July 30, 2003

A new tube torture

Brian Micklethwait | London Underground

Ever since I first saw automatic ticket selling machines, in Germany in the eighties, and then saw them arrive in the London Underground or the "tube" as we call it here, and then saw these machines sporting "OUT OF ORDER" or "EXACT MONEY PLEASE" messages, I have know that there is no machine, no matter how Teutonically efficient in its apparently inherent nature, that the tube wouldn't find a way of mucking up and rendering English.

Yesterday I observed a new version of this syndrome, in the form of a new London Underground torture inflicted by means of automatic train doors.

The self-opening and self-shutting doors on trains. They usually work, right? Yes. Until yesterday. Yesterday on the Jubilee Line I observed the doors that let you in and out of tube trains misbehaving.

The doors you have to get through on the Jubilee Line are, at the new stations, a doubt dose. There are the doors on the trains, and there are also the doors on the platforms, because the newest Jubilee Line platforms have glass walls with doors in them where the platform edges the track, presumably to prevent suicides, or disasters caused by excessive crowding.

Until today I've never seen this system misfire. The train draws up at the platform, its doors fitting exactly with the doors of the platform barrier. Both lots of doors open simultaneously. Out gets everybody. In gets everybody. Slight pause. All doors shut. It's as if the doors on the trains and the doors on the platforms are all part of the same system.

They are. Yesterday, they were having trouble with the doors on the train I was on, and this trouble was apparently infecting the doors on the platforms. Or vice versa and the platform doors were confusing the train doors. Or some common affliction was afflicting all the doors. I got on at Green Park (where there is no platform wall, just an old fashioned commit-suicide-at-will platform) and by the time I got there, there was at train at the platform with its doors already shut, but which was making clunking noises that I associate with one of the doors not having shut. I waited, hoping, as sometime happens in these circumstances, that all doors would open again, and I would be able to get on this train. No such luck. After further clunking, the train pulled away. I had to wait for another. There was more waiting for the doors to that train to open, but they eventually did.

At the next stop, Westminster, more trouble. This is a new Jubilee Line station, so there are platform doors as well as train doors. Some of the train doors didn't open when they should have. And when they did, some of the platform doors didn't open, so exiting travellers were faced with open train doors but shut platform doors. There were intercom announcements saying you would have to open the platform doors by hand, which I didn't know you could do. You apparently can, from the train side, but not from the platform side. For a time there, it looked as if there were going to be people stuck on a train that they had been failing to get off at the previous station.

At Waterloo, where I got off, also a new Jubilee Line station, there was a long pause before the doors opened, but when they did, they all did. Nevertheless, worrying.

Until yesterday I had taken doors on tube trains for granted. Never again.

Like most people who use the tube, I was using it to get somewhere fast. A delay such as would result from having to go one stop (and who knew how many more stops?) further than I intended, I did not need.

None of which was pleasant, especially when you add in the sauna like atmosphere inside the tube trains yesterday. All through the summer that aspect of the tube is bad, but yesterday, things were particularly hot and humid, and all the more troubling because outside the trains it was relatively cool. Getting into them was an ordeal, and getting out was a definite relief. So hot and humid, and impossible to escape from, the prospect I was looking at, would have been especially hellish.

Now as it happened, in terms of what physically occurred, all was well. I got into the train I should have, and got out when I wanted to. But that's not the only sort of good thing that happens on a good journey. On a good journey, it never even occurs to you that it won't be a good journey. On a good journey, your body is satisfactorily transported, but your nerves are not frazzled, leaving you mentally ready to do your next bit of business. So, yesterday's was not a good journey. In fact it was one of the worst I've recently had.

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Comments

...an old fashioned commit-suicide-at-will platform...

Which reminds me of a story you might like.

About seven years ago I was back-packing in Japan and I was on the train between the Fuji Lakes area and Tokyo. For some reason, the train was delayed for an hour or so at a small station in the middle of nowhere.

I struck up a conversation with the only other European in the carriage - an Austrian who had been living in Japan for about a year or so and seemed to know the place quite well. Wondering what might have caused the delay, he suggested that there might have been an earthquake, and they had to check the tracks for damage, or there might have been a suicide further up the track.

"Are trains often delayed by suicides?" I asked.

"They used to be. But they're not so common now since the railway companies started billing the victims' families for the havoc they cause."

Posted by Andy Wood on July 30, 2003

Yes, I'd heard that. Or at least that the meter starts running after about an hour or so.

Posted by Patrick Crozier on August 1, 2003

I am constantly amazed that ATM's ALWAYS give you the exact amount of money. I have never, ever met anyone who has not got the amount of money they asked for.

How come those machines are so infallible, yet as noted above the automatic ticket dispensers inevitably fail?

It's serious risk management.

Posted by James Dudek on August 8, 2003

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