Writing Portfolio


Adventures on public transport

A full-on Tube strike presented a dilemma; leaving the arguments of who's right or who's wrong aside, how on Earth was I supposed to get to work? Like many of my fellow-Londoners, I rely on the Tube on a daily basis; getting the Northern Line from East Finchley to Moorgate is my daily commute. Were there any viable alternatives?

There is a bus that goes from Highgate to Moorgate which I have taken before when the Northern Line's been out of action, but it takes an age to get there and would take even longer on a strike day when there would be more cars on the road.

I could always cycle to work. I used to do that when I worked in Hendon rather than the City, but one of the reasons why I chose not to was the reason why I don't cycle to work on a regular basis - it would involve going via Highgate, twice a day. I may occasionally challenge myself by going up Swain's Lane (to prove to myself that I still can more than anything else), but not on a daily basis. Bradley Wiggins I am not.

Boris bikes, those relatively recent additions to the London travel scene, were out too. What with there not being any docking-stations for those out in the suburbs, I'd still have to get to one of these by public transport and then I'd be faced with whether or not a bike would be available, and if so I'd need to ride it through a busier-than-usual metropolis. So no. One day I will give the Boris bikes a go but a strike day was not the day for that.

The TfL website told me that the quickest way to get to my place of work that didn't involve the Tube would be to take the 263 bus (Barnet to Highbury via, among other places, East Finchley) to Highbury & Islington station from whence I could travel to Moorgate by train. Again, no. I've seen those trains disgorge at Moorgate during the rush hour and they are jam-packed at the best of times. I didn't fancy that.

But wait; wasn't there another option from Highbury & Islington? Something called the Overground? while not going into the City, it does as least go very close to my place of work.

A combination of several suburban railway and ex-Tube lines, the London Overground is best described as an ever-expanding part of the National Rail network that is run by TfL and so has branding similar to the Tube (and, indeed, it features on Tube maps). In operation since 2007, it has incorporated the old East London Line and (in 2012) the South London Line so that it now forms a loop around Central London. The bit that interested me, though, was Shoreditch High Street - which is just as close to where I work (in terms of walking distance) as Moorgate. I'd used it for the odd journey before, but never as a serious commuting option.

When the East London Line was part of the Tube (it was originally part of the Metropolitan Line and didn't get its own colour until 1990), its northern terminus was Shoreditch, one of the least-used stations on the network which was actually closed a year before the rest of the line was closed for renovation and rebranding. When the line re-emerged as part of the Overground, Shoreditch (once part of a branch line connecting the East London Line with Liverpool Street) had been replaced by the all-new Shoreditch High Street, built on the site of the old Bishopsgate goods yard and part of a new stretch of track which links the East London Line with the Kingsland Viaduct, which in turn is the bit that connects with the North London Line (Richmond to Stratford; always a railway line rather than the Tube, and the first stretch of track to be rebranded as the Overground).

The Overground it would be, then, but I still had to get to Highbury & Islington first. Unfortunately, my clever plan to take the 263 bus was also an idea that had occurred to many other East Finchley residents, and indeed residents of suburbs through which the bus had to pass before it got to East Finchley. I'd got up earlier than usual to allow for the longer commute but the first 263 bus to get to my bus stop of choice would only let four people on as it was already full; I stood back to let the dozen or so commuters who'd made it to the bus stop before me sort things out before texting TfL's very useful when-is-the-next-bus-coming service to find out how long I'd have to wait.

The upshot was that, despite having started my journey to work earlier than usual, I was still in East Finchley at eight o'clock, the time at which I would normally expect to be getting on the Tube.

Things picked up after that. The second 263 bus of the day had more spaces, and after a mile or so of standing in a densely-packed group on the lower deck a few upper-deck passengers got off and those of us nearest the stairs surged upwards to claim their seats. 

By ten to nine we'd made it to the bottom of the Holloway Road, where I and just about everyone else disembarked for Highbury & Islington. Everyone else was more interested in the line to Moorgate so I was able to saunter onto the Overground train waiting at platform 1 and take my pick of the many available seats. One very calm train-ride later, I disembarked at Shoreditch High Street at five past nine, and was at my desk by quarter-past. Not bad at all.

There was, of course, still the commute home but I wasn't that worried, as I'd liked what I'd seen of the 'ginger line' (yes, it already has a nickname and it is the subject of that indefatigable London walker Iain Sinclair's latest book; its place in the life of London is therefore assured even though there is always the chance that it may eventually become a victim of its own success - rather like the city it serves). I also had a 'cheat' option for getting home - Allison, who'd done the sensible strike day thing and opted to work from home, had offered to come and pick me up from Gospel Oak station. Easy!

Shoreditch High Street at half past five on the afternoon was, I noted, a lot busier than it had been at five past nine in the morning. So busy that I couldn't get a seat on the train, which was only going as far as Dalston Junction. I did manage a seat on the one going from Dalston Junction to Highbury & Islington, and  it was when I got to the latter that things started to get messy.

I am no stranger to crowded trains. As a regular Tube passenger (despite what TfL says, I refuse to describe myself as a 'customer'), I am accustomed to getting up close and personal with complete strangers on a twice-daily basis, depending on how crowded things are, and I consider myself lucky if I get a seat (although I am in the habit of trying to improve my seat-getting odds by walking to the end of the platform on the assumption that the last carriage is the least crowded).

My desired platform at Highbury & Islington wasn't packed but there were tight knots of people in the places where the doors would open. As the westbound train came in, the shuffling for position began; a little brisk elbowing followed by the public transport equivalent of the parting of the Red Sea in order to allow people off (it's rather civilised that certain niceties are still observed even when things get to the point where 'every man for himself' could so easily become the way of things). Most people piled in after that but I held back; the interior of the train was packed and I thought I could wait for the next one, although no doubt that would be just as bad. 

But then the people who'd got on before me managed to shuffle in to create what looked like a space that was (just about) big enough for me, so I stepped on. The doors didn't move, and while the driver announced that if the doors didn't close after three attempts the train would not move for two minutes I leaned in. At the first attempt of the closing of the doors, two guys made a run for it; the first got on, barging into several people (myself included) as he did but the second got stuck in the doors, which failed to close as a result. Selfish bastards, I thought (but, this being London public transport, I did not utter this out loud; several 'tuts' - the highest form of criticism on British trains - were audible).

The doors closed at the second time of asking, and we were on our way; sweltering, of course (although not as bad as a Tube carriage below ground in a heatwave). I was able to grab a hand-rail but what with the press of humanity I doubt it would have made that much of a difference in the event of an emergency stop. 

Things got worse at Camden Road when the weird physics of train carriages asserted itself; despite no-one getting off, three heavy-looking Eastern European guys (to judge by the language) did manage to force themselves on. Somehow the crowd was able to absorb these extra additions - like I said, the physics of train carriages can be a bit weird. Just when you think no-one else can get on, some people manage to.

Luckily I was only on the train for a couple more stops. Despite the sheer volume of people, the magic words ('excuse me', preferably asserted with a degree of confidence which may not be entirely convincing in the mind of the speaker), worked and I was able to disembark. 

At the bottom of the stairs at Gospel Oak I saw something rarely seen at a suburban station; a line stretching a hundred yards along the street, marshalled by some attendants who let two or three people go through the barriers every minute or so. The station was operating a one out, one in policy. I turned and walked towards Highgate Road. 

Ten minutes later, I was in the car heading for home. The strike day commute was over.

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