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Monday, July 16, 2007


Public transport

Okay, if anyone was riding a Central Line train Thursday night at about 11pm and got kicked off when it was taken out of service at Bank: that was my fault. Sorry about that.

It was an interesting inside look at one of the great curses of London: the London Underground. For those of you who don't live in the metrop, this may need explanation. The tube is a fairly fast way to get around London, faster and more frequent than buses, but that's about the only benefit. It's filthy, it's buried too deep to air-condition, it's horrendously crowded, it's one of the most expensive in Europe and gets more expensive every single year while services never ever improve, and it's always breaking down. Continually. Londoners who ride on it are bitter and cynical: if an announcement comes over the tannoy, people begin to bristle at 'Ladies and gentlemen...', because it's almost always a variant of 'Ladies and gentlemen, we're going to make you late yet again, and by the way it'll involve standing packed together in baking humid conditions for which you've paid a fortune.' On the rare occasions when the announcement is 'Ladies and gentlemen, a good service is operating on all London Underground lines,' you can see the wry grimaces of disbelief on a hundred faces, because we all know it isn't going to last. Everyone hates it, but we have to ride it, because it's got an effective monopoly on quick transport. I found this song (warning: very sweary), and while I'm in favour of fair pay and good working conditions, it has a note of desperation that I, and every commuting Londoner, will recognise instantly. Spend long enough dependent on the service, and that song will, whatever your politics about unions, become the sound of your soul.

Everyone rides it, including people you'd rather not ride with. So when I got on the tube last night at Tottenham Court Road and saw an empty bay, everyone made towards it - until we saw there was a young man stretched out on one side, apparently asleep, vomit-specked clothes and a vomit-soaked floor.

And - here's the thing - everyone's reaction was the same. 'That's nice,' someone muttered sarcastically, speaking for the entire carriage. The tube is bad enough, was the general feeling, and now this pisshead was making it even worse, and we were going to have to ride it anyway. Everyone retreated to other parts of the carriage to get away from the smell, resenting him.

I wasn't too happy about it either. It was only when I was sitting down and the tube was thundering along that it occurred to me to wonder if he was all right. I kept looking, and there was nothing: no sign of breathing, no movement. Probably he was just drunk - but then, what's 'just drunk'? People choke on vomit, and he was demonstrably at the throwing-up stage. And what about alcohol poisoning? You can die from drinking too much. And, come to that, what if he was actually sick?

Really, the guy needed help. But the only way to get it would be if someone sounded the alarm, stop the train, and called the driver down to have a look at him. And this meant plunging several hundred people back into the helpless hatred that London Underground so liberally provides at the best of times. Not a benevolent action.

On the other hand, maybe he was dying. Possibly it was my subconscious working for selfish ends, but it wasn't until a couple of stops before Bank, which was my changing point, that it occurred to me I could actually go over and talk to the guy. Anxiously, passing all the people I was considering spoiling a perfectly tiresome journey for, I swayed over, picking a clumsy way over the slippery floor and getting vomit on my shoe soles.

I leaned over and said, 'Hello? Are you okay?' Nothing. I shook his shoulder. His body was warm and limp, and responded not at all. I shook harder, shook again.

Nothing. As far as I can tell from a layman's perspective, there's a difference between passed out and unconscious, and this guy was unconscious.

Here's the thing: I felt really, really guilty. I turned around and apologised to everyone in earshot: 'I'm really sorry, but this guy's unconscious so I'm going to have to sound the alarm at the next stop.' (You don't sound it in mid-tunnel - that just stops the train underground and it's a long walk through the soot to get help.)

We pulled into Bank, and, heart pounding, I pulled the switch.

A shrill beeping followed, then a minute's silence. Then a slightly irritated voice came over the tannoy: 'Would the customer who just pulled the alarm please tell me why?'

'Can you hear me?' I said to the air, forgetting to speak into the alarm microphone.

'Just about,' said the voice.

I made my way back to the alarm. 'There's a guy in this carriage who's unconscious,' I said.

'Okay,' said the voice. He didn't sound worried; I'd evidently had a good enough reason not to merit a bollocking, but he didn't sound too pleased about it either.

A few more minutes wait, during which time I was joined by a nice young woman with a bit of first-aid knowledge who checked his pulse and stood next to me. Still bathed in guilt, I was grateful for the support; nobody else looked very happy with me.

The driver and a guard turned up. They shook him, poked him, made several efforts to get his attention. The guy was still out for the count; the driver turned and said to an enquiring passenger, 'I'm going to have to take this train out of service. If nobody tells me about this, I don't have to do it, but if someone tells me, I have to.' Evidently I'd made extra work for him.

