diamond geezer

 Saturday, December 31, 2011

Pass through all 270 stations on the London Underground network in less than 16½ hours and you might end up in the Guinness Book of Records. I say might, because Guinness are fairly draconian in demanding incontrovertible proof, and that's hard to provide. Plus you need to have a nerdlike devotion to timetables, the athleticism to run between various stations in the outer suburbs, and the good fortune to pick a day without delays and line suspensions. Too tough for me. I've been trying something easier.

I've been attempting to pass through all the stations on the London Underground network in one year. I started at Croxley, soon after midnight on January 1st, and by the time I reached home I'd already visited 22 stations. Good start. Things got a bit slower after that, because my daily commute didn't add much more and kept repeating. But, maybe unlike you, I'm the sort of person who travels all over town visiting places so that helped force the numbers up. A trip to the windmill ticked off Upminster, a walk in the forest dealt with Epping and a Heritage Day sorted Amersham. With two dozen termini to visit, the Annual Tube Challenge is not an achievement you'll earn by accident.

I won't bore you with the full details of where I've been, but some stations proved particularly resistant to my presence. I only got out to Watford last month, despite starting my 2011 trek at the station nextdoor. I never got to Aldgate until few weeks ago, because it's not a station you ever need to visit when you live out east. I somehow missed Lambeth North until I took a deliberate diversion recently to make sure I'd been. I haven't officially passed through Blackfriars because it's been closed all year, so I'm discounting that. And I still haven't made it to New Cross, but that's OK because the Overground isn't part of the Underground so doesn't form part on my annual to-do list.

Taking stock at Christmas I'd visited 258 of the possible 269 London Underground stations, with eleven still to go. Nine of these were far out west so, in the absence of anything else meaningful to do in this post-festive hiatus, that's where I went yesterday. To Chiswick Park on the District line, which I'd bypassed several times but never previously passed through. And then to the Heathrow end of the Piccadilly line. Walking the Capital Ring had taken me to Boston Manor but no further, so I needed to make an entirely gratuitous trip to the airport to make up the numbers. I headed out to Terminal 5, wandered around a bit, then came home via Terminal 4 on its awkward one-way loop. And, to avoid the entire trip being entirely pointless, I think I've got a post out of it...
London's free trains: The most expensive train journey in London is surely the Heathrow Express. It's £18 to travel from Paddington to Heathrow Airport, or £32 return - that's more than a pound a minute. The Milk-A-Tourist line has even more extortionate first class fares for businessmen with money to burn, should saving time be more important than losing fifty quid. But (and I suspect this is not well known) the far end of their non-Oyster network has infinitely more reasonable fares. Travel one stop beyond Heathrow Central, to either Terminal 4 or Terminal 5, and your journey is totally free. And what a peculiar journey it is.

I started at Terminal 5, amongst the international tourists and the Brits returning from Christmas hols. HEX tickets are sold on the Arrivals floor, then you make your way down into the catacombs by escalator or (more probably) lift. There are no ticket barriers, nor any obvious staff, just a London-bound train waiting in a deep glass chasm. No really, you can climb aboard, so long as you only travel one stop. Big comfy seats, lots of luggage space... this is better than first class on most normal railway lines. But there is a downside, you get to watch Heathrow Express TV while you travel. A stewardess-like lady welcomes you aboard, invites you to check the safety instructions and that's half the journey gone. One mile, beneath the runways, for nothing.

At Heathrow Central it's important to get off. Stay on to Paddington and it'd cost £18, but here again there are no ticket barriers, just open access to Terminals 1 and 3. The Express/Connect station is a gloomy place, essentially two long train tunnels with a pedestrian tunnel inbetween. Imagine a dystopian future where we all live underground in tedious grey tubes, it's like that, this bleak subterranean bunker. It's only when you've experienced a station built by a private company that you realise how architecturally excellent most TfL architecture is.

For transfer to Terminal 4, there's a single-stop shuttle. This runs every fifteen minutes like the trains on the mainline, except these carriages aren't quite so luxurious. Expect a few suitcases here and there, but you should have absolutely no problem getting a seat, and at least there's no TV to be forced to watch. Four minutes later, the destination is a platform in a tunnel just as gloomy as before, plus a disappointingly bland walk to the lifts that'll raise you to departures. What with Terminal 4 itself being more functional than gorgeous, visitors to Britain aren't seeing the loveliest side of our nation when they arrive. But should you ever have the need to travel from Terminal 5 to Terminal 4, or partway inbetween, rest assured there's a comfy seat waiting for you and nobody'll ever ask to see a ticket.
So, I have two stations left. One is Mill Hill East, because there's almost never a good reason to visit Mill Hill East. And the other is Bayswater, which has been closed all week but is at last open today, so I do have a hope of finally getting there. 364 days, six hours and twenty-five minutes, and counting.

Bayswater: 11:40am
Mill Hill East: 2:19pm
entire network: 364 days, 13 hours, 44 minutes

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