Image: doug88888 on Flickr
Last week the Evening Standard reported that a 24-hour tube was vital to London’s vibrant West End economy. Ever on the pulse, we went below the line and checked out the comments, to see what London’s tube-using comment leavers had to say about the underground going round-the-clock. One comment in particular caught our eye. Stand up, Mr FlemingDH! We’re talking about you!
You’re in luck, Mr FlemingDH. London Locomotion has a fantastic track record of answering our readers’ burning questions (e.g. Which line has the most attractive men? and Why is the underground so romantic?) and we are entirely at your service. Mr FlemingDH, we will answer your question (okay, fine, indirect musing) to our fullest ability, possibly using explanatory pictures (but don’t get your hopes up). We’ve even set the answer to an appropriate soundtrack. Sometimes we cannot believe we don’t get paid for this.
We’ll keep it simple. There are many reasons why it would be difficult for the tube to run 24/7, but here are the only ones you need to know:
1. Money money money
Economists might say something like the demand wouldn’t match the cost of supplying (or something); we say it would cost too much. Our dear old tube already needs billions of pounds spent on it a year just to keep functioning, much of which is spent on necessary upgrade work to keep the old gal in tip-top shape.
A 2011 report by the London Assembly estimated that the cost of upgrading signalling on the Jubilee, Northern and sub-surface lines is £2.4 million per kilometre of track. (The Northern line is 58 km long, so to upgrade the whole track would cost £139 million.)
A 24-hour service just wouldn’t make economic sense; the cost of running an overnight service wouldn’t be matched by the income generated by sporadic late-night tube-users, and the money would be better spent on upgrading the existing service. Which leads us nicely to…
2. Upgrade U
The 150-year-old tube wasn’t built to carry the number of passengers it does today, and so is constantly playing catch-up. However, the past few years of investment are beginning to pay off; last year saw lost customer hours (hours passengers lose while travelling due to delays) fall by 20 per cent.
Due to the tube’s two-track system, there’s no room to do this vital maintenance while the tube is running – unlike in New York, as the knowledgeable Mr FlemingDH mentions, where the subway has four tracks. So if the tube ran for 24 hours, the essential maintenance usually done during four hours overnight would have to be done at other times. (Probably during every sunny weekend in August and for the entire Wimbledon fortnight.)
Essentially, the routine checks and maintenance done every night – which includes removing tonnes of dust made up of human skin particles – are the tube equivalent of checking the oil in your car, or pulling the hair from the plughole. Although it’s boring, inconvenient, and kind of gross, it’s a relatively straightforward way to keep everything in proper working order – and to prevent more inconvenient, boring, gross things becoming necessary in the future.
3. It would encourage all of the littering drunks
Never ones to slack off, we did full and proper research to bring you all sides of the argument. We found a number of less persuasive but far more entertaining reasons why the tube can’t deliver a 24/7 service, but we think this one is most worthy of your time
“Keeping the system in passenger service through the night would encourage drinkers to stay in the pubs for longer and consume more alcohol. When they then enter a station, they will pose a greater danger to themselves and others. For example, drunks often drop items onto the track, then go down to retrieve it. When you hear announcements like, “services are suspended because of a person under a train” it is just as likely to be this situation as, say, a suicide attempt. Sometimes they just fall over edge of the platform.” (Source)
So, to conclude, the simple answer to “Why can the Berlin U-Bahn run for 24 hours but the tube can’t, even though it has the same kind of track? is “Because the U-Bahn is the tube’s fitter, more energetic grandchild”. Yes, Mr FlemingDH, we could have said that right at the beginning, but that wouldn’t have been nearly as fun as the informative thrill-ride that was this post, now, would it?
For a good idea of the work on the underground that goes on during the night, we highly recommend watching the final episode of The Tube, which follows the network’s night-time workers. You’ll be surprised by how much is done while the rest of us are tucked up in bed (or binge-watching The Following). If you don’t fancy watching the whole thing just give our liveblog a once over, and you’ll get the gist.
How other subways measure up
- New York: Runs 24 hours
- Madrid: Runs from 06:00 to 01:30
- Paris: Runs from 05:30 to 00:40am on weeknights, but until 01:40 on Fridays and Saturdays
- Montreal: Runs from 05:30 to 01:00, or 01:30 on Saturdays
- Beijing: Runs from 05:00 to 23:00
- Berlin: Runs 24 hours
- Moscow: Runs from 06:00 to 01:00
- Tokyo: Runs from 05:00 to 01:00
- Delhi: 06:00 to 23:00