diamond geezer

 Saturday, August 20, 2016

The world record for visiting all 270 stations on the London Underground is 15 hours, 45 minutes and 38 seconds. But as yet there's no official record for the fastest time to visit every station on the Night Tube, because the system's only been up and running since this morning, so I'd like to claim the crown. I've been out overnight travelling the entire network, from Ealing Broadway to Hainault via Walthamstow and Brixton. And the time the rest of you have to beat is 3 hours, 24 minutes and 7 seconds. Here's how.

Ealing Broadway
It's just after midnight on Saturday 20th August 2016, and what little nightlife exists on Ealing Broadway is about to be transformed. No longer need drinkers at The Shanakee rush to finish their last beer, nor clubbers at the Red Room leave before the last dance, not if they're heading back into the centre of town. The last tube used to leave at two minutes past midnight, but now the service runs all night and a new dawn of weekend freedom can begin. At the station the ticket gates are wide open, which may be a sign of things to come, or may simply be because this is a National Rail hub (last train to Paddington, five to two). While hundreds flood out through the barriers and a line of taxis awaits, only a trickle follows me down to the platforms for departure. The District line train alongside is already Not In Service, as we brave few board the inaugural Night Tube service, and my stopwatch clicks into action.

Ealing Broadway → Oxford Circus [24 minutes]
Last Saturday this Central line train would have wound up a few stops down the line at White City, but tonight it's going all the way to Hainault via Newbury Park. I'm in a clean carriage, stripped of leftover Standards, with only one other passenger deeply absorbed in her phone. At North Acton three beer-soaked groups board, one with Polish lager in hand, another yawning loudly, and the most sozzled opening the end door repeatedly before slumping into a seat. By Notting Hill Gate there are twenty of us, several openly flouting the byelaw on drinking alcohol, but the atmosphere remains jolly and convivial. The vibe is very much "heading home" or "party on" rather than "night shift", and beyond Marble Arch it's standing room only.

Oxford Circus [stopwatch 0h24m]
Last week the platforms here would have been empty, the final train of the evening having departed, but now they're as busy as a normal late evening with a bustle of travellers waiting to board. My first interchange of the night is a long one but goes smoothly, because when trains run this far apart there's generally time to spare. It's here that I spot my first extra police officers, one in the subways and one wandering the Victoria line platform, which is again fairly congested.

Oxford Circus → Walthamstow Central [19 minutes]
Trains are still eight minutes apart, not ten, as the timetable slips over the cusp of additional Night Tube provision. Our northbound service is helping to evacuate the West End, with some carriages rammed, but mine thankfully quite civilised. Passengers are more muted than on the Central, and no alcohol is evident, probably because this bunch are mostly heading home. A dreadlocked man in a pinstripe suit devours a lemon before alighting with a trolley. Meanwhile the lady beside me types "Today is first night train service and I'm in it" into her phone, before adding a smiley and seven unnecessary emoji, and changing the text colour to pink. Passengers thin out gradually from Kings Cross onwards, while a family fresh from Heathrow boards at Finsbury Park having successfully avoided the taxi option. In this carriage ten of us stay on to the end - across the entire train considerably more.

Walthamstow Central [stopwatch 0h51m]
I needn't have got off. Only one platform is in use and our train will be going almost straight back again. A TV crew are on the platform, interviewing the (surprisingly) young driver as he walks back down the train. A group of Underground staff in pink t-shirts and orange hi-vis follow on behind - they've presumably already been spoken to - then step aboard and hold court in the adjacent carriage.

Walthamstow Central → Brixton [29 minutes]
On the outward journey the train's on-board messaging system was very much in daytime mode ("change here for...", even when that line was no longer running). But on the inbound journey something has clearly flipped, as the system starts to reel off a lengthy but incomplete list of overnight closures. "The Northern line is suspended. The Bakerloo line is suspended. The Jubilee line is suspended. The Metropolitan line is part-suspended. National Rail lines from Vauxhall are suspended." Which particular lines get mentioned isn't consistent, and their number gradually increases the closer to zone 1 we get, as if the disembodied voice is going slowly mad. This ever-changing litany is reeled off twice at every station, which proves a highly infuriating quirk and is presumably not what the train's programmers originally intended. Oxford Circus isn't quite so busy by the time I return, this time picking up the returning south London posse as we pass through. Passengers are still politeness personified, and either chatting or subdued, or in one case lost in a good book. At Stockwell plastic tapes block off the Northern line platforms, lest anyone be tempted to wait, and at Brixton two people have to be nudged awake.

Brixton [stopwatch 1h25m]
It's especially hectic here, the flood strongest from the carriages by the Way Out, where regular travellers know to sit. A team of litter pickers dash in to pick up bottles, papers and KFC cartons, while one reveller slouches on a bench before being carried off semi-comatose by his friends. And again all I needed to do was stay on the train, because once the driver's changed ends we'll be going straight back.

