It’s a wrapped, layered and sometimes hooded arrangement, a Schwitters-like assemblage of soft-footed greys, fawns and blacks with the occasional accent in red or mulberry. Worn with that cheerful London stoicism we associate with the Blitz but which now enwraps West Indians, Afghans, Pakistanis and Poles, it is an architectural update on the medieval serf, a kind of camouflage against life in the sludge.
Not that the Northern is London’s oldest underground line (that’s the Metropolitan, which was “stuffed to capacity” carrying 38,000 passengers on opening day in 1863). But it feels like it, being both the deepest and the densest, averaging more than half a million passengers a day – and at times, I swear, as many in a single carriage. It’s also the line that, back in the 1890s, earned the underground its “tube” sobriquet. When that cylindrical loco bears down on you, round peg in round hole, shoving wind with peristaltic brio, you can see why.
Billions were spent upgrading the tube before its privatisation, five years back. The Jubilee line was doubled in length, with 11 new Norman Foster-designed stations including the grand, if cavernous, Canary Wharf station, and the new Dockland Light Rail. Transport for London promises a further £5 billion ($10.6 billion) spent over the coming five years, and as much again above ground.
Admittedly, Transport for London has recently needed bailing out by the taxpayer, to the tune of £1.7 billion. That’s public-private partnerships for you. Privatise profits, nationalise losses; Sydney knows all about that, right? But this only shows what we already, secretly, knew; that some services never will be businesses.
Still, it’s undeniable. The more they spend, the more public transport people use, with a record billion-plus tube-riders in 2006-07. This is the flipside of London’s famous congestion charge, and the key to its success, notwithstanding Londoners’ continuing conviction that traffic has got worse, not better, under the charge.
Transport for London can operate strategically like this, paralleling public-transport expansion with private-transport impediments, because it runs the lot – underground, buses, trams, river ferries, coaches and streets. It also has the Oyster.
Sure, Sydney has oysters. Many people adore them, even in polite company. But as oysters go, the Sydney Rock variety has nothing on the tube.
London’s Oyster is a transit smartcard that can be prepaid, time-limited or topped-up – online, in person or by sms. It covers the tube, tram, bus, light rail, overground and national rail. It’s contactless – no signing, no pin, just wave-and-pay. It’s sold everywhere AND can do credit and debit as well as transit. The Tate Modern even sells Bauhaus-inspired oyster holders. Now that’s what you call an aphrodisiac.
Sydney, by contrast, can’t even get to first base. How hard can it be to find a decent, working system and copy it? But we go on shaping our traffic “improvements” – like the Cross City Tunnel – strictly for private profit. Far from upgrading, we let our hardware drift into neglect, source decade-old smartcard technology from the Salvos, then wonder why usage drops.
In global terms only LA looks less serious about public transport, the glum new stations on its shrunken metro line about as bustling as Sydney’s Green Square on Good Friday. Then again, LA has Hollywood, Santa Monica – and the mother of all freeway systems.