1980s >> 1980 >> no-915-november-1980

Taking the tube

Public debate concerning the ills of London’s transport network has been aroused by the recent publication of a PA Management Consultant’s report condemning as inefficient the eleven-man London Transport Executive, appointed by the Greater London Council. Discontent with the service has been heightened by the Holborn train crash of July 9, in which twenty people were hurt. But what is the real nature of the underground train service on which 594 million journeys were made during 1979?


In the areas of concentrated industry which the present economic system creates, it is necessary to have a similarly concentrated, fast and cheap method of transporting workers to and from the offices, factories, plants and warehouses with a minimum of fuss.


In 1863 the Metropolitan Line was opened, running from Paddington to Farringdon Street. The District Line opened five years later. Both lines at first had steam trains and, despite occasional surface sections and ventilation gratings, the smoke made travelling very uncomfortable indeed. Electrification of both of these lines, later considerably extended and interconnected, was completed in 1905. Underground railways, which extend the process of concentration of work in specific areas below the ground itself, swiftly followed in Glasgow, New York, Paris and Moscow, and are now to be found in most of the world’s centres of capital accumulation.


The London Underground now consists of some ten lines. Under an Act of 1933 the entire network, together with the trams, buses and trolley-buses, was transferred to the ownership of the London Passenger Transport Board. In 1948 this became known as the London Transport Executive, a group of the nationalised British Railways. In 1979, the GLC invested £110.7 million in London Transport, over which it now has full control. Although fares have increased by 58 per cent over the last four years, London Transport has been running at a loss of several million each year.


But any profit made by such a concern would be less significant than the service it does capitalism in general, for London Transport is held responsible by London’s employers for transporting the bulk of their workers to and from work each day. This is the case for transport services of this kind to be nationalised; the state which runs them is the collective expression of the interests of the employing class. This transportation must be carried out under conditions suited to those who are on their way to donate their daily dose of surplus, unpaid labour to the capitalist class. Neither comfort nor dignity is important.


On entering the tube you are overwhelmed by the choking, stuffy atmosphere created by many people hurrying in all directions in a confined, subterranean space. Every morning between 7 and 10, 458,000 people enter central London on the Underground and at Piccadilly Circus one line is as far as 102 feet below ground level. Bleary-eyed, dazed and tense, the working class jostle each other as they file down the escalators, sweating before the working day has even begun. The advertising process begins as blinking beings suck up the images of corseted crotches; blazoned, buxom breasts and bubbling beverages. Futile feminist stickers proclaim that “This Degrades Women”. Certainly, sticking up reformist slogans on the walls does degrade the women who do it, but as for the adverts, capitalism will inevitably degrade anything and plunder all human dignity in the quest for profit.


Down below, the advertising hoardings are full size,, and the bodies are moving even more quickly. The uniform tunnels serve to accentuate the drab existence of those who tread, with symbolic import, along them. Having handed some money to a uniformed fellow worker who passes it to his or her state capitalist employer, you wait as the train approaches, fuller than a cattle-truck on market day. The workers, anxious to go and offer their energies to the enterprises which employ them, try to squeeze into the carriages, cheek to check with one another. Station guards throw along the platforms the authority invested in a grimy grey, shapeless suit with a little metal badge, as they order the passengers to “Get right down into the car”. The electric doors close and by breathing in and standing on tiptoes the human commodities manage to fit into the compartment. At each stop, London Transport’s pampered passengers fight through the sweaty crush to get to the doors; missing their stop means being late for work and risking trouble from the boss. Finally the passengers are spewed on to the streets. Blinking at the daylight we march to clock in for our day’s service to our Users.


Every aspect of these journeys is humiliating. The frenzied hurry of the poorly constructed train along the poorly constructed and maintained lines sometimes produces a violent jolting effect, reminding the passengers which social class they were born into as they are thrown together in the carriages. Harshly glaring white neon strips illuminate grotesquely grimacing advertisements advising what can be done with everything from unwanted hair to unwanted pregnancies. Unwanted social systems can only be removed by political action, though, and if these travellers paid half as much attention to the way in which they live and die as they do to the toupees and brassieres, such action would not be much delayed. In the “Smokers” carriages, surrounded by fag-ends, people peer out from behind the protection of newspapers, staring into space as they suck on cigarettes. In “No-smoking” carriages, the air is clearer but not the minds.


Underground railways typify the needs of capitalism. They crystallise the requirements of a system of concentrated industry run by men and women who do not own it and are therefore not able to determine the conditions in which they work or travel to work. They also amply demonstrate the stupidity of proposing nationalisation as a solution to the problems produced by the profit system. Try to pass a barrier without a ticket and the LT worker will soon show you in whose interests the transport system is run. By contrast, common ownership of the means of transportation will allow free and unlimited access to it, as with all other goods and services produced by society. In socialism, transport systems will for the first time be designed according to the wishes and needs of people using the transport, not of the people using the passengers.


Clifford Slapper