One morning recently I was sitting on a Circle Line tube train somewhere under West London, somewhere between Paddington and Victoria.
The train was jammed and I had waited on the westbound platform at Paddington as two, three other trains came minutes apart, all District Line trains to either Ealing Broadway or Richmond. Rush hour is busy anyway, and three District Line trains later means that when the Circle Line did come, it was going to be a sardine can. And it was. When you’re up close and personal with gyrating passengers hanging from straps and holding on to any bit of solid metal, it’s an awkward moment.
But here in the bowels of London the train stops in a tunnel between stations. You wait for a moment, knowing that it will lurch forward again suddenly. It doesn’t. Nothing.
You’re doing your best to mind the gap between yourself and the United Nations of people around you. And no one is saying a word. But the seconds of awkward silence turn excruciatingly slowly to fretful minutes. Somewhere, some clown is playing headphone music too loudly — it’s tuneless electronic beat stuff that just goes through the skulls of us unfortunate lugs stuck in this moment of the time-space continuum on the Circle Line — and right now, the Circle Line of life is going nowhere. The driver did made an announcement that sounded like: “good ornin adies and gentle ike apologise for his delay ignals ailure.”
It was garbled, got me thinking that it could likely require the expertise of Bletchly Park’s Enigma machine codebreakers to interpret it as the Queen’s English. Come to think of it, the train was stuck somewhere past Sloan Square. If you get off there, it’s a quick walk up Belgravia to the edge of St James Park, where Buckingham Palace is located. If Queen Elizabeth ever had to take the tube home, it’s one of her nearest stations.
After 12 minutes of waiting — I timed it, my left hand with my wrist watch was in the air hanging onto the bar — the train lurches forward. Now if I thought the train was jammed then, imagine what the crowds growing at the following platforms for this Circle Line train were like. Victoria couldn’t come quick enough — it didn’t, as there was another five delays as well. And that jerk with the headphones was there all the way too.
At Victoria, the Gatwick Express is the quickest way to get to London’s second-busiest airport. It’s usually quick and efficient. Just not this morning.
No sooner had I taken a seat than there’s an announcement, apologising for those passengers who were affected by the cancellation of the 10.30 service, because of signal failure. “And we would like to apologise in advance if this service is delayed because of ongoing signal work at Reigate.”
And yes, the train journey was stopped for 15 minutes somewhere near Reigate as men in hard hats and high-visibility orange safety suits looked at electrical plans and big trackside fuse boxes — I could see them as clear as day from my window seat — trying to figure out what to do.
There was no loud electronic music, just murmured conversations. There was a woman behind me who was making phone calls about sales pitches, “blue sky thinking” and “the economics look good for them, but they won’t commit until Thursday when they shake down the figures.”
There are two young French schoolboys travelling with an elderly woman who I assume is their grandmother. I listen in on their conversation, trying to translate and practise my lapsed French as she explains the reason for the delay. Another phone rings. It’s a male who answers somewhere down the carriage. “It’s a signal failure,” he says. “This country is falling apart.”
Mick O’Reilly is the Gulf News Foreign Correspondent based in Europe