Brixton → Oxford Circus [11 minutes]
"I wish there was a kebab right here," jokes one lad to a temporary friend he's never met before, as our Victoria line train heads back beneath the river. A decent amount of demand is evident even now, which is coming up to two o'clock in the morning, as refugees from nightbuses and Ubers enjoy the opportunity for a swift ride. Yawns are common, stoic stares somewhat more so, and the average age of those aboard is somewhere in the mid-twenties.

Oxford Circus [stopwatch 1h44m]
Because of a quirk in the Night Tube's timetables, all the trains at Oxford Circus pass through "on the 9s", so there's no hope of dashing through the subway in time to make a fast connection. I have a ten minute wait, although I'm still bang on schedule, a lucky break which doesn't normally happen on these Tube Challenge attempts. A small mouse scuttles by before the platform fills, the human contingent eventually over a hundred strong. A girl in a pink furry tiara announces that BBC Three are filming upstairs, and hopes very much she won't appear.

Oxford Circus → Loughton [38 minutes]
One eastern arm to go, but it's the tricky one with a split at the end, so I'm nowhere near finished yet. Every seat in the carriage is taken, and a TfL manager (with name badge, suit and shiny shoes) is hanging by the door with radiophone in hand. We are the inaugural guinea pigs to be observed, and fed back on, although as yet with no high jinks to report. "How's it going?" he asks the platform staff at Bank, and "So far so good" is the reply. By Bethnal Green rather more passengers are alighting than boarding, a pattern which accelerates as we head east. At Stratford the Night Manager kindly rouses a sleeping passenger who doesn't want to get off yet, then alights to continue his inspection elsewhere. All the Burger King and McDonalds bags filled in the West End are long exhausted, as we divert off up the line to Loughton, still with dozens aboard the train. Even at Woodford a number of fresh passengers board, escapees from some social event somewhere, with only a couple of stations to go as we cross the border into Essex.

Loughton [stopwatch 2h34m]
Council cuts mean they turn off the street lights in Loughton at 1am, although thankfully those outside the station still appear to be working. A sizeable crowd departs down the double staircase before the train is thoroughly checked for sleepers and is driven away. The next southbound train is Not In Service, then Check Destination, then finally Ealing Broadway. As various doors open and announcements play, there is a sense that the driver is experimenting with the controls, but never fear, we depart right on time.

Loughton → Leytonstone [11 minutes]
This time there are barely a dozen of us on board, but that's not bad for three in the morning at the Night Tube's most far flung station. There were severe delays on this stretch of line earlier due to a signal failure, how typical is that, but I've been fortunate enough to arrive after they've been cleared up. We rattle south through the darkness, returning into London, and picking up a dapper retired gent who travels only one stop.

Leytonstone [stopwatch 2h59m]
The train I've just left is unexpectedly held in the platform for seven minutes while a cleaner is fetched, to mop up something that presumably isn't vegetable soup. Thankfully the delay doesn't affect my journey as I cross to the northbound for my final train, past a policeman watching over the gateline and a steady stream of mouthy clubbers. These excitable teens are highly peeved to face a near-20 minute wait, the longest interval on the Night Tube, but my last train is arriving ten minutes sooner (and means I'll avoid travelling with them, hurrah).

Leytonstone → Hainault [15 minutes]
There's nearly 100 of us aboard this Central line train, I'd say, some excitedly making friends and others nodding off. My final seven stations lie ahead around the Hainault loop, which help to make Redbridge the very best served Night Tube borough. It seems insane that lowly Fairlop gets a 24 hour service, but that's what happens when the depot's just beyond, and the stop is not entirely wasted. I note that nobody's getting onto the train now, only off, entirely as suburban nightlife would suggest. And as Hainault approaches I'm checking my watch for the record breaking time, still very much on schedule, the entire journey having gone as planned.

Hainault [stopwatch 3h24m]
Guinness's pernickety rules don't allow a single challenger with incomplete evidence to claim the world record, so my time of 3 hours, 24 minutes and 7 seconds won't be officially ratified. It's also true that the Night Tube network is as yet incomplete, so all I've done is visit every station on the first two lines, which isn't anywhere near the final tally. But when all five lines are running it'll be totally impossible to cover the entire Night Tube in one night, so I've grabbed the record while someone can, and now it's mine. At least until tomorrow, that is, should any of you want to take me on.

I must conclude by saying it's been an impressive opening night. Not flawless, but smooth and good-natured throughout, and with passenger numbers evidently justifying the decision to launch. At no time did I feel at risk or threatened by another traveller, and everyone from cleaning staff to drivers appeared well-trained and professional. You probably slept through it all, indeed it's likely you'll have little or no need for the service as it rolls on, week in week out. But for those who work or play in the early hours, and happen to live in the right part of town, the Night Tube will make a genuine and positive difference. And that's a matter of record.

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