Networking the London Underground by Joel Moore
In late March, a pair of 650-tonne headstrong ladies will begin boring their way through the soil between Kennington and Battersea, shifting 300,000 tonnes of earth in clearing the way for 3.2km of tunnel, and carrying the heavy responsibility of fulfilling a series of promises and varying hopes and dreams held by the Mayor of London, TfL, local councils, and Londoners alike. These tunnel-boring machines, demonstratively named Helen in honour of the first British astronaut, Helen Sharman, and Amy after the pioneering English aviator Amy Johnson, are but one part of the process of completing the estimated £1.2 billion extension to the London Underground’s Northern line, scheduled for completion in 2020. With the opening of new stations at Battersea Power Station and Nine Elms the extension brings with it the familiar catchword of ‘regeneration’, and promises of 25,000 new jobs as well as 20,000 new homes .
In its most common usage, regeneration describes the act of reforming or restoring to either comparable or higher position than its original state. Within this, there is the implicit meaning that what is to be regenerated is of lesser or inferior quality, and so regeneration is a positive force designed to both better and be of benefit. It also has biological connotations, reminding us of the ability of some animals to regenerate limbs or other body parts lost through trauma or some other mal experience. What is clear from these meanings, then, is the process by which regeneration is a restart: a reboot, a chance to start over, a proverbial phoenix rising from the ashes of Nine Elms.
I am not, however, wishing to write a piece discussing the ‘regeneration’ of Battersea and Nine Elms, nor will I outweigh the pros versus cons of infrastructure-led regeneration programmes, and I will certainly not pretend to be able to offer an in-depth critique of the Northern line extension, or any of TfL’s other major projects which are currently underway – such as Crossrail the Elizabeth line. As a historian by trade, perhaps I should offer a riveting account of the nearby land that the line will occupy, a history of the rumbustious and thrilling Vauxhall Gardens – but no.
Instead, what I am interested in here is the messiness and intangibility of the term regeneration within actor-network theory, one that interweaves economics, environmental considerations, social policy, with the inescapable intervention of human actants. Within this network, we humans are an annoying and disruptive sort, with a tendency to complicate the network even further. In the context of London’s transport in 2016, the position of the human actant across multiple levels has highlighted that living people form a rather central component of efficient operation. We have gone on strike, complained, petitioned, and largely proven ourselves to be an irritation and inconvenience to transport bodies, most notably Southern Rail and TfL. There is a certain irony, then, that the giant machines soon-to-be tunnelling through South London on their way to Battersea have been affectionately humanised, when all we have done this year is to be a nuisance to the efficient and smooth running of good transport links. What I would like to briefly discuss, then, is the disjuncture between the idealised design of transport in London and the reality of varying levels of human interaction with it, both as a service and as a designed object.
The TfL’s ‘Station Design Idiom’, a manual of style announced in November 2015, was released as part of a wider programme bringing the concept of design to the forefront of all transport operated by TfL, including the London Underground . This programme, ‘Transported by Design’, which began in mid-2015 and runs until early this year, is an eighteen-month campaign that aims to state the centrality of design in past, present, and future London . Far from being a simple celebration of the aesthetic legacy of the Tube, a legacy attributed to the contributions of select individuals during the Underground’s formative years during the interwar period, the Idiom crucially offers an insight into how TfL seeks to use the concept of design to revitalise the network; principles such as ‘balance’ and ‘wholeness’ go in tandem with emotive responses of ‘delight and surprise’, and the haptic need to ‘prioritise comfort for staff and customers’ . The Idiom is not just an exercise in improving aesthetic standards or increasing efficiency, but is intended as a signifier of TfL’s placement of the human experience of its service at the very core of its operation. Design is both a solution and a promise: it reshapes and makes the imperfect perfect.
Unfortunately for TfL, it isn’t that simple. As any commuter knows, the Tube is very much an active rapid transit system, functioning within a milieu of users, events, weather conditions, and innumerable other factors way outside of any possible operational remit. State of the art on-board electric motors on newer trains are purposefully designed to reduce the production of brake dust, a key contributor to the microscopic society of microbes, bacteria, and fungus that share the journey with London’s daily commuters – who in turn generate their own microbial miasma, introducing their own brand of personal bacteria to whatever they touch . Coincidentally, the newest – read advanced – part of the network, the Jubilee line extension to Stratford International, has the highest amount of fungal cells lurking within, part of an underground ecosystem which also harbours a unique species of subterranean mosquito – the Culex molestus . Design here is constantly at odds with a variety of actants within the network, from the engineered to the organic, and it is this instability that simultaneously holds design back, and propels it forward.
We continue to use the Tube because we have to, trusting in an operator’s duty of care and the reassurance that the external influences on the designed network will not overstep the threshold by interfering with usership. Michael Palin, in his foreword to Simon James Mind the Gap, expresses the irony embedded in the famous announcement. It is ‘an acknowledgement that the thing doesn’t quite work’ as ‘the trains don’t always fit the platforms’. In spite of this, however the Underground’s gaps [are] acknowledged, they’re tolerated and indeed celebrated as deficiencies that define the essentially human character of the system’ . What appears to be an incongruity in the understanding of what constitutes good design is in fact an integral part of the user experience, an individuality and immeasurable quirk that shapes interaction with a designed product; a process by which the projected ideal is in constant conflict with the reality of its surrounding environment, its users, and often, with itself.
Last year, this conflict most obviously manifested itself in the form of industrial action across both the Tube and National Rail, whereby the entire network – both in a literal and theoretical sense – was thrown into disarray as multiple actants moved in flux and undesired ways. The almost mythic Night Tube, which launched in August 2016 after almost a year’s delay, was marked by the opposition of staff on the grounds of a number of concerns, chiefly the disruption on work/life balance, as well around issues of safety and salary. On numerous occasions, services were halted by industrial action, an ‘unwelcome’ and direct human intervention into the network. The criticality of the human element here is outstanding, and serves to create a dialectic, severing the user and the operator as two opposing forces – the user who wants to travel, and the operator who will not meet that demand. The immediate resolution to this tension then is to either reduce or remove the problematic element, replacing it with something new and decidedly functional. As Southern have learned, however, the removal of train guards with the intention of shifting this additional responsibility to the driver has resulted in months of fervent strike action and misery for commuters.
The designs for the New Tube for London, due to enter service in 2022, showcase a sleek new train, capable of driverless operation, with the added caveat that they would require drivers for the first few years of their operation until previous driver-operated trains are entirely replaced. From there, complete automation – albeit with staff relocated within the train, coincidentally, as guards . This relocation of our object of trust – the human actant – disrupts the network entirely, and forces us to reconsider where we place ourselves as humans within our surrounding networks. Without the juxtaposing of operator to user, what meaning is there to our role – and where do we consider ourselves alongside the miniscule Culex molestus, or alongside the colossal Helen and Amy?