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Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Tube at Congestion Time

Last semester, while I was studying abroad in London, my British friends told me that I couldn't consider myself to have had a real London experience until I had traveled on the tube during congestion time (think rush hour). This seemed like such a frivolous suggestion. Surely the experience would be made by seeing a play or catching a glimpse of the queen (both things I actually did do), but they were insistent that I had to take the congestion tube. For my first six weeks, I had no reason to go into central (the heart of the city) at 7am or return at 4pm. But it just so happened that one frozen Monday morning in February, my London History class took our usual trip into the city that required more transfers and a longer time on the underground.

I ventured out with my flatmates, Kevin, Simon (from the US), Stina and Becca (from Norway) in order to get to our class meeting place (Baker Street...think Sherlock Holmes) on time. This meant we had to leave the campus at 7am. Luckily, our overground station was just a few hundred yards away, across the bustling street of tiny cars and massive trucks, a red-double-decker whizzing by every few minutes and through the tiresome beeping of the crosswalk sign. Since we all had a long way to go and it was during congestion time (traveling is more expensive then), we needed to top up (top off) our oyster cards (think easy-pass) before we departed. Once our charges were settled, we checked in at the swipe-points. The ride of a lifetime had begun. I had taken the overground many times before, sometimes with these same people and we had never seen such a dense congregation of travelers on the platform. Our little borough was south-east of central and I had no idea such copious amounts of people lived in our area, all ages and races, shivering in the bitter cold. There were so many people, bundled in pea coats and scarves that when the train to London Bridge arrived, eight cars long, we had to wait ten extra minutes for the next train to arrive.

At that time, we boarded the overground and chugged off to the next check-point. In a compartment that usually comfortably seats everyone, we had to cram into the entrance-exit area along with people reading newspapers, listening to their ipods or feeding their infants in bulky carriages. The rickety journey to London Bridge took the usual eight minutes; tall flats blurring by the windows, the city streets becoming more convoluted and the tourists more numerous. After we disembarked and checked into the Underground, we hit a deadlock of travelers on the several flights of escalators down. We decided to take the faster route, and stepped to the left to descend the electric stairs at a swift pace. The only means of avoiding the mob was to run. However we weren't alone in this idea. Rushing through the Central (Red) Line entry corridor, the five of us came to the embarking platform where a horde of commuters waited for the tube to arrive. A moment later it did. Mind the gap, was announced.

A mad dash ensued. Kevin practically piledrived himself through the crowd, forcing the rest of us to follow and in doing so, we managed to squish ourselves into the back of the car. We were elbow-to-elbow, pressed against the grip poles, the windows or other passengers. I, personally, was between a tall man, Stina and another few university students, with not even an inch of clearance between us. Everyone looked to the floor or the advertisements along the car wall. Anything to avoid each other. It was then we realized Simon was left on the platform and Becca had entered a separate car. The doors were shut, the tube was leaving the platform. Simon would have to get the next train. Squeals, shrieks and squeaks. Our following transfer station arrived and even though we were closest to the doors, it was a struggle to exit. Stina's bag was stuck between a woman and the wall, my foot was tangled with the tall man's shoes and Kevin tripped on his way out.

Upon our exit, a stampede of humans rushed through the corridor options, connecting them with other underground lines. We took the Jubilee (Gray) Line north to Baker Street, which sent us down a spiraling stairwell. Hundreds behind us and hundreds in front, each step seemingly took us closer to Hell, heat swelling through the stairs and a stench much like wet dogs and gym socks filled the air. This trip was not unlike our experience on the Central Line, however we waited for Becca and Simon to rejoin us before we set off once more. This sardine experience was worse. I was closer in height with the young man I squished into and was forced to engage in small-talk in order to avoid an uncomfortable ride. His name was Roger and he was connecting to the Bakerloo (Brown) Line so he could meet an inbound frie
nd at Paddington Station. He was kind and his content expression said that he'd dealt with this madness before. Me and my companions however crinkled our noses and glared in every direction, fully fed up with the overcrowded car. We were all more than pleased to hear our station called so we could disembark.

Exiting the tube and riding up the escalator into the fresh air was such a relief. I could see the sun peaking through London fog and it began to smell like a lemony-fresh cleaning solution that had become synonymous with the Underground. Although the aggravated mumble of commuters continued to the street, our tensions melted when we spotted the rest of the class and our Professor waiting atop the stairs in a bright atrium. I would love to say that was the last time I traveled on the congestion time tube. Or the last time I made idle conversation with another passenger. Unfortunately, it happened several other times. But this initial jarring experience was the smelliest, most uncomfortably crowded traveling I ever did.  


  1. Rachel- This sounds like a once in a lifetime experience. I agree with your British friends, this is something you had to do. I personally would never want to do it again if I did it once because I do not like crowded places, but it sounds interesting to do once. You will never be able to experience anything like this again. The closest thing I can think of to this would be the subway in New York City around 8 a.m. or 5 p.m., but I do not think even that is as congested as what you are describing. - Ashley

  2. When I read this, I immediately thought of the subway in New York City. I think it's exciting but also traumatizing to be at the center of the hustle and bustle. Any time you take public transportation like that, I think you are guaranteed to come across some real characters. It is definitely an entertaining ride on a crowded subway.

  3. A very crowded subway is the worst. I touched upon this in my blog post. It can very claustrophobic. I hate that. You describe this experience very well. The smell is always the worst part.

  4. Rachel,
    First off this story is such a good story to tell because I'm sure many people can relate to this and think back to a time that was similar. Also, I thought you wrote this extremely well. I actually felt like I was there and picturing every detail you described. Although I never had an experience quite like yours, you definitely painted a perfect picture in my head of how frustrating it must be!