CIRCLE: Exclusively Circle
The Circle line shares most of its track with other lines. From Hammersmith to Liverpool Street it's no different to the Hammersmith & City line. From Tower Hill to Gloucester Road it's essentially the District line. And from High Street Kensington to Edgware Road it's basically the District line again. But there are three points where the Circle line breaks out and enjoys a solo identity, three places with platforms for the Circle line and no other service. So that's where I've been.
ALDGATE: (platforms 1 and 4)
Aldgate is the Circle line's proper special station, the only place the Hammersmith & City and District lines fail to touch... although they scrape close by. From the southern end of Aldgate's platforms you can watch District trains go by, rather close, and from the northern end of platform 1 the occasional H&C, rather close. Platform 1 is one of Aldgate's pair of Circle line platforms, the other being 4 on the far side, with two Metropolitan line platforms tucked up inbetween. I like it down here, at the bottom of the forking central staircase beneath the station's vast vaulted roof. A couple of heritage platform signs remain, with proper old font and feathered arrows, and they're lovely. Bulging pillars support the ceiling, and proper Victorian brickwork rises on either side. It could almost be the 1880s down here, apart from the gleaming Chesham-bound carriages humming alongside.
But sorry, did you want to know when the next Circle line train is due? There is a Next Train Indicator on platform 1 but it doesn't change, it just says "Southbound trains; Circle line" all the time, even when one is pulling into the platform. Either the signalling systems here are dire or TfL have insufficient money, or probably both. Expect an improvement with the sub-surface signalling upgrade due in 2018, perhaps, or perhaps maybe later. If you want to anticipate the next Circle line train, whicht could be up to 10 minutes away, you have to stand in precisely the right place at the bottom of the steps and raise your eyes. That's because the only functioning Next Train Indicator at Aldgate station is on the landing halfway up (even the modern square NTIs in the ticket hall are permanently blank). This old and dotty display reveals the next destination from each platform and an actual time until departure, or perhaps even "READY" if you need to dash down really fast. At least you'll have seen this board on your way in, as you descend the grand staircase and enter this Escherdrawing of a station. The Circle's realm awaits.
GLOUCESTER ROAD: (platform 2)
Here at Gloucester Road, in one direction only, the Circle line branches out on its own. Head anti-clockwise and you'll roll in on platform 3, which is shared with the District so is almost ordinary. But head clockwise and you'll filter off before entering the station and arrive on exclusive platform 2. Two and three form an island together, should you ever want to change between them, which is probably unlikely. Meanwhile switching between one and two (the westbound shuffle) involves an up and over, which is more fun at the far end where the footbridge is more properly an emergency exit. I'd say passenger clientèle at Gloucester Road is more upmarket than might be found at Aldgate or Edgware Road - better dressed, more finely groomed - because this end of Kensington is a top part of town. It's even properly indoors here, actually underground, near enough.
You might expect the Next Train Indicators here to be quite good, but you'd be wrong. They're better than at today's other two stations because they do actually work, although you only get a minute's advance warning, so for roughly 90% of the time they're 'blank'. Either the signallingsystems here are dire or TfL have insufficient money, or probably both. Expect an improvement with the sub-surface signalling upgrade due in 2018, perhaps, or perhaps maybe later. But it's no pain waiting here thanks to one of the finest outposts of Art On The Underground. The arches on what was once platform 4 are regularly filled in with graphic wonders, in a long sequence stretching the length of the station. Sometimes that's a singleartist'soeuvre, but currently it's a multiplicity of works celebrating the Underground's 150th anniversary. So long as there isn't an annoying train heading east, you'll get a great view.
EDGWARE ROAD: (platform 2)
It's now been four years since the Circle line was rejigged to terminate at Edgware Road. A lot of regular users cursed when that happened, especially those who used to make continuous journeys through the station. Since 2009 they have to get out and change, which isn't always straightforward, and usually slows everything down. On the brighter side, de-looping the Circle has helped to make the service more resilient, with fewer annoying long gaps between trains. And it's created a platform at Edgware Road that's (essentially) used only by Circle line trains. Platform 2 used to be for terminating Districts and various through services, but now it's where the Circles stop, and has its own yellow sign to celebrate. If you arrive clockwise into Platform 2 you're one of the lucky ones, because it's easy to continue your eastbound journey by stepping across to platform 1, where you might catch another Circle line train going somewhere useful. It's the folk who arrive via the District line who suffer, requiring an up and over hike from platform 3 at this extremely non-step-free station.
Edgware Road's not the loveliest place to wait, especially if you're trying to work out when it's time to leave. The Next Train indicators are rubbish, seriously rubbish, and also ancient, which is probably why. Weak red LEDs display the lines served but never the time to departure, with finer detail provided by closed circuit TV screens relaying a picture of the platform indicator in the ticket hall. Either the signalling systems here are dire or TfL have insufficient money, or probably both. Expect an improvement with the sub-surface signalling upgrade due in 2018, perhaps, or perhaps maybe later. In the meantime watch out for the Circle line drivers swapping over in their cabs because Edgware Road is a key duty changeover point. And platform 2 is rarely busy, as the next yellow train sits waiting (and waiting) for the time to depart. Hammersmith is over an hour away, or barely quarter of an hour if you head over to platform 4.