Why does the tube make people so angry?

Budge up. Image: Getty.

Here’s a story that happened a few weeks ago.

Picture the scene. It’s 5:47pm on a Monday evening. You’ve just wrestled your way off a crowded eastbound Central line, and you’re making your way to the escalator so you can get home.

The usual pushing and shoving is taking place. You’re used to it. This is just part of taking the tube at rush hour; part of being in London. But then you see something that makes you stop in your tracks.

A man has run down the escalator in a rush to hop on the train before it leaves. Another guy is blocking his way, and won’t be out of his path in time.

So the man simply picks the guy up and throws him to the ground. He goes flying like a bowling pin.

The faces that witness the scene quickly mute any emotion that would have registered. Instead, the priority is to remain blank, quicken the pace, hurry out of the area and away from the danger. This is something that is simply swept under the rug; brushed to one side, ignored. The fact that someone can justify picking up another human being and throwing them out of the way seems to accepted as just something that happens on the underground network.

This is the Central line at rush hour. A new train arrives every minute. This was not enough for the man who resorted to violence as easily as flipping a switch.

This actually happened.


I moved to London in 2016, and found the tube overwhelming. After years of travelling on buses and trains in Devon, seeing the tube rush past every minute, being crammed into the corner of a carriage like a sardine in a tin, was almost too much to cope with.

But as time went by, and my commute became second nature, I switched to auto-pilot. Before long, I found I wasn’t even thinking about the rush of people around me, or the feeling of unspoken urgency you get in a crowd of people when you all hear an approaching tube above or below you, and you rush down the stairs and leap onto the train as the doors are closing. Because why would you wait two entire minutes for the next train when you could be whooshing down the line right now?

The culture of needing to be somewhere right away, rushing through life because there is so much to do all the time, is part and parcel when you live in the capital – or, indeed, any large city.

But there are signs that this sense of urgency is having some side effects. In November 2017, Transport for London statistics revealed that there had been a 230 per cent increase in serious public order offences in the second quarter of the year, compared to the same period in 2016. The Tube is becoming an angrier place to be – and this is leading to an increase in violence.

Why is this happening? Is the fact we can get from A to B so incredibly easily leading to a sense of entitlement? Many Londoners, myself included, find themselves frustrated by the ‘slow’ tourists, people with suitcases, those who decide to bring prams on the tube during rush hour. Our usual zip through the crowds to work in the mornings is slowed down by confused people reading signs, stopping in front of us, or simply walking too slowly.

In September 2017, new green platform markings appeared on the Victoria line platforms at King’s Cross, to show where the carriage doors would be.

Reports suggested that more experienced Tube commuters had been angered by the development: by showing everyone where it was best to stand, TfL had spoiled their competitive advantage.

Is this the mindset that leads to anger crimes? A hidden hierarchy, where the experienced Underground travellers spend our commutes dealing with those who slow us down and hinder our optimised journeys? Is it simply that this feeling of annoyance builds and builds – until, one day, someone suddenly cracks, picking someone up and tossing them to the ground?

Whatever the cause could be, it’s clear that a culture where people become so angry on transport networks that they can justify literally throwing someone out of their way is dangerous. And it leaves one wondering what kind of horrific crime would have to take place to make commuters realise it has to stop.


What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.