After a certain amount of hauling with newspaper-wrapped hands, they managed to get the guy upright. As I filted off the train, conscience-stricken, he was just about groggily opening his eyes, which was a mixed relief - he wasn't dead - and an added embarrasment - if he was well enough to open his eyes, was he sick enough to justify stopping the train? On my way up the platform, about to escape with better luck than everyone who couldn't just get off at Bank and apologising at random intervals, I saw an expression I'd had myself many times on about a hundred faces: frustrated exasperation. No one was telling them anything, but they knew: the train wasn't moving, and that was a bad sign. London transport had cocked up again.

I relate this story with two basic points. One: I know from experience of being stuck on trains that get suddenly taken out of service because of 'passenger action' (which means anything from someone punching a guard to a suicide attempt - people tend to assume the former, as it better expresses their resentment at the havoc it wreaks on their journey) or something similar, that it's extremely frustrating to have your journey suddenly knocked sideways with no explanation. Well, this time I was there when it happened, so at least next time your train gets stopped, it might be a bit less confusing to know, that's how it happened that time at least. It's a scenario, which is better than no explanation at all.

Two: even though I was intellectually convinced I was doing the right thing, my visceral feeling was guilt. Why was that? What makes your instinctive reactions veer off in a different direction from your rational conclusions?

In this case, the issue was, I think, social pressure. The majority of people on this train were not going to be happy if I pulled the alarm switch; they'd all checked the guy out and decided not to, which suggested that they felt, for whatever reason, that the alarm shouldn't be sounded. The unconscious man may well have wanted or needed help, but the thing is, he was unconscious, which meant he couldn't put in a vote. Getting help for someone sick is a social action, but pulling the alarm was very possibly acting against the wishes of every person in the carriage who was capable of expressing an opinion. Because he was passed out, the sick man's wishes didn't carry much weight. It was undemocratic to stop the train.

This was exacerbated by the fact that he was in a kind of yucky condition. Passed out, vomit-spattered, smelly and generally in a mess, he was someone everyone wanted to avoid. Not wanting to be physically near him sort of translated into not wanting to take his side. It's anti-social to throw up in a tube carriage; you may not be able to help it, but it drastically worsens already stressful conditions for a large number of people. Having messed up the carriage, there was a feeling that he'd used up all our patience and didn't merit any more of it. This was particularly the case as, while he may have had food poisoning, the likeliest guess was that he was drunk, meaning that it was his own doing, his own fault that he was in this state. Of course, he might have had vodka funelled down his throat in some sort of hazing ritual, but going by appearances and playing the odds, this guy was a pain in the neck who'd stupidly drunk more than he could handle and contaminated a public carriage as a result. Nobody wants to be put to more inconvenience by somebody who's already inconvenienced them enough. Of course, throwing up on the tube isn't a capital offence, and I pulled the alarm because I was worried he might actually die, but that might not have happened; it was a dramatic scenario, and it was probable that he'd pull through, albeit with a big hangover. There was a sense - and I say this because it was one of the feelings I had myself, so I'm not exempt from this - that if the guy was sick, it was his own lookout.

Also there was the issue of identification. I've done undignified things, but passing out on the London Underground doesn't happen to be among them. I have, on the other hand, experienced being maddeningly thrown off a train that I'd paid a fortune for and was rubbish already. I knew exactly how all the people I was inconveniencing were going to feel. They were annoyed, and I didn't blame them. Nor could I blame them for being more irritated than concerned about the sick man. The tube is a stressful environment, and while that's mostly the fault of its design, other people acting anti-socially on the tube are more immediate problems. I'd had plenty of occasions where some fellow-passenger got in my way, and became, for a few seconds, the entire focus of my frustration with the whole system. Put cats in a sack and they fight each other, because they can't make much impression on the sack. Put hundreds of people jammed together in a hot, tiny, jostling space, and their feelings for their fellow-man tend to evaporate, because their fellow man is spilling beer, lolling his knees onto your lap (guys, please keep your legs together in confined spaces, it's really horrible having some stranger knee-humping you), jamming the doors, whacking you with his rucksack, blocking your path and bumping into you - or in this case, throwing up on the floor and taking up six seats. The other passengers were helpless in the face of one contaminated carriage, and helplessness is something every commuter has an intimate knowledge of. I didn't know what the sick man was feeling, but I knew exactly what the other commuters would feel - which meant that I had a more vivid sense of the harm I was causing than the good I may or may not have been doing.

In the face of all this, my emotional reasoning suggested that sounding the alarm was an entirely negative action. In my head, I was helping a sick man, but in my gut, I was wantonly spoiling an evening for several hundred people just like me. Hopefully they've got over it by now, and the sick man - well, my selfish wish is that he really was sick, because otherwise I'm just an overreacting nuisance, but morally speaking I hope he's okay. In the meantime, I'm just going to have to blame London Underground. Of course, there are lots of things to blame them for, but that sick man wasn't actually among them, so I'm not sure why I have to blame the tube apart from a desire to project guilt, but I think I've done enough analysis for one day.

