Preview: Confessions from the Underground

A commuter's view of this evening's Channel 4 documentary about London's Tube system - and its shocking revelations

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The London Undergound. Whether you live in the capital or you’ve just visited for a day, you’ve doubtless experienced what it’s like to travel on the Tube. While it’s lazy and clichéd to gripe about delays, overheating and the joys of spending a journey with your face crushed into some sweaty giant’s dewy armpit, there’s a certain amount of truth in all of those complaints.

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Travelling by Tube is rarely pleasurable. Trains are all too often late and overcrowded, stations appear to open and close on a whim and the whole system seems to be teetering on the brink of collapse, leaving commuters facing a daily game of chance to see whether they’ll even be able to get from A to B at all.

So who’s to blame for this sorry state of affairs? Well, not the Tube’s frontline staff if tonight’s Channel 4 documentary, Confessions from the Underground, is anything to go by.

This programme is an opportunity for those who work on the Underground to air their grievances and unveil what they perceive to be the failings of an ageing Tube system. Real-life tube employees’ complaints are represented on screen through the mouths of actors (for fear of the staff contributors losing their jobs if they are identified as whistleblowers), and it’s narrated by everyone’s favourite grumpy everyman, Richard Wilson.

As a daily commuter, I found many of the allegations made by contributors in this documentary shocking. It presents a litany of depressing and alarming stories about an alleged erosion of safety on the Underground owing to budget cuts, the increase in incidents of violence and threats against Tube staff and what contributors suggest is disinformation travellers are fed on a daily basis.

Unsurprisingly the management team is blamed for most of the problems facing Tube staff these days, amid claims that targets and budget cuts are stretching workers and resources to their limit. 

Staff claim that Tube maintenance is routinely not carried out, the attitude apparently being that if something like a wonky bit of track “will last a little longer” and save money in the short term, then it’s OK to be left as it is, despite Tube drivers claiming that “trains end up jumping all over the place” because of the sorry state of the rails. “The little jobs just don’t get done,” say many of the unnamed staff contributors.

The documentary also paints a gloomy picture of general staff morale. They report daily abuse from passengers, alleged unsafe working conditions and high levels of fear and stress, but in spite of all this the Tube workers interviewed demonstrate real warmth, humanity and understanding for the plight of passengers throughout the programme. 

It’s very easy to forget that the folk we see working on the Tube are people just like the rest of us, trying to do a difficult job to the best of their ability, but unlike most workers in other fields they claim to have to deal with such delightful challenges as storing the dead bodies of suicides in broom cupboards as part of their weekly routine.

In addition to the alleged impact of cost-cutting on passenger safety and the sorry lot of Tube workers, the programme also reports that delays to train services rose by 20 per cent over the last year, a fact that won’t surprise anyone who uses the Underground regularly. 

But with the Olympics fast approaching, this trend is expected to be totally reversed, with staff worrying that outstanding safety concerns may go out of the window in the face of new targets to get trains running faster in time for the 2012 Games.

All in all, the documentary paints a picture of an old, clapped-out transport system in desperate need of an overhaul and an injection of both cash and fresh personnel to keep things safe for both passengers and workers. 

There’s a wealth of information to take away from this programme, and I’d go so far as to call it essential viewing for everyone from commuters to law-makers with a say in the way the Underground is run. Fascinating stuff indeed. You’ll never listen to a “good service” announcement in the same way again.

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Confessions from the Underground is on Channel 4/C4 HD tonight at 10pm.