15 Fast Facts About the London Tube

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I spend probably 40 minutes a day crammed cheek to sweaty jowl with other London commuters—some of them drunks, farters, and shovers—in a swiftly moving cylinder hundreds of feet underground. It’s usually hot, and despite the fact that we are Tetrised in there, all of us are trying desperately to pretend that we are completely alone. Rarely do I give thanks for the experience, but this year marks the 155th anniversary of the London Underground, that efficient marvel of public transport.

On January 9, 1863, the world’s first-ever underground railway train, steam-operated, pulled out of Paddington Station, and rumbled 3.5 miles down the tubular tunnel to Farringdon Station. The line, which was financed by Metropolitan Railway, was an instant success: Approximately 40,000 people lined up for the novelty of riding a train underground. Within six months, 26,000 people were riding the train each day.

By 1884, there were more than 800 trains in operation in what was called the Inner Circle, a circular line that enclosed central London and that is now just the Circle Line. And now, with more than five times that number of trains operating and millions of people safely and swiftly reaching their destinations every day, the London Underground is truly a modern miracle of efficient transport. Here are 15 impressive facts and figures you might not have known about the London Tube.

1. THE MAJORITY OF THE LONDON UNDERGROUND IS NOT UNDERGROUND.

A woman exits a London Underground station
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The entire London Underground network is approximately 249 miles long, employing more than 4100 trains, and linking 270 stations. But only about 45 percent of those miles are underground.

2. EACH TRAIN TRAVELS ABOUT 114,500 MILES A YEAR.

Each Tube train travels an average of 114,500 miles a year, or 4.6 times around the world. The longest distance between adjacent stations is approximately 3.9 miles, from Chesham to Chalfont & Latimer. The shortest distance is about 984 feet, between Leicester Square and Covent Garden on the Picadilly Line (and since Covent Garden is usually mobbed, you’re better off getting off at Leicester Square and walking).

3. MORE THAN 1 BILLION JOURNEYS ARE MADE EACH YEAR.

Each year, about 1.3 billion journeys are made on the London Underground. The busiest station in the network is Waterloo, which sees about 100.3 million passengers per year; the least used is Roding Valley.

4. HALF A MILLION MICE CALL THE UNDERGROUND HOME.

An estimated 500,000 mice live in the tunnels, but they’re not the only pests—the mosquitoes that live in the Tube are of a different and somewhat more vicious species than their aboveground cousins. Called Culex pipiens molestus, they’re supposedly known for their voracious appetites.

5. THERE ARE SOME GHOSTS REPORTEDLY LIVING DOWN THERE, TOO.

The London Underground is also supposedly home to a group of subterranean Londoners, who, just like the Mole People of New York’s Subway, took to the tunnels and mutated. The Tube is also reportedly home to a host of ghostly apparitions, including the Faceless Woman of Beacontree Station, the Toothy Man of Channelsea Depot, and the Screaming Spectre of Farringdon Station.

6. THE AVERAGE LONDONER SPENDS 11.5 DAYS OF EACH YEAR ON THE TUBE.

Passengers ride the London Tube
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The average Londoner spends an average of about 11.5 days each year on the Underground—5.2 of those days in the Underground’s underground tunnels. (What’s unknown is how many hours of those days are spent stopped underground, waiting for a signal failure to be resolved, for another train to move along, or for whatever bit of rubbish that has been thrown on the tracks at the station ahead of you to be cleared.)

7. THE FASTEST TRAINS TRAVEL AT SPEEDS OF OVER 60 MILES PER HOUR.

The fastest line is the Metropolitan, where trains can reach speeds of more than 60 miles per hour, but the average speed of a London Underground train is only around 20.5 miles per hour.

8. THE DEEPEST STATION IS NEARLY 200 FEET BELOW STREET LEVEL.

The deepest Underground station is Hampstead, on the Northern Line, which is located about 192 feet below street level. There’s an elevator, of course, but also an emergency spiral staircase featuring more than 320 steps, in case of emergency (or a fit of exercise mania).

