Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Underground Life by Ian Walker (New Society 5 February 1981)

It's been a while since I posted any of Ian Walker's New Society articles on the blog, but I recently realised that I still have a couple on my hard drive that I've not previously posted on the blog. I'll post them on the blog when I have the time.

The Underground Life

If you kill someone, you get three days on stand-by. This motorman has had three suicides and one attempted in his 24 years driving tube stations on the Northern line. Today he starts at two and finishes at 7.40pm. "One of the best turns on the roster," he says, licking the gum on his cigarette paper.

Dave Hurman started working for London Transport when he was 27, after he came out of the army. He started off as a porter, then served time as a ticket collector before qualifying to be a guard. In those days it took around seven years to get made up to motorman. His guard, Fred Leeson, has been in the job for three years. He is reading for an Open University degree. He rolls his own cigarettes, too.

Formica tables and chairs in the mess room at East Finchley are all empty. A relief guard, Vasco d'Gama, is playing darts. There is a tea urn in the corner. Through the steel-framed windows the trainmen can look out north and south along this overground section of track, and wait for their train to arrive before leaving the mess. The station was opened on 3 July 1939, and originally it was called East End.

"Hello, Charlie." The bearded man in an LT cap, who's just walked into the mess, smiles back. "Awright?" he says. Charlie Lewis started working on the underground in the summer of 1967. He transferred from the Metropolitan line to the Northern in 1975. "The blokes there couldn't believe it when I said I was leaving the Met. Fancy going back there, the said. The Northern. Toy trains."

The Metropolitan and District lines are the most prestigious to work for. These are years-long waiting lists. The trains are bigger, and the track is all overground or "cut-and-cover" (deep trenches covered over), rather than tube. But Charlie grew up on the Northern.

"The underground's a sort of hobby of mine," he says. "I still belong to the London Underground Railway Society, write in the occasional letter. I've been interested since I was a youngster. Used to live at Tufnell Park and the relations were at Malden. So since the day I was born, I've been travelling the Northern line."

"And that's how it starts. You've nothing much else to do on the tube, but look at the tunnel segments and everything and you start wondering about how it was built and that, you start getting interested . . . It's sometimes a bit of a drag getting up in the morning."

Charlie hasn't had a suicide yet. But he's only a boy, he says. You have to do 25 years here before you stop being a boy and the way things are going, "if they have their way we'll all be out on the cobbles. Mr Maxwell [managing director of LT railways] is talking about driverless trains from 1990 . . .  Get rid of all the bastards."

Dave Harman and Fred Leeson are looking out for their train. Vasco d'Gama is still in and around the 20s on the dartboard. Charlie won't be working again till this evening. He is in the middle of a split shift. Work the morning and evening rush hours, when one million come in and out of central London on the tube, with a four-hour break in the middle.

"I think that's ours. Coming down on the south," says Fred. I walk down to the platform with him and Dave, who points out the tv tower on Alexandra Palace, sticking up into a hard blue sky.

I stand next to Dave, who kills the light in the cab so that we can see better as we leave East Finchley and go underground. Your eyes get used to the dark, and it starts to make sense: the dim outlines of cables and track and tunnel winding ahead. And when Dave picks up speed to 40, it's more exhilarating than the ghost train.

On old 1959 trains, like this one, there are two controls, one for the brake and one for the power. Newer trains have both functions on one control. The motormen prefer the old ones.

All the time he's driving, Dave presses down the "dead man's handle." If the hand is removed, the train will automatically do an emergency stop. It is possible to centre the key on the handle, neutralising it, so that you can give your hand a rest while the train is stopped at a station. If you're found centring the key while the train is moving, you get fired. After all the inquiries into the Moorgate disaster (in which 35 people were killed in 1975) the most plausible theory is still, that the motorman just flipped and deliberately drove that train into the wall.

The sullen passengers
We slow down to 14 mph as we run across a section of track being rebuilt. Work on this, and on all the track being repaired and rebuilt along the 260 miles of the underground, is done between one and five in the morning. It's tough work, Dave says. "Even in the winter, when you see them, they're stripped off." We pull into Warren Street. Sullen heads on the platform turn up to face the train, stare dumbly like cows watching the feed arrive.

Past giant packs of cigarettes, giant stockinged legs, giant sausages on the billboards, we move out the station. It's a soulless place, the tube. The only time probably that people were friendly down here was in the wars. The tube was first used as a shelter during the Zeppelin raids in 1917, and again in the second world war. It won't be any good in a nuclear war. Dave says he'll show me how the dead man's handle works.

Great gasps of air as he removes his hand and the train jerks to a halt. We stop at Leicester Square.

It's been a long time since Dave had a suicide and he doesn't mind talking about it now. "Last one was six or seven years ago, that was the attempted. Two days after Christmas it was. Bloke walking to the edge of the platform and he just carried on walking. I was able to stop in time.

"Last suicide was a young woman. Colliers Wood. She just jumped on to the line, put her head on the negative and looked up at me. Colliers Wood." He sighs. "A strange thing how suicides always come in spates of three. Have you noticed that? You get one, then always two more in a short space of time." Between 40 and 50 people a year, on average, die under London tube trains.

