One of the reasons I haven't been on the tube recently - one of several - is that I don't know how busy it is.
I've seen a lot of trains going by while I've been out walking, above ground on the District line and DLR, and they don't look too crowded. But I have no clear view of what the situation's like in central London, other than vague anecdotal evidence, hence no easy way to judge whether a trip to the West End might be a crowded nightmare or a social distancing breeze.
TfL have a webpage called Quiet times to travel which is supposed to reassure me. It tells me that "a few of our more popular stations, stops and routes are likely to be busy 05:45-08:15 and 16:00-17:30", and lists 12 stations deemed particularly busy. At time of writing the only tube stations on the list are Barking, Canning Town, Leyton, Seven Sisters, Stratford and West Ham. Most of these are near me, so that's not especially reassuring.
The graph has a morning peak hump and an evening peak hump (only one of which is visible because it's not possible to see the whole graph in one go). According to the legend 'this station is busier between 07:30-09:45 and 17:00-19:15'. This could be useful information. I should be OK if I travel before 7.30am, between 10am and 5pm or after 7.30pm.
But the graph doesn't have a vertical scale so I can't judge what 'busy' actually is. The morning peak looks to be 30% busier than the middle of the day, but relatively speaking that's no great help. Most importantly I have no idea whether the trains themselves will be busy, only the platforms and passageways.
To try to find out I skipped five stations back up the line to East Ham.
Wow, East Ham is really busy first thing in the morning. It has a massive peak between 06:00 and 07:15 when the bars are three or four times longer than in the middle of the day. This suggests loads of passengers are piling in early to go to work in central London, and also suggests that by the time the trains reach Bow Road they're likely to be rather full.
I then did something no sane commuter would attempt. I checked the busy morning times for every station further up the line.
This was somewhat unexpected. The first twelve stations on the District line are generally busiest between 6am and 7.15am. West Ham and Bromley-by-Bow nudge somewhat later, between 6.30am and 8.30am. But Bow Road's 7.30am to 9.45am is a total outlier with a busy period which starts after most of the other busy periods have finished. Indeed if I'd turned up at my local station at 7am expecting things to be quiet, the station might have been but the trains would have been anything but.
Anyway, that was all research I carried out yesterday afternoon. Imagine my surprise when I went back to the website a couple of hours later and discovered that all the graphs had had a complete overhaul. The bars were still the same height but the busiest times were no longer coloured dark blue. Also the titles and accompanying messages had been updated, with the emphasis now on Quiet times rather than Busier.
Previously I'd been told that Bow Road's busier times were 07:30-09:45 and 17:00-19:00, and the graph itself still confirmed this. Now I was being told that 08:30 and 18:00 were 'likely' quiet, when in fact they're in the middle of Bow Road's busiest periods. More importantly I was now being told to stop worrying about social distancing on the station. Bow Road has platforms it's easy to space out along, so even at 'busy' times there's going to be plenty of room.
"You are likely to be able to socially distance throughout the day at this station, especially during network wide quiet times of 08:15-16:00 and after 17:30"
I checked lots of other stations and they all had the same generic message rather than the bespoke captions they'd had before. Quiet backwaters like Roding Valley, Upminster Bridge and Mill Hill East were obviously safe, so the new message was a big improvement. Middlingly busy stations like Bow Road, Bermondsey and Balham also seemed to suit a more positive shift. But I was shocked to see an identical message at larger stations like Oxford Circus, Waterloo, King's Cross St Pancras, Bank and Holborn where access is via labyrinthine tunnels. I'd expect social distancing to be a bit awkward here even at less busy times... or perhaps passenger usage in central London really has plummeted.
But a handful of stations retain their dark blue bars and offer a different message. East Ham is one.
There are still times it's best to avoid but the emphasis is now a nudge towards when to turn up rather than when not to. The dark blue bars seem to be an admission that the unlabelled vertical scale goes past the social distancing limit, whatever that is, and they only seem to appear at a dozen other tube stations across the network. But I still wouldn't catch a train at East Ham at 7:30am, because even though the platforms might be quieter I bet the tubes are packed.
And that's still the problem. TfL have offered us a website full of graphs to play with but a default caption on almost every page saying don't worry, the platforms are probably fine. Nobody's taken the time to provide any bespoke information about individual cases, just powered up an algorithm to write a generic platitude about "network wide quiet times". It doesn't inspire me with confidence when the message at Oxford Circus is the same as the message at Bow Road, nor are there any clues to the conditions I might experience when travelling inbetween.
We all have different levels of tolerance to travelling conditions these days, from "you're not getting me in a carriage with more than three people in it" to "I don't see what the problem is". Some may be reassured by the message that the tube network is generally quieter in the middle of the day, but TfL's graphs suggest that reality is considerably more complicated. It's all very well hurling a barrage of detailed data at the public but not when it abjectly fails to answer the most important question - are the trains likely to be busy?