9. IN 1969, QUEEN ELIZABETH TOOK CONTROL OF THE VICTORIA LINE.

In 1969, Queen Elizabeth II commemorated the opening of the Victoria Line by driving one of the new trains from Green Park to Oxford Circus. It was her second ride ever on a London Underground train, the first being when she was 13 and accompanied by her sister and governess. Presumably her stint as Tube driver was without incident, as eight years later, the Queen was again allowed in the cab of a Picadilly Line train when she presided over the opening of the line’s extension.

10. THE FIRST ESCALATOR WAS A MISERABLE FAILURE.

The Underground’s first real escalator was built in 1911 at Earl’s Court, but four years before that, a spiral escalator was installed at Holloway Road Station. It didn’t last very long—in fact, it only lasted for a day of testing and never actually saw public use. Its remains are held at the London Transport Museum’s Depot, which is only open to the public a few times per year.

11. THE LONGEST ESCALATOR IS NEARLY 200 FEET LONG.

 Commuters on the escalator at London's Angel underground station, which are the longest escalators on the tube network.
Dan Kitwood, Getty Images

The longest escalator at any Underground station is the 197-foot-long moving stair at Angel, in Islington, on the Northern line.

12. PEOPLE HAVE LEFT A LOT OF WEIRD THINGS ON THE TRAINS.

Among the strangest things left on the Underground and collected by the Lost Property Office: a jar of bull semen; an outboard motor; three dead bats in a container; a vasectomy kit; a harpoon gun, which may have gone with the 14-foot-long boat; a stuffed eagle; breast implants; false teeth and a surprising number of prosthetic limbs; a four-foot-tall Mickey Mouse; six full-sized mannequins; and an urn containing a dead man’s ashes, which was reunited with his brother five years after it was lost.

13. JERRY SPRINGER WAS BORN AT HIGHGATE STATION.

Politician-turned-trash talk show host Jerry Springer was born at Highgate Station on the Northern Line on February 13, 1944, when his mother sought shelter during a Luftwaffe raid during World War II.

14. MANY PEOPLE USED TUBE STATIONS AS AIR RAID SHELTERS DURING WORLD WAR II, EVEN THOUGH THE GOVERNMENT BANNED THE PRACTICE.

Speaking of air raids: At the start of the London Blitz, Germany’s nightly bombing raids on the British capital in September 1939, the government banned people from using the Tube stations as air raid shelters, claiming that the stations should be reserved only for transport. People got around the ban by simply buying a ticket and refusing to leave the platform. A month later, the government realized that the ban was unenforceable at best and cruel at worst, and gave the go-ahead for stations to be used as shelters.

By the end of the war, sheltering in the Underground had became so regular that a ticketing scheme was introduced to keep people from panicking at the queues, and more than 22,000 bunk beds were installed in stations across the system to provide places for them to sleep.

15. ITS ICONIC MAP WAS INSPIRED BY A CIRCUIT BOARD.

A map of the London Underground
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The London Underground’s iconic map, which bears no relationship to actual topographical or geographical features, was designed in 1933 by Harry Beck. Beck, an engineering draftsman who worked in the London Underground’s signals office, was supposedly inspired by electronic circuit boards, and saw ways of tidying up the lines. But the department rejected the initial proposal, claiming it was too radical, and Beck was paid a paltry sum, less than $15, for his work. Two years and some modifications later, however, the Underground adopted the map and has used it ever since.

11 Tips for Avoiding Germs at the Grocery Store

The early bird doesn't catch the germ.
The early bird doesn't catch the germ.
Minerva Studio/iStock via Getty Images

While going to concerts, movie theaters, bars, beaches, and other recreational destinations is temporarily on hold, there’s one outing that remains a necessity during self-isolation: grocery shopping. If any supermarkets in your area offer home delivery or even store pickup, this is a good time to take advantage of those services.

But if you, like many of us, still need to stock up on food the old-fashioned way, here are some helpful tips for avoiding germs when you venture to the store.

1. Go early in the morning.

Not only will stores be less crowded in the early morning, but they’ll probably be cleanest then, too, since the staff often sanitizes the premises at night. Because many stores are devoting their early hours of operation to senior citizens only, Reader’s Digest suggests calling ahead to find out when your store opens to the general public.

