24-hour subways signal new era for London, night owls

Passengers pass an advert for the night tube on a platform at Oxford Circus underground (tube) station, in London, Wednesday August 17, 2016. The London underground launches a 'Night Tube' service for the London mass transport system on Friday August 19. (Dominic Lipinski / PA via AP)

LONDON — London bills itself as a global city, the world's biggest financial center and a creative hub to rival New York. Until now, though, getting home after midnight meant taking the bus.

Not anymore.

The London Underground is starting its first-ever overnight service, a move city leaders hope will make the British capital a truly 24-hour city and bolster the local economy.

The new service will only run on weekends and initially be available on just the well-traveled Central and Victoria lines. But the initiative reflects London's growing population and cosmopolitan mentality, marking a coming of age for a city that many in the Big Apple regard as quaint and sleepy.

"It's a psychological step because metros and subways and the Underground are always such totemic parts of cites," Tony Travers, an expert on urban issues at the London School of Economics, said. "They are like the circulation system of a city."

Economists like to point out that London is already a 24-hour city, with West End theaters, Michelin-starred restaurants and trendy nightclubs attracting customers from around the world well into the wee hours. Thousands of doctors, cleaners and maintenance workers also work graveyard shifts.

But the expanded Tube service comes at a good time for London, which has been anxious to reassure the world that the city is open for business and ready to welcome tourists despite Britain's recent vote to leave the European Union.

Efforts to keep the city humming around the clock have already produced 40 billion pounds ($52 billion) of economic benefits for the city, and the Night Tube service could be worth another 77 million pounds ($100 million), according to the business group London First.

"At a time of economic uncertainty— particularly following the Brexit vote — this is a welcome boost to London's economy," London First said in a statement.

Unlike New York, where a four-track subway system makes it possible to keep lines running while doing repairs at night, London's two-track system previously meant shutting the Tube from just after midnight until the early morning for daily maintenance, and even more limited hours on Sunday.

London Underground managers now believe they can complete all necessary maintenance work on weeknights, allowing them to offer overnight service on weekends.

Until now, the main late-night option for most Londoners was the city's famous double-decker buses. London's iconic black cabs and, more recently, ridesharing services like Uber, also have allowed people to get around after dark.

But the Tube, with its sturdy reliability and uniformity, offers a security blanket for commuters and tourists. Riders never get stuck in traffic, as you might on a bus. The stops never vary, whether you are watching for them or not.

The unionized workers that keep the Tube running were less excited about moving to the world of 24/7. Issues were raised about maintenance, security and quality of life that took three years to sort out.

"The truth is that it is not politicians and their top officials who will deliver a Night Tube for London," National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers General-Secretary Mick Cash said in a statement Friday. "It is the cleaners, station staff, drivers, engineers and all the other grades working anti-social hours who will be transforming London into a 24-hour city."

Some 100 British Transport Police officers will patrol the network on Friday and Saturday nights, offering assurance to revelers, commuters and tourists on the system.

"It can be a middle-aged clubber like me coming home after a late night out with your missus, not being stressed about the time of the last Tube," London Mayor Sadiq Khan said.

Planning for the change was meticulous. To get ready, Transport for London tested the service last weekend.

During the dress rehearsal, cleaning crews sopped up chicken soup flung around the carriages to simulate vomit. Staff members pretended to be loud and obnoxious passengers having a bit too much fun on a night out, a test in the diplomacy skills of station staff.

"We don't want a big bang (with) errors and mistakes," the mayor said.

Some regular riders have reservations. Manolis Zografakis, a digital consultant who runs a website called BrokeinLondon.com, wonders how plausible overnight subway service will be in a culture that often encourages binge drinking.

"They only qualm I have is that when people drink too much, they can be unstable," he said.

Finn Brennan, a district organizer for the driver's union, ASLEF, acknowledges that the new service is a nod to London's emergence as a 24-hour city. Whether or not the Tube runs late, Brennan insisted with a dollop of civic pride, the city has no peers in the night life department.

"I'm sure we surpassed NY a long time ago," he said.

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