Dean Taylor is features editor of The Student Journals and is studying for a Masters in Law at UCL, London.
Viewers of BBC Two these last few weeks will no doubt have switched on at 9pm on Monday evenings to gain a greater understanding of the icon that keeps London moving: the Tube.
This new documentary charts the developments of London’s rapid transport system as it embarks on the biggest overhaul and investment programme in its 150-year history.
Most Londoners will describe their relationship with the Tube as love/hate: love it when it’s working, hate it when it (often) isn’t. Indeed, it should come with a health warning as it is such an ingrained part of the commuting and general travelling routine of not just Londoners, but tourists as well.
Highlights from the series thus far have illustrated that sub-surface, there is a tremendous amount of work that goes into making sure that this city-beneath-the-city keeps moving. The investment in new track, signalling and rolling stock have all featured as Transport for London (rather belatedly) reacts to the fact that tube usage has grown beyond that which was ever foreseen and will continue to do so in the future. Viewers have been treated to a soupcon of insights into the shutdowns and delays suffered as a result of the widespread upheaval; such shutdowns being the necessary and proverbial ‘bitter pill’ to be swallowed if we want a Tube that is no longer bursting at the seams.
And as anyone knows, moving is not always guaranteed. In episode four viewers saw the drama of when delays on the Victoria line shut the whole line down and the chaos that commuters and controllers alike face.
Other aspects of what really goes on include the harrowing and moving depiction of suicide on the Underground. Oft-regarded as an even more heightened act of selfishness due to its knock-on effects to a great many people, episode three explored suicide and those whose relationship with the Tube is shaped by its occurrence. Viewers heard of the drivers who have to live with the untold agony of being in the cab when the deceased took their lives and how they can’t help but label themselves as murderers. It’s these incidents that make us as commuters realise that while, at the worst of times, the experience of the Tube can be hellish, but we have humans operating it; men and women who have emotions too and are susceptible to them, through no fault of their own.
But in spite of all this gloom, spirits are lifted by moments that can happen to us all: the couple who were split up catching the District line to Tower Hill when the husband got on the train and his wife, just a step behind him, was left watching on from the platform as the door closed and the train departed.
Also captured are the scenes often witnessed on Friday and Saturday nights, people stumbling around the station punch drunk and in no fit state to travel ‘What, there’s a customer asleep on the platform?” radios Mark Davies from the control room at Liverpool Street. TfL employees go beyond their duties in providing care and support for travellers. The extra service provided at the end of the Northern Line at Morden sees station supervisor Mark Jenner escorting passengers who’d fallen asleep and missed their stop: “Wakey, wakey, rise and shine, it’s the end of the Northern Line!” he announces to the passengers in deep slumber.
So too is comedy value served by the revenue inspectors who ensure that commuters have a valid Oyster/Travelcard and catching those who are bang to rights:“Listen to what I’m saying: Pay.As.You.Go,” Denese Brunker spells out in the opening credits, “....you just went!”
In episode two we see the ‘Hooligan’ at Ladbroke Grove who is caught right in the act and starts into a foul mouth tirade at the ticket inspectors only to apologise but then retort to the cameraman, calling him “you f***** s**g”. The series paints a spectacular portrait of not just the people who work for London Underground but also of the behaviour of its users and their staggering nonchalance in the face of being caught red-handed.
Refreshment is provided in the form of Customer Service assistant Tim at Warwick Avenue with his cheery and warm candour (memo to TFL: there is a ‘severe delay’ in this trait amongst customer service people across the Tube network, speaking from experience. Please sort this out).
There is a ‘good service’ on The Tube, a programme that delves deep into our Underground network and informs us what really goes on. It should make commuters think twice about the behind-the-scenes efforts in keeping this subterranean icon’s wheels in motion.
The Tube continues on BBC2 Mondays at 9pm and is available on BBC iPlayer.