How do you go to the toilet on the Tube?

Maps and obsession

The Tube map inspired me to walk the whole system overground. But it's also inspired many people into another obsessive pursuit - breaking the record for visiting all the stations in the fastest time possible. Using the trains, that is. Using the system as it was intended to be used. (Well, sort of.) I recently had a chat with the one-time holder of this record (don't worry, he's trying to get it back), a wonderful man named Geoff Marshall. Never again will I look at a Ribena bottle in the same way ...

How do you go to the toilet on the Tube?

Geoff is a similar age to me (he turns 40 soon), fully socially literate, runs his own business (honest - you can see it here) and has, in his own words, ‘never written a train number down in my life'. It's reassuring to meet people like this. Geoff and I agree that we're obsessives who know we're obsessives, and that stops us being obsessives. We filter our nerdiness through a layer of irony, enjoying the challenge of (for instance) exploring the whole Tube system without ever letting it rule our lives.

This means we can relish the childishness of it all, but keep it in perspective. The Tube map is such a thing of beauty that it's no wonder it brings out the kid in us, the inner voice yelling ‘let's go there!' Or, in our case, and in our different ways, everywhere. Geoff's a particularly good example of how obsessiveness doesn't have to make you a Johnny No Mates: he always takes people with him on his record atttempts (of which there have been 19, with a 20th happening in a couple of weeks).

‘I need other people with me,' he says. ‘I'm a social person. The idea of spending 16-plus hours riding the Tube network on my own is the saddest thing in the world.' Plus there are practical advantages. ‘Some of the people form support groups, who can get food and drink ready for us. For instance we can call them when we're running towards the end of a line [sometimes it's quicker to do this than take the Tube itself - the challenge rules allow foot and bus, but no private transport] and say ‘we'll be there in ten minutes, buy the tea now.' Other helpers stay above ground so they can monitor the Tube's service status online. Knowing a section of line will be kaput for the next couple of hours allows plans to be redrawn.

The logistical details that Geoff reveals are fascinating (though he stops short of listing his full route - competition among challengers requires some secrecy). The three real ‘pains in the arse' are Mill Hill East, Kensington Olympia and the Central Line's Hainault loop. ‘Miss trains on two of those and you're dead.' The earliest Geoff has abandoned an attempt is 1pm. ‘If you've had bad luck and know you're not going to do it, there's just no point carrying on.' To give yourself maximum chance of breaking the record (currently 16 hours 29 mins) you need to start not, as you might expect, with the first train, but at 7am or so. ‘The lower frequency first thing means you'd spend ages waiting for trains.' If, however, you just want to ‘complete' (ie visit all the stations though not in a record time), then the first train is the one for you. It's rare that Geoff does the whole of a line in one go - sometimes the Bakerloo, but apart from that it's quicker to hop between lines, doing a section here, a section there.

TFL aren't overly-keen on people attempting the record, thinking that they get in the way of ‘proper passengers'. Who needs people having fun with your business, after all, and bringing it to the attention of people in a joyful and inspiring way? Their lack of cooperation extended as far as refusing to publish full timetables (as opposed to ‘first/last trains' ones). At least it did until Geoff made a Freedom of Information request and forced TFL to play ball. You might think timetables are so inexact as to be worthless. But Geoff reveals that some lines, for instance the Central, are run ‘under code' - the trains are driven automatically, with a driver there simply as back-up. If you see a white signal at a station as well as the usual red and green ones it means the train is operating this way - and will arrive and depart to the second. Not the Tube's usual reputation, I know. But it works often enough to be of use to Geoff.

His moment in the sun, or rather the Guinness Book of Records, occurred between May 4th 2004, when he clocked up a time of 18 hours 35 minutes 43 seconds, and June 2006, when someone beat him. (That was for the old network, including the East London Line which has now been eaten up by the Overground - each system redesign means the old record gets mothballed and new one is up for grabs.) Timing starts when your first train moves off, and stops when your foot reaches the platform of your last station. ‘I have my foot at the crack in the doors, ready for when they open,' says Geoff. Every second counts.

The one question people always ask, he adds (it shows my uselessness as an interviewer that I haven't), is ‘how do you go to the toilet?' Some stations have toilets, but of course that's only of use if you're getting off there (the record just requires you to visit every station, not alight - that would be impossible). Moor Park has facilities, as do Woodford and Epping, the latter being a godsend if you have, as usual, a 4 minute turnaround there; it's nowhere near the ends of any other lines, so you just come straight back on the Tube. But sometimes, Geoff admits, it's a case of - quite literally - bottling it. ‘You find an empty carriage, go to a corner, ask for some cover from a team mate and do your business. Ribena 500ml bottles are the best - they have a large opening.'

Geoff's girlfriend (called Victoria - just coincidence, he insists) shares his love of the unusual and has accompanied him on some attempts. Yes, they're adults. Yes, it's a strange way of spending your time. But by God it sounds fun. I'm glad there are people like them in the world. All power to their elbows - and, more importantly, feet - for the next record attempt. I for one will be following on Twitter (@to_the_trains). Let's hope their timings don't go down the tubes.


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Big Ben

On a visit to Big Ben, I was told that if you stand at the bottom of the tower with a portable radio and listen to the chimes on Radio 4 (they still transmit them live), you hear them on the radio before you hear them ‘for real’. I couldn’t believe it – but was intrigued enough to try it for myself. And you know what? It’s absolutely true. The bongs come out of the radio a fraction of a second before they reach your ears from the top of the tower. It’s something so silly, so counter-intuitive, that you have to tell people. (Well, I did.) Researching the explanation, I found that it’s because radio waves travel at the speed of light (186,000 miles per second) rather than the 700 or so miles per hour at which sound waves travel. The signal travelling down the wire from the microphone to the BBC goes at the speed of light too. Hence the radio version overtaking the real one.

I realised that this would be the perfect way to teach the principle in school physics lessons. Instead of a boring teacher droning on that ‘radio waves travel at the speed of light’, illustrate it with this beautiful and quirky little fact. The kids will remember it then. I certainly would have done if my physics teacher had taken this approach. As it was I had to wait until I heard a piece of so-called ‘trivia’ in my thirties.