wed 24/07/2024

Confessions From the Underground, Channel 4 | reviews, news & interviews

Confessions From the Underground, Channel 4

Confessions From the Underground, Channel 4

A grim picture of London’s Underground in the Olympic year

'Confessions From the Underground': raising issues that aren’t unique to Britain’s infrastructure

Although focusing on London’s Tube network, Confessions From the Underground brought up issues that aren’t unique to Britain’s infrastructure. Increasing usage versus declining levels of staff. Employees working against targets while being pushed to cut corners. It could have been the NHS or schools, but last night's documentary about the tube allowed the staff of London Underground to raise their concerns.

This could have been an eyebrow-raising selection of accidents and near misses that've been hushed up. Instead – apart from a looking into the questionable response to a dust cloud at Charing Cross Station – it was a howl of anguish from people who keep London moving. How representative it was wasn’t revealed. Whether these voices were typical of London Underground Limited (LUL) staff was impossible to measure, but the facts stood for themselves.

It's a wonder anyone would want to work in these challenging circumstances

And there were a lot of facts, read out by a deadpan Richard Wilson. LUL has 19,000 employees and the Tube carries a billion passengers a year. Last year, there were 42 million more passengers than in 2010. Over the last two years, 800 jobs have been cut. In 2011, violent crime against staff was 20% up on 2010. Threatening behaviour has risen too. There are 50 suicides a year. When one occurs, it’s the coroner’s job to remove the body, as the ambulance service won’t take dead bodies away. Lack of an instant response means staff have to find storage space for suicides – a bin chamber at Stratford Station was given as an example. It's a wonder anyone would want to work in these increasingly challenging circumstances. Yet the programme concluded with staff saying they love their jobs and were proud to keep London moving.

That is, the actors who stood in for the real-life staff whose identities were protected, repeating what they’d said word for word. In LUL uniforms, the actors were filmed on busy platforms, which must have been confusing for passengers and real staff alike.

The picture painted was unsurprising: of a creaking, patched-together system that's understaffed, under-funded and about to fall apart. “I don’t think safety is being undermined, but it's bursting at the seams,” said one employee. “A state of war exists between the staff and the public,” offered another.

A person under a train is known as 'a one under'

But still, the system runs. Whatever the observations made, the authority which oversees LUL, Transport for London, had the expected comebacks: investment is increasing, safety is paramount, etc. Confessions From the Underground measured bureaucrat speak against words from the heart.

Language was also used in a less familiar way. The interface between the edge of the platform and the train is a safety red zone, known as a “top-risk event”. A person under a train is “a one under”.

Contributors described the pressure as overwhelming. A platform can go from being occupied by 300 to 1000 people in three minutes, with the potential for mishaps increased massively. More depressing was what’s inflicted by people who should know better. Staff talked of being assaulted multiple times a year. It was said that “the worst is your man in his 30s, in a suit, white. Worse than football fans”. The late night, drunken rush home increases that threat.

Confessions From the Underground was dispiriting and should be mandatory viewing for those squeezing this country - any aspect of this country - until there are no pips left. LUL’s staff – like those of any public service – should be valued rather than demeaned. Arguments about union power play are a side show when the facts, the statistics, speak for themselves. The inverse relationship between increased usage of the network and fewer safety patrols and decreasing staff levels is misaligned. As it is was put: “death by a thousand cuts, bleeding the system dry”. Carry on like this and there will be no system. This would be bad enough at any time, but is this really what we want in the year of the London Olympics?

See London's Underground from the perspective of a driver of an eastbound Circle Line train

The picture painted was unsurprising: of a creaking, patched-together system that's understaffed, under-funded and about to fall apart

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