London's shortest tube journey
Time Out tackles the tiny underground journey from Covent Garden to Leicester Square
Leicester Square to Covent Garden on the Piccadilly Line. It’s the shortest tube journey in town – less than 300 yards long. It’s the briefest tube journey in town – just 45 seconds from platform to platform. And it’s also the most expensive tube journey in town – four quid to travel a quarter of a kilometre. But does this deter thousands of tourists every year from making the trip? Of course not.
London Underground are worried. Tourists are irresistibly drawn to Covent Garden, teeming as it is with fashionable boutiques, silver-faced mime artists and juggling unicyclists. But Covent Garden station is 100 years old, and struggling to cope. There’s no space to install escalators, so every year 16 million people have to fight their way in and out via the lifts and stairs. A major infrastructure upgrade is long overdue.
In a short-term attempt to limit passenger numbers at Covent Garden station, TfL have resorted to an unlikely poster campaign. Please don’t ‘follow the crowd’ to Covent Garden by train, they plead. Please consider the advantages of getting off the train somewhere else and walking the last bit of your journey above ground. It’s a strange request. But desperate measures are needed to persuade tourists that Leicester Square and Covent Garden are far closer in real life than they appear on the tube map. Indeed, as I can independently verify, to walk from one to the other takes no more than four minutes on foot.
But is London’s shortest tube journey actually quicker than a street level stroll? I decided to undertake a proper timed experiment to find out. I set off from the main entrance to Leicester Square station, armed only with an Oyster card and a stopwatch, and headed down into the bowels of Soho to discover the truth.
'Just 193 steps through slow-moving tourist cattle to go'
The Piccadilly Line platforms at Leicester Square proved considerably deeper than I expected. It took me 30 seconds just to reach the ticket barriers, then another 45 to walk down the second longest set of escalators on the entire tube network. I had to negotiate my way along a further series of passageways past herds of ambling shoppers (oh come on, come on!), but was then fortunate enough to step straight on to a waiting eastbound train. Perfect – except that my journey had already taken a full two minutes.
The doors slammed shut and London’s shortest tube journey began. Some of my fellow passengers were still trying to find a seat, unaware that it would hardly be necessary. A disembodied voice kicked in to announce ‘The next station is Covent Garden’ even before our carriage had entered the tunnel. There was just enough time to add a downright lie – ‘alight here for London’s Transport Museum’ – before the driver slammed on the brakes. We slid through the briefest of darknesses into our destination station, and the train slowly ground to a halt. By the time the doors finally opened, nearly three minutes had elapsed. Could there still be a chance of reaching the surface before my four-minute time limit was up?
Alas, Covent Garden isn’t an easy station to escape from, especially when you’ve alighted at the wrong end of the platform. I had to trudge slowly towards the exit passage behind a mass of excitable tourists, led by those who’d been lucky enough to be sitting in the fifth carriage. Valuable seconds ticked away – three minutes and counting.
And then the crucial decision faced by every passenger attempting to leave Covent Garden. Lift? Or stairs? Should one of the lifts be ready, then it’s a no-brainer. But if the lift doors are stubbornly closed, or beeping shut, then the spiral staircase can look very tempting. I have important advice for you. Never ever, under any circumstances, take the stairs. Don’t do it because although you think it might be quicker than waiting for the lift it won’t be, and the ascent will destroy you. There are 193 steps, and that’s the equivalent of climbing to the top of a 15-storey building. The only sensible way to tackle the Covent Garden staircase is from the top down. It’s enormously satisfying to trip nimbly past a succession of hapless souls stumbling breathlessly upwards, especially those with the added misfortune to be carrying heavy shopping. But on this occasion, because I was going up, the lifts were my only option.
Covent Garden station has four lifts, each capable of packing 50 sweaty souls inside. The majority of departing passengers stop and wait for the nearest of the four, so I was able to sneak past and dive into the farthest lift just before the doors closed. Unfortunately some impatient upstart behind me then attempted a similar entrance [doors opening] [doors closing], thereby prolonging our departure still further. My four-minute deadline approached, and passed.
And then a different kind of nightmare ascent began. My fellow internees and I groaned audibly as the impossibly chirpy tones of Johnny Vaughan suddenly echoed round the carriage. We cringed as he told us, in a voice befitting a detergent commercial, how best to reach various thrilling local attractions on leaving the station. And we grimaced as, oozing with breakfast DJ sincerity, he urged us to get our tickets ready for a fast exit. Believe us, Johnny, our exit could not have come soon enough.
The doors eventually opened to bring silent relief, but further seconds ebbed away as we shuffled through a bank of claustrophobic ticket barriers. Only then did I finally escape into the street; into the waiting arms of an orange-jacketed charity worker who attempted to interest me in saving the planet by direct debit. She was sorely disappointed.
My subterranean journey had taken a total of five minutes – almost 50 per cent longer than the equivalent journey at ground level. But it had been the down and the up which had devoured my time, and not the 45-second tube ride. Transport for London are right, it seems, to recommend that we walk to Covent Garden rather than taking the train. But if they really want to cut passenger numbers at this station I’d like to suggest an alternative angle to their advertising. Just warn us in advance that we’ll be sharing our lift journey with Johnny Vaughan, and they’ll soon have us all walking the streets instead.
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