For the first time in its 153-year history, the London Underground has its own after hours subway service. A service delayed by months of protracted negotiations, of tedious strikes, of union heel-dragging and BoJo posturing, has finally arrived.
I rode the debut Night Tube service (New Year’s Eve extensions aside) for six hours to ask that question burning in the heart of all Londoners: What's it like?
My journey begins in Brixton - anchor of the Victoria line.
Brixton is busier than usual. The southern terminus of the Victoria line is filled with an additional unit of transport police (not armed), London Underground ‘ambassadors’ in a violent shade of pink, and media crews.
The crowds are waiting for the arrival of Sadiq Khan to “cut the ribbon” of the maiden night tube voyage.
I can't help thinking it would be more fitting to smash a bottle of Red Stripe between some carriage doors.
Some guttural, bass-filled chants of “Night tube, night tube, night tube!” greet the mayor as he makes his way through Brixton station. The mayor’s presence causes something of an obstacle for people actually looking to use the tube line.
There’s a lot of, “What’s going on?” – it’s Sadiq Khan, he’s opening the night tube – “Oh… shall we get a selfie?”
There are a lot of selfies.
An officious woman with a blue clip board attempts to keep the bodies moving toward and down the escalators. She might as well be shouting at Southern Rail to move a train.
There’s brief confusion as Sadiq delays on the platform. He's waiting for the 00:34 – the first 'official' night tube service.
The woman with the blue clip board is doing her nut. People are standing too close to a train set to depart from the platform. The last thing she wants is for the gathered media to witness a member of the public pulled under carriage and delay the opening of the night tube. Not even BoJo would have been able to bumble his way out of that sort of PR disaster.
The train arrives. Sadiq has his photo taken with various important people (they all have badges on) in the lead carriage of the train. We’re not allowed in.
Several of the more junior members of TfL staff have been shunted into the second carriage with the rest of the normal people.
“Why have we been pushed back here? Management don’t even get down on platform level usually. They just want the photos with the mayor. Where are they going to be when there’s drunk people to move along and vomit to wipe up? Unbelievable.”
Sadiq is lead to the driver’s cabin. After a short delay (standard), his treble-toned voice comes over the intercom.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome aboard the first Night Tube service.” The carriage cheers.
“You won’t be cheering when the drivers go on strike,” mutters one of the TfL staff. We pull out of Brixton.
Oxford Circus has a strange, unnerving presence.
Media. Packs of media, roaming the platforms of the Central Line like malnourished dogs (yes, I’m including myself in the litter). Camera crews lurk, eager for vox pops.
There’s a team from the AFP, a Chinese media team, someone looking distinctly embarrassed in a BBC Three jacket.
Beyond the television crews, there’s an additional half a dozen guys skulking around the foot of the main escalators with telescopic lenses.
The odd thing is none of them seem sure what they’re supposed to be capturing. A drunk vomming on a tube worker? Bodies on the line? A train hurtling down the tracks in a ball of flame? All they’ve got is content Londoners milling about with a shared expression of kids allowed to stay up past their bed time.
There’s a puddle of yellowing sick on the floor of an east-bound Central Line. A photographer stoops over it with a DSLR. Once he’s had his shot I shuffle awkwardly to take a similar snap.
We’re documenting history here guys, I say internally. This is all fine. We’re journalists.
This is all seriously odd.
There’s a problem at Liverpool Street station.
The gates of its main entrance, serving both underground and national services, have been bolted shut. It’s these gates that most patrons trickling out of Old Street and Shoreditch are being pointed to by their mapping apps as their entrance to the Central Line.
A man clutching a cold burger is shouting at a security worker in a high-vis jacket.
“Well why the fuck aren’t there signs?! How the fuck do you get in?”
“Sir, there is no need to talk to me like that...”
“Well fuck'sake, how do we get home? What the fuck is going on?”
“Sir, calm down – the entrance is through the arcade.”
“…walk that way and it’s on your left hand side. Please calm down.”
“Well... there should be fucking signs.”
