Field notes

London Night Tube a boon to commuters and economy

LONDON • It's 1.30am on Saturday morning. A bleary-eyed young man in a Scottish kilt stumbles into a quiet Vauxhall underground station in south London. He sways and struggles at the gates, unable to get his Oyster card out of his pocket. He finally manages to tap himself in and get past the barrier, moving unsteadily towards the escalator, where two cleaners have just mopped up a mess of vomit, courtesy of another intoxicated customer.

Drunken behaviour on London's metro was well within the expectations of public transport operator Transport for London (TfL) when it finally got its Night Tube service going a month ago.

The week before the launch, staff members emptied cans of vegetable soup in train cars for a full-dress rehearsal, to see how quickly the fake puke could be cleaned up.

Cleaners weren't the only ones in the practice run. Train drivers and British Transport Police officers also took part in a full overnight service - minus the passengers - after months of training.

There is a lot riding on London's Night Tube. The city, which ranked No. 1 in this year's Global Cities Index , is already years behind rivals New York City, Copenhagen and Berlin.


Passengers entering Oxford Circus underground train station in central London on Aug 19, when the 24-hour Night Tube service was launched. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

New York City's subway, opened in 1904, runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week and every day of the year.

London, by comparison, is starting small because, as mayor Sadiq Khan said: "We don't want a big bang with errors and mistakes."


London Mayor Sadiq Khan joining passengers on a northbound Victoria line train ride during the launch of the Night Tube. The Night Tube now operates on the Central and Victoria lines, and there are plans to expand the service. PHOTO: REUTERS

The city's underground train network, started in 1863 and popularly known as the Tube, now carries 4.8 million passengers a day on its 11 lines. The Night
Tube is operating first on two lines (Central and Victoria) and will extend to the Jubilee line next month and another two (Piccadilly and Northern) soon after.

There are plans to expand the service to parts of the Metropolitan, Circle, District and Hammersmith & City lines once upgrading works there are done. Part of the London Overground - a suburban rail network - could have night services by 2017 and the Docklands Light Railway by 2021.


Sleeping it off on an underground train in the early hours of Aug 20. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Unlike in New York City, the Night Tube runs only on Fridays and Saturdays at a frequency of 10 minutes. But that is good enough for Ms Amanda Raynor, a human resource assistant who was riding the Victoria line to Brixton at 1am after a party at a friend's home. She and four friends are heading to a club in the once-rough now-cool South London neighbourhood, glad that the Night Tube will take them home - or at least closer to home - when the night is over.

"No more night buses for me, or cutting my night short to get the last Tube home," said the 28-year-old, who would have had to spend an hour taking two night buses to get home to Finsbury Park in the north of London. With the Night Tube, she spends just 20 minutes on the train.

"I've been waiting for this day for a long time."

It might be modest beginnings, but getting the first night trains to roll out of the station took nearly three years from the time then mayor Boris Johnson unveiled a new Night Tube map in November 2013. There were worries about noise and disturbance created by the night runs, and about scheduling maintenance works that have to be carried out in the middle of the night.

The planned September 2015 launch came and went with the project mired in bitter, long-drawn labour disputes between trade unions and the network and strikes over pay and staffing matters.

After several start-stops, the service, which is expected to cost £24.6 million (S$44.5 million) a year to run, was finally given the green light to begin operations on Aug 19, much to the relief and joy of clubbers, shift workers and tourists who are to be the biggest beneficiaries of the new nocturnal service.

"I won't be able to afford a black cab if the Tube stops running at night, so this is very good for poor tourists like me," said student Pablo Vazquez, 23, who is visiting from Madrid in Spain, and was waiting with his girlfriend for a Central line train at Oxford Circus at 2am to take them back to their hotel in Holborn.

TfL says demand for night-time public transport has soared in recent years, with the number of passengers on Friday and Saturday nights up by 70 per cent since 2000. Growth in demand for night buses, which run seven days a week, has overtaken that for all other modes of transport in London - day-time buses, Tube and taxis - with usage rising 170 per cent since 2000. London has the most extensive night bus service in the world, carrying more than 42 million passengers a year.

Before the night service kicked in, around 560,000 people in the city of 8.6 million already used the Tube after 10pm on Fridays and Saturdays when trains run till past 1am. This number is expected to increase.

Night-time Uber driver Farid is upbeat despite the new competition.