2. Bring hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, or disposable gloves (and wipe down your cart).

Though many stores are now putting disinfectant wipes near the carts so you can wipe them down, you should bring your own just in case. This is especially important, since studies have found that COVID-19 can live for two or three days on plastic surfaces.

Your cart won’t be the only potentially germy place you put your hands during your trip—door handles in the frozen food section, self-checkout screens, and credit card keypads are all risky zones. Be sure to either wipe them down before touching, use hand sanitizer after touching, or just wear gloves that you can toss out at the end of your trip.

3. Don’t touch your face.

This may seem like a no-brainer, but you might be especially prone to absentmindedly touching your face while you contemplate which non-dairy milk to choose when your first choice is out of stock.

4. Don't touch your phone either.

Phone screens are a great example of high-touch surfaces where germs can live, so instead of keeping a grocery list on your smartphone, write it on a piece of scrap paper that you can throw away after you’re finished.

5. Give yourself more time to shop than you usually need.

Maintaining at least 6 feet between you and every other shopper means occasionally waiting for occupied aisles to clear and moving more slowly so you don’t run into people—not to mention the time it takes to use hand sanitizer or disinfectant wipes intermittently. If you’re trying to fit in a quick shopping trip before an important Zoom call with your boss, you may be less conscientious about shopping safely.

6. Inspect items for holes in the packaging (or the food itself).

Make sure there aren’t any rips or tears in cereal boxes, potato chip bags, or any other packaging—and that goes for produce, too. Give those apples a nice long look to be certain there aren’t any holes or breaks in the skin that germs could easily get into.

7. Bypass the free samples.

Surprise snacks at supermarkets are one of the perks of grocery shopping, but Livestrong points out that exposed food is an easy target for germs. So skip the free samples and don't graze on those bunches of grapes; instead, reward yourself with an extra snack at home. Some stores, like Costco, are even suspending their samples during this time, so you won't be so tempted.

8. Don’t pay with cash.

While there’s a certain satisfaction in counting out exact change, cash has a reputation for being a hotbed for germs. If possible, stick to cards or other automatic methods of payment. Even then, it's not the worst idea in the world to wipe down debit and credit cards after using them.

9. Leave the grocery bags on your doorstep.

Store employees are being extra cautious about cleanliness, but it’s still possible that your bags could pick up germs during the checkout process. To avoid the risk, leave them outside and only bring your items into the house.

10. Wash reusable bags between trips.

If you’ve made the switch to reusable shopping bags, Food Network recommends tossing them in the washing machine or wiping them down with soap and water between shopping trips.

11. Wash produce and wipe down other items.

Per usual, you should thoroughly rinse produce before eating it. Dr. Lisa Larkin, a Cincinnati-based internal medicine physician and founder of Ms.Medicine, told Reader’s Digest that you can also wipe down jars, cans, and bottles with a disinfectant wipe before putting them in your pantry for good measure.

[h/t Reader’s Digest]

12 Things You Might Not Know About Passover

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For practicing Jews, Passover is a time to remember their deliverance from captivity in ancient Egypt. It's one of the most important holidays on the Jewish calendar, and in the days before the first night's seder, families make preparations such as cleaning the home of chametz and planning for a week of meaningful dietary restrictions. Here are 12 facts about Passover that you wouldn't have learned from a yearly viewing of The Ten Commandments.

1. Firstborn sons need to fast for Passover.

matzo
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The festival of Passover (or Pesach) commemorates the story of the Jews' escape from Egypt. The passover in question is when the houses of the observant Israelites in captivity were "passed over" as Egypt's first-born children were killed (although confusingly, in the Torah, the date the 14th of Nisan is referred to as Passover while the week-long celebration is the Festival of Matzot. They've since been combined into one celebration called Passover).

In celebration of the firstborns being saved, it is traditional for them to fast on 14 Nisan. If there are no children, the oldest member of the household fasts. If the firstborn is a daughter? That depends on the tradition of the community.

2. Passover lasts either seven or eight days.

reading the Haggadah at Passover
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The Torah says to celebrate Passover for seven days (the time between the Exodus and the parting of the Red Sea), but many Jews outside of Israel celebrate for eight. Traditionally each month of the Jewish calendar was determined by an astronomical observation and could be either 29 or 30 days long. After a new month was determined, messengers spread the word. For Jews who lived too far away for messengers to bring timely news of a new month, it was safest to celebrate for an extra day, so no matter how long the previous month was, the holiday was celebrated.

