No Exit: making public announcements on London’s deep level tube


I stand in a yellow box that has been painted Rothko style in the middle of the westbound platform. This yellow box is measured to the exact centre of the platform between the Headwall and the Tailwall and enables the Train Operator to have a clear sighting of me via their cab’s monitor. My announcements are repetitive. I repeat the same set phrase every two minutes for two and a half hours consistently, without interruption. I always repeat my announcement with the words ‘once again’. Yet no matter how many times I repeat my announcement I can guarantee there will be someone who doesn’t hear it.

In the deep level tube everyone is repeating. I repeat my announcements; the train operators repeat their journeys and the commuters stand in the same spot, every day of the week, five days in a row. These strangers have become weirdly familiar, as if we know each other from some other time or place. But if I stood here wearing my normal clothes no one would recognise me for they only know me through my uniform. My uniform makes me stand out yet renders me invisible.

To the passengers on the train I am behind glass. The glass acts as barrier. Protection. Partition. As you pass you see just a blur of a figure. The outline of a worker who you assume isn’t working. Or you don’t see me but instead your own reflection. I catch glimpses of my reflection on the glass of the train window as it passes through. Quick double stabs of reflections, a fleeting mirror image in the glass of a stained-with-florescent platform edge door.

My platform announcements are continuously being interrupted by an automated voice. The automated voice is judged by score charts and is required to meet targets. It takes preference over my voice, can override it and has the power to cut me off in mid-sentence.

I make my announcements using a RPA unit. In times of severe crowd control or if the RPA is malfunctioning I use a hand held megaphone. When you make announcements you become a performer. Like an actor on stage addressing a public. The announcers voice is loudest. We have gone from being invisible to primary focus as we are the source of all new information. Our power is real time information. Not past time or pretend time. Real time. If the RPA fails we use the wall mount. We switch it into operating mode with a key and speak into the wall.

Headphones block out unwanted sounds. Headphones make headspace. Some Train Operators wear uniform issued heavy duty ear phones to cut out the sound of the job. In the messroom during my meal break the sounds of the station break through via our connect radios and the station wide PA system. This is the sound of work. Interfering and interrupting with rest time. Some passengers wear headphones purely as a shield. We think you can’t hear yet you’re listening all the time. There’s an element of showmanship in the wearing of big expensive headphones. Like driving an expensive car. The more money you have the less you hear. Yet most earplugs allow unwanted sound to seep through. Announcements of train times, service updates and general station housekeeping messages interfere with selected, privately chosen tracks. This interference transforms an internal soundtrack into a soundscape unique to the underground. Coughs, chat up lines and complaints contribute to cause sonic interference. Thoughts are internalised and left unspoken. A commuter chant of grievance and petty annoyance silently seethes into a hum of non- voicing injustice, a nest of mantras buzzing with no outlet.

As a passenger you are moving through sound. Always. You don’t want to be standing still. If you are standing still it is because you are being forced to stand still. You are being kept. By me, and what I am announcing. I deal and trade in minutes. People who waste time on the tube stand out. Number one rule is keep moving. Please move in and out as quickly as you can. There are rules. Etiquettes. Stand on the right. Don’t look. Ever. If you laugh don’t laugh too loud. Let people off. Keep moving. Always keep moving. If someone shouts best ignore them. Eventually they’ll go away.

Sometimes my announcements are too loud. It can feel deafening, a bad mixture of grit like feedback and shrill static. Other times my voice is barely audible. But there is always an echo. The sense of swimming underwater. As if being this far underground and for this long instigates a feint, a gesture to the past, a realisation I am not completely alone when I make these public announcements.

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