The Glasgow Subway, which opened in 1896 and was renovated in 1996, consists only of a circular line. The colour scheme of the wagons and the seat upholstery is warm in tone, with orange dominating the scheme. If we put 2 and 2 together, we resolve the question of its most famous nickname: the Clockwork Orange. Beyond that, it has is no further relation to Anthony Burgess’ book or Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation (apart from, perhaps, around Halloween).
The Orange, the third oldest subway in the world after London and Budapest, services 15 stations – or 10.4 kilometres – in 24 minutes. This is a curious method of transportation, not entirely effective for a 21st century city, designed to accommodate the Commonwealth Games in 2014. For a psycho-geographer like me, however, is all a world of surprises. The fact is that this subway does not take you where you want to go, but instead, leaves you quite far away, especially outside of the Hillhead-St. Enoch journey. As it was conceived at the height of the industrial revolution, its main role in those years was to get people into work. But, of course, the industry has mostly disappeared in Glasgow, making way for a modern services city. Despite this, the underground remains the same, with the same number of stops in the same places. It is more a journey through time than a mode of transport. What a tourist attraction if you know how to explore it! A compass is much needed, because nothing is signposted, and there are no gift shops or maps, unless you make them yourself, pencil in hand.
Take for example the Science Center, at Pacific Quay, surrounded on the one side by the fairly new BBC Scotland building, and, on the other, by the IMAX Cinema and the Glasgow Tower, the highest observation point in the city. On the other side of the river Clyde you can find the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Center (SECC –also called the Armadillo), a concert hall designed by Foster and Partners and a bit derivative of the Sydney Opera House. As you can see, I’m talking about a place bound to be a people magnet. The fact is that the nearest subway stop is Cessnock, about 25, 30-minute walk away (of course, but why take the subway?), having to cut through back streets and tucked away parks. The subway meets the needs of Rangers football fans, but not those of Celtic fans; those of the ‘cool’ West End students (the Wendies), but not the East End, the Glasgow poor but interesting. Thank goodness the city’s bus system is more functional!
The other main contradiction of this mode of transport is its working times. My continental mind is already adapted to the idea that, in the UK, at around 23.00 (22.30 on Sundays), the bell sounds to signal pub closing times, they stop selling alcohol in supermarkets long before they put the shutters down and, in general, people go to bed earlier. Even though Glasgow is more relaxed than other cities on these matters (maybe because of the antagonism to everything English), the Clockwork Orange leaves us stranded in the street at 23.30 Monday to Saturday and 18.00 on Sunday. It’s lucky that it does not reach many places of interest because, well, you cannot even go to the movies with that schedule… At least, one does not have to change lines or trains, and the risk of missing one’s stop because of the interesting conversation of fellow passengers (yes, this has happened to me) is much lower than in the London underground labyrinths, for example. In another 24 minutes, one is back at the same stop, with one’s curiosity regarding Joe Blog’s love life completely satisfied.
The objection, made by some, that the distance between adjoining stations can be covered quicker on foot than on the subway has inspired social challenges, close to pervasive and participatory art, or the relational aesthetics bigged up by Nicholas Bourriaud and regarded by many as the [urban] art of the future. This is an example: “You are in the Glasgow Subway, travelling clockwise. The journey time between Buchanan St. and St. Enoch is approximately 55 seconds. On the surface, the course is downhill, but goes through one of the busiest shopping streets in Glasgow and has two traffic crossings. Can you leave the train at Buchanan St. and go back in the same train at the next stop, St. Enoch? (You can do something against the law, if you want).” To see how the people of Glasgow responded to this call and how this event became a phenomenon, I advise you to type “Glasgow Subway Challenge” on YouTube. You have to see it for yourselves.