March 24th, 2005

me: ooh!

I think I feel an obsession with London transport coming on.

I spent some hours in Foyle's yesterday attempting to find a decent history of the London Underground. I rejected several, including the "official handbook" and both of the Christian Wolmar (a journalist who writes for The Independent) books on the subject, "Down the Tube" and "The Subterranean Railway." I found his writing style annoying because it included run-on sentences and repeated violations of the terms laid out in The Elements of Style. More seriously, his attempts at professional journalism are clouded by his failure to distinguish fact, or at least, supportable data, from anecdote.

To illustrate: in one paragraph, Wolmar cites statistics for the use of Camden Town station on the weekends as opposed to weekdays, and reminds us that the station was never designed to cope with the volume of people. Camden Town also has flow problems since the two southbound platforms are used interchangeably for the Charing Cross and Bank branches of the Northern Line. The only way to know which platform to dive towards is to check the monitors at the base of the escalators. The locals, being accustomed to this, give them a quick glance and head off, only to be obstructed by large groups of noisy Spanish tourists milling around in confusion.*

Ahem. Several paragraphs later, Wolmar reports on interviews he conducted with station employees and some of the complaints they made about the management of the Underground. Due to a fire at King's Cross, a policy was instituted that requires them to check, several times daily, for flammable hazards in unused spaces in the station. Camden Town station doesn't have a problem with flammable materials. In fact, the station has the opposite problem. It is always damp, musty and moldy. The daily check, the station employees claim, is a complete waste of time. But, Wolmar says, the policy can't be changed because "the media would get hold of it and claim that passengers' lives were being put at risk." It is difficult to tell whether this is Wolmar's conclusion, the station employees' opinion or the reasoning of the Underground management because of the lack of footnotes and the unclear writing style. His sloppiness aggravated me.

Instead, I found up a lovely book, with an appropriately meaty bibliography, called The History of the British Bus Services, Aside from having been written with careful attention to making distinctions between fact and opinion and scrupulous acknowledgment of the gaps in the available data, it provides contextual political, social and economic background for the evolution of the [omni]bus and its management.

Now, to find a similar book about the Underground.

...after I finish filling out Schedule Z85631. WTF @ taxes.

* The last sentence is anecdotal.