Five things The Tube taught us about the London Underground

Why you should catch up with a documentary series that will change the way you see tube travel

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I thought I knew everything there was to know about the London Underground. It’s very old. It likes to close once in a while for engineering works or a massive strike. It may or may not tank during the Olympics. That’s about it really.

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But The Tube, a BBC2 documentary series following Transport for London workers on the London Underground, was a joy – and not just because of the extreme, titillating excitement of occasionally seeing a platform that I stand on when I’m on my way to work. It opened up a world full of anecdotes, traditions and arcane procedures, bizarre things you would never know as a mere passenger.

Here are five reasons why The Tube has become a cult hit, and why you should watch the whole thing on iPlayer…

1. Staff on the underground are people too

I’ve never really appreciated the people who run The Tube. I just thought they were miserable. Miserable to be at work. Miserable to see us going to work. Yet in this show you see intriguing, delightful characters. There’s the train driver who’s in love with the line he drives (“The Piccadilly line, if it was a mate of yours… he doesn’t say a lot, he isn’t cool, but when the sh*t hits the fan he pulls it out the bag all the time”), the guy who writes poetry on station entrances to liven people’s day, and the station announcer at Liverpool Street station who tells it like it is: “I do apologise for the last trains being cancelled at short notice. This was due to, er, significant vomit in the carriages.”

2. Rules and regulations can be fun!

The series is full of great details: stations with alarms that screech like 1980s arcade games; that fixing the new Victoria Line train doors cost millions because they were too sensitive in the first place; that it’s part of someone’s job to wake up drunk people who fall asleep on the Northern Line and end up in Morden. Then there’s this sign that I managed to grab when it was briefly shown during the first episode: the codes station announcers use to alert cleaners when someone has had an accident.

3. Engineering works are exciting

In Channel 5’s Eddie Stobart’s Trucks and Trailers, there are situations so pointless, so inane, yet you can’t help yourself being engrossed in every single second of them: those moments when truck deliveries are hyped up by the narrator shouting: “WILL THEY GET TO DONCASTER IN UNDER FOUR HOURS TO DELIVER THE CARGO OF BACON?”

The Tube is pretty similar, but with engineering works. In the opening episode, engineers are replacing a section of track at Harrow-on-the-Hill, inevitably leading to the closure of a section of the Metropolitan Line. But will they be able to replace the track before commuters head out on their Monday morning journeys?

First, a piece of heavy machinery accidentally cuts one of the main communication pipes; then workers battle to attach thousands of clips to the track so the line doesn’t become a lethal bouncy castle. Then hours before the line opens, signal technicians have a four-hour window to re-attach all the cables everyone else disconnected two nights before. When that’s done, they have to clear everything up. 

It’s thrilling. I was expecting to see a train hurtling towards Harrow with the track still being laid out in front, eventually leading to it bursting through to the street like at the end of Speed.

It didn’t, of course. People boarded the train at Harrow without batting an eyelid.

4. Drivers don’t have it easy

The third episode deals with those cold, bureaucratic words “person under a train”. It’s an issue we might show a lack of sympathy for, or complain to others about it causing a mass of inconvenience for our journey. But what is the emotional impact on the drivers who couldn’t stop in time? What is the clear-up process of such an incident actually like?

The Tube treats this issue delicately, interviewing drivers about their experiences of “one unders” in the past, as well as visiting the site of an incident that has recently taken place near Bank. It’s all hands on deck, with tens of police and fire officers as well as tube support staff and counselling services.

A Central line driver gives a frank account of his experience. “I felt like a murderer, and for ages afterwards every train I saw, I’d look at thinking: ‘I wonder how many people that’s killed…'”

5. There’s more to explore

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The Tube isn’t perfect. It doesn’t investigate enough whether drivers’ wages are financially justifiable, and paints TFL as some sort of wonderful, harmonious employer, ignoring the fact that the unions and management are constantly at each other’s throats. But that doesn’t overshadow the flavour and character of the London Underground and everyone who works for it: I haven’t mentioned the inspectors chasing ticket evaders, the night workers, or indeed the hawk that’s employed to hunt pigeons…