Eventually the calendar was standardized and the eight-day custom was no longer needed. Today, some Jewish denominations outside of Israel (like Reform Judaism) celebrate the mandated seven days, while many others prefer eight days. Inside Israel it's generally seven.

3. Leavened grains are a no-go at Passover.

Person sweeping the floor
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One of the most important parts of Passover preparations is cleaning the house of chametz, or leavened food. Even the tiniest bit has to go. Because the Jews left Egypt in such a hurry, it's said they didn't have time to leaven their bread. To commemorate that, five grains (traditionally wheat, barley, rye, spelt, and oats) are banished from the house. Jews can spend weeks ensuring that the house is perfectly clean—and there are even professional chametz cleaning services that say they'll boil toys, break down and reassemble kitchen chairs … and possibly still leave the house dirty. There's a saying in Jewish households: "Dust is not chametz." The goal is to get rid of chametz above all else.

4. Matzo, which is made from wheat, is one of the most important parts of a Passover meal.

baking matzo
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While there are restrictions against leavened products, one of the most important parts of a Passover meal is matzo, which is made from wheat. The difference between matzo and regular bread is that the wheat in matzo cannot come into contact with any water until it's ready to be cooked. And once water and wheat are mixed it has to be baked within 18 minutes (sources differ as to whether the timer stops when it enters or leaves the oven). After 18 minutes, fermentation begins and it is chametz.

But why 18 minutes? Supposedly it's because that's how long it takes to walk between the cities of Migdal Nunaiya and Tiberias in Israel. Over the years, scholars have argued about how long it would actually take to walk between the cities, with some proposing that copying errors reduced the distance from circa 4 miles to 1 and thus reduced the time from 72 minutes to 18. Nowadays, it's felt that even if there was a transcribing error, there's enough tradition to use 18 minutes.

5. Grains get complicated during Passover.

matzo ball soup
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As Jews spread around the world, they often found themselves faced with foods that weren't explicitly mentioned for Passover. Sephardic Jews (generally) feel that only the five expressly mentioned grains are forbidden, while Ashkenazi Jews worry that the dishes made from certain other plants that look similar and are grown in similar conditions as the forbidden grains will risk contamination between the two. So if these ingredients (called kitniyot, or "legumes") were avoided, actual chametz could more easily be avoided (although kitniyot is nowhere near as regulated as chametz).

But recently, some authorities have argued that improved technology and storing methods have rendered the old methods obsolete. It's a current debate in some communities.

6. Some of the best matzo flour is made in Arizona.

field of wheat
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One of the most difficult parts of making matzo is keeping the flour dry before it's ready to be converted into matzo; any water risks converting flour into chametz. So, according to The New York Times, one sect of Hasidic Jews has found the perfect farming conditions to produce their wheat—the arid fields of southwestern Arizona. The group of ultra-Orthodox Jews from Brooklyn, New York, work with a farm in Yuma, Arizona, to ensure that no unwanted moisture affects the crop, and the resulting kosher wheat is shipped back east to make up to 100,000 pounds of matzo.

7. Pets also get special food during Passover.

cute dog with head tilted
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For Passover, houses must be free of chametz and there can be no benefit derived from it. This includes pet food. In keeping with this, there are Passover-friendly pet foods out there, and some Rabbinical authorities propose switching out your pet's diet for a few days—such as giving dogs straight meat or herbivores a variety of approved vegetables. If a pet must have a specific type of food—or you can't get Passover-friendly pet food—some observant Jews follow the rabbinical authorities who give the option to sell the pet to a gentile for a few days and then get it back after Passover has ended.

8. There are six symbolic Passover foods.

seder plate for Passover
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The focal point of the start of Passover is the Seder plate, and on it are six ceremonial items:

Beitzah—A cooked egg, representing sacrifice (it's also been suggested that while most foods soften when you cook them, eggs get harder, representing the resolve of the Jewish people)

Haroset—a sweet mix of fruits, nuts, and honey/wine that symbolizes the mortar used by Jews during their slavery

Karpas—a green vegetable signifying new life

Maror and hazeret—bitter herbs (often horseradish for maror and something like romaine for hazeret) to represent the bitterness of slavery

Zeroa—a shank bone (or a chicken neck) to remember the Paschal sacrifice.

