Metro life

I’ve lived in three cities with a metro system (4, I suppose, if you count Sheffield’s trams), and they are very different. Glasgow’s famous ‘clockwork orange’, whose cylindrical trains seemed so small the first time I saw them, I laughed (laughter which died down quickly when I got on and spotted, in no short order, a guy wearing a Freddie Krueger bladed glove and someone else bleeding profusely with a head injury: welcome to Glasgow!) (I must stress, I lived in Glasgow for a long time, and loved it, but there were times when I returned and it made a… strong… first impression).

London’s underground was everything people say it is, for better or worse. On the one hand, and incredibly clever feat of engineering that spans most of one of the world’s most complex cities. On the other, an un-air-conditioned, sweaty, strike-plagued, overcrowded, dirty hellscape full of rude people who would throw their granny on the live rail to get a seat. (One of my friends once managed to get into a crammed carriage just before the doors closed, only to have a fellow passenger PHYSICALLY PICK HER UP, plonk her back on the platform and drag his girlfriend inside in her place).

The Metro, of course, was the system I grew up with. I remember being dazzled when it opened as a child, a fast and easy route from my Felling neighbourhood to the glories of Newcastle city centre. After I left, I only used it rarely: my mum lived within walking distance of town, so I used to just amble down the road whenever I needed to. Since she died, I have most often stayed with friends in Wallsend or Sunderland, or family in Heworth, so have become necessarily reacquainted with it.

Much of it is unchanged, at least to my memory: the boxy cars, the bumblebee signage of yellow and black; the terrible mural at Monument featuring barely recognisable local figures, the Latin at Wallsend. But it’s a very different experience from using the London tube, and it is taking me a little time to get used to it.

For a start, the gaps between the trains seem ridiculous when you are used to London – 12 minutes between trains? Why aren’t people rioting? (The trick, I have been sagely informed by fellow Northerners-cum-Londoners, is to use the Metro app and think of them as trains, not tubes). Although some of the trains are slightly shabby, they are mostly tidy and clean (ish) – they are also both more spacious and, conversely, less well-designed to handle a crowd: tube trains seem better designed for standing, if you need to. The ‘open door’ buttons are not just for show, too, which has led to a few near misses at my stop, as I complacently wait for the doors to pop open, unsolicited. (In London, it’s a sign of being a tourist if you actually press the button).

It can be as unreliable as London – I cancelled my first yoga class because the metros were off the Sunday I needed to get to it; and I had to cab it back from South Shields on Friday as the lines were down after my play. But at least, in a smaller city, there are alternatives: the buses are good, and not usually too crazy-busy, and a taxi is an affordable option (albeit not all the time, and obviously not for everyone).

But it’s the Metro etiquette that has thrown me the most. On a recent visit, before my relocation, I nearly missed my stop because an elderly gent stepped back, waving me past and I was so puzzled by his gesture I didn’t get that he was inviting me to get off first. I hung back, not wanting to push past him, and we stood in a polite standoff until I twigged, muttered a hasty thanks and left.

In the main (I have been wearily informed by long-term locals this is not always the case), people are quick to stand for those who need seats. I have realised Metro etiquette if you catch someone’s eye is not to look away hastily but to acknowledge them with a slight smile – hey, look at us, we’re all on this train together. Occasionally, this will even lead to chat: an old lady will explain her reasons for reading the Metro newspaper (‘it’s all rubbish, but it’s something to read’), and I got quite the lecture on bird-keeping from a woman carrying a canary in a cage. In London, I would have veered away from her as a potential loon: in Newcastle, I happily made small-talk, nodded where she needed me to (yes, I can imagine canaries are territorial). Which made me think, it’s not just that the Metro is different. Maybe it’s that I am, too.

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