The train clatters into Charing Cross. You can see how people steal a quick backward glance as they move over the platform towards the approaching train, just to make sure there's no psychopath standing behind who's going to give them a shove. Hard cases, young men mostly, stand as close to the edge as they can without getting knocked over by the train. The guard dings, and we move off.

One way and another, the underground eats up Dave's life. He is chairman of the local ASLEF branch (London's 3,902 motormen and guards are all in either ASLEF or the NUR), and sits on the committee of the London Transport Benevolent Fund. His son and one son-in-law are motormen. "Family concern," he says. "Surprising how many family concerns you find in this job."

He works every other Sunday. So the only regular time he has to spend in his three allotments is the Saturday rest-day, which he never works. If it's assigned to him on the roster, he swaps duties with one of the younger men with families and mortgages, someone who needs to put in a lot of overtime to get by.

A motorman's basic pay is £93.85, and a guard's £73.09. On top of that, they get a London weighting of £11.08 a week, Dave says that, with overtime, he made £6,225 gross last year, and this year he expects to make £7,000. We're right under the Oval cricket ground, driving round the Kennington loop to go back up north.

At Waterloo, I get out of the motorman's cab and go to the back to join the guard. Another guard, a young Glaswegian, is sitting with Fred Leeson, travelling back to the canteen and reading an explorer's biography. He's only been in the job 18 months.  When I ask him what he thinks of it, he looks at me as if I'm the company spy. No comment.

Officially, guards aren't allowed to read. They are meant to stare all the time at the pink light on the control panel, which tells them that all the doors are shut.

Passengers all round us are sitting down, reading papers, pretending they aren't listening to our conversation. Guards are supposed to travel half to two thirds of the platform with their heads hanging out the door, looking out for trouble, as the train leaves the station. Mostly, of course, they just poke their head out for ten yards or so, before, getting back to whatever it is they're reading.

What happens if someone pulls the emergency cord? "You see who did it and why," says Fred, "and use your judgement. If it was a bunch of kids, you just give 'em a good telling off and get on with the job. Because calling the police means a lot of extra hassle, hanging around, delay. So you tend not to bother." Guards don't get a lot of trouble, according to Fred. It's the ticket collectors more than anyone who have to deal with the violence.

Only once has he had to call the police. "Someone had punched someone else in the face, and one of the other passengers happened to be a policeman. No big deal." He gets up, and stands hair-blown in the doorway as we leave Mornington Crescent.

The trainmen's canteen at Camden Town has been newly renovated to look like a 1960s milk bar, ble leatherette and formica. One man has fallen asleep in his chair, his yellow torch on the table next to a cup of cold tea and a copy of Sir, You Bastard by G. F. Newman. Three black women serve behind the counter.

A Scouse accent on the table next to the one occupied by Dave, Fred and me is complaining about a meal he's just paid a quid for. "Free uniforms, canteen, that's what they say in the publicity, isn't it?" he says. "The food's crap. Terrible."

Everyone ignores him. Another motorman walks up and Dave asks him what number won the draw this week? "Thirty seven," says Bob Camm, who runs the draw to raise money for the Richard Cloudesley School for Handicapped Children. It makes £100 every ten weeks.

"Look at the rubbish they serve you. I paid a pound for that steak," continues the Liverpudlian, jerking his head at a pile of uneaten food.

I haven't yet seen any women working as guards or motormen. But Dave says they've got three or four women guards on this line, and there is one woman driver on the District line. Everyone sups their tea. Bob Camm makes his own in a tea can he carries round with him. He says that he has been in the job ten years. "Before that, I was a computer checker, a nine to five job. Couldn't stand it. Spent all the time looking at me watch. I like it here."

Bob is just about to start the second half of his duty. It's 4.25 now. He gets his next break at seven.

Upstairs is "the institute," which has table tennis, billiards and three full-size snooker tables. A shout tells us to shut the door as we walk in. In the bar is a one-armed bandit and a broken Space Invader. Dave says that, of course, the bar is only for off-duty trainmen.

Dave looks at his watch, standing in front of a "dare to be free" graffitti on the white-tiled platform wall. It already seems a long time I saw natural light. Dave enjoys taking a train overground when he's been entombed for a while. "Especially in summer," he says. "The tunnels get very hot. So when you get overground you open up the cab window and get a blast of that fresh air. Lovely."

He's standing there, upright, surveying the platform and the tunnel as if it's one of his allotments. Tube workers, I suppose, are the one part of the tube population that doesn't have a secret dread of the tension and fear breaking out into something bad down here, where city laws get silently enforced, and subverted too. Strangers' bodies pressed against each other and whispered "sorries" rippling through the cars in the rush hour.

I get a train to Tottenham Court Road, walk out through the tunnels past two buskers. One is singing "I'm a smoker, I'm a joker, I'm a midnight toker, playing my music is the sun." The other is sucking a drunken version of Argentina (don't cry for me) from a cheap mouth organ.
5 February 1981

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