The public transport system targeted by the London bombers is the embodiment of the democratic values they hate, says CHRISTIAN WOLMAR.
I had wanted to write about something else this week. Like, for example, Alistair Darling chopping yet more tram schemes in the face of supposedly mounting costs; or the wonderful shenanigans revealed at the Railtrack shareholders court case.
But there is only one subject that can be discussed, even though by the time readers see this article over a week will have passed since the terrible events of July 7 in London. And I apologise if this is not the usual sort of column lambasting politicians and hounding poorly performing rail companies, but the events of the one of the most momentous weeks in the history of the British capital bear a modicum of reflection and thought rather than a rant even if, personally, I am more angry about this than anything else I have ever written about.
Sometimes it takes a bit of time just to realise the enormity of what had been perpetrated. At first, as I toured the TV studios trying unconvincingly to answer questions about how the attacks could have been caused by a power surge, there was little time to think about the horror of what had happened. I had lived in London throughout the IRA bombing campaigns which stretched from the early 1970s to the mid 1990s but this was on a whole different scale.
There were no pictures, as in Madrid, of blown up trains, just that bus in Tavistock Square. I was mightily relieved that I had cycled along the bottom side of the square on the way to Sky TV ten minutes before the bombing.
Even as it became apparent – as it had always been likely given the fact that this was the day of the G8 summit in Scotland – that the attacks had been caused by terrorists, it took a while for the full horror to percolate through. All the attacks on the trains had taken place in tunnels, and so there were no pictures of dead and dying people being carried by their fellow passengers there had been in the aftermath of the Spanish attack.
Indeed, it is normally on the day after these tragedies and disasters that the story takes on a human face, when names are being put to the victims and the anguish of relatives and friends is shown in countless photographs in the newspapers. It can, too, be the odd little details that are most poignant. Remember the sound of the mobile phones of the victims ringing at Ladbroke Grove and the message with a bouquet of flowers from a little girl left for her dead Daddy at the site of the disaster. This time it was the pictures of the missing, which have now become a regular feature of such disaster scenes that seemed to bring it home to the public. They showed the ordinariness and the diversity of the victims, randomly selected by bad luck.
Ken Livingstone, despite being in Singapore, caught the mood perfectly. He is a politician who speaks from the heart and the combination of anger – nay, rage – and grief in his face and his voice as he spoke about how the bombers had attacked ordinary people, irrespective of their religion, age or colour was deeply moving. This was not a politician trying to be make a grand speech about unknown places and anonymous people. He was talking so movingly about how his city, the London he loves, had been desecrated by these faceless fanatics and how it was his people who had been hurt and he conveyed that magnificently, It was difficult not to shed a tear as we watched him on the TV.
I share his outrage. This is London, my city, and the Underground which I love and about which I have had two books published. As I write this a couple of days after the attack, it is difficult not to shed not just for the victims and their relatives and friends, but for London as a whole. This is, as Livingstone stressed, a community of diverse people living, for the most part, in harmony, and it was amazing how suddenly we all become Londoners in a way that I had never felt before. There was a fantastic pride about just simply acting normally, going to work or socialising as we always had.
The coincidence of the Olympic announcement and the bombing heightened that sense of togetherness. People even began to talk to each other on the Tube, as everyone clearly felt slightly apprehensive but determined to go back on it. London will survive and so will its public transport system.
Indeed, the public transport system is an integral part of what makes London and brings us together . You only have to visit those ghastly sprawling American cities to realise that the public transport is the glue that binds us all together and which makes living in London bearable. Attacking a motorway or an underpass would somehow not have the same impact and the bombers know it. The public transport system is the lifeblood of the city and if, God forbid, they ever succeeded in bringing it to a halt, then they would have triumphed.
In a way, therefore, the public transport system represents the democratic values that we all hold dear and which are being challenged by these faceless and mute bombers, who do not even express their demands in public. They just try to destroy us and the things, like the transport system, which underpin our society.
Therefore, part of the anger which I feel comes from the fact that public transport, and in particular railway, systems were yet again the target for these outrages. While the description of these attacks as cowardly has always struck me as misplaced because it takes courage to carry bombs around and to risk a life in prison for one’s cause, however misguided, the choice of trains and buses as targets demonstrates that there is simply no way to protect them against terrorists.
It was refreshing to see Tony Blair be open about this. No matter what security is introduced, and irrespective of whatever draconian legislation is brought in to restrict our civil liberties in the face of the terrorist threat, there is nothing that can be done to protect society against a determined and well organised fanatic willing to bomb a train or a station.
People may thus be tempted to think that travelling in their cars would be a safer alternative. Of course, the statistics disprove that since car travel is many times more dangerous per mile travelled, and car journeys are not only more damaging to the environment but do not even afford the small amount of exercise gained by public transport users in walking to and from stations and bus stops which helps protect against heart disease. Harsh as it is, one has to retain a sense of perspective about the risks. Sure, a few dozen people were killed, but set against two million daily Tube users, the chances of being in an attack are very low. I know an awful lot of people who missed the attacks by five or ten minutes but, thank God, I don’t know anyone who was hurt in one of them even though my nearest Tube station is just one stop on the Piccadilly line from King’s Cross.
The fact that the bombs came the day after London had won the Olympics for 2012 was probably coincidental but nonetheless was especially poignant. There were lots of immediate questions on the media about whether London was too obviously a target to host the Olympics but these can be dismissed as just plain daft. Any Olympic city will require extra security and London is no exception, but the UK is, if anything, probably slightly less vulnerable to attack because our borders are more easy to police since we live on an island.
To end, there is something that has already been widely said but which bears repeating, just for the many people in the industry who read this magazine. The response of the emergency services and of both London Underground and national rail staff was absolutely magnificent. From the police officer who had the wit to commandeer a London bus to take walking wounded people to hospital, to the large numbers of staff who came in to work in response to the emergency. Clearly, the carefully rehearsed plans for such an emergency bore fruit. The lessons of the 1987 King’s Cross fire when hapless staff directed passengers on to the escalator under which the fire was burning have been learnt. The industry and all who work in it can stand proud.