Travelling to work is a mundane necessity of life. We mindlessly walk to stations, board trains, queue, sometimes run, often drink coffee. Our thoughts rarely drift beyond ‘tourists can &%*£ off’ and ‘take the bloody rucksake off!!’. But whilst we enter the conveyor belt of the morning commute, TfL prepare for war. Their weapon of choice? A deadly concoction of science and sheep herding.
The London Underground is a beast of an operation, swallowing 1.34 billion passengers in the last year alone. Waterloo is my touch point with the monster, the busiest station on the network with 95 million passengers passing through. Here the underground passages, escalators and platforms do not have the bandwidth for the capacity of commuters attempting to reach Canary Wharf, and so the TfL machine kicks in to maintain order.
The operation starts way before the ticket barriers to the Jubilee line. TfL have a range of tricks to hold back the hoards – and when it works well there is no queuing on the platform, you just walk straight onto your train. This is why most days we queue from the station concourse, where TfL have converted 2 moving escalators to 1 set of stationery stairs. You can try and look for another way down to ground level, but none exists. If you’re in a rush, sneak in from the side, don’t queue from the back.
Once you have made it through Queue 1, you will find that TfL have kindly shut the station entrance to the Underground meaning that you have to leave the station and re-enter from the outside, at which point you meet Queue 2. TfL pull a new card from their box of tricks; closing ticket barriers. This means that thousands of passengers have to pass through a mere 4 gates. Which slows things drastically. If you’d rather not stand, walk to Southwark now. Usually I wait. You can keep yourself entertained by watching the crowd in the CCTV, which proves mildly amusing when you realise there is an unmistakable human waddle found in slow moving queues.
Finally you’ve made it through the barriers, only to discover that the pesky (overpaid?) Underground staff have switched off the next set of escalators. Which, at 8.30am is a grim prospect, and prompts your next thought, ‘why did I wear a coat today?!’. Sometimes the TfL man switches on the parallel escalator whilst your one remains stationary, which is quite demoralising. When you finally reach the bottom, the reality hits you that you will have to walk down the next set of escalator-veneer stairs. If you are feeling cheeky, you can duck under the red tape which marks the left escalator as closed.
If TfL have begun their crowd control early enough, you should find Queue 3 – on the platform – pleasantly small, and should be able to make your way onto the next train to Stratford. Too often this is not the case.
Whilst this journal of my morning commute may (slightly) over exaggerate things. It is worth a thought. There really is a science to the whole thing. In fact real experiments and trials have been conducted by TfL. Which is not a surprise when over a billion use the network each year, a figure which will no doubt rise. In 2015, a three week trial was conducted at Holborn tube station. To prevent queuing at the bottom of escalators, and to flush out crowds quicker, escalators became strictly standing-only, allowing each step to be filled with passengers two abreast. A logical step, almost doubling the capacity of the escalator and reducing congestion by 30% at the station.
Unfortunately people do not like change, particularly when it involves transgressing life’s severest faux pas (reserved only for foreigners); standing on the left of the escalator. Stubbornness beats logic for commuters. But for TfL, there is hope, lateral thinking has shown that there is scope for improving congestion on the London Underground. Add this to the arsenal of impressive poster marketing, pregnancy badges, and contactless capability – we’ve got a rather innovative transport system when it’s not striking.
So whilst you sleepwalk to work tomorrow, it’s worth considering the world of activity that exists to stop the inevitable fights, injuries and claustrophobic faintings that would occur if we all flooded the tube network as quickly as we wanted to. It might make you late for work, but better that than not making it at all…