Alex Gallafent is the New York-based correspondent for The World. His reporting has taken him to Swaziland, Turkey, Chile, and India, among other places.
Brixton Station (Photo: Oxfordian/Flickr)
The London Underground is celebrating its 150th birthday.
The iconic subway system was the first of its kind in the world, and remains a symbol of the British capital.
The World’s Alex Gallafent reports.
The London subway system in 1908 (Photo: Wiki Commons)
I grew up in a small town in the Southeastern U.S. At eighteen (around 1970), I had never even seen a subway station and certainly never read a subway map. I had never really been anywhere and never to any big city. But I had read about a program in Glamour magazine, called “Miss Liberty, Inc.” This was a program designed to send young British “temps” to NYC to work in the summer, and young American girls would be sent to London to work in various secretarial jobs throughout the city. My older sister had been in this program the summer before, so we both decided to go the following summer. Fast forward to my first day going to work in London. My sister and I walk to the Underground, and I stare blankly at that colorful Underground map– having no clue where to begin. Since she had been there the summer before, I look to her for help. She glares at me and simply says, “I’m not helping you. You figure it out,” and walks off. An Underground employee saw the whole scene, walked over and asked me where I needed to go, so I showed him the address. He briefly and kindly explained the system to me and then told me which train I needed. He actually walked me to the train. That was my first experience with a subway. Afterwards, of course, I realized how really easy the London Underground is– how wonderful the map itself is– but I always remember that nice Englishman, employed by the London Underground, who stepped in to help me. What a nice memory. Would that happen in the U.S., do you think?
I was very impressed with how organized and efficient the London Underground was. Although it’s 150 years old, after several visits to London I never once encountered a broken escalator. The San Francisco Bay Area Transit System (BART) had a record 28 broken escalators in June, 2012. Very embarrassing for a system so much smaller and making a profit! Please do a news story about how often the Embarcadero station escalator is broken. It’s near the financial district in downtown San Francisco. The constant breakdowns force rush hour commuters into single stairways with people carrying bicycles. I’m sure their have been innumerable poked eyes and greased workshirts. It’s been like this for years.
I remember as a young Chinese Girl Growing up in the 80′s in west London – It was wonderful because of the tube -
Once one was old enough to take the tube to school around 11yrs old or could have been younger, we were given freedom ! One learnt Perspective from being independent and learning we were all different and I was a part of the city – adventures lay ahead 10mins from a quiet kensington outdoor tube platform one could emerge in the centre of Chinatown Market , gay Soho or walk passed last of the punks on Kings Road .
We felt safe if we make it to the tube we always find our way home .
In the early 1980′s, on one of my trips to England, I was at one of the underground stations (Victoria, I think), when a group of young people came to wait for the train near me. What was so strange to me at the time was the fact that the young men were dressed in morning coats and top hats, and the young ladies in rose- coloured bridesmaids dresses. I realized it was part of a bridal party, either heading for a wedding, or coming from one. They all seemed in very good “spirits”, so possibly coming from the wedding! I don’t think we would ever see a bridal party waiting for the trains in Toronto’s subway system. I found the underground in London easy to follow, which was fortunate as I had to use it daily from Fulham, where I was staying, to the British Museum, Kew Gardens, and other places in the city.