‘I did a shift on the London Underground and discovered just how exhausting the job really is’ – Callum Marius
London Underground staff have been a prominent feature in the capital’s news headlines in recent months. From Tube strikes to the future of their jobs, you’d be forgiven for thinking their media representation was more important than the jobs they actually do. I should know – I write a lot about the ‘Tube worker’ in my role as MyLondon’s transport correspondent.
Eager to better understand what it actually means to work on the world’s oldest and most prestigious underground network, I went to Notting Hill Gate station to spend a day in the life of Alexis Bailey, a customer service assistant with 15 years of experience on London’s transport network, including nine at Transport for London (TfL). I joined her for part of her 7.55am to 5.05pm day shift.
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Alexis starts her day by briefing herself on all the day’s important safety and travel information. It’s instantly clear to me that the number one priority of station staff is safety, she checks in with the station supervisor and turns on her body-cam that records everything in front of her. She checks her radio is working and together we make our way on the first of her many station safety walks.
At regular (usually hourly or two-hourly) intervals throughout the day, station staff manually check every single asset in the station is functioning the way it needs to. That means walking to the end of every single platform, checking each door that should be open is open and that the locked ones are locked and identifying any hazards or potential security alerts. This is something that simply cannot be done with CCTV alone and intends to provide a reassuring visible staff presence across the station.
With Alexis’ inviting smile and friendly demeanour, to the naked eye it is easy to assume we are just going for a walk, killing time staring at things, but this important process potentially saves people’s lives. She says: “This station is from the 1800s, it might look nice but anything could go wrong, if I don’t spot a leak onto the platform that means people have to crowd at one end, that could cause a serious accident.”
It’s a kind of foresight that only someone like Alexis has. She knows her stations, her customers, her colleagues inside out like a sixth sense. She explains: “All of us work in our team in a group of six stations, and our group of six is broken down into three smaller groups of two. I work here [at Notting Hill Gate] and at Queensway.
“I don’t even have to say anything, my team just know exactly how I am because we are in constant communication with each other. We have to be. They’re my team, they’re my family.” She points to a concealed door that used to be an additional station entrance until the 1930s and explains with encyclopedic knowledge how the station now uses adaptable signage to manage the flow of customers.
Just like any family, there are occasions that test their resilience. Alexis tells me of a time when the station was put under alert as a man was detained under an Interpol international arrest warrant there. At Notting Hill Gate, Carnival is their Christmas – it’s a well-rehearsed operation. “We all work as a team. There are team leaders and each section of the station runs like clockwork. We all know once it gets to 1 o’clock, platforms 1 and 2 Circle and District lines are shut off.
“It sounds simple, but it’s a lot,” she says. “It’s not just about listening to instruction, it’s about what we can be proactive with because if anything does go wrong, we know where we should be what we should do. We’re all in sync, us, the British Transport Police and Metropolitan Police and the community.”
She anticipates this year’s Carnival will be one of the biggest ever as thousands of Londoners are desperate to celebrate after its two-year forced hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic. We go up to street level and she talks me through the area surrounding us. “See that shop around the corner, he’s usually got two of them working in there, but for those two carnival days he hires more staff and he can clear £10,000 in an eight-hour period,” she explains. “It’s gonna be a lifeline for a lot of people and businesses and we [the station] have our part to play in that. We are in sync with the community so we can keep everyone moving and most importantly we can get our customers home safely.”
I realise that as well as being a safety officer, staff on the Tube have to know their communities in order to keep them going. They’re not just tour guides, they have a unique sense of duty which means they take pride in shaping the areas around them. Would Notting Hill be Notting Hill without the Tube I wondered? No, quite simply.
Like many of London’s people-facing ‘frontline service workers’, Alexis’ modus operandi is talking to people. By engaging the public in conversation, she can understand them, identify their needs and help them – she might need to be a counsellor, a technical expert or a comedian within the space of a few minutes to do the right thing. As we make our way down to the Central line platforms, she redirects some customers trying to shortcut the one-way system designed to avoid overcrowding. “With me, if I see someone just standing alone in the station for ten minutes, I will go over and talk to them and ask them how they are. There are people who are naturally apprehensive about getting on the Underground,” she says.
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Alexis cannot entirely rely on her sixth sense though. In 2020/21, there were 1,740 offences reported to the police, relating to violence and aggression against TfL employees and the employees of TfL’s operators and contractors. She now wears her body-cam religiously. I ask her why. She says: “I have to. I’ve had some bad luck because there are some situations you cannot read. These are invaluable. It not only protects me, as a visual deterrent, but it protects everyone ‘cos we can see clearly. One thing I love about my company is that they will make sure they turn every stone when things go wrong. They care.”
We talk through platform duties and I stand in various positions along the Central line platforms in what Alexis informs me is called ‘assisted dispatch’. Central line trains have just 15 seconds to make their stops here so the peak hours can be intense when trains arrive every two minutes. Forgive me for pointing out the obvious but it strikes me just how exhausting working underground is. There are no windows or natural light, it can feel claustrophobic, and the constant movement is a sensory overload. I’m not an entire novice to working in the transport sector as I used to work on the Eurostar, but I thankfully never had to stand in the Channel Tunnel for hours on end. It is overwhelming.
To lighten my mood, I appeal to Alexis the ambassador. If you follow transport media, you’ll know she has now appeared in several TV documentaries, a TfL fashion show and was even named ‘Champion of Carnival’ in a campaign by Guinness and Boiler Room. Last Christmas, I reported on an initiative she took to display a 7-year-old Tube fan’s poem on the Central line.
She says: “Listen, I get my sense of humour from my colleagues and my customers! My colleagues say to me they can’t shut me up but I just love my job. Outside of work, I keep myself to myself but when I’ve got my uniform on it gives me power and I know I can use it to lift up people’s spirits and morale.”
After a long day underground with Alexis, I went home with a better understanding of the complexities of the capital’s transport network. For one thing, the urban legend of a secret hidden tunnel from Bond Street Station to Selfridge’s apparently does have some truth to it, according to Alexis, but more importantly, it’s clear to me now that London Underground staff are very much like canaries in the coal mine – literally. They are underneath the city observing everything we might not be able to truly see or feel about London, good or bad, and more importantly, they keep us safe. Perhaps we should all listen to them a little bit more.
If you have a transport-related story you think MyLondon should be covering, email [email protected]
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