Doug reports from London: He didn’t have the time to wait in the queue…

Doug Tube

The queue at Oxford Circus, 6 p.m., Nov. 25, 2014. Photo by Doug Ross

Yes, that’s a paraphrase from a song written by Eric Clapton and George Harrison

Anyway, you remember our discussion of mass transit back at the end of October, when Doug Ross mentioned he would be in London for a week in November, and would report on whether he thought the London Underground was as awesome as I say it is?

Well, he checked in via text last week (sorry, I failed to pass it on, what with trying to get my work decks cleared for Thanksgiving).

He sent the above photo, with this caption:

This is the line to get to the steps to get to the entry to the tube at 6 p.m. in Oxford circus. When it is not crowded it’s fine. Otherwise it’s a nightmare.

So there you have it; the opposite position from my own.

I never ran into anything that bad in London. I was in some crowded trains, and waited on some crowded platforms. But I never had to wait up on street level to get into the Tube. Maybe that’s because I was there between Christmas and two days after New Years Day, so normal commuter traffic was lighter than usual. Or else Doug has just had phenomenally back luck.

I will quote this from Wikipedia: “At the end of the 2000s, Oxford Circus had the highest pedestrian volumes recorded anywhere in London.” So, you know, it might be a place to avoid if you haven’t got the time to wait in the queue.

But I’ve shared Doug’s report, in the interest of fairness. Perhaps he would like to elaborate…

19 thoughts on “Doug reports from London: He didn’t have the time to wait in the queue…

  1. Kathryn Fenner

    I figured out right away when I was a student in England that an American line and a British queue are not the same thing. A line has maybe three people in it, sort of loosely in order. A queue has at least ten, often far more, but they are very patient and linearly strict.

    Look, any big city is going to be super crowded at 6 PM, especially Oxford Circus. What’s the alternative in central London that is any faster? Nothing. Same in Manhattan or the Chicago Loop/Magnificent Mile (although the rush hour is earlier in Chi-town).

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I’ve mentioned before that my father-in-law, a member of the ill-fated 106th Infantry Division (like Kurt Vonnegut) was captured at the Battle of the Bulge.

      So he spent the next few months in a German Stalag, practically starving to death. He was in there with a lot of British Tommies who were old hands, some of them probably having been there since 1940.

      The day they were liberated, he rushed toward a U.S. truck that was handing out food. As he pushed to try to get to the truck, the Brits chided him for bad form: “Queue up, mate! Queue up!” It took him a moment to understand what they were saying, at which point he joined the queue…

      1. Silence

        And yet, people from former Britsh Colonies don’t know how to queue at all. Yes, that applies to the United States, but India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and all you Arabs, I’m looking at you! How about some personal space and an orderly line.

        1. Kathryn Fenner

          I think it’s the warm climate. The further north one goes, the more restrained the populace, no?

  2. Doug Ross

    Well, here’s my short take on the Underground systems in London and Paris: when you need them to do exactly what you want them to do at times when it’s not exceptionally busy, they are fine. I am not a convert by any stretch of the imagination.

    A more detailed assessment: We (myself, my wife, and two adult kids) spent four days in London, two in Paris, and then one more night in London. In London, we rode the Underground approximately 20 times in the five days there. Of those 20 trips, the majority required switching trains one time to reach the final destination. We were staying in a hotel about 200 yards from the St. James Station, so not too far (unless you are dragging two large suitcases).

    Our first experience was a train from Heathrow to St. James. It took about 45 minutes, costing about $35 for the four of us. I had to stand the entire time. At one point, a man who apparently bathed in Old Spice stood shoulder to shoulder with me for a good 15 minutes. A little boy was on my other side along with his father. The boy spent some time eating Reeses Cups and I was a little concerned he was going to put his chocolate covered fingers on my suitcase, but he didn’t.

    We had pre-purchased three day passes for Sunday thru Tuesday. Sunday was raining. That meant walking in the rain to get to the station and from each destination station to wherever we were going. We came up out of one station and made a wrong turn, thus causing a 5 minute walk in the rain in the wrong direction and five minutes to get back to where we started to re-check the map. You have to walk a whole lot more than you’d think using the train. Some platforms are a brisk 2-3 minute walk apart.

    Monday morning we got up early to make it to the British Museum. Whoops… apparently the three day passes we bought were not valid during “rush hour” which lasted until 9:30. So, another walk back to the hotel to sit for a half hour, then back to the station. Again, it was a rainy day and when we exited the station, we had a lengthy 8-10 minute walk to get to the main entrance of the museum. So the train gets you close but not real close.

    The best trips were direct shots of less than 3 stops. No problem there.

