If there’s one thing that unites Londoners and New Yorkers more than anything else, it’s their enthusiasm for (and indeed, full-blown devotion to) complaining about their respective subterranean rail systems. In the transportational equivalent of the
playgroundschoolyard mantra of “my dad could beat up your dad”, the inhabitants of each city is convinced that their mass transit network is worse than anyone else’s, and will bitch and moan about it to anyone who will listen. As well as a good few who won’t.
In London, the legends of the Northern Line and its problems are more fantastical than anything that JK Rowling or Terry Pratchett could come up with. With trains that were apparently manufactured by contemporaries of Pliny The Elder, and a commitment to cancellation that suggests scheduling is done by an untrained monkey working flexi-time, the Northern Line is officially Far From Perfect.
Here in New York, trains run with the regularity of, say. Halley’s Comet or a Knicks NBA championship. If you ran trains with such huge gaps between them in the UK, they’d issue a timetable so that everybody could turn up at the allotted moment rather than making everyone peer into the gloom of the tunnel (more in hope than belief). It’s not just the timings either. I’m writing this from a packed train which is near-pitch black due to dodgy electrics. And if you ever see a peculiarly empty carriage car around rush hour, be aware that somebody has almost certainly thrown up in it, and only those who lost their sense of smell in an abortive ammonia-related chemistry experiment at school will be able to sit in it without retching every five seconds.
To be fair, being away from either system makes you pine for the other one. When I’m in New York, I long for the London Underground, and the knowledge that unless something’s gone badly wrong, you’re never going to have to wait more than five minutes for a train. Unless you’re on the Northern Line, obviously. And while in London, I yearn to be back in the capacious subway cars that can fit more than thirteen people without requiring you to occuipy the armpit of a burly man from Epping.
New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (almost as popular as Michael Phelps at a meeting of the Mark Spitz Appreciation Society at the moment, due to proposed fare hikes) actively seeks
insultsfeedback with a laughably named Rider Report Card. The card asks you to rate your train according to 22 different criteria, including delays, station announcements, security, cleanliness, lack of graffiti and even “lack of scratchitti”. Sadly there’s no place to grade them on “ability to make up/perpetuate words such as scratchitti”.
While giving everyone the chance to have their say, the surveys don’t go down well with everyone. The woman opposite me on the R train into work this morning took a thick-tipped Sharpie to the report and scrawled on it in massive type “Stop giving me millions of surveys and start giving me more trains instead”. From her writing and evident over-the-top anger, I can only assume that she had left her multi-coloured crayons at home by mistake.
Meanwhile, I’ve got to fill out my report card today. I’m thinking “C+. Must try harder.”