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Out of Sight, Well Within Earshot: The London Underground’s Big Noise Problem

By: Ghita El Haitmy

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Written by: Sydney Amoakoh

 

What’s gigantic, popular and as loud as a power saw at a rock concert? 

Depending on which line and stop you’re on – the London Underground. 

The city’s rapid mass transit network has a big noise issue. Passengers, underground workers and anyone who goes near a tube station can hear it. And now, underground users are making sure their pain can be heard too.

Over the past three years, roughly 1,000 passengers have taken the time to file noise complaints with Transport for London (TfL), the government body responsible for most of London’s public transportation. In 2019, transport unions threatened to strike due to excessive levels of noise on four Tube lines. Each year, the tally of complaints goes up. And so does our knowledge of the far-reaching negative effects that noise pollution can have on physical and mental health.

Despite the scale of the issue, solutions to London’s underground noise pollution are within reach. Experts and TfL themselves have clearly listed possible fixes. But the big problem is that the City of London has faced regular setbacks to their plan of action – leaving TfL users to deal with the long-lasting effects of daily earaches. 

 

From Earaches to Major Health Pains

Exactly how bad is the underground’s noise problem? 

To avoid permanent hearing damages, the European Commission and WHO have recommended that personal audio devices, like speakers and earphones, should be set to 85 dB. For perspective, that ranges roughly from the sound level of a hair dryer to a good blender.  

But according to investigations run by the BBC, EAVE and local London news outlets, parts of the London underground network are as loud as a rock concert or industrial landscaping machinery. Average noise levels across the network often shoot well over 90 dB. The loudest culprits are the Northern, Jubilee and Victoria lines, where noise bursts hit around 117 dB.

We already know that prolonged exposure to harmful sound is linked to negative impacts on the body, mind and wildlife all around us. In all living organisms, sound can affect the circulatory system and trigger fight-or-flight responses. And in humans, noise can be harmful to blood pressure, heart health, sleep patterns and levels of stress, depression and anxiety. 

Now, research is expanding to understand the full impacts of intermittent exposure to short bursts of harmful sound. While results are still underway, Dr Joseph Sollini of University College London’s Ear Institute has spoken with multiple news outlets on the possible health hazards of the underground noise problem: 

While it is presently unclear whether this journey – twice a day – would be sufficient to cause long-lasting hearing loss, the most conservative criteria would suggest avoiding this level of exposure.

Hearing loss accumulates over our lifetime…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. 

So what can TfL and the City of London do about it? And what have they done about it so far? 

 

Many Options, Little Progress

When it comes to what TfL could do to solve the problem, the list runs long. Possible track and network-wide improvements include: 

  • Reducing train speeds
  • Smoothing and grinding contact surfaces between tracks and carriage wheels
  • More rail lubrication, and
  • More vibration isolation between wheels, tracks and carriages

And sound quality in carriages could be improved with more audio accessible design, including:

  • Air conditioning installation, so that carriage windows could be closed
  • Improved carriage sound insulation
  • Improved PA systems, and
  • Installing active noise cancellation to eliminate loud sound bursts 

In 2018, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan explained that TfL understood the ‘importance of minimising noise levels” for staff, customers and TfL neighbours by monitoring noise and vibration levels. Khan promised that, “despite its financial challenges, TfL continues to invest in London Underground track renewal and maintenance, including a continuous programme of rail-grinding and track modernisation.” In efforts to fulfil that promise, TfL do run regular inspections, and spend around £150m each year on track improvements. 

But, particularly in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, TfL have faced funding constraints and setbacks in their plan of action on noise pollution. 

For example, in April this year, they had to remove noise reduction systems on the Northern line which had proven to have ineffective design. Soon after, in June, Mayor Khan announced the rollout of new technology to replace track fastenings around the Northern Line. But he warned of potential limits to the plan, explaining, “[TfL will] put in place practical interventions wherever possible, but until a sustainable funding settlement for TfL is provided by the Government, TfL’s ability to carry out the long-term and expensive interventions needed to tackle Tube noise is limited.” 

According to the Islington Tribune, Mr Khan has said TfL does not have the funds to enact a permanent, network-wide solution – which would involve a complete Tube overhaul. 

In the meantime, Dr Sollini offers advice on small steps TfL users could take to safeguard their own care:

Those that make longer commutes on the Northern, Victoria, Jubilee or Central lines should take particular care. Daily commutes of around 30 to 45 minutes are sufficient to cause long-lasting and irreversible hearing loss. It is unrealistic to expect people to avoid using the Tube, it’s far too convenient. But people can still protect themselves while on it. Easy ways to do this are to use noise-cancelling headphones or ear defenders.

 

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