Tubewatch (44)The Circle line goes east
I didn't believe it at first. According to the TfL website, the Circle line serves Bow Road. Surely it couldn't. The Circle line goes round in midtown loops, and also heads west to Hammersmith. But no way did it stretch east, no way did it pass through my local station. Except actually it does, twice a day, very very early in the morning. I had to take a ride.
Strange things happen on the Underground before six in the morning. Trains have to make their way from the depot to where they're needed, which for the Circle line means sending two trains into town from Barking. And so I set my alarm clock two hours earlier than usual to rendezvous with one of these secret services. Dawn was distant, the pavements were quiet, and Bow Road's ticket hall reeked from the smell of freshly applied paint. I wasn't alone on the platform, there were four of us and a bike. When the first westbound District line train arrived it was already half full, but I was waiting for the next train, heralded as "Not in Service". And in it rumbled, duly labelled "Circle line to Edgware Road" on the front, proving the rumours true. I wondered whether the train would stop, then I wondered whether the doors would open, and then I took my seat. Circle line from Bow Road, achievement unlocked.
At Mile End, Stepney Green and Whitechapel, the Next Train Indicator again said "Not in Service". This could have been a deliberate deception, but more likely the ancient signalling couldn't cope with our unusual destination. Mis-labelling didn't stop people boarding, although my companions in the carriage were few and far between. One in earmuffs, one clutching a ribbed cup of coffee, another already reading a copy of this morning's Metro. The time was not yet six o'clock, but the City's bankers and cleaning staff were already on their way.
For anyone awake enough to be listening, an announcement at Aldgate East revealed our train's true nature. "Ladies and gentlemen this train now becomes a Circle line train via Tower Hill, Embankment and Victoria." That's not an unusual route for a District line train, but C Stock always turns right round the bend towards Liverpool Street instead. Not us. We headed along track no other Circle line service follows, and emerged as if by magic at Tower Hill. Nobody waiting on the station blinked. As far as they knew we'd arrived around the usual clockwise curve rather than heading straight from the depot. The unique part of our journey was over, and suddenly we were just a bog-standard Circle.
Fresh passengers boarded, still not many, each sitting silently and alone. That's a characteristic of these early morning trains, the lack of interaction, and all because nobody rides in groups or pairs. Someone's having crisps for breakfast. Someone's reading a copy of The Sun. A glum blonde sits inert with a floppy silver bag at her feet. Blackfriars is quiet, because barely any trains have yet arrived at the mainline station. Embankment is busier. St James's Park is completely deserted. If anyone fancies a seat there are dozens, in complete contrast to the rush hour crush that's still an hour or two away.
After Gloucester Road our train veers right. This brief Circle-only curve is the sole reason we're here - no other train could have reached it so early. A handful of passengers take advantage, nipping off at High Street Ken, a station I shouldn't be able to reach from Bow Road. Ditto Notting Hill Gate and Bayswater, both rare treats from my neck of the woods, but not necessarily worth waking up so early for. Numbers aboard are edging up, even a few long haul travellers with suitcases. The capital's office workers are starting to filter through - the over-keen, and the time-shifted. It may be stupid o'clock, but needs must.
Around half past six we finally reach Edgware Road, where almost all of those aboard cross the platform to catch the next clockwise service. But not our driver. He walks the length of the train and prepares to head back round the Circle, nowhere near Bow Road this time, but a proper loop round to Hammersmith. A couple of pigeons hop aboard and start pecking the floor clean of crumbs, just as the doors close and a very ordinary journey begins. And OK, so you might never ever get up quite this early, but when your train arrives in the morning, remember you never do know quite where it's been.