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Lessons of London

This is not meant to be a joke but, in some ways, London is becoming more like Calcutta.

In deciding what should be done about the East-West Metro line in Calcutta, Justice Nadira Patherya today suggested perhaps slightly tongue-in-cheek: “The chief minister wants to turn Calcutta into London. Then what is the problem if Central station is made Piccadilly?”

Over in London, there wasn’t too much chance on Thursday to get to the finer points of Calcutta vs London.

“Sorry,” apologised a normally helpful press officer for TfL (Transport for London), “but I am having to deal with something urgent — tomorrow’s Tube strike.”

As far as one can recall, the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who has responsibility for the capital’s complex transport system, has not announced any plan yet to turn London into Calcutta. But on some strike days — there will be one on Friday — Bengalis living in London are reminded of the bad old-good old days.

For once, the London Underground workers seem to have the sympathy of a good part of the travelling public. This is because Johnson wants to close all ticket stations and make ticketing an automatic affair. This is not good for women’s safety.

But to get back to Justice Patherya’s remark, can Central be turned into a Piccadilly? The answer, judging by what’s going on in London, is a definite yes. With careful planning and modern engineering, billion-pound improvements are taking place across the London network.

Just to give one example, Jubilee Line trains are currently not stopping at Bond Street station, one of the busiest in London and the getting-off point for shopping in Oxford and New Bond streets. It will reopen, greatly improved, in December.

For several years, traffic was diverted around King’s Cross, a mainline railway station, because this became the terminus for Eurostar services to Europe. Parts of it now resemble a five-star hotel, complete with a long champagne bar.

If the problems can be managed in London, Calcutta ought in theory to be child’s play.

First, a bit of history: the London Underground serves a large part of Greater London and parts of the home counties of Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire and Essex. The system serves 270 stations and has 402 kilometres of track, 55 per cent of which is above ground. The network has now expanded to 11 lines, and in 2012-13 carried 1.23 billion passengers.

The Bakerloo Line, which serves Piccadilly, opened in 1906, as did the Piccadilly Line. Piccadilly Circus remains the focus for millions of tourists from around the London. It serves Regent Street and Piccadilly, plus Leicester Square with its cinemas, restaurants and theatres.

Soho is nearby but the strip clubs, once a magnet for Indian executives visiting London, have mostly gone. At any time of day or night, young people tweet pictures of themselves against the backdrop of the statue of Eros.

The Victoria Line was added in 1968 and the Jubilee Line (that goes from South-East London through the West End to North-West London) in 1979.

To be sure, there will be cost overruns and disruption to shop owners and residents who want the status quo. But if Calcutta is to be a modern, thriving metropolis, its Metro network has to be extended beyond two lines. And the interchanges between lines have to be convenient for passengers.

Baker Street (where you get off for Madame Tussauds) is served by the Bakerloo, Jubilee, Metropolitan, Circle Lines and the Hammersmith & City Lines. Oxford Circus, where visiting Indians disembark to do their shopping, is served by the Bakerloo, Central and Victoria lines.

The point is that the main Metro stations in Calcutta also will have to be served by several lines, if any lessons are to be learnt from London. As always, there will be no gain without pain.

London is also building Cross Rail to get to the bits the Tube does not reach. And also putting wi-fi into the main stations. Also, with the disabled and the old in mind, few stations are without lifts or escalators now.

One more thing that can be leant from London: “From autumn 2015, we will start running trains through the night on Fridays and Saturdays on core sections of five Underground lines.”

In simple language, the Luddites in Calcutta should stop making a fuss. And the government shouldn’t dither. It is worth recalling that before the Metro, a taxi from Belgachhia to Chandni could take an hour given the wrong traffic conditions. By Metro, the journey is around 13 minutes.