Community and the London Overground

15 minute wait

A date

A drunk

A dog

…These are all the notes I took for a revelation I had late one night about the nature of community among commuters. These are all the notes I need, because I can remember that action-packed night on the train from those words alone.

The London Overground is part of the London Underground, but it functions very differently.  Principally, the line runs entirely above ground. The route is cobbled together from previously unused trainlines, forming a massive and irregular loop around greater London. The line is extremely convenient because it serves places that are otherwise unreachable, and extremely inconvenient because the handful of overground lines go all over. This ring route around London is so revolutionary that it was only finished in 2006, although it was first envisioned back in 1943. Well good ideas take time. The trains also only run every 15 minutes. Unless you’re in Highbury & Islington, odds are you’ll be waiting for a train.

residential south london
residential south london

Average train waits on the Underground are something like 3 minutes, and only 1 minute for a bus. 15 minutes is a lifetime by comparison! This creates a captive audience. The riders are often resident in the far flung and gentrifying boroughs of South and East London; this audience is a diverse bunch. Not so many suits. I’ve been riding the last overground train home for a while now and I’m definitely starting to recognize a few characters.

The wait gives people time to bond. It makes London feel more like New York. Dogs and furniture can also be transported, as the trains are so much bigger than the underground. I once saw a full-height bookshelf! These make for great conversation starters. I’ve been asked on dates, nodded at the regulars, even met a stranger from my home town a world away in California. You just don’t get conversations like these on the tube!

My favourite though was Lady, a beautiful red setter. She is the best dog I’ve ever seen on public transit. She sniffed me when I first came in and unlike others in the carriage I headed straight for her owner on the middle of a big stretch of empty seats. Lady came straight up to me and sat by knee in anticipation of a few good pats. And as the late-night riders straggled onto the train, Lady gave them the silent look over. Her greeting was acknowledged by all. The owner and  several of us dog lovers chatted away the entire time. I can’t remember the last time I spoke so much about a dog, when I wasn’t in a dog park or standing outside a pet store.

That night the signage happened to be showing an error, and a parade of folks were entering the cars in puzzlement. But we were all well used to discrepancies on the overground so the regulars took turns reassuring the stragglers. This broke down the boundaries between passengers even more as the train filled up. All the revelers were catching the last train home. Unfortunately, one of the poor souls got sick. His eager friends started to disembark at the next station (for a bit more fun I imagine…) only to be challenged by the entire car with variations of “what kind of friends are you?” Well then. This is what public transit is supposed to be like.

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