    The worst train moments included:

    The trip to Oxford Circus. It was busy when we came up at around 4:30, it was beyond chaos at 6:00 p.m. We stood in the mass of people for 10-15 minutes and it never moved. Finally, we gave up and walked 15 minutes to another station (which included what seemed like 150 winding steps down into the bowels of the Earth to reach the platform). There it was “just” overcrowded. We waited for four trains before we could get on and that involved watching grown adults squeeze themselves into every available space before the car doors closed.

    We had to exit another train because the entire Jubilee line was shutdown due to what was calmly described on the loudspeaker as “a person on the tracks”. I’m half guessing the guy just threw himself on the tracks rather than wait any longer. Our re-routing added a half hour to a 15 minute trip.

    We took the Eurostar to Paris. Now that’s what train rides should be. Comfortable seats, high speed with only a single stop, a bar and food in a couple cars, a very efficient boarding process. A+. As long as you are willing to pay for it — it was about $110 per person roundtrip. Then we arrived at Gar Du Nord station in Paris, which can best be described as a multi-acre urinal. The smell in the depths of the train station was pretty rank. We were approached by a woman with baby begging for change. The trains were much cheaper than the London trains (1.7 Euro for a one way versus 4.8 pounds)… but I guess you get what you pay for. The clientele on the Paris trains was a little scruffier but not as bad as I’ve seen in NY. We took another Paris train to the Eiffel Tower with the only incident being a middle aged guy with an accordion who hopped on the train just as we left the station and then serenaded us until the next stop with classic French tunes. It was nice right up until we arrived at our stop and he stood in front of me asking for money. I normally give to anyone who asks but this time I had no change and no small Euro bills, so I said “Sorry”. He was offended and looked at me like I was lying. This does not happen when I drive my car.

    On our return to London, we decided to take a taxi rather than struggle with the bags through another trip to Heathrow. It cost about 3 times as much but was significantly more enjoyable as the whole family fit in the back of a black cab and we had a nice conversation about our trip during the 45 minute ride. This is another advantage to driving – you don’t have to just sit there. trying to avoid eye contact or shoulder contact with the people around you.

    Bottom line: there is no amount of money you could pay me to take a job that required travelling via train every day. The rush hour in London was utter chaos… who needs that?

    1. Kathryn Fenner

      Well, when I lived in Chicago, working in Sears Tower, I lived up near Wrigleyville for two years. I quickly figured out that living as near as possible to where I worked was ideal. I moved to Printer’s Row, and could walk to work. Of course, it gets super cold, but you bundle up, and I got a real raincoat–waterproof, after i ruined a wool suit in a downpour, but…otherwise, you live somewhere on the Metra commuter lines, with a station in the Loop near where you work. Then you are on the equivalent of the Eurostar—scheduled stops and nice seats. I read the WSJ every morning when I commuted on the train.
      Yeah, it gets real when you are out of your car. Even in southwestern Germany, where people are extra nice, it can get a bit old, but I also enjoy people-watching, so…

      1. Doug Ross

        Our vacations have been centered around the great outdoors for the past five years. That’s my preference. Give me a national park over a museum any day of the week. I’d rather watch a bear in Montana than an opera in Rome. I’d rather eat a hot dog on a bench at the end of a pier in Homer, Alaska than a five course meal at a two star Michelin restaurant in Paris. I’d rather drink a craft beer on the back porch of a small restaurant facing the Grand Tetons than drink a lukewarm ale in an English pub. I’d rather ride an ATV an hour to get a view of Mt. McKinley than travel by gondola in Venice. That’s just me.

        I saw Van Goghs, Da Vinci’s, and Monets last week. Eh.. no reaction. The Mona Lisa was smaller than I expected. I don’t get the attraction to it. My favorite part of Paris was our walk from Eiffel Tower to Arc D’Triomphe down the Champs-Elysse and then through a park where dozens of vendors had set up booths selling all sorts of food and crafts. I ate a ham sandwich where the meat was cut off the pig in front of me and served on a freshly baked roll… and paired it with a winter Dunkel draft beer. That’s my idea of a good day. Cool architecture plus people selling things they made plus meat plus beer.

        The only big city I enjoy is Las Vegas.

        1. Doug Ross

          And I hope nobody says “But you should do X or like Y or appreciate Z”… I don’t. And I don’t expect anyone to enjoy what I enjoy.

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            Actually… I was going to say that, if you haven’t already, you should read Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad. The point of it was to make fun of all the travel books back in his day that just gushed with praise about how wonderful Europe was. Twain focused a very jaded, skeptical American eye on all the wonders of the Old World.

