Far from the honking horns and busy bargaining with autorickshwas in my hometown Chennai, transport in London is a pretty quiet affair. There is a lot more to transport here than meets the eye. When my friend drove me to Croydon from Heathrow, I saw a whole mass of cars on the road and a couple of two wheelers here and there. I thought that the whole of the driving in this country was disciplined. It was very easy to drive – we had a Tom Tom – a way finder, which told right where there was a speed check, right where there was a road block and right when to turn. It was darned monotonous.
But as I spent more days here taking all forms of transport, I realized the clamour beneath the quietness, the chaos beneath the organization. But there is a certain beauty in clamour and chaos thats not there anywhere else. And thats what I liked about London Transport.
The tram service is very good in London. Vey few seats, so mostly they are taken by the elderly and the disabled. The tram drivers are very kind to the passengers. Mostly all stops on trams are request stops, that is, passengers can request to stop the tram by pushing a button and the driver would stop at the next most convenient place to stop. Almost all roads have railtracks and are used by the trams. Its people power in the trams – pushing and pulling their way through. Morning trams are always crowded and the trams are always on time. There is hardly any ticket checking but the ticket collector does show his head in once a while. There are these oyster cards which we have to touch in before boarding and the others must have their tickets with them.
Bus drivers are the gentlest of the lot in London. You have to pay before you board or touch in your oyster on entering the bus. There are single tier and double decker buses. There are open topped and closed buses. The buses would have dispalys of every stop on its front, but even if you ask the bus driver, he will tell you if this bus will go, else which one will and where to get the other bus. I once had only a 20 pound note – any stop is just 2 pounds in a London bus. I wanted to go to Greenwich and I asked him for change, he said that its not Greenwich but Grenich (without the "e" and the "w"). I said then why have the e and the w in it. Somehow he found me amusing. He said, "You go for free!" I resisted and offered the entire 20 pound note, its ok even if you dont give the change I said. He said it did not matter and gave me a free ride. 🙂 Not that all of them give you free rides, but in Chennai I have only come across rude drivers and conductors – who would shout if you didnt have change and wouldnt even care to stop for the elderly or a lady with children. This was refreshing.
The Trains – Overground
I travel to office on National Rail which runs overground all over London. These trains are almost usually late due to some or the other reason. The crowd in here is amazing. There is no rule – so its just push and pull. People are generally educated so they do maintain a level of decency while getting into and out of the train. They form rough queues and do offer seats to the elderly or little children. Only, the British will never hold other’s luggage. At times it so happens that the crowd is so much and the Police have to push people in so that the door can close. 🙂 If it were open doors, people would have footboarded like in India. The DLR – Docklands Light Railways are mostly district lines and they have too many stops. You can carry any amount of luggage in a train. There are only two classes – first class which is usually empty (has only 8 seats per coach) and the economy class. Some trains have the trolley service of drinks and light refreshments. But they have to stop at one place becaue of the crowd.
The London Underground
It was on my trip to Greenwich that I had to take the underground train from Bank Station to Canary Wharf. I went to the underground station and was initimidated by the huge escalators taking you underground. Imagine escalators 6 times the height of what we see in India taking you down the earth. The underground in London is a whole world in itself. Barring residential apartments and plantation, everything that is there above the surface of the earth is there below as well. Trains come and go at truly amazing speeds and there is one train every 2 minutes on every platform. Trains are always on time here. The tubes are mind blowing. There were so many of them fizzing past me that I got lost for a minute. Thankfully I had a tube map in hand and I found a platform on which my train arrived after 15 minutes. I went to that platform slowly and waited 5 minutes for my train to come. It did and I had my first travel underground. Outside of the train is pitch dark. Inside is well illuminated. Standing on the London Metro Platform, even the trains you dont go on will transport you. You will feel you are on a train even if you are not. It was an amazing experience. Only, I found it a little diffiult to breathe because of the lack of oxygen and crowd. But I guess people get used to it.
The London Taxi
No trip in London is complete without a ride on a London Taxi. It is very easy to recognize a taxi. It says "Taxi" in an illuminated board above the car.The taxis are long with two seats in the front (including the driver) and a seat that can seat three at the back. I travelled in taxi from Greenwich to EastHam. All taxis are metered. I asked the taxi driver if I needed to put on the seat belts. He said, "As a rule you have to. But I cant force you. It would be better if you did though." The seat at the back is far behind the one at the front with loads of space to either to keep your luggage or extend your legs. If there is no luggage, 2 more seats can be pulled out and the back can comfortably seat 5 or 6. The front and the back are separated by a glass shutter. You have to open that to talk to the driver or simply switch on the radio through which you can speak to the driver. What he speaks you can hear through a speaker. You just have to give the driver the address of where you want to go or tell a landmark or the street and area name and he will take you right there. You are required to give whats there on the meter at your destination. Its always better to tell the driver once you board to take the shortest route, else they usually take you on a jolly ride to get more money. The cabbies are always open to chit chat if you would like. I had a short conversation on traffic in India with my cab driver.
The trains, trams, buses all have announcements on them running on display as well as being vocally made both by the driver and by the automatic machine. So its easy to get to your stop. All buses, taxis, trams, trains, tubes are CCTV monitored. So its safe travelling in London. Every form of transport except the over ground trains are disable friendly, so you can wheel people through and take children’s prams as well. On the overground, you have to push one extra button to request for the ramp.
You can always find people asking the person next to them if this train/ bus goes to the location they want or having some casual conversation, mostly about the weather or today’s headline news. You can also find people asking the drivers to let them know when their stop arrives, this despite so many announcements and displays. This shows the longing that people have for personal touch! It is not uncommon to find people having maps but asking the person standing next, "Is this Nelson Road?" or "How do I go to Creek Street?" 🙂 And this is precisely what I enjoy when I travel in London.