Tubular hell

This week's fare rises put London's Tube among the dearest metros in the world - as well as the most underfunded, dilapidated and unreliable
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The Independent Online
It is the graveyard of the London Underground. The Northern Line, the Misery Line, the black road to hell, has less to recommend it than any other route on the Tube.

Away from the spic-and-span corridors of Docklands Light Railway you disappear into the bowels of Bank. Turn right or left, north or south, there's no escape. That depressingly familiar musty, dusty smell and walls caked in dirt is the signature of Northern Line. Peeling posters spell decay, decline and decrepitude.

From top to toe, the place is sealed in grime, showering soot from all quarters. A mouse scuttles out of a discarded Big Mac carton - a small touch that Dickens would have relished.

Such a scene is typical of any number of stations on the London Underground, and one which even the longest of suffering passengers will find hard to stomach on a day when they find some fares have increased by 9 per cent, putting up the price of a one-stop journey in central London to pounds 1.20.

London Underground hopes the increase will raise an extra pounds 44m towards the pounds 3.5bn needed in the next five years and is talking of a further increase in the summer. Passengers may wonder what they will see in return.

Last year the network lurched from one crisis to the next, showing ever increasing signs of being on the brink of collapse. This year doesn't look set to be any better. A dramatic rise in the cost of the Jubilee Line extension and revisions in government grants has left London Underground with an estimated pounds 600m shortfall in the next three years' investment.

This year's government grant is pounds 383m. Out of this, LU will have to pay a "first instalment" of pounds 150m towards the overrun of the Jubilee Line extension's costs.

Then there's the Northern Line. Its general investment has been reduced by pounds 42m this year. A pounds 100m modernisation - new signalling, track and power - to make trains run faster and provide more of them faces "significant delays". It was due to start in 2001/02, but is not now expected to begin until 2005/06.

Back at Bank station, the overhead sign reads "High Barnet one minute", Two, three, four, five minutes later, a cranky, old excuse of a train creaked into the station, its windows so silted up that one imagined the driver would find it difficult to know whether he was in Bank or Boulogne.

You can't avoid junk food wrappers on the Northern Line. You accept rubbish as the Queen accepts red carpets. The business section of the Evening Standard is wallpaper for the feet. Inside the train, selecting a seat is an ordeal. Should it be the saggy one with a sweaty patch marking bygone bums? Or the one with the gum encrusted on the hand-rest?

Unacceptable? Seeking a second opinion, I broke ranks and spoke to the person sitting next to me, Adele Fernandez, 24, an organic vegetable deliverer. "It's just grotty. Totally grotty," she says, making her way to Camden. But, wait for it, she actually loves it. "I feel quite affectionate about it," she says, her heavily made-up eyes lighting up. "Just knowing that every Tube stop has a history behind it. It's not the McDonald's treatment that the others have, like the Central Line." Somewhere between Old Street and Angel, the cranky carriages ground to a halt in the tunnel. No announcements. Nothing.

At Camden Town station a man in a fluorescent orange jacket, emblazoned with the words "Cleaning the Northern Line", shuffled along the platform dragging a plastic bag. "Excuse me, I'm very busy," he said, apologising that he had no time to talk.

The wooden seats on the platform at Camden look as though they had grown out of the walls.

A woman with cropped bleached hair, multiple piercings and chipped emerald nail varnish, sobbed into a letter. "I find it comforting here," she said. "I just needed some space. It's the ideal place, you know. You see, I'm in love." Her situation - involving something about an Irish gay boyfriend and a jealous "fella" back home - would have kept Marje Proops busy for months. Love. Why else would anyone hang around an Underground station, least of all this one?

On to Chalk Farm. A man on crutches staggered the length of the platform, pained at the prospect of the escalators being out of order - again.

10pm. En route home. Two Underground workers in navy overalls with smart matching bags had just knocked off their shift. "So what's it really like?" I asked. "An appalling shambles - constantly," said one, throwing corporate caution to the wind. "An absolute mess."

Timetable of trouble

t January 1996: Announcement of 18 months of line closures and disruption to allow crucial engineering work from March 1996 to autumn 1997.

t April 1996: Power failure brought 90 per cent of the network to a standstill, leaving thousands of passengers trapped in trains in tunnels.

Thirty-one passengers were treated for smoke inhalation. A 40-year-old cable was to blame.

t November 1996: Electrical failure in a power station in west London paralysed the entire network. The back-up system also failed. Thousands of passengers were stranded for hours in darkness.

t November 1996: Mechanical failure on Victoria line led to 10,000 passengers facing serious delays.

t December 1996: Tunnel fire led to the closure of Oxford Circus and Regent's Park stations, and suspension of Bakerloo line services.

t Until July 1997: Bakerloo line closed between Elephant & Castle and Piccadilly (until May at least) for repairs to the tunnel under the Thames.