The Best Story You’ll Hear About Someone’s Morning Commute

If you’re on the London Underground — that’s what the subway system is called, although also commonly known as the “Tube” — you should be careful when you get onto to train. For very good reason, when trains pull up into the station to take on passengers or let riders disembark, there’s a gap between the train and the platform. Riders have to be sure to step from the platform into the train (or vice versa) without falling into that little gap.

To keep riders safe, Transport for London — the agency that runs the Tube — has warnings all over the place. Customers about to get onto a train will see the words “Mind the Gap” (British for “watch your step” or “seriously, there’s a space between the train and the platform, don’t fall in”) on the ground. And when the train pulls into the station and the doors are about to open, you’ll hear the same warning over the public address system. Here’s a video from the¬†Embankment tube station in Westminster, so you can experience it as if you were there.

Has that message saved lives? Who knows.

But has that message touched at least one life? Absolutely. In fact, that’s why it’s still there.

The “Mind the Gap” audio warnings have been a feature of the Tube since 1969. The original PA systems didn’t use the technology available today, though — you may be surprised to hear this, but we’ve made some improvements in tech over the last fifty or so years. As a result, the recordings get updated every couple of decades. The recording from the Embankment station video above, for example, had the same voice from about 1973 until the fall of 2012. That year, Transport for Lond upgraded the station’s PA system; the new tech couldn’t play the audio found on the old hardware, so new recordings replaced it.

The vast, vast majority of commuters wouldn’t care that the voice that greeted them had change; sure, many would notice, but it would only be a passing curiosity. But for Dr. Margaret McCollum, the change wasn’t minor and it wasn’t welcome. The previous voice was that of an English actor named Oswald Laurence — no one you’ve likely ever heard of, but someone of personal importance to McCollum. Laurence was her late husband; he had died in 2007. From the time he died, as she told BBC1 London, “if I had a journey that could possibly go via Embankment, I would do it that way. I just loved hearing his voice.” 

On November 1, 2012, McCollum made one of those journeys, only to find out that her late husband’s voice was gone. Upset, she asked a station manager what had happened, and was told that “there was a new digital system and they could not get his voice on it.” Oswald’s message was gone forever. McCollum was, in her own words, devastated.

But she did not give up. McCollum’s simple wish — that her husband’s voice remained in use — found its way to high-up decision-makers at Transport for London. And seeing an opportunity to bring joy where there was pain, they stepped into action. The director of the London Underground, Nigel Holness, told the BBC that “we were very touched by her story, so staff tracked down the recording and not only were they able to get a copy of the announcement on CD for her to keep but are also working to restore the announcement at Embankment station.”

The system delivered on the promise. Today (as of 2019, when the video above) was made, Oswald Laurence’s voice gives a calm but stern reminder to watch your step to those who travel through Embankment, much to the delight of his beloved.

Bonus fact: There’s a subspecies of mosquito which probably wouldn’t exist, save for the London Underground. Mosquitos found in the subway system — that is, the ones below-ground — have evolved differently than those found above-ground, according to research by Katharine Byrne and Richard Nichols of the University of London. As the BBC reports, “while the above-ground [ones] s bit only birds, the [Underground one] had a taste for human blood,” and the below-ground ones do not hibernate while the above-ground versions take a winter’s-long nap each year. Even stranger, the BBC continues, “Byrne also found the underground mosquitoes are now so distinct they can no longer interbreed with other mosquitoes.” 

From the Archives: Enter the Knickerbocker: The story of a really weird door (and accompanying sign) that I found in the New York City subway system one day.