Argument in a Circle

My calendar (calendar? what am I talking about? I mean, of course, my phone and my computer) is telling me that today is 8 September.

Seems about right: I seem to remember yesterday was the 7th. Without this reassurance, though, I might have thought that it was 1 April.

This is because, as a kind of tail end to the summer ‘silly season’, some of our more reactionary newspapers are giving publicity to an ‘idea’ from architects nbbj, who are suggesting that the Circle Line of London Underground could be replaced by a series of parallel moving belts — ‘travelators’ — which would move at successively faster speeds.

They claim that this would be more efficient than the ‘late-running’ trains (I am indebted to the Evening Standard for this description) which presently provide the service.

How anyone can know if an Underground train is running late unless they have a copy of the working timetable is beyond me. Neither, with headways of a couple of minutes, do I care if train 703 is actually in its theoretical path or not. But there, the Standard probably inserts the adjective ‘late-running’ as a matter of course when it refers to trains, just as all rail passengers are ‘commuters’, irrespective of the purpose of their journeys.

The principle of moving belts (you board the slowest, and then progressively step across to the faster ones) can be traced back to a story written by Robert Heinlein soon after the Second World War, called ‘The roads must roll’. His system was more ambitious — the fastest belts were really fast, and wide enough to include structures such as restaurants.

But the Circle Line suggestion is a recognisable development of Heinlein’s story, even without the restaurants.

Heinlein, however, was intentionally writing fiction. nbbj appears to be serious.

Well, now. I have not been able to see the nbbj version (there is nothing obvious on its website), so I am relying on newspaper summaries, which may have omitted some of the details.

But taking the idea as it is being presented, it demonstrates a breathtaking ignorance of the layout of London Underground. The truth is that there is no such thing as a Circle Line, because it is really a Circle Service. Nearly all its route is shared with Metropolitan, Hammersmith & City or District services. There are just a couple of short lengths at the south western and eastern ‘corners’ which are used exclusively by Circle trains.

Indeed, even the Circle ceased to be a true Circle several years ago. Circle trains now start from Hammersmith, terminating at Edgware Road after one circuit and then going back the way they came, until they pass through Edgware Road again en route to Hammersmith. You could call it a Coffeecup Service, perhaps.

If you replace the traditional ‘Circle’ route with moving belts, what happens to the other lines? The District would be interrupted at Earl’s Court and Aldgate East, the Hammersmith & City would be reduced to two shuttles serving Hammersmith and Barking, and there would be no Metropolitan trains to Farringdon and Aldgate. Parts of the Circle route are in the open air, so take your umbrella on cloudy days.

Moving belts also seem unlikely to satisfy accessibility rules, and would surely pose problems for people in wheelchairs and, indeed, anyone who is not too steady on their feet.

The nbbj website includes the mantra that “Ideas are the source of innovation. They propel us forward, fueling new insights and breakthroughs.” Quite so (even when the propulsion apparently depends on a US spellchecker).

I am sure this firm has come up with some excellent ideas in other fields, and although this one is not so much an argument in a Circle as utterly beside the point, it has at least got nbbj’s name mentioned in a few places.

Perhaps that was the real idea?

One thought on “Argument in a Circle

  1. A few years ago the RATP installed a travelator at the Montparnasse metro station in Paris; this travelator had a variable speed system, accelerating from 2.5 to 12 km/hr. After 6 months the speed was reduced to 9 km/hr but even at that speed there were many incidents and after a few years RATP decided to replace it by a conventional travelator.

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