The tube is a source of many things; fascination, urban legend and unanswered questions. We’ve been scratching our heads over underground oddnesses for so long that we’ve worn our nails right down. So we’ve decided to throw out some of our tube mysteries to Londonist readers in the form of a top 10. The only thing we really struggled with was how to keep the list to 10.
1. Who was Inspector Sands?
Anyone with even a passing familiarity with the tube and Google will know that a call over the tannoy for ‘Inspector Sands’ means a fire alert in the station. The fount of all tube knowledge, Going Underground, says that the name originated from a theatre evacuation code. But was the Inspector ever a real person and how did the name make the jump from theatre to underground?
2. How long is a tube minute?
You’re waiting on the platform. You glance up at the board and it says there’s one minute until your next train. You go back to your book but when you look again the board still says one minute. Have TfL discovered a glitch in the space/time continuum and are they fearlessly exploiting it to disguise delays? Is there a cunning bit of gadgetry that keeps the sign at one minute until the train reaches a certain point in the tunnel? Inquiring minds need to know. The same goes for the trains marked ‘Special’.
3. Was Jerry Springer really born on a tube platform?
According to the man himself, he was born in East Finchley tube station during the second World War, but TfL say that there have only been three recorded births on the underground; one in 1924, then two more in 2008 and 2009. We bet no-one offered them a seat either. So, since the redoubtable Mr Springer is neither 87 nor under five that qualifies as a mystery for us.
4. Does each line really have its own sub-species of mosquito?
A mozzie genetically different from those above ground was discovered some years ago in the tunnels. While not quite a separate species, the subterranean form is well on its way. People sheltering in stations during the second World War found themselves being used as a food source for the little biters. Researchers from Queen Mary and Westfield College also found small genetic differences between mosquitoes living on different tracks, a phenomenon ‘attributed to draughts created by trains dispersing the insects along, but not between, Tube lines’. It would be ace if each breed matched the colour of the line it lived on, but that’s probably unlikely.
5. What are the greatest hazards to Tube workers?
We’d like to think it’s something interesting like subterranean monsters à la Creep, abandoned crocodiles or Croup & Vandemar. The truth is more prosaic. Anyone who works on the network must pass a written exam to show they’ve fully understood the hazards. These include obvious dangers such as live rails, but also Weil’s disease from rat urine, and discarded needles (sometimes left maliciously). In reality, the chief hazard is probably aggressive customers.
6. What is ‘Private Rod’?
Going Underground has been trying to find out the meaning of this enigmatic sign for the last two years. For the uninitiated, Embankment station has a door marked ‘private rod’, the purpose for which apparently even LU staff don’t know. It’s clearly something which has sparked people’s interest – there’s even a Facebook page on it. A tube geek of our acquaintance suggests that if there is a brick wall behind the door as suggested by some LU staff that it could cover an old tunnel which is even more intriguing. Otherwise, perhaps Private Rod reports to Inspector Sands?
7. How much fluff do fluffers collect each evening?
Each night, the tube tunnels are cleaned of ‘fluff’, the various dust and detritus that accumulates from the bodies of millions of daily customers. Those responsible for the clean up are called ‘fluffers’. London Transport Museum’s website shows a photograph of a group of ‘fluffers’ from 1955 using brushes to sweep up the fluff. According to Ianvisits, a kind of industrial vacuum cleaner is now used. Information about actual quantities seems to be thin on the ground.
8. Has anyone ever witnessed people putting amusing stickers on tube maps?
These things pop up every once in a while. Most recently, it was the Central line which saw some station names being changed for no discernible reason. The thing is, no-one ever seems to see them do it. Are the culprits especially gifted at sleight-of-hand? Or do they just wait until the train is empty before deploying their stickers? The same goes for the Brooke Shields alphabet graffitist who created a minor mystery sensation then seemed to disappear overnight.
9. What happens if you step on the live rail?
The short answer would be a swift death by electrocution. A slightly less short answer would be a swift death by electrocution if you complete the circuit by touching the ground or the track rail. Being slightly squeamish, we didn’t delve too far into the actual effects on one’s body of undertaking such a foolhardy activity and thankfully, that is still a mystery to us. Answers on a postcard, please.
10. What the Dickens are those blue rectangular signs with white numbers for?
These little fellows are dotted all over the Tube network. We’re led to believe that they’re code numbers for the emergency services, making it easier for rescuers to orient themselves in smokey conditions. The top number on each sign denotes the level below ground, while the remaining numbers define a location on that level. So we’re told. We can’t find any more details online. Any further information welcome.