18 August, 2006

London's Chimney

"It's obscene what's going on," a passenger was berating a member of the London Underground staff the other day. "It happens every single time. Every time I want to go somewhere something is wrong. And we're never told why. We're never told when things are going to be sorted. We're just expected to go along with it. Cattle have more rights than us."

Fortunately, perhaps, this tirade was interrupted by the arrival of, yes, a train, and more importantly one on which the complaint actually wanted to travel. The member of staff in question, meanwhile, had stood stock still during this rant, occasionally agreeing, occasionally frowning, mostly looking defiantly nonplussed and wisely indifferent.

I didn't hear what, if any, response he had to the charge of travellers being treated with less rights than a herd of cows. This was a shame, because in truth this was one of the most preposterous bits of abuse I've ever heard, and it more than deserved an equally hysterical comeback, maybe along the lines of cattle knowing when to shut up, or never talking back, or having at least one demonstrable purpose in life that isn't giving somebody else a load of grief.

Besides, the decisions placed before cattle don't involve exercising the kind of rights equable with Underground passengers (the right to moan, the right to put your bags on a spare seat, the right to selfishly close the window when the temperature is close to 40 degrees, the right to hold a private conversation at the volume of an urban festival sound system).

Such a volley of pent-abuse inarticulacy could only have happened on the Northern Line, aka the Misery Line, aka the Armpit Line, aka London's Chimney.

The network has had a terrible few weeks, with things breaking down, going wrong and falling over on a daily basis. Earlier this week the entire branch line which I use to travel to and from work was closed en mass after a train came to a stop just outside Mornington Crescent station and couldn't start up again. Several times a signal failure up at Edgware has shut a slew of stations without warning and indefinitely. Points failures down at the other end of the line have an unerring capacity to make the rest of the system seize up like an arthritic joint, so a glitch somewhere near Morden can have a knock-on effect as far north as, well, my neck of the woods. Which is about as far from Morden as you can get.

As far as I can see the Northern Line has suffered these kinds of afflictions for years, and as far as I can tell it has been blessed with a rotten reputation for just as long.

Neither will be remedied as long as the entire London Underground is run on the basis of making a profit rather than delivering a service, which, unpredictably enough, is a state of affairs now enshrined in law, not by a Tory but a Labour Government. This Labour Government.

I don't know if and when a change will ever come. The moment it does, however, will be the moment they stop calling us "customers" and start using "passengers" once more.


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