The London Commute: all that is wrong with humankind

Is there a better symbol of the hamster wheel of corporate life than the London commute? Getting up at 6am, squeezing onto trains and pushing through the crowds to jobs that most people don’t even enjoy and then doing it all again to get home in the evening, day in and day out, until retirement at 65. I always swore to myself that I would never do it…

On the surface, it’s not so bad: I get up at 6am, yes, but that gives me time to have a nice long shower, to have a leisurely breakfast and watch a Ted talk as I do my make-up, and then stroll down to the train station – amazingly it has barely rained at all for the months I’ve been doing this. At the other end, I manage to avoid the crush of the underground either by getting familiar with the bus network or by walking to the office, depending on where I’m going. But the veneer of such a pleasant routine hides a dark underbelly of drudgery and, well, evil…

When I get to the station, usually with just minutes to spare, it’s a fun game of seeing how many of the ticket machines are broken. Mondays are the worst when it comes to queuing time, especially the first of the month, as people are getting their weekly/monthly season tickets. There is also the wild card option of going to the ticket counters but it’s hit and miss as to what will be faster. Then as you line up on the platform, you must strategically place yourself so that you’ll be near the doors when the train arrives. There’s a delicate balance between appearing polite and letting people off the train first and elbowing your way onto the train and making a beeline for an available seat. It’s only once you’re seated, and there are no other spaces available, that you realise that you’ve chosen to sit next to the one person on the carriage who has the dreaded lurgy, coughing and spluttering all over you, or alternatively one of the evil people of the world who has kept the keyboard sounds on their phone so that you approach a complete mental breakdown as that tap-tap-tapping bores into your mind.

Once the seat is secured, the trick is to keep your head down and look busy, avoiding eye contact with anyone getting onto the train in case they are old, pregnant or injured and the little shred of decency within you forces you to give up your seat. This is bad enough on an average day but imagine the chaos that ensues when trains are delayed or cancelled – something that happens more often than not in the UK… “Can you move down the train please?” “NO!” The train journey itself is otherwise very productively spent on our phones, in my case trying desperately to check Twitter etc. despite a weak signal so that I spend most of the journey impatiently refreshing the feed without achieving anything. Sometimes I manage to tear myself away and read a book instead but often I’m not quite awake enough for such an intellectually demanding activity.

I can’t help but feel like we’re all playing grown-up. Conversations overheard on the train have included middle-aged men gossiping about work romances or drunken stag dos, and most of all self-important businessmen and -women who clearly feel the PowerPoint presentation or meeting they are working on right now is the most crucial project in the history of humankind. There are also the compulsory “I’m on the train!” calls that mostly involve repeating “can you hear me?”, “you’re breaking off” and “are you still there?”.

When we arrive at Waterloo, the next leg of the race involves getting through the ticket turnstiles as fast as possible, after which the army of worker ants breaks its formation and we all charge off in a different direction, rushing to the next chapter of our daily adventure.

At the end of the day, the circus at Waterloo would be laughable if you weren’t so busy taking part in the act yourself. This comic performance involves marching quickly across the station while alternating between looking down at your phone and glancing up at the screens to see which platform your train will leave from. You must never look where you’re going, but feel free to stop suddenly and unexpectedly, just to throw people off. Ideally you also put your earphones in to dull your senses even further. There will be obstacles in the way, people moving towards you and those who are crossing your path to get to their platform; the minute your platform appears on the screen, you must run this gauntlet or perish.

Of course, the musical chairs scenario continues on the return journey home, when you need to make sure that you get to the platform before the train arrives or else there’ll be no chance of getting a seat, all the more coveted after a long day in the office. And when you arrive at your station, the race continues as you try to get to the stairs before the crowds clog them up and you lose precious seconds waiting for them all to funnel up onto the steps and out into the world. The best approach, I’ve found, is to work late or to go for drinks in the evening, allowing you to avoid (c)rush hour altogether…

You have to wonder what we’re all rushing to. Will arriving in the office two minutes earlier make such a difference? If it’s so important, why not take an earlier train (but the rush is the same on every train!)? And what about in the evening, yes we all want to get home but are we so hungry, are our partners so impatient, do our children miss us so much, that the few seconds gained by pushing others out of the way will be worth it? The hours lost both directly from a long commute and as a result of reduced productivity due to stress and general unhappiness must represent a huge loss for companies and I find it mind-boggling that this continues as it does. There are some office environments, mostly start-ups and a lot of creative businesses, that offer alternative working arrangements such as flexible working hours, working from home, and so on, but judging by the masses whose paths I cross on the way to work this is still very much the exception…

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