Why I prefer the London Tube to MRT

By Luke Lu

I know what I’m about to say may sound controversial, and utterly absurd to some. Surely the London underground can’t be better than Singapore’s own Mass Rapid Transit system?

Well, I’m not about to embark on some academic spiel comparing the technicalities of both rail networks and emerge with conclusive scientific data proving my view is right. I’m just saying it’s my personal preference, that given a choice, I actually like the Tube better.

Yes, it is a fact that the Tube has stuck around since the 19th century, and is really a museum piece compared to our spanking new Circle Line. The Victoria Line which I take from Vauxhall, near where I lived, is perpetually closed on weekends, no thanks to efforts to upgrade its ageing network.

There are occasional delays due to ‘signal faults’ or the train in front not moving forward, or power failures, and once, I had the privilege of having to bypass my scheduled stop at Kennington because the station was flooded from a burst pipe. Walking home the length of a tube stop from the next station at Oval wasn’t much fun.

You’d also get the odd speech from one of the hundreds who make London’s underground network their home, when they would appeal to the charity of fellow passengers for ‘loose change’. I always thought that they appeared more eloquent (though grimier) than many local politicians I’ve heard.

In spite of all these, there are some things that never fail to endear. The train driver is often the one making announcements at every stop, not an automated Juanita Melson. I get tickled by the random joke cracked over the PA system or am brightened on a glum morning with a cheery voice wishing me a jolly good day.

And I like it because I know there’s a human behind the wheel (or whatever they use to drive the train since no steering is required), who is helping make my trip ever more tolerable and at times enjoyable. When things go wrong on the Tube, it is the driver who tells us instantly what to expect, where to go. I met one who was as irritable as us the passengers when he apologetically told us we had to disembark and take an alternative route.

This tells me he’s on my side, and not hiding behind anonymity, hoping we don’t blame him for the delay. For the Circle Line and NEL, having no human driver is great, in the way that the lines will never stall due to human error. But it also means we lack that bit of humanity and warmth in our journeys.

Have you ever been greeted the moment you entered a train station? I have. In fact, it happened everyday when I took the Victoria Line from Vauxhall. I have no idea what his job scope entails, but there was always an employee of London Underground, a man, just standing by the gates wishing us good morning with a smile.

It’s probably his job as someone who handles general enquiries or to help passengers who need directions. But I’m pretty sure they don’t pay him to smile.

And then there was the time I was rushing to take the last train after a late party at a friend’s place. An underground employee by Leytonstone’s station entrance saw me running in and immediately shouted to ask where I was heading.

“Kennington!” I shouted back without breaking stride.

“Keep running, I’ll hold the train!”

So I did. And the last train was there waiting for me as I reached the platform. I got on. I only wished I could thank the man who held the train for me.

Of course, this is not to say that no local train driver or MRT employee has ever done those kind deeds I experienced in London. I’m sure some do so on their own initiative. But I’ve taken the MRT almost every other day since the 1990s. I’ve only lived in London for 10 months. And I tell you there is a marked difference in experience. Don’t take my word for it. You have to take the Tube for yourself, and wait for it to break down, which shouldn’t be too long.

Maybe it is in us Singaporeans to be less spontaneous and less helpful. Perhaps it isn’t in our culture to speak up. It could be an SMRT policy for drivers not to deal directly with passengers. Whatever new SOPs or procedures conjured up by the recent Committee of Inquiry, these can never be a substitute for the human touch when taking the train.

Luke Lu lived in central London for 10 months in 2010/11 as a MA student in linguistics. He still takes the MRT every other day because he has no choice.