The dog ate my homework

November 19, 2009

There is only one thing that Londoners like to complain about more than the weather: the tube.  London has the most extensive public transport system in the Europe, and therefore probably in the world. It reaches everywhere. If you’ve got three and a half hours to kill on a Saturday afternoon, you can go from London’s further northwest corner to its furthest southeast corner all by public transport (I know because we’ve ventured to London’s southern netherlands by public transport from our West London home to see friends many times, and spent nearly as much time getting there as it would take to fly to Rome for lunch). But its expansiveness does not stop Londoners from complaining – often and bitterly – about the tube’s flaws: it’s hot, poorly ventilated, germy, ridiculously crowded at peak times,  bloody expensive (a day pass for London’s two most central zones costs £5.20) and frequently delayed.

Tube delays are particularly vexing for people who have their commute to work timed to arrive during the same half minute every morning, but on the flip side, tube delays (real or imagined) make a convenient excuse if your late to work (my nanny’s favourite excuse is that the Piccadilly Line was running slow). The reasons for tube delays are numerous, but the top one based on my unscientific recollections of 7 years riding the tube are “signal failures.” The second most likely reason seems to be “a person under a train.” Today, the Piccadilly line was running with severe delays because of “a person under the train at Earl’s Court.” The sad thing about this is that no one stops and gasps to process the horror of the announcement made over the loud-speaker, everyone just carries on with their journey with their neutral commuter face on.

For the past few days I’ve been listening to a series of convoluted excuses from MSc students about why they can’t get their essays turned in on time and need extensions, which got the cynic in me thinking that maybe the person under the train was like the proverbial homework-eating dog. Seeing as everyone complains about the train delay, and it’s simply inhumane to complain about a delay caused by a person’s death or near-death experience, perhaps London Underground uses the “person under a train” excuse as a cover for generally slow service, exaggerating the number of incidents (though this too would of course be inhumane, and a movie with this general premise caused protest in the UK last year).

So I decided to do some reasearch: how many people a year fall under an underground train, and therefore, how often is this likely to disrupt the average commuters tube journey? Statistics on this topic are harder to find that you might expect: the Transport for London website seems unwilling to give such information away, perhaps because they don’t want to give people any ideas. But I did some digging, and I came up with the following. 50 people commit suicide every year on the London Underground (a number that is quoted widely in a number of places) and a further 4 died accidentally (all 2004 statistics). Not accounting for people that attempt to kill themselves and fail, or fall and live, this averages out to one a week. And that is a lot.

So discounting the seasonal cycle of suicides and accidents, the average London Underground passenger should expect to have some tube delay occur once a week because of a person under the train, which is indeed very sad. Which made me wonder something slightly different: why does London Underground tell us this in such a matter a fact way when it happens? Maybe it would be better to under-emphasise the incidents, so commuters don’t become so desensitized. The reason must be to placate customer complaints about tube delays. And that’s almost as bad as exaggerating the number of incidents. Almost.


One Response to “The dog ate my homework”

  1. Ishita said

    very interesting blog. i’m an economics graduate and i now work as an economics consultant. I have some very interesting articles on economics on my blog. please check it out and comment and follow me :)

    check it out economics posts on

    hope you enjoy it ;)

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