This security worker is a hero. A saint. A man going above and beyond. He’s got nothing to do with TfL's service, but rather is contracted by the main Liverpool Street station facilities.
Due to his unfortunate placement at the station’s main gates, combined with his high-vis jacket, he is assumed to be an oracle of the capital. As such, he faces the unfortunate task of having to indicate drunk punters toward a secondary entrance through an arcade – which, to be fair to the man with his burger, isn’t signposted.
A stream of people with the same question (“Where’s the Central Line?”) flows for the better part of 15 minutes, with the security guard redirecting them with dexterous precision. I wish him luck as he relights a cigarette in a brief lull.
I sidle up to a cab driver at a taxi rank outside Liverpool Street station. Does he think the night tube will get him more or less fares?
“Dunno mate. Not thought about it really. Just have to wait and see. Do you need a cab?”
No, I’m going to get the tube actually.
Heron Tower, home to Duck & Waffle, one of London's more esteemed 24-hour night spots.
“I wouldn’t say we are necessarily more full than usual,” one of the doorman tells me. “We usually always have a queue at this point. What’s different is that people are taking their time once they’re in tonight. By this point people have usually started leaving to get the last tube. If you join the queue at 01:00, it won’t take more than an hour to get a seat. Now, the head desk is telling us people won’t be getting a seat until at least 03:00.”
“It can only be good news for us,” adds his colleague. “There’s no rush for the doors come 01:00. Just one long night now.”
“I see the top two – United then City. Chelsea comfortably third. Fourth, fifth and sixth, Arsenal, Liverpool, Spurs, but I don’t know what order to call them.”
If the night tube is going to provide Londoners with any new opportunities, one of them certainly seems to be an additional number of minutes in which to dissect the Premier League.
“Wait a minute... Are we going the right way?”
“Oh my god. That old guy has just gone for a piss on the platform.”
We've pulled in to Tottenham Court Road. A man in his sixties clearly can’t make it topside to relieve himself. A crowd of four transport officers and a tube worker assist the old chap. He starts telling one of them about his night.
“Good for him,” agrees the carriage.
There’s a subtle new language to the Underground lexicon on the Night Tube – something you notice only because of how it jars with the phrases you’re used to hearing droned through the intercom.
“There is a smooth Night Tube service running on both Victoria and Central lines.”
“There are no interchanges from this service.”
That female voice of the Underground trains is still going though, offering unhelpful recommendations to throw off tired commuters. “Change here for the Bakerloo –“ oh no you can’t mate “- and Victoria lines.”
Eventually she changes to list most lines as "suspended". It sounds like the end of the world. Looks like it too.
A man in a once smart purple shirt approaches the entrance to Oxford Circus Station as though it’s a shimmering Oasis in the midst of a desert.
“Oh my... has the Night Tube started tonight?!” I nod. “This is AMAZING!”
He positively beams as he canters down the steps. He means it.
Around 100 transport police officers will work the lines of the Night Tube service – a deeply reassuring presence amidst the uncertainties of the urban surrounds.
“This is the control room of Oxford Circus. Could a member of the transport police please make their way to the Central line platform one, there is a man in a red top currently urinating on a bench.”
The platform erupts in a unified “Waahheeyyyy”.
Seven Sisters. Five of the eight people in my carriage appear to be asleep until the station name is called, when a previously slumbering couple blink their eyes open.
“This is us! Go, go, go!”
See this guy? This is one of the poor sods who will face the delights of having to clean the ‘party’ carriages.
Commuters and tourists don’t tend to leave puke and piss behind after they alight – just a battered Metro and coffee cup. Who wants to pick up the cleaning shift of the Night Tube? What fluid horrors await them?
The tube is still unfathomably hot. Horribly hot. If I were a dehydrated drunk on my way home from a decent night of drinks, I would definitely need a couple of big waters before bed.
If you’re headed to the Night Tube in the near future, pro tip – down some water in the bar before you head underground. You’ll thank me for it.
It feels rude taking a photo of a man grabbing a nap on a tube platform, but his presence had me thinking of an issue I'm sure the Night Tube will face in time.
