I have always thought there was a chance the Tube was an evil experiment devised by a mad scientist to see how long a populace would endure torture for the sake of convenience.
The results of that experiment, if it actually existed, seem to be conclusive – a long time.
The Tube is the best and worst things about London rolled into one.
It is lively, it is characterful and it allows passengers to get around the city lightning quick.
On the other hand, it is an assault on the senses and personal space.
Most complaints about the tube seem to be centred around inconvenience or invasions of people’s personal bubbles; very few seem to mention the elephant in the room – just how noisy the tube can be.
I have watched as faces crease, fingers go in ears and teeth being ground when the train carriage pulls through a particularly loud patch.
I have heard groans of pain and the occasional cuss word after the din dies down, but generally people just grin (or grimace) and bear it.
As someone not originally from London I have found myself time and time again questioning why people put up with it.
It had never occurred to me that the level of noise unleashed on a daily basis on its 1.35 billion annual passengers might actually be harmful.
I wanted to investigate how loud the tube really is, so this intrepid reporter brought a decibel metre onto various tube lines and I was astonished at the results.
I started big, with what I thought would be the loudest part of the tube, on the Central Line between Stratford and Leyton.
It is a barrage to the senses, it’s the stretch of track where I have seen children physically cry out and put their fingers in their ears.
The worst thing about this particular section is how prolonged the noise level is.
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As I will describe later, there were louder parts of the Tube than this stop, but nothing felt like it went on as long.
The decibel metre showed a steady 100-108dB reading for almost the entire journey. To put that into some perspective, a nightclub is said to be around 100dB and a riveting machine is around 110dB.
Because of a quirk with the decibel measurement system, every 3 dB increase is actually double as loud.
Advice from the Royal National Institute for Deaf People says: “You’re at risk of hearing damage after just 15 minutes when you’re in an average nightclub, which plays music at 100dB, if you don’t use earplugs to protect your ears.
“For sounds of 110–120dB, even a very short exposure time can cause hearing damage.
“The safe exposure time for 85dB is up to eight hours a day. Remember that you’re exposed to lots of different sounds that are 85dB or over throughout the day, and this exposure time adds up.
“As sound intensity doubles with every increase of 3dB, the safe exposure time halves. So, for example, the safe exposure time for 88dB is four hours.”
For reference, the volume limiter on an iPhone for headphone users is 82dB.
It is actually against health and safety protocols for someone in a workplace not to be given ear protection for noise consistently above 85dB.
The fact that the Stratford to Leyton stretch was 15 to 20 decibels higher than this means it is 3 or 4 times noisier than what is considered too loud by both the government and Apple.
I must stress this wasn’t the highest reading I got.
When you take out the more modern quieter lines like the Hammersmith & City, Metropolitan, Circle and District lines out of the equation – all being around 80dB with light fluctuations – you realise that all other lines are averaging way above what is considered safe.
In an Economist article titled ‘The Tube is worryingly noisy’, date they have collected makes it clear that decibel levels on Tube trains consistently rise well above safe levels.
Busier lines are often worst affected.
I brought my decibel reader onto a number of different routes and lines and repeatedly got max readings of over 100dB and sometimes even over 110dB which is louder than an air horn at 1 metre.
The worst reading I got is part of the Tube I commonly use, between Liverpool Street and Bethnal Green, which reached a max reading 113.1dB.
The BBC found that this section of the tube recorded the highest noise level when they tested back in 2018, recording over 109dB.
The line with the highest average decibels across the whole journey is on the Northern line between Kentish Town and Tufnell Park, with passengers exposed to a staggering 97dB – that’s nearing the noise level of a jackhammer.
In my very small and admittedly limited study, I found noise levels that shocked me.
107.2 dB from Waterloo to Westminster, 111.1dB from Green Park to Bond Street, 112.2dB from Kings Cross to Camden Town.
All my readings for noise spikes were worse than The Economist or BBC studies from 2019 and 2018 respectively – and this got me wondering.
Is Tube noise not only difficult to listen to and potentially harmful but also getting progressively worse?
