The years of commuting dangerously. Excerpts of life in Transport for London’s hands.

Like everyone else, I use social media to share utter gibberish (think penguins slapping each other, Russian drivers’ antics, Economist articles) and moan. My social media of choice is Facebook and the primary objective of my tirades, the exclusive subjective of my invective when I climb upon the virtual soapbox that is my “wall”, is Transport for London, the agency charged with providing mass transit in the beleaguered capital of this damned island nation.
Yes, I know, how original. Everyone hates commuting, everywhere it’s late and smelly and crowded, join the club. But, well, lend me your ears for TfL, you see, has a gift. Indeed, if finding artful ways of making a complete dog’s dinner of your job was a skill, TfL’s would have a God-given ability to do precisely that. Any mass-transit company can have delays, signalling issues or strikes; only TfL can do it with flair, eleganza and understatement. It’s Basil Fawlty’s land after all.
A couple of years ago, TfL’s constant balls-up were annoying and the random strike actions excruciatingly frustrating. With time and a considerable amount of practice, I started seeing the ironic, for “fun” is too much an exaggeration, side of being a commuter in Transport for London’s hands. A few weeks ago, I stumbled by chance on a functionality that allowed me to trawl through the towering pile of garbage I consigned to Facebook’s ephemeral immortality; here and there, peppered like raisins in a panettone, were snapshots of life on the Tube and buses. I copied them and here they are preserved in their immediacy, so much so that I could still smell the odour of rain, dusty brakes or stale carriage air.

2015

January 6th. The techno-bricklayers
There are three brickies sitting opposite me on my Tube train tonight. All three are big, beefy men wrapped in yellow hi-vis jackets, safety shoes and backpacks resting on their feet. All three are fast asleep and all three are snoring blissfully, albeit with slightly different tones, volumes and rhythms. Had I been Deadmau5 I would’ve fashioned out a techno hit out of their performance.
March 31st. TfL apology masterclass, lesson 1.
“Due to the escalators going down, this train won’t stop at Heathrow Terminals 1,2 and 3”. TfL should really change their strapline in “Always inventing new faults”, they do have some serious fantasy over there.
May 15th. The butterfly effect, TfL version.
How can a “person feeling ill earlier at Holborn”* generate severe delays on the entire Piccadilly Line and basically close down the Uxbridge branch? TfL’s logic always finds new way to amaze me.
*This one requires a bit of explaining. I was in Acton Town, which lies deep into West London, at the fork between the Heathrow and Uxbridge branches of the line. Holborn is next to Covent Garden, some 13 stations away. How somebody feeling ill – not jumping under the train, which sometimes unfortunately happens, but being ill – could cause delay to the whole line was understandable, but closing down the Uxbridge branch was a mystery I’m yet to solve.
November 1st A Bank holiday night bus.
The N9 night bus to Heathrow never fails to amaze. Today’s passengers included a posse of people dressed in panda onesies (how do panda relate to Halloween is anyone’s guess) reeking of alcohol and a whole school trip of Frenchies who realised somewhere between T3 and T5 that the bus didn’t, in facts, go to T4 (“putain” by the bucketful!). If only it wasn’t 6AM, if only it wasn’t Sunday, if only I hadn’t been called on my last day on call it’d have been almost fun. And a special mention to the middle-aged man wearing a very skinny skeleton outfit chasing what I hope was his wife in Turnham Green earlier.
November 5th. TfL apology masterclass, lesson 2.
So, today I received an email from an operations manager on the London Overground apologising from my delay (which I didn’t have) on yesterday’s journey on the Overground (where I actually haven’t been), including detailed explanations and promises to get to the root cause and meticulously eradicate it. Ah, TfL, your uncanny ability of cocking up even when you aren’t culpable of anything is so heart-warming.