You did the right thing. Kudos to you :). Mind you, I wasn't on the train!
Well, you're a lot braver than me Kit, there's no way I'd have pulled the cord.

By the way, my sister-in-law is a driver on the Picadilly line, and you're right, nothing really bothers them because they tend to see it all. They call a suicide a "one-under", which is about as bad as it gets for tube drivers. Some who are driving the train when a sucide leaps out do not really recover and spends years in therapy, but you get other drivers who've had half a dozen...

By the way Mk. II, if you're ever on the Picadilly line and hear a cheery voice wishing you a pleasant day, that'll be her - she's won a load of customer service awards because all her passengers feel better after hearing her (don't ask me why!)

By the way Mk. III, what happened to the frogs? Is the pond in your garden ok or did you fill it in?
I'm always doing things like that. Trying to save people I've decided are in problems, taking drunks back to their houses and getting accosted for my pains or rescuing dogs that aren't lost (I once "rescued" a dog from outside his own house because I was convinced he was lost which was a bit embarrassing. Though I partly blame him as he happily followed me home to have a look in my fridge.)

I definitely think you did the right thing but one question: why did the train need to be taken out of service? I didn't understand that.

Having spend the whole night on a train a couple of weeks ago because it had an electrical fault and they didn't seem to have any way of dealing with the situation (took them about 8 hours to sort something out) I don't think it's the people taking actions but the way they seem to have blanket policies for dealing with situations that is the problem. Or maybe I've misunderstood..?
That sounds like a quintessential New York story: groupthink and tunnel vision versus compassion -- guess it's more universal than I would've imagined. There's no question in my mind that you did the right thing; pooh-pooh to the scowlers. I'm sure it was horribly uncomfortable, though.

I'm surprised the train had to go totally out of commission. Generally, here, procedure is you'd alert a conductor, which I have done (a woman had a seizure) but nobody looked at me askance, so that was lucky. The conductor would contact the driver to stop the train, and then they'd make every effort to get the sick person OFF the train, and all would continue.

(I've a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-etc who once, while pregnant, fainted on a train and woke up lying alone on a bench on a platform with no idea how she got there. What was a nice plus was, she still had all her stuff in her purse. In the situation I personally witnessed, though, the paramedics came.)

It's all about getting them OFF. (The train.)

But in New York we've got local and express lines, I guess, so one train stopped isn't going to back up the whole system -- there will be an express line that other trains can use to go around. (Same reason why the trains can run all night, where in a lot of other cities they shut down after midnight so they can do trackwork.) And you are in practice, if not officially, allowed to walk between the cars of a moving train to GET to the conductor.

Funny you should call the Tube "dirty" though -- over here we speak wistfully of how clean it is in London, and how there are no cat-sized rats on the platforms (I saw a mouse once on the Northern Line, he was adorable), and no trash on the the track, and does not generally smell like a toilet, and how there are clever little signs above you telling you how many minutes until the next train, and how nobody bitches you out that you should "take the fucking stairs" because you asked them to stand to the right on the escalator like they're supposed to, and how you have it like a veritable Fairyland over there... :-D (I also don't recall the same level of nosepicking and feet-on-the-seat in London, but my glasses might very well be a deep, thick, delusional shade of rose.)
Thanks all. :-)

I was surprised they took the train out as well. It turned out that they needed to get the carriage cleaned - the guy had made an unpleasant mess - and apparently they couldn't do that while the train was in service. I couldn't tell you why, as I'm sure mops and buckets are portable, but there you go.

The tube does have its merits, I suppose - Londoners are quite prickly if someone stands on the wrong side, and generally only tourists do it - but we do get trash in the carriages, and black soot if you touch the doors, and no air conditioning, it costs a fortune, and it doesn't take much to knock it out of whack. I know that with trains, the railways deal with 'trains no more than X minutes late' quotas by cancelling the whole bloody train if it's more than about ten minutes late, which always makes me want to slap someone, so possibly the tube is under the same condition?

This is one of many reasons why the people I most want to slap are the politicians who came up with quotas. They just make people play the system to hide the failures and deliver worse service than ever.

The frogs grew up and left home, bless them all. The pond is fine, if still full of mosquitoes because I haven't installed the pump yet...
I know that with trains, the railways deal with 'trains no more than X minutes late' quotas by cancelling the whole bloody train if it's more than about ten minutes late, which always makes me want to slap someone

Yeah, I would say that warrants some slapping! Bureaucracy logic. (Actually, it's pretty infuriating when the late trains just pass your stop. They rub our noses in it!)

I just remember buses running five in a pack on Tottenham Court Road, and then none and all for forty minutes, when the drivers were disgruntled...Yikes.
...none "at" all. (sorry) :-)
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