I ask an acoustics engineer to explain the causes of Tube noise.
James Block, Associate Consultant for Acoustics at engineer firm AECOM, said: “At speeds of more than about 30 mph, the dominant source of sound from a train is ‘wheel-rail rolling’ noise.
“The surfaces of the wheels and rails where they are in contact with each other are not perfectly smooth and the undulations in these surfaces generate the vibration as one rolls over the other.
“These undulations are known as the ‘roughness’ of the wheels and rails and cannot usually be seen by the naked eye as they have amplitudes of micro meters or 1/1000th of a millimetre.”
“Levels of roughness can increase in railway wheels and rails over time due to the passing traffic.
“Extremely high levels of roughness can lead to an increase in sound of up to 20 dB (decibels). For context, an increase of 10 dB is a subjective doubling of loudness.’
So it is entirely possible that the Tube has gotten louder in just the few years between the BBC’s findings and my own, especially if no efforts to curtail tube noise have been taken.
Why is this actually important though?
Ok the Tube is noisy and possibly getting noisier but it doesn’t matter as long as you aren’t exposed to it for too long, right?
There are some things Tube users should bear in mind in response to this.
As part of their investigation, the BBC asked an academic about the consequences of Tube noise.
Dr Joe Sollini, of UCL’s Ear Institute, analysed the BBC’s data and said “it was concerning.”
“Hearing loss accumulates over our lifetime,” he said.
“If someone was on a noisy Tube line every day for long journeys, it is perfectly possible this could increase the risk of hearing loss and potentially tinnitus.”
It is the cumulative effect that is so concerning.
One Tube journey from Liverpool Street to Bethnal Green might not leave a person deaf, but regular commutes could cause damage.
I spoke to hearing expert Franki Oliver, an Audiology Adviser at Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID).
He said: ‘If you are exposed to a sound over 85 decibels for more than 8 hours this can cause permanent damage to the delicate structures in the inner ear, which are responsible for sending sound signals to the brain.
“However every time the decibel level increases by 3 the length of safe exposure time halves. This means if you are in a room with a sound louder than 100 decibels, such as a nightclub, you only have 15 minutes before damage to the inner ear starts.”
With this equation in mind, a passenger on the Tube would only need to be exposed to 110dB for a few minutes before facing inner ear damage.
Traveling between Kentish Town and Tufnell park would begin to damage a person’s hearing after 30 minutes and this is on the basis of less rough tracks than potentially exist now.
Oliver continues: “Public places like restaurants and pubs and even our commutes are getting louder.
“We’ve heard this anecdotally but there have been a few studies recently that have found that the London Underground is very loud, and in some parts, exceeding safe listening levels.”
As this information has become more available the TfL has faced questions from its own employees.
Industrial action was taken in 2019 because of TfL’s failure to solve issues to do with Tube noise.
The Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union said 95% of its members supported the action, indicating that it is viewed as a serious, wide ranging problem
RMT’s Mick Cash said at the time: “It is appalling that RMT driver members have had to resort to a programme of industrial action in order to force London Underground to take the issue of excessive track noise seriously.”
The union accused TfL of “dragging its feet” and solutions had been less than forthcoming.
The union was pushing for temporary speed reductions to part of the track that affect their drivers, which would help lower levels of noise they would be exposed to.
They also looked to get parts of noisy track replaced as part of their demands and this the real crux of the issue.
The best way to reduce tube noise is to routinely maintain or replace parts of the tracks.
This would mean closures, disruption and financial backing – and it appears to be something TfL wants to avoid.
In a statement to the BBC back in 2018, London Underground’s Nigel Holness said TfL were monitoring noise levels and were investigating other ideas to “further reduce noise”.
However, the strike action because noise came in 2019, my readings in 2021.
Holness added in 2018: “While customers travelling on our network can experience noise, higher volumes tend to be for short periods of time and Health & Safety Executive guidance on noise suggests it is highly unlikely to cause any long-term damage to customers’ hearing.”
But consistent exposure to very loud noise even for a short time can have cumulative effects and regular Tube goers may be putting themselves at risk.
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