            Here’s a passage showing how the author and the group of fellow wiseguys he traveled with tormented one of their guides (all of whom they insisted on calling “Ferguson”):

            We have made it interesting for this Roman guide. Yesterday we spent three or four hours in the Vatican, again, that wonderful world of curiosities. We came very near expressing interest, sometimes–even admiration–it was very hard to keep from it. We succeeded though. Nobody else ever did, in the Vatican museums. The guide was bewildered–non-plussed. He walked his legs off, nearly, hunting up extraordinary things, and exhausted all his ingenuity on us, but it was a failure; we never showed any interest in any thing. He had reserved what he considered to be his greatest wonder till the last–a royal Egyptian mummy, the best preserved in the world, perhaps. He took us there. He felt so sure, this time, that some of his old enthusiasm came back to him:
            “See, genteelmen!–Mummy! Mummy!”
            The eye-glass came up as calmly, as deliberately as ever.
            “Ah,–Ferguson–what did I understand you to say the gentleman’s name was?”
            “Name?–he got no name!–Mummy!–‘Gyptian mummy!”
            “Yes, yes. Born here?”
            “No! ‘Gyptian mummy!”
            “Ah, just so. Frenchman, I presume?”
            “No!–not Frenchman, not Roman!–born in Egypta!”
            “Born in Egypta. Never heard of Egypta before. Foreign locality, likely. Mummy–mummy. How calm he is–how self-possessed. Is, ah–is he dead?”
            “Oh, sacre bleu, been dead three thousan’ year!”
            The doctor turned on him savagely:
            “Here, now, what do you mean by such conduct as this! Playing us for Chinamen because we are strangers and trying to learn! Trying to impose your vile second-hand carcasses on us!–thunder and lightning, I’ve a notion to–to–if you’ve got a nice fresh corpse, fetch him out!–or by George we’ll brain you!”…

            1. M. Prince

              The good Mr. Clemens directed his twinkling, jaded eye with at least equal censure against his fellow American tourists — innocents who did not shrink from whacking off bits of cathedral or castle to take as souvenirs for display alongside other brick-a-brac back home.

          2. Brad Warthen Post author

            You know, we’re friends and all, but in many ways Doug and I are perfect complements to each other.

            You can have the great outdoors. I’m a big fan of indoor plumbing. My wife comes from pioneer stock — at least her people got as far as West Tennessee — but my people all stuck carefully to the East Coast. In fact, I wonder what got into them to bring them across the ocean in the first place.

            I love New York, Washington and London. If it weren’t that I think it’s better to bring up kids with a yard, etc., I could see living in one of those places.

            But one city I have never wanted to visit is Las Vegas…

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              I was already a big fan of the Tom Hanks/John Candy comedy “Volunteers,” a spoof about Americans in the Peace Corps in Thailand. I loved it that my daughter announced that SHE was going to Thailand for the Peace Corps with this clip.

              But my favorite line among many in the movie is when Tom Hanks — a wealthy member of the Eastern Establishment who is only very reluctantly in the Peace Corps because he was escaping a large-scale gambling debt that his father refused to pay for him — is in a tight spot, his life in danger, with nowhere left to turn, and he pauses to soliloquize, “If I get out of this alive, I’m never leaving the East Coast again!”


            2. Kathryn Fenner

              I like being in the great outdoors, but like my world-birder dad, I demand a real bed and a shower at the end of the day. Day trips, not camping!

              I have lost my mojo for big cities. The crowds, the smells–too much stimulation now.

            3. Silence

              I’m with Kathryn. Give me a hot meal, a hot shower and a comfy bed at the end of the day. My idea of camping these days is a luxury cabin or a decent hotel.
              I’ve been all over the world, spent time in many major cities and lots of rural places too, and I’ve seen just about enough. I’ve crossed the Atlas Mountains and ridden camels in the Sahara. I’ve gone swimming North of the Arctic Circle, in the Blue Grotto, Arabian Gulf, Indian Ocean, and Black Sea. I’ve seen the great works of art and architecture, at least a good chunk of them. I’ve slept in a cave and had tea with nomads. I’ve danced with gypsies and had drunken hookups with Eurogirls on overnight train rides. I have cruised, fished and swam in the Amazon. I’ve found fossils and raced 4×4’s in the Empty Quarter.

              There’s still a few things on my list, but, if I never had to leave the US again, it’d be just fine with me.

        2. Kathryn Fenner

          Yeah, I am kind of over big cities. I like villages and wilderness.

          I think one should give the big city thing a shot, and then decide what one likes. You sure have given it a fair try.

          BTWs, it isn’t da Vincis–it’s Leonardos. It’s like Doug Ross of Blythewood–you don’t say Blythewoods….

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