This Side of the Pond – March 3

By Sarah Pridgeon

Do you know what I don’t miss most about big city living? The bit where you find yourself forced to move from one point to a second point that’s almost within walking distance but you still know it’s going to take at least an hour and all of your contortionist skills to get there.

Transport for London unveiled the newest addition to its network last week: the Elizabeth Line, named after Britain’s longest serving monarch and one of the world’s most competent hat wearers. It won’t be open until 2018, but it’s already being touted as “transformative” and “significant” and a radical improvement to travel across the center of the city.

It’s meant to be a tribute to our queen, but I can think of better ways to honor her than with yet another journey through dark, stuffy tunnels that takes almost as long to complete as she’s been sitting on the throne.

I’ll admit that might be a small exaggeration, but not by much. There’s a saying among Londoners that it doesn’t matter what distance exists between the two points you’re trying to connect, it’s still going to take you at least an hour to do it.

My most unpleasant commute was to an office located a 15-minute drive from my home, assuming the traffic was on your side, but, of course, I’d long since scrapped my car after discovering that parking in London costs an average of $3.50 per hour. I am far too much of a penny-pincher for that sort of nonsense.

Because the underground system looks like someone dropped a handful of spaghetti onto a piece of paper and said, “Sure, that’ll do,” I had to travel almost into the center of the city and then all the way back again to get to that office. It took 90 minutes – twice a day.

Transplant that to Wyoming for a moment and you’ll note that I was basically driving to Casper five times a week, except I was doing it crammed into a tiny train with smelly strangers who were using up all of the seats. I did get a lot of reading done during that period of my life, but I also got a lot of cricks in the neck.

As the morning rush begins in London town, it looks like a pack of rats running from a sinking ship. This happens at every single station, tube line and bus stop – there is no such thing as an empty vehicle during these hours. Nor is there any such thing as a free seat.

Naturally, this has led to the development of ninja bus-boarding skills: standing in the queue is now an exercise in planning. Who is the most likely to shove in front of you as soon as the door opens? Can you sneak a foot in front of that youth in the woolly hat? You might think of we Brits as terribly polite, but you’ve never met our elbows on a Monday morning.

Not to mention that a system this convoluted is bound to have more problems than solutions. If every train you need to catch is precisely on time, you may count yourself the beneficiary of a miracle.

I’ve seen platforms filled with angry commuters standing shoulder to shoulder, waiting for them to fix an electrical thing here or a weather related problem there. It’s always something: leaves on the line, half an inch of snow, an idiot on the track.

Last week, half the ceiling fell on commuters’ heads in a Shepherd’s Bush tube station after a drilling miscalculation above them. A couple of weeks ago, a train was actually cancelled due to “the wrong kind of sun”, if you can wrap your head around that logic.

When that train finally rolls into the station, every person in that crowd thinks that we can – and should – pack onto it at once. I recall being forced to stand on one foot without a handrail for the duration of one such journey, keeping my balance by resting an armpit on the head of a short lady next to me.

I also recall catching a train on New Year’s Eve as the millennium dawned. It was a very bad idea. Every carriage on that train was so full of merrymakers that there were people riding in the overhead luggage racks. That night, a vodka company sponsored free travel across the capital, presumably because they knew we’d all be grateful for a glass once we arrived.

So while I’m glad that a new line is being added that will thin out the herd in the mornings, I doubt it will change the reality of travel in London. I imagine that it’s much the same situation in all overpopulated cities – I’ve had a go at the Metro in New York City and it did feel stunningly familiar.

For my part, I plan to continue waking each morning, up there in the canyon, and pasting a smug smile on my face as I walk the twenty paces to my vehicle, drive for a grand total of three minutes and call my commute complete. I’m sorry, Queen Elizabeth, but while I am a firm supporter of lasting tributes to your reign, I won’t be scurrying back to London to enjoy your new train any time soon.