New York City Transit Reporter in Wonderland: Riding the London Tube

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My editors on the Metro desk decided to send me to London, a city that has been working aggressively to modernize its subway and reduce delays. It was like being dropped into an alternate universe where people actually like their subway.

On the upgraded Victoria line, subway riders used adjectives like “amazing” and “efficient” to describe service. A student told me he “very, very rarely” finds himself waiting on the platform, and trains were “almost always” on time. Every two minutes they pulled into the station like clockwork. I was a bit envious. On the F line in Brooklyn, I often find myself peering down the tracks wondering if my train will ever come.

Sure, Londoners have some complaints about the Tube, as their subway is called. During rush hour, officials sometimes shut down stations because they are too crowded. Labor strikes are common. The fares are much higher. (In London, you pay depending on how far you go; a trip from the Tooting neighborhood, where Mayor Sadiq Khan lives, to central London costs 3.30 pounds, or more than $4. New York has a flat $2.75 fare.)

Some riders were stunned to be approached by a nosy American reporter interrupting their peaceful commute. A local transit official told me eye contact was discouraged on the Tube. There are two appropriate places to focus your gaze: your neighbor’s shoes and the ceiling.

At Embankment Station near the Thames River, the crowds stuffed inside a train during the evening rush reminded me of a chaotic morning on the Lexington Avenue line in Manhattan. But there is a sense that Transport for London, the agency that runs the Tube, understands the problems and is working hard to fix them.

In New York, there is growing alarm over the subway’s decline. Annual ridership dipped for the first time last year, even as the city’s population grew, suggesting commuters are finding alternatives.

Subway signals aren’t the most exciting topic. They certainly aren’t as exhilarating as the opening of the gleaming Second Avenue subway in January. But they are important. If the signal system isn’t working properly, your subway train doesn’t get a green light to continue down the tracks.

During my recent signal delay, I remained seated on the train. I was tired after a long week and carrying a heavy laptop bag. I didn’t want to fork over $10 for an Uber to sit in congested traffic.

I posted on Twitter that I was stuck on the Culver Viaduct, a stretch of subway tracks that rises high above the Gowanus Canal. “At least you have a view,” a colleague replied. “I gave up and switched to another line.” “I feel your pain,” another man wrote, saying he was also stuck.

Our predicament might leave Londoners aghast — even more than having to talk to a stranger on the Tube.

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