Victoria Underground Station: The End Of The 24-Step Descent Into Chaos:

It’s a scenario which will be very familiar to anyone who has ever taken the Gatwick Express to London. On arrival at Victoria, you struggle with your baggage out of your compartment onto platform 13 or 14, then battle across the concourse past the packed throngs of commuters checking the illuminated timetables for their trains home. It’s when you get to the stairs leading to the underground that you face perhaps the most formidable challenge: You have to carefully work your way down the twenty-four steps, keep control of your luggage and avoid being swept back up to the top again by the masses (many also with heavy suitcases) hurrying in the opposite direction. Even when (or if) you eventually make it safely to the bottom, you may be immediately confronted with another problem – especially if it’s your first time in the capital and/or you don’t have an Oyster Card: Long queues both for the only two functioning automatic ticket machines and for the counters where you can ask for advice as to how to get to your destination.

According to Network Rail’s Media Relations Officer, over 70,224,543 people start or end their journeys each year at Victoria Railway Station and it is (as they have acknowledged to BBC News) one of the eleven in London “which need action to ease overcrowding”. Among the others on their list are: Fenchurch Street, Charing Cross, Clapham Junction, Wimbledon and Surbiton. Statistics released by the Office Of Rail Regulation and published in the “Daily Mail” have indicated that on 60% of rush-hour trains into and out of London , the numbers of passengers exceed the official capacity. In response, David Sidebottom, Director of the rail customer watchdog “Passenger Focus” has commented that “While we welcome that more people are taking the train, the issue is where they are all going to sit”. The most packed peak-time train in the country is not to Victoria but the 6.37am from Reading to Paddington, which in theory is limited to 304 (in standard class) but often carries “as many as 610 on its most crowded points”. Meanwhile, the Gatwick Express itself caters for more than 14,000 customers every day – a large proportion of whom (either returning from holiday or coming to the UK to visit, work or study) have just flown in from Spain or Latin America. On Friday 2nd September, for example, there were twelve flights from Malaga to Gatwick and eight from Palma Mallorca; from both Tenerife & Madrid (6), Alicante (5), Barcelona (4), Ibiza & Valencia (2), Murcia & Las Palmas one each – plus charters from Varadero & Holguin (Cuba), Puerto Plata & Punta Cana (Dominican Republic) and Cancun (Mexico). Those disembarking from the Gatwick Express at Victoria are either met by friends, collected by business associates, take a taxi, or board a bus. The majority, however, probably head for Victoria Underground.

Initially opened in 1868 by the Metropolitan District Railway (MDR) it can no longer (as emphasized by “Mott Macdonald”, the consultants appointed by London Underground (LU) to design the “upgrade project”) cope with the congestion caused by 80 million travellers now passing through it every year. They point out that, due to London’s growing population, by 2016 the tube will be transporting an anticipated 25% extra passengers and that at Victoria, LU employees are already having to “hold back customers every weekday” to stop the platforms becoming too packed and dangerous. Richard Parry, LU’s Strategy & Commercial Director, has declared that the project (when completed) will be of “huge benefit to residents, commuters and tourists” as it will no longer be necessary to close the station during rush hours because it is too full. Furthermore, as there will be “an entrance from Bressenden Place into the new North Ticket Hall”, there’ll be no need (at now) to cross busy roads (such as Victoria Street) to obtain access to the station. A TfL (Transport For London) spokesperson confirmed that the “twenty-four steps” will remain (albeit “replaced and widened”) – but that anyone with heavy luggage will have the option of using one of the seven new lifts which will provide “ step-free access from street level to the Victoria Line and for interchange with the District & Circle Line platforms”. The works, which are due to be completed by 2018 and are currently “on schedule”, will be suspended during the Olympics/ Paralympics from July-September 2012. The “London Evening Standard” has expressed concern about a potential “Games Gridlock” in the city centre resulting from the predicted extra three million journeys a day on the capital’s public transport system, the free travel-cards which will be issued to Olympic ticket-holders by TfL and the increased pressure on already busy stations such as Victoria, London Bridge, Waterloo, Stratford, Kings Cross and Canary Wharf.

TfL have estimated that the final bill for the Victoria Underground Station Update will be around £700 million. Their spokesperson acknowledges that they have been badly affected by the recession and thus been obliged to cut back on other projects such as providing “step-free” access (for wheelchair users and parents with buggies) at Greenford, Amersham, Newbury Park, Ladbroke Grove, Osterley and West Kensington Stations. Though the income from passenger fares covers part of TfL’s expenditure, the Department of Transport also provides a vital £3 billion pa. The London Evening Standard has noted that due to cuts in government spending, this contribution could be reduced by between £750 million and £1.2 billion annually. On 27th June, the “Richmond & Twickenham Times” and the “This Is Local London” website both reported that TfL intends to save money by reducing the number of director posts by 25% (13 jobs), freezing the salaries of their senior staff for s second consecutive year and accepting the decision of all their chief officers to decline their 2009/2010 “performance awards”. Despite the budgetary limitations, the Tfl spokesperson asserts  that “we have still managed to implement improvements to 165 of the 260 stations for which we are responsible” (they run trains to an additional ten stations which they don’t own, for example Wimbledon, Richmond and Ealing). London Underground’s 250 miles (402 kilometres) of track is the world’s second largest after the Shanghai Metro, and the system conveys “four million passengers daily, which is more than all the other train operating companies in the whole of the UK”. Among other proclaimed accomplishments are the introduction across the tube network of “tactile strips” so that blind people can feel the edge of the platform with their sticks, ramps on Victoria Line platforms to facilitate wheelchair users getting onto trains, and 250 “wide aisle gates” (“WAGS”) to make life easier for people with buggies, wheelchairs and “assistant dogs”. As there are usually only four hours available on weekday nights, “signal & track replacements requiring the use of heavy equipment have to be carried out on Saturdays & Sundays” – hence the inconvenient part closures to the system announced by TfL prior to most weekends. There is, inevitably, just one slight blemish to the rosy picture of the future as portrayed by TfL: The capital’s transport system has been described as “ the most expensive in the world” by the “Guardian” newspaper, who also queried why it should be so. The continuing TfL outlay on “ key update projects” means that fares are soon likely to go up yet again.  That’s not good news for Londoners in these tough economic times.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Filed under: Society, Travel | Posted on September 6th, 2011 by Colin D Gordon

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