A strange thing has happened at Bow Road station this month.
There are no longer any tube maps on the platforms.
And it's by no means the only station where that's happened.
You might have seen these heritage panels popping up at stations all across the underground network.
They're rather nice. They cover subjects such as trains, architecture and signalling, and come with a selection of old photos. On the District line, the boards focus on the line's 150th anniversary this year. I've seen several people stop and read the panels with interest. But they all used to be tube maps.
Here's what they used to look like.
These weren't paper posters behind glass, they were vinyl tube maps stuck to a frame. And vinyl maps cost more to produce than paper maps, so it seems TfL have decided not to produce them any more. They have had to produce replacement heritage panels on vinyl this year, which will have cost, but now they'll save money every time a new tube map is released.
To be clear, this isn't every tube map on every platform, just the maps in special frames.
One map on every platform is actually a secret sign which opens up to read "Station Closed 5MPH", and is unlocked as necessary to tell drivers not to stop. When the station's open the sign is locked shut, so all that passengers see is the map stuck on the front... except there's now a heritage panel on the front instead. Other maps along the platform, in ordinary frames, are not affected.
At Bow Road, what's happened is this.
Previously there were two maps on each platform - a tube map, and a tube/rail map showing the wider network. The tube map was stuck to the Station Closed sign, and the tube/rail map was in an ordinary frame. But now the tube map has been replaced by a heritage vinyl and only the tube/rail map survives.
I've checked, and the tube/rail map is the very latest version with dotted lines. That means someone must have come along and deliberately updated one map while covering over the other. The more complicated map remains, so travellers aren't completely lost, but I'd argue that the simpler map showing TfL services is more appropriate and should be displayed instead.
I wondered how widespread tubemaplessness is, so I went exploring to find out. I visited every station on the District line between East Ham and Embankment, every station on the Charing Cross branch of the Northern line between Waterloo and Mornington Crescent and every station on the Central line between Oxford Circus and Mile End. It's a complicated mess, I tell you.
DISTRICT: East Ham to Embankment (17 stations)
The first thing I noticed is that not every station suddenly has blue heritage panels.
Blue heritage panels: East Ham, Plaistow, West Ham, Bromley-by-Bow, Bow Road, Stepney Green, Whitechapel, Mansion House, Temple, Embankment No blue heritage panels: Upton Park, Mile End, Aldgate East, Tower Hill, Monument, Cannon Street, Blackfriars
Every station platform has a Station Closed sign, but it turns out there are two different types and only one type has been converted. One type has a frame on the front you can put a paper map in, so it still has a paper map in it. Here's one at Tower Hill.
This type often has a green stripe on the metal down one side. I also found one at Blackfriars, so I think this is the newer of the two styles. But the other, older type doesn't have a frame on the front, so its tube map always had to be stuck on. It's this older type whose maps have been covered up, and they're located seemingly randomly across the network.
A lot of tube platforms used to have more than one tube map along their length, so covering over one of them hasn't created a problem. East Ham, West Ham, Mansion House, Temple and Embankment are examples of these. But some other station platforms only ever had one map, so covering that over wasn't a good move. Here are the District line stations with issues...
Plaistow: The eastbound platform only had one tube map, but no longer has any maps at all. Bromley-by-Bow: The eastbound platform only had one tube map, but no longer has any maps at all. Bow Road: Both platforms had a tube map and a tube/rail map, but now only have a tube/rail map. Stepney Green: The eastbound platform only had one tube map, but no longer has any maps at all. Whitechapel: Both platforms had a tube map and a tube/rail map, but now only have a tube/rail map.
NORTHERN: Waterloo to Mornington Crescent (9 stations)
Again, a right mixture.
Blue heritage panels: Waterloo, Embankment, Goodge Street, Warren Street, Euston, Mornington Crescent No blue heritage panels: Charing Cross, Leicester Square, Tottenham Court Road
And again there are several platforms which previously only had one tube map so now have none.
Waterloo: The southbound platform has a tube/rail map and a Night tube map, but no longer a tube map. Embankment: The northbound platform only had one tube map, but no longer has any maps at all. Warren Street: Both platforms had a tube map and a tube/rail map, but now only have a tube/rail map. Mornington Crescent: The southbound platform only had one tube map, but no longer has any maps at all.