"This is London. It's a big city. There will always be people who need to get somewhere," he said with a shrug. "What I'm getting more of now are pick-ups and drop-offs at train stations to connect to the Night Tube, instead of the entire trip in an Uber." To TfL's relief, the first weekend of the Night Tube went by without a glitch. Only one person - a 17-year-old boy - was arrested on the Victoria line platform at Oxford Circus at 2am on suspicion of carrying drugs and a blade.

"It got off to a great start with very little in the way of unexpected incidents, and, operationally, it is running as we intended from the outset," Ms Nancy Ryder, a senior press officer at TfL, told The Straits Times.

About 50,000 trips were made on the opening night of the service, with the mayor one of its first passengers. "You're making history," he told passengers on the first train leaving Brixton station at 12.34am.

The momentous event was not lost on advertising interns Liv Adda, 27, and Bry Walters, 23, who stuck spoof signs in carriages that looked suspiciously like TfL stickers but said: "Priority seat for people eating kebabs, have beer bellies or are less able to stand", "Poles may not support drunk acrobatics", and "Caution. Train may spin".

And businesses were quick to respond, with Britain's largest supermarket chain Tesco handing out free bottles of water and orange juice at hydration stations outside its stores from 3am to 7am on both Friday and Saturday nights.

It also began trialling 24-hour services at seven of its stores close to stations on the Night Tube lines.

Mr Anthony Knight, group sales and marketing manager of Maxwell's Restaurants Group which owns several bars, clubs and restaurants, said the company is pumping £1 million into its late-night operations after the Night Tube's launch.

Next month, it will open Tropicana Beach Club in Covent Garden, which will stay open until 2.30am and is now recruiting more than 100 full- and part-time staff.

"It has been a difficult time for nightclubs and late-night entertainment venues in recent years," said Mr Knight. But with a London mayor who "clearly understands and values the importance of a thriving late-night economy", he is confident that the city's nightlife will thrive.

The Night Tube will boost London's economy by £77 million a year, says TfL. It will also help generate more than 2,000 new permanent jobs, of which 500 will be for the operation of the service, such as part-time drivers, station staff, maintenance workers and British Transport Police officers.

A report last month by business advocacy group London First and consultancy EY estimates that London's 24-hour economy could be worth nearly £30 billion each year by 2030. It is now worth £26 billion, and supports 723,000, or one in eight, jobs. Indeed, Mr Khan has made it one of his missions as London mayor to develop the capital into a vibrant 24-hour city.

He is looking to appoint the country's first "night czar" who will create a roadmap for making London into a city that never sleeps.

Businesses aren't the only ones benefiting from the Night Tube. Landlords are gleefully upping their rents in areas with 24-hour transport service. According to property website SpareRoom, monthly rents around Loughton station served by the Central line have risen by nearly 25 per cent in the past two years. Rents in Walthamstow Central along the Victoria line have also gone up by 20 per cent to an average of £579 a month.

Perhaps the only Londoners who disapprove of the Night Tube are the resident mice at the stations. Scurrying around a near-empty platform in Brixton on Saturday morning, three rodents made at least one female passenger squirm, as she squeezed her boyfriend's arm in a mild panic attack.

Patrolling British Transport Police officers might not protect passengers from vermin, but at least they made riders feel safe with their highly visible presence.

"There are a lot of drunk people about, but the police are around so you do feel quite secure," said a sober Caroline Davis, 35, who was on her way home from Oxford Circus after her shift at a hotel ended.

"But maybe they can stop people from drinking at the stations," she said, pointing to three young men who were taking turns to guzzle hard liquor from a bottle, eyes bloodshot.

Alcohol consumption is banned on the Tube, but food and other beverages are allowed.

The city has invested an extra £3.4 million towards policing for the Night Tube, dispatching about 100 officers on the network - as many as those patrolling in the day.

If Victoria line is a bit quiet on Saturday morning, save for a group of revellers who get on at Brixton and turn their carriage into a party train by singing and dancing, it is a hive of activity at Oxford Circus station, which serves both Night Tube lines, at 2am.

Drowsy party-goers slump on the floor, waiting for the train. Others chomp on burgers out of McDonald's boxes.

As the Central line train pulls into the station, tired bodies pile in, thankful that the world's oldest underground train network is taking them home safely and surely in the wee hours of the morning.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 17, 2016, with the headline 'Night Tube a boon to commuters and economy '. Print Edition | Subscribe