2016

January 8th. Physics, signalling and frostbite.
Two are the most important mysteries of the current age: why Newton laws don’t seem to apply to large objects below a certain acceleration and why the Piccadilly Line seem to have a signal failure twice a month and the Heathrow Connect doesn’t. Took me two trains, one bus, 50 minutes and a bit of frostbite more than usual, but I’m finally at work.
January 17th. Car or Casserole?
TfL’s homepage is showing a chicken casserole, which is unusual for what should be an urban transport website. But since they’re so shit at running trains (guess what, there was a signal failure yesterday again!) they might as well stop doing it and start running cooking classes. Perhaps they’ll be better than Ramsay, who knows.
March 3rd. So quick it goes off the rails.
That’s a new one, derailment! I wonder if it happened Michael Bay-style, with explosions and aliens and transformers and scantily-clad girls that cannot act at all… In the meantime, despite the auspicious “good service on the rest of the line”, a train for Acton hasn’t showed up in 20 minutes.
June 26th. Heavens!
Severe delays due to flooding. Yeah, cos it never rains in London.
October 20th. TfL apology masterclass, lesson 3.
Just got a heartfelt, tearful and unreserved apology from a senior manager at TfL for the delays I suffered today on the Hammersmith&City, District & Circle line as they sorted out yet another signal failure. All well and good, but in fact I’ve only been on the Piccadilly Line today, and it was normal (i.e. shit, but not particularly delayed shit).
TfL’s Autumn Special – The Attack of the Pesky Leaves 
Chapter 1 – October 28th
So, leaves have managed to ruin the Piccadilly Line trains’ wheels. I don’t really know how they are coping over the Trans-Siberian or the Trans-Canada railways in autumn, really.
Chapter 1-and-a-half – October 28th
But rest assured, TfL is working round the clock to sort everything out (minus when they go on strike, which they want to do next week).
Chapter 1-and-three-quarters – October 28th
UPDATE! Those pesky leaves have upped their game, now bringing chaos and disruption – and damages due to “lack of adherence” – to the ENTIRE LINE. The government has pledged to send in the SAS armed with leavesblowers; the Iraqi PM was quoted as saying that at least they only have to deal with IS and not with the leaves.
Chapter 2 – November 10th
I know you want it, and here it comes! Another tale from the Tube, courtesy of Transport for London. It’s long, but worth it.
Today, together with many brave commuters, I descended into Hatton Cross station to manifest our solidarity to the Piccadilly Line as it struggles with the Attack of the Pesky Leaves (yes, one week and we still have severe delays, one branch almost without trains and zero fucks given, thanks to the leaves on the track).
I decided not to board the first train, mainly because it was already packed (think Mumbai rush hour) and heralded by the label “NOT IN SERVICE” on the info screen. Whatever. 5 minutes later, another one rocks up, and on we go.
All is good until Northfields.
Picture this. Northfields has 2 platforms, 1 and 2. We arrive at no. 2. No. 1 has already a train, and is disgorging its passengers onto the platform. Our driver announces that the other train is being withdrawn and all its commuters are coming to ours, and we’ll have a 5-minute delay. Packed up like sardines we wait.
After a bit of time we start seeing people coming back on train no. 1, which was due to be withdrawn. Give it another 2 or 3 minutes and our driver comes back and says, “Ah no, it seems that that train is not leaving after all, in fact it’s leaving first”. Everyone but a few of us aficionados jump off and run to the other train, packing it up, a remarkable feat if you could film it from above with a drone.
Train number 1 then tries to close its doors one, two, three, four, five, six – I kid you not – times, then gives up and stands still. Another minute of suspense whilst we ask each other “WTF?” and finally our driver comes back to the blower and says that it’s his train that has to go somewhere, and would we all please piss off. So off we all go, and stay on the platform whilst train no.1 is still there, train 2 is still there, many headless chickens in TfL garb run around and nothing is done.
Eventually train 1 leaves, we wait another five or so for another convoy, and mercifully alight at Acton Town. There, I see people I’d started from Hatton Cross with: train no. 1 has been cancelled as well.
This, and much more, awaits you for prices from £120 a month.
Chapter 3 – December 2nd
UPDATE!!!!! Today it was more of the same. Got at T5’s station, already there’s a mass of people. The screen shows a mass of coding gibberish, then the hour, then nothing. Finally, a man comes to the blower and says “We’ve been told that the next train is in 25 minutes. Sorry folks”. So upstairs I go, get the Heathrow Express, then the Connect to Ealing, then the District Line. As you retreat in your snug and comfortable homes, please spare a thought and a prayer for the Piccadilly Line as it struggles under the Evil Leaves Attack. United we stand.
The Attack of the Pesky Leaves was finally lifted that week, a good month after it started. In the meantime, all 80 or so Piccadilly Line trains had to change their wheels for they’d been mercilessly chewed by the falling, yellowing tree foliage. Such was the threat that city officers had to issue crash helmets to the citizenry when they went through Richmond Park. I haven’t been able to see a tree in autumn with a shiver of fear.

