diamond geezer

 Friday, May 09, 2014

Some time next year, alongside the extinction of all tube ticket offices, a 24 hour service on the Underground will begin. Trains will run all night on Fridays and Saturdays, by which technically I mean during the early hours of Saturday and Sunday mornings. Those trains will run only on certain lines, not others, and the new service will be phased in, it won't all kick in at once. And this is exciting for two reasons. Firstly, Londoners will be able to party at the weekend without having to labour on the nightbus home or stump up for a taxi. And secondly, there's going to have to be a new tube map.

Indeed there's a new tube map already. TfL unveiled the new night tube map when they announced the Night Tube last year, in all its stripped-back glory. And here it is.

Only five lines appear, three of these only in part, so the map is mostly white space. TfL have chosen to take the normal tube map and remove all the lines that aren't running, leaving everything else precisely where it normally is. They could have chosen to tweak the layout to make everything easier to follow, creating a simpler diagram like the Overground map. The Central line could run in a straight line through the centre of London rather than bending down to Bank, for example, and the Northern line really doesn't need that kink between Mornington Crescent and Camden Town. But TfL have chosen to maintain the pattern of the daytime tube because that's what we're all familiar with, and because it'll make adapting the map easier when new lines are added.

The high proportion of blank space shows up how tiny the normal tube map font is. If your eyesight's less than perfect it's bloody hard to read the names on the printed tube map, and the night tube map looks no different, despite there being plenty of room for enlargement. One reason for this might be the continued existence of the grey and white travel zones, in exactly the same layout as when all the other lines are present. That white bubble around Paddington isn't strictly necessary, for example, and Zones 7, 8 and 9 are entirely redundant. But zones are important on the night tube map because overnight fares will still be distance-related, and because you'll want to see just how many pounds you're saving compared to a minicab to the suburbs.

The night tube map contains a few more redundant structures, notably the interchange circles at stations that won't be interchanges at night. Piccadilly Circus doesn't need a circle on the map because the Bakerloo line's shut, nor Baker Street, nor South Kensington, nor Notting Hill Gate, nor Bank. I'd also question the need for the Network Rail symbol to appear at twenty of the stations. It appears wherever there's a rail connection, except most of these rail connections won't be operational between half twelve and five thirty in the morning, so the fact there are adjacent train platforms will be irrelevant. However at some mainline stations (like Waterloo) the last train departs after the last tube, so OK, there may be a point after all.

Airports are labelled, which makes sense because the chance to make an early morning dash to Heathrow will be welcomed by many. But Tramlink and Riverboat symbols have disappeared, because they don't run in the early hours. And of course the cablecar fails to appear at North Greenwich, this because it shuts down more than three hours before the last tube runs. With no DLR anywhere to be seen, the paucity of blue blobs shows that the night tube won't be especially wheelchair-friendly. But the River Thames has survived, mainly because TfL daren't risk the outcry that occurred last time they erased it, and because it reveals the three lines that'll strike out into the taxi-unfriendly south.

So anyway, my big question is this - how will the Night Tube map manifest itself at stations? Will there be a separate paper copy to pick up, a night map leaflet different to the ordinary tube map? Will the night tube service be shoehorned somehow onto the ordinary tube map, by cramming some additional symbols in somewhere? Or will TfL go entirely digital and expect you to download the map yourself, or view it on their website, rather than waste cash on printing millions of extra leaflets that drunkards will merely grab, manhandle and then discard?

I'm hoping, indeed praying, that nobody tries to embed the night tube service on the normal tube map. That's complicated enough already, so trying to shoehorn in yet more symbols (like a tiny crescent moon) would surely cause information overload. And anyway in this case it's the lines that are crucial, not the stations, which means a separate network map is the only route to clarity. There is a precedent, which is the Night Bus map, which is an entirely separate beast. Bus shelters on nightbus routes usually feature a normal bus map and then a second poster showing just what runs at night. Can we expect similar in stations, with a normal map displayed in one frame and the night tube in another?

It is of course possible that the night tube map TfL have already unveiled was merely a placeholder, a rapidly cobbled-together design to make London go "Woo!". In which case their final finely-honed design is yet to come, however it might look and however it might be distributed. And this is exciting for two reasons. Firstly, Londoners will be able to party at the weekend without having to labour on the nightbus home or stump up for a taxi. And secondly, there's going to have to be a new tube map.

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