Train drain: ‘I am around thousands of people … but I feel like I’m always alone’

People squash onto the London Underground during the morning rush hour. Pic: Ted Sullivan

Long commutes are a time to read a book, plug in to some tunes, and have some me time. But could they be more detrimental than you realise? In day two of our series, Is London Lonely?, we explore the impact of our daily journeys.

As more and more of us are priced out of the city, our commutes into work in the capital are lengthening and fuelling our disconnection from others.

Over half of Londoners spend up to two hours a day travelling between work and home, it can reach four hours for some, according to an EastLondonLines survey of 102 Londoners. And they hate every minute: “A commuters life is tough, and no one seems to care”, “It sucks”, and “It’s horrid!” are typical of the responses we were given when we asked how their journey makes them feel.

It’s expensive too, with a third of respondents spending, on average, between £101 – £150 a month.

And it’s lonely. “I find myself around hundreds, sometimes thousands of people …. but I feel like I’m always alone … it’s like no one exists,” says Andrea Cannas, 24, who took EastLondonLines with him as he commuted from Streatham to Canary Wharf (you can see his journey in the video below).

“Commuting is interesting, because a public space is treated like a private one,” explains Dr Alex Rhys-Taylor, a sociologist at Goldsmiths’ Centre for Urban and Community Research.

Our survey parallels the results of a 2019 report by the Trade Union Congress which found that Londoners have the longest journeys to and from work in England, spending on average 297 hours a year moving from A to B. This is 13 hours more than in 2008, and 59 hours longer than the second highest region – the commuting belt of the South East.

The Commuter experience. Video: Eleonora Girotto

Time spent travelling also restricts people’s ability to socialise in their community. Their network of associations are spread across the city. Family and friends live wider apart.

“It does affect social life, I can’t just come for a drink on a Wednesday afternoon,” says Tishanna Welch, 31, who also took EastLondonLines with her as she journeyed from Brentwood, Essex, to Canary Wharf.

It is important to note that Eastlondonlines’ survey was conducted via a social media call-out, so is not a scientific assessment, but it provides a useful snapshot of commuters’ experiences.

The daily migration into the city can also make our physical and mental health suffer too. In his study on its impacts, Thomas James Christian, senior analyst at the research organisation Abt Associates, concluded: “Each minute spent commuting is associated with a 0.0257 minute exercise time reduction, a 0.0387 minute food preparation time reduction, and a 0.2205 minute sleep time reduction.”

Alternately, maybe this me time is necessary. Rhys-Taylor suggests that if we spoke on the tube all the time, “The bombardment, and sensory maelstrom would be too much… you need that social distance… you’d be frazzled.” 

It’s true, for some their commute is a time to listen to their true crime podcast, read a book, or catch up on the news. Being alone does not, in of itself, make you lonely. “I like my commute: I feel that it’s my hour in the whole day where I can stay alone with my thoughts, ” explains Cannas.

Regardless, three Londoners with a passion for craft are trying to make life that little bit better for commuters who need it. 

Karen Arthur, Lexi Porter, and Edith Whitehead are encouraging people to colour, knit, and mould on public transport with their initiative, Craft Moves. The hope is these little activities will not only stimulate people and their creativity, making commutes more bearable, but also facilitate conversations that will ward off loneliness. 

“It doesn’t matter if they’re knitting or just talking,” says Porter, “it’s just a way to enable people to talk to us without feeling pressured.” 

Porter remembers one man on the train who was looking stressed and wouldn’t accept some colouring or plasticine – but he did start talking to her about how he was really struggling and was getting divorced. “That’s the whole purpose, to speak when you feel isolated: someone saying, ‘Hi, how are you?’ can be a big thing.”

The group have been taking crafts to the commuters since 2019 after they got involved in the Loneliness Lab’s research into loneliness, their work is funded by Collectively who started the Lab. The trio mainly focus on the Overground and Jubilee Lines as they are the most accessible routes for everyone. 

Sadly, due to the current situation with the government advising all but essential travel be halted in a bid against spreading coronavirus, their efforts have been stopped for now. But they have plans to expand their group to help more and more Londoners connect with another human on their daily journeys when everything is back to normal.

Silent or social, our commutes have an impact on how we feel; like with most things, it’s about striking the right balance.

This is day two of four in Eastlondonlines’ #IsLondonLonely? series. Read the rest of the series here

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