When London Underground fails, it really fails

Jubilee Line tunnel near Green Park. Detrainin...
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I walked down the escalator to the Jubilee Line platform quite slowly this evening. There was already a train waiting there, but it had had its doors open for long enough to be fully loaded, and as the oh-so-droll platform announcer kept reminding us, “there’ll be another one along in a minute folks, so don’t go jumping on this one, doors are closing”. It’s started to really irritated me when they adopt this faux-avuncular approach to their announcements.

The next train arrived, and I got on near the end of the train. I was going to change at Bond Street, and remember thinking I should not have boarded so far at one end, since I did not know where the Central Line exit was. I was extremely grateful in hindsight.

It was 6.30 p.m. We got as far as Canada Water, when things seemed to be going at a slow pace, and the lights inside the carriage almost all went off. People often get nervous when that happens, and some of them certainly did once it became obvious that they were not going to come back on again. We pulled out of Bermondsey. After a slow trundle along the tunnel, we came to a stop, and the driver came on the PA system to say something about problems with electricity. I was on the Bakerloo line the day of the 2005 bombs, and they said the same thing, so I wasn’t massively encouraged, but decided to take my mind off things and apply some make-up. Red lipstick always helps in awkward situations.

He came on the PA again. “Sorry about the delay”, he began, speaking very quickly and slightly indistinctly. “We have no power to the train at all at the moment. I’m waiting for an update from the control room. In the meantime ladies and gentlemen, please do take off your jackets if you’re getting hot, and open the air vents at the end of the carriages”. Every time he came on the PA, we could hear a loud alarm going off in the background, which lent the half-light that surrounded us an even more eerie quality. I thought about the large water bottle I had left sitting on my desk, and resolved to think more of worst-case scenarios in future.

People did not start up any conversations with each other, which I vaguely expected they would. They just looked around at each other, trying to pass the time. I suspect everyone was going through the same scenario in their heads about what to do for the man in a wheelchair who was in our carriage. In the next 30 minutes, the driver gave us several more updates. The updates were roughly as follows:

1. “It seems the tracks have lost all power, but I can’t get through to the control room to confirm this”. Noticeable panic ensues, which you would only recognise as panic if you were English – wiping sweat from brow, clicking watch, head in hands. I started to wonder whether perhaps everyone else was dead, and no one knew that we were trapped in the tunnel.

2. “If anyone needs a seat please give them a seat, and don’t panic”. Less noticeable panic, as it’s irritating advice.

3. [completely panicked voice] “Ok ladies and gents I don’t have any visuals on the carriages at the moment. It seems that one of the doors is open. If you’re in a carriage with an open door, can you pull the emergency alarm so I can find you?? But don’t pull the emergency alarm in any other situation”. No one really reacts at all, and there is no further update on the door situation.

4. “Right, I’m going to try and move the train into London Bridge using the front engine. Please can you get up from the floor so that I can get through”.

5. [more panic] “We’re only 200 metres from the platform but I can’t move the train any further because we’re on an incline. We’re going to have to wait until I get the authorisation to get everyone off the train”.

Eventually, at about 8.30, we all got ushered to the platform along the track. An ambulance crew walked trhough the carriages to reach the disabled man.  I hotfooted it to the Northern Line, at which point I noticed I was struggling to draw breath. It was such a relief to move again, but at the same time I wanted very much not to be on another train. They did not even offer us any water as we got off the train, although the driver promised there would be some. There were just ambulance crews and British Transport Police standing around, and as we got off the train, an assistant drew lines on a piece of paper to count us – although what good that would have done I have no idea.

It’s a pretty terrible state of affairs, having the whole line collapse in the middle of the evening rush hour. The BBC reports that it only took an hour to evacuate people, which in our case is untrue. I still have no idea what caused the power failure. It was not exactly frightening, but not exactly fun either, and it did get very hot. It’s the kind of thing that makes me wish even more that I lived in the country.

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