2017

March 23rd. Dog-watching.
50 minutes of Piccadilly Line (instead of 30) because “There’s a dog on the tracks and we need to watch out for it and for those looking for it“. After leaves, wind and snow it’s now time for dogs. Coming up next, frogs and caterpillars.
March 30th. Mixed signals.
There must be a new edition of the TfL Excuses Handbook off the press, because we’re reaching new heights of poetry! After the ‘dog-gate’ incident, today we were treated to a “Awfully sorry for the delay to your journey ladies and gents, but unfortunately the train ahead of us has been given the wrong signal by the signal controller and this is forcing a general re-set. We’ll be waiting for approximately 5 minutes” it was more like 10 but whatever, I spent it thinking at a man with ping-pong rackets in each hand, one with “STOP RIGHT HERE” and another one with “GO AHEAD MATE” who accidentally raises his left hand in lieu of the right.
June 13th. When it calls, it calls.
New #TfL delays today! Train pulls up at Acton; commuters travellers and those stupid wheelie bags pile in. Then we stand there, idle, doors open, for a good 5 minutes.
At that point a sheepish voice comes to the tannoy and apologises for the delay, saying “We’re trying to source the driver“. The question that comes to mind is how on Earth did the train arrive to Acton in the first place, but this is #TfL so anything is possible.
Minutes pass, the voice on the tannoy advises us to use another train. Finally, doors close and a rushed female voice appears on the blower. It’s driver. “Sorry everyone, I had to go to the toilet and couldn’t get back into the station“.
July 7th. The incredible self-combusting Hounslow East station.
You see, TfL reads your mind. It knew, it really did, that it’d been a long time since I’d been to Hounslow last, and that it’d been an equally long time that I wanted to ride the no. 81 bus to Slough. So, what did #TfL do? It instructed the Piccadilly Line to set itself alight at Hounslow East at peak hour, so all of us commuters, flyers to Heathrow and disruption lovers could savour the experience of walking Hounslow streets hunting for cabs or, as it was my case, sampling the delights of the 81! Thanks a million dear TfL!
July 13th. The birth of the Boomerang Train.
New developments from #TfL! After months of frantic thinking and sleepless nights, they’ve invented the Boomerang Train. What the hell is it, I hear you asking?
Well, it’s damn simple. Take a train, like the Piccadilly Line going from Arnos Grove to Heathrow Terminals 1, 2, 3 & 5. Make it arrive all the way down to Hatton Cross, two stops before its finishing line and the chequered flag, and… Make it come back! Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the westbound train arrived on the eastbound platform, a man on the tannoy said “Sorry folks, this is returning to where you’ve come from, please get off” (well actually he didn’t say sorry), those going to LHR got off and us returning home got on. Simple as that, another #TfL innovation!
July 26th. Marshmellows or Else.
Dramatic reconstruction). TfL Piccadilly Line depot, morning.
Managers: “Come on guys, play nice and go to work”
Staff: “Nope! We want marshmallows!”
M: “Be real guys, you already make 50k* a year and Bob can drive his train whilst wearing a ‘MAFIA’ hat” (Bob nods*).
S: “We want marshmellows! M-arsh-m-ellows!”
M: “We ain’t got no marshmellows and they’re bad for your teeth. We’ll give you raspberries”

S: “Fuck raspberries! MARSHMALLOWS!”

(Managers shake heads)
S: “Ok then, we’ve got the trains and we’re taking them home with us. Ha!”

another great day riding the world’s best, most efficient, least striking and cheapest mass transit system in the developed world.
*Before you accuse me of being a scab or a slimy servant of the masters, here is some insight on TfL drivers’ T&C. And here’s some more in case you don’t trust the Torygraph, and why would you indeed.
**Bob mightn’t be his real name, but there’s one Piccadilly Line driver, normally driving at 6AM or thereabouts, who is particularly proud of sporting a baseball hat with such a logo written in large silver letters on it. I somehow suspect it isn’t TfL standard issue.

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10 Responses to The years of commuting dangerously. Excerpts of life in Transport for London’s hands.

  1. Anna says:

    Hilarious!! One thing I don’t miss about London!

  2. J.D. Riso says:

    Wow, I had no idea it was that inefficient. Like Kafkaesque. This only accentuates my desire to not visit London.

    • awtytravels says:

      Hi Julie, I suppose that if you’re a tourist or a visitor you don’t get to see a lot of the crap that goes on with public transport, but it is indeed Kafkaesque. Just yesterday, for instance, they started works at Waterloo that shut down half the platforms. The photos of the station were scary; was it really needed? Couldn’t they do anything differently? One can only wonder…

  3. Wow, if it can be this bad in a major city in a developed country, then it *almost* (almost) justifies ours in Manila. We had a train literally gently push another train loaded with passengers once because the latter broke down mid-trip and couldn’t be repaired. I commiserate!

    • awtytravels says:

      That would never be allowed on TfL due to Health & Safety (and I’m sure some union agreement). Better to shut down the entire line, apologise profusely, let everyone down and cause chaos to a good chunk of London… yes, sure!
      Thanks for reading Julia!

  4. lexklein says:

    Haha – quite amusing (to a faraway reader who is unlikely to have to deal with it, of course!). The DC Metro might rival the inefficiency but can’t match the scope of your woes.

  5. Hihi. My favourite line of theirs is: “Recently our performance has fallen short of what you deserve and I apologise.” As you well know, the equivalent service in Rome would never say it quite as eloquently. They just don’t care. And I’m sure over there strikes are not nearly as numerous as in Italy because that would be impossible. So there’s that… Also, is your FB a carefully guarded secret or is it accessible to the masses such as me?

    • awtytravels says:

      Yes, they do apologise pretty constantly. Even for lines I haven’t been on. The “recently” at the beginning made me laugh, a guy read it as well and said loud “recently as in the last 15 years innit?”

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