For the price of a single fare, a homeless person (not this guy, he's an illustration) could conceivably ride the tube system all weekend. A few quid could give them access to a relatively safe, warm, dry environment, far more hospitable than London's winter streets.
“Ill be honest, I don’t really know if there’s a plan,” says a transport officer when I ask if there’s a response to such activity. “If we find someone asleep then we wake them up, make sure they’re okay and ask them to move on their way. If that means they get back on a train, there’s not a lot we can do about it.”
For much of the night, I am a sober presence in a commute of drunks.
Very occasionally though, I am totally alone. My isolation sees me slide from one emotion to another: at first there's mild, childish excitement, before this passes into mild fear and apprehension.
I was sober. I would not recommend being drunk and alone on the Night Tube to anyone; the notion that there's no one round to help (even though there's probably a member of the transport police one platform away) is deeply unsettling.
The true face of 24-hour London isn’t a sexy night club. It’s not a member’s bar filled with cocktails and suede boots.
It’s a McDonald’s – the champion of the modern midnight feast.
Few of its daytime competitors appear capable of accepting the challenge of McD's 24-hour service, meaning the majority of the night tube's litter bears the golden arches. It’s the perfect viral marketing campaign: literal rubbish advertising. I have just spent several hours surrounded by Big Mac boxes, filling me with an unshakeable desire to acquire my own.
“It feels so weird. This is happening. This is happening. Night Tube is happening. It feels so weird.”
At this hour, that is all I can get out of someone by way of an articulate response to the comment: This Night Tube’s pretty good, isn’t it?
There’s a new level of etiquette to the Night Tube carriage – one that parallels man’s social quandary upon entering a gent's loo to find one bloke in the centre of a row of urinals. Where do you go when there’s so much room?
In the exact same manner that you don’t pick the urinal next to the only other occupant, you don’t want to sit on the same row of seats as the only other soul in the carriage.
However, if you pick a spot a long distance away, a strange British fear sets in; “What if they think I’m being odd? If I’m being deliberately distant and thus sinister? Is it better to edge a little closer? How close is too close?”
Maybe I’m overthinking it. Yeah. Probably.
The mood of the Night Tube shifts when the service hits its sleepy stride: with only four to five trains every hour, you’re really, really hacked off if you miss a train.
It’s not a short wait for the next service, but potentially 15 minutes of shifting about on a platform hotter than Frank Ocean's new mix tape. At 4-something-AM, you really bloody run for it if you see the train ahead of you on the platform. You Usain Bolt it.
Further to that, people are properly angry when they miss the doors. Not “Balls, I’m going to be a few minutes late to work” angry, but “This has ruined my WHOLE NIGHT” angry. It’s only funny to observe if you’re the right side of the doors.
It also means that most services headed from a central location into the far-flung points of the compass are surprisingly packed during the early hours. Why are we all still awake? Do any of us look like we actually had a good night? What is that on your shirt, wine or ketchup?
The upholstery of the tube is designed to mask its age; to conceal the wear of several hundred thousand backsides breaking against it like denim-clad waves on a cushioned beach.
In my sleep-deprived state, I wonder if these battered seats will stand these extra hours of travels. If an addition of cans of Carling, of spilt quarter pounders, of vomit that can’t be suppressed, will dent this transport system to the point of buckling. This is what happens when you stare at the same warped patterns of material for several hours.
I ask a TFL worker at Oxford Circus how their night has been.
“Yeah, interesting. A lot of drunks.”
Right. A constant stream of them?
I see. Good chat.
I have just seen all of a man’s naked arse.
I'm not quite sure why, but a bloke in the carriage next to me decided to pull down his trousers in front of his mates, bend over and proceed to push his arse cheeks against the carriage window.
Time to head home.
How was it? I ask one final ambassador in the entrance of Brixton tube.
“Alright actually. Pretty jovial really. A real air of revelry to it all to be honest.”
Well that’s good. Nothing too dramatic then?
“No. Turns out if you give the people what they want, they’ll behave themselves.”
A final verdict? The TL;DR summary? 4/5. There were trains. People caught them. Everything worked.