9. Sometimes an orange is added to the Seder plate.

slice of orange
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In the 1980s, Dartmouth professor Susannah Heschel spoke on a panel at Oberlin College. While there, she met some students who told a story of a rabbi who said "There's as much room for a lesbian in Judaism as there is for a crust of bread on the seder plate." In response, they started placing a crust on their plates.

Heschel was inspired, but felt that using bread sent the wrong message, writing "it renders everything chametz … [suggesting] that being a lesbian is being transgressive, violating Judaism." So she proposed putting an orange (originally a tangerine) on the Seder plate to symbolize Jewish gays and lesbians. At some point a story emerged that it was actually to symbolize women in general, but Heschel explained: "A woman's words are attributed to a man, and the affirmation of lesbians and gay men is erased. Isn't that precisely what's happened over the centuries to women's ideas?"

Other more modern additions include pine cones (symbolizing mass incarceration), an artichoke (to recognize interfaith families), or tomatoes or Fair Trade chocolate (to remember that there's still slavery around the world).

10. Some major companies produce special kosher-for-Passover food and beverages.

ad for kosher Coca-Cola
Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC-BY-2.0

Many companies produce special kosher-for-Passover products, from chocolate syrup to cake mixes. But one of the most important is Coca-Cola. In the early 20th century Rabbi Tobias Geffen was serving as an Orthodox Rabbi in Atlanta. Due to his location (Coca-Cola was invented and is headquartered in Atlanta), he was frequently asked if Coca-Cola was kosher. After analyzing the product, he found two problem ingredients—alcohol and glycerin.

The alcohol was a problem because it was grain-derived and thus unacceptable for Passover, a problem that was solved by switching to fermented molasses. The other problem, however, was glycerin. The glycerin was derived from animals, and there was simply no economic way to ensure the animals were kosher. As Roger Horowitz explains in Kosher USA, there's an exemption in the rules for a tiny amount of an unacceptable ingredient—designed to cover mistakes—and Coca-Cola's glycerin content was dramatically below that level. Rabbi Geffen, however, believed that since the glycerin was deliberately added, it didn't qualify for this rule. Soon though, a new source of glycerin from cottonseed oil emerged, and Coca-Cola was approved for Passover.

When Coca-Cola switched to high fructose corn syrup, however, that created a problem for Ashkenazi Jews. As such, today there's a special yellow-capped Coca-Cola that doesn't use HFCS and is certified kosher.

11. Maxwell House coffee holds a special place at Passover.

Maxwell House Haggadahs
Tom Lappin, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

But the most influential company is likely Maxwell House. In the 1920s they decided to expand their presence to Jewish families—but there was a problem. Colloquially known as coffee "beans," there was a view that they were legumes, and as such forbidden to Ashkenazi Jews. Soon Maxwell House convinced reluctant coffee drinkers that their product was acceptable and in 1932 the company began publishing the Maxwell House Haggadah (the Haggadah is the telling of the Exodus and how to perform a seder meal). In the years since, Maxwell House estimates that it has published 50 million Haggadahs, which were even the preferred text for the Obama White House Seder.

12. The world's largest Seder happens in a surprising location.

Hundreds of worshippers gather in a hall for Passover in Kathmandu in 2014.
Hundreds of worshippers gather in a hall for Passover in Kathmandu in 2014.
PRAKASH MATHEMA, AFP/Getty Images

Going on for almost 30 years and hosting over 1000 people, the Kathmandu Seder was started in 1989 by the Israeli ambassador to Nepal, who quickly realized that the demand was much higher than he was ready for. The ambassador contacted a rabbi friend who dispatched two rabbinical students to aid the preparations. The seder was a massive success—expecting 90 guests and hoping for 150, they ultimately had 500 guests.

Nowadays, preparations for the seder start months in advance, with 1000 bottles of wine and over 1000 pounds of matzo getting shipped in from the United States and Israel.

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