It's the platforms which only ever had one map on display that surprise me most. Someone made a high level cost-cutting decision to cover over every vinyl tube map without considering it'd leave some platforms with no tube map at all. The northbound platform at Embankment is a prime example - part of a busy interchange, but no longer offering any means for passengers to follow their journey ahead.
I also checked the Victoria line platforms at Warren Street, and these were the same as the Northern. Every platform at Warren Street originally had a tube map and a tube/rail map, which was fine, but now only has a tube/rail map. What were they thinking? I'd suggest they weren't thinking at all.
CENTRAL: Oxford Circus to Mile End (9 stations)
Here we go again.
Blue heritage panels: Holborn, Liverpool Street, Bethnal Green No blue heritage panels: Oxford Circus, Tottenham Court Road, St Paul's, Mile End Blue heritage panels on one platform only: Chancery Lane, Bank
That's three stations with the old style Station Closed signs, with maps covered over, and four stations with the new style Station Closed signs, so no change. At the other two stations it's a mixed picture. Here are the problem five.
Holborn: Both platforms had a tube map and a Night tube map, but now only have a Night tube map. Chancery Lane: The eastbound platform had a tube map and a tube/rail map, but now only has a tube/rail map. Bank: The westbound platform has a tube/rail map and a Night tube map, but no longer a tube map. Liverpool Street: The eastbound platform has two Night tube maps, but no longer a tube map. Bethnal Green: Both platforms had a tube map and a tube/rail map, but now only have a tube/rail map.
Holborn is bad. By removing all the tube maps from the Central line platforms, passengers can now only check a patently suboptimal Night tube map. Liverpool Street is absurd. The eastbound platform now only has two Night tube maps, one at each end, but nobody thought to replace either of them with a tube map instead.
And Chancery Lane is awkward, because the vinyl tube map on the westbound platform is still in place. At all the other stations I visited every vinyl tube map had been covered over, but the Overnight Heritage Panel Update Squad somehow missed the westbound platform at Chancery Lane. That's how I managed to show you a photo of a vinyl tube map at the start of this post. If it is ultimately covered over, will the only map on the platform still be the existing tube/rail map, or will someone twig that a replacement tube map might be more useful instead?
I visited 72 platforms altogether, of which 22 no longer display a tube map and five no longer display any maps at all.
If you're the "Ah but..." type you may already have starting writing in the comments box "Ah but pocket maps are available in stations". Yes they are, but by the time you reach the platform they're on the other side of the ticket barrier so you're not going to go back and get one. You might also be typing "Ah but everybody has an app on their phone these days", except that not everybody does, and looking at a big map on a wall is hugely easier than scrolling round a small one on your phone.
Of course TfL's map-covering decision comes down to a lack of money, and is another example of budget-squeezed penny-pinching. Vinyl maps cost more to produce than poster maps, so vinyl maps are no more. Adding a replacement frame further down the platform would cost money too. And nobody intends to replace the old Station Closed signs with the newer model because their primary purpose is to slow trains, not to provide a frame for maps. But the underlying problem isn't money, it's is a failure to spot that covering over hundreds of tube maps might have consequences on certain platforms - a lack of foresight coupled with zero mitigation.
I'm surprised that vinyl tube maps which were perfectly usable two weeks ago have suddenly been deemed unfit for purpose and lost from sight. I'm bemused that these maps have been covered over on platforms where no alternative map exists. And I'm astonished that nobody thought to rationalise the maps displayed in other frames where appropriate, which has resulted in numerous platforms no longer displaying a tube map at all. Best grab one from the ticket hall, just in case.
Update from TfL's Senior Press Officer: "We have noticed with interest your blogpost this morning about the new heritage boards at stations. Just so you are aware - we are working to put Tube maps up at any platforms that no longer have one due to the new heritage boards. Additional poster frames are also planned to be installed at stations in the coming weeks. And just for the avoidance of doubt - this was all planned prior to your blogpost this morning."
And he adds: "I think it was just due to scheduling (we had the vinyls ready but we're still waiting for the replacement tube maps to be printed and distributed)."
Having "the vinyls ready" doesn't excuse using them prematurely, but at least some mitigation is on its way. If you do spot any new tube maps on the affected platforms at Plaistow, Bromley-by-Bow, Bow Road, Stepney Green, Whitechapel, Waterloo, Embankment, Warren Street, Mornington Crescent, Holborn, Chancery Lane, Bank, Liverpool Street or Bethnal Green, please pop back to this post and let us know.