All change please – how new Tube line left passengers baffled

Where the old Circle line was creaking and unreliable, the new one, which opened yesterday, is incomprehensible, says Andy McSmith

The Circle line never has been nor is ever likely to be London's best-loved Underground route. But at least until yesterday, it was approximately circular.

Not any more. The days when you could get drunk, fall asleep on the Circle line, and wake up hours later not knowing how many stations your train had stopped at are over. Pass out on the Circle line and you will end up either in Edgware Road or Hammersmith, to the sound of a voice coming over the loudspeaker saying "all change, please".

The Circle line has taken on a new shape. It is now more like a lasso, or a figure six turned on its side, with a beginning and end. The old circle has been broken at Edgware Road, in west London, and stretched all the way to Hammersmith.

This should be good news for people wanting to travel to and from Hammersmith, including visitors to London's biggest and newest shopping centre, the vast Westfield complex, near the BBC television centre in Shepherd's Bush. But it is less good for visitors to some of the older established attractions, such as the Natural History Museum or Madame Tussauds, who will now find that places which once were a short distance apart on the Circle line are mutually inaccessible.

And at Edgware Road, travelling becomes seriously complicated, because this is now effectively two stations on one site, whence there are trains heading west on the short route to Hammersmith and others that set off southwards to take in a couple of dozen stations all around London, before arriving back at Edgware Road, and then going on Hammersmith.

To add to the perplexity, Transport for London (TfL) insists on calling the trains that are going by the long route to Hammersmith "eastbound", although they go south, west and north until they get to Liverpool Street, and then start travelling west. "Westbound" trains between Tower Hill and Gloucester Road, are, in fact, heading east, and "eastbound" trains are heading west. Clear enough? However, there is a reassuring message on the TfL website, telling you that: "It will be easier to plan your journey as trains to and from particular stations will now always stop at the same platform."

Except that at Edgware Road yesterday, this was manifestly untrue. At the entrance were notices telling you that westbound trains to Hammersmith left from platform 4, and the "eastbound" trains that took you south towards Victoria left from platform 2. But any unwary passenger who believed the notices and got the first train on platform 2 was likely to be whisked away to Hammersmith, because the train drivers were using the wrong platforms.

"I have only been here since 11am, so I wasn't here at peak time to tell you how it went, but since I've been here it's been pretty chaotic," said Wayne, the cheerful customer services assistant. "Our signage says the trains from one platform can only go in one direction, but they keep changing it. It's very confusing for people, and for the staff – but if they can sort that out, it should get better."

Down on the platform, an elderly man with an east European accent was crying: "Bayswater! I just want to get to Bayswater!" as he searched for a member of staff to explain how.

Sally Keaton was making her usual journey from Paddington to Farringdon, previously a simple trip along the Circle line. Yesterday, her train came to an unexpected halt after just one stop, and she was turned out to look for another train on another platform. "I don't think this is a good time of year to make these changes," she said.

Robert Smith, from Maidenhead, was standing by the map, tracing the route with his finger and saying aloud: "So it goes that way, then that way, then that way ... I just hope all the changes mean more trains," he added. "They make all these promises, and none of them ever seem to get you there any quicker."

The Circle line has attracted trouble from the start. In Victorian times the trains were owned by competing private operators, which put all manner of obstructions in the way of closing the circle. The idea was mooted in 1863, but took until 1905 to complete.

It is not an "underground" line in the proper sense, because it not much deeper than a basement. It was constructed not as a tunnel but by digging a huge trench. Parts of it see sunlight by day.

Its unique status as a line that never ended gave rise to the famous Circle line pub crawl. The challenge was to visit a pub close to each of the 27 stations before the trains stop running at 12.30am. When Mayor Boris Johnson announced that he was banning alcohol on the Tube, thousands turned out for the final Circle Line Party.

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