‘Please mind the gap between the train and the platform’ is a recorded announcement familiar to travellers on
the London Underground. The ‘tube’ is the oldest underground railway in the world and when it was built in the 19th century the tunnels often followed the line of the streets above so as to avoid the costs of obtaining permission from owners to tunnel under their properties. The result was that on the oldest deep-level or ‘tube’ lines, the Bakerloo, Central, Northern, and Piccadilly, the tracks in the tunnels inevitably curve quite a bit, which means that when a train comes to rest at a platform that is on a curve, there is a gap between the carriage and the platform. The gap can either be in the middle of a carriage where the platform is on the ‘outside’ of the curve, or at each end of a carriage where the platform is on the ‘inside’ of a curve. There were likely other reasons for the winding tracks underground such as pipes, sewers, and deep foundations that would have been too costly for the construction companies, who were privately-financed, to divert or reconstruct.
This wasn’t so much of a problem when the tunnels were first built as train carriages were much shorter, so the gaps weren’t so great. But as trains were modernised and the carriages made longer to increase their capacity, the gap between the train and the platform was quite a hazard in many stations. Although drivers and station attendants had been warning passengers of the gap since at least the early 1920s, this was proving increasingly impractical, and in 1968 London Underground started introducing recorded announcements to warn passengers to ‘mind the gap’.
One of the early announcers was Oswald Laurence whose clear compelling voice was heard by millions of people at many stations on the Northern Line. In the early 2000s however, the minimalist message to ‘mind the gap’ was deemed an insufficient warning. What was the gap? Where was it? Whilst there are no records of anyone misunderstanding what the announcement was referring to, only of people not taking notice of it, or being in a state of intoxication such that they were incapable of acting on it. Nevertheless the announcement was re-recorded and the location of the gap clearly identified: ‘please mind the gap between the train and the platform’.
Mr Laurence, who as an actor had made the recording in the 1970s, died in 2001 at the age of 80, and his place in history might have been forgotten. Except that when his announcement at Embankment Station, the last station to play the recording, was replaced in November 2012 by a new one, his widow, Dr Margaret McCollum, wrote to London Underground. Dr McCollum asked if they had a recording of the announcement that her husband had made some forty years before, and explained that she would go to the station if she was travelling that way, to hear her husband’s voice. ‘Knowing that I could go and listen to his voice was simply wonderful. It was a great comfort. I would go and sit on the platform, and sometimes miss a couple of trains just so I could hear it’. Here is a video of an interview by the BBC with Dr McCollum.
Somewhat unexpectedly, given that London Underground has a lot on its plate, carrying over four million passengers every day and rising, tracked down the recording, and not only did they send Dr McCollum a copy of the recording on a CD, they also decided to reinstate his announcement at Embankment station. So now if you stand on the northbound platform of the Northern Line at the station, where MIND THE GAP is painted at intervals on the platforms edge, it is an eerie experience hearing Mr Laurence remind people in his precise authoritative voice, not once but three times, as trains rush into the platform and come to a rest, to ‘mind the gap’. You can hear him here.
There are two other locations where ‘mind the gap’ warnings are most notably played: the Central line platforms at Bank, where there can be a 1-foot (30cm) gap, and the Bakerloo line platforms at Piccadilly Circus.
The ‘please mind the gap between the train and the platform’ warning is also used where there is a difference in height between the platform and the floor of the train carriage. This occurs where a platform is used by both deep-level ‘tube’ trains and larger ‘sub-surface’ trains, and in these situations the height of the platform is a compromise between the different floor heights of the train carriages (a difference of 8 inches). That’s why you will hear the warning at a number of stations in west London, which although having straight platforms, serve both the larger District line trains and the deep-level Piccadilly line trains.
If you are really interested, you can read a lot more about London Underground platform gaps on Mike Horne’s website here. Amongst many fascinating facts, Mike Horne has identified that the largest gap between the train and the platform at any of London’s deep-level ‘tube’ stations is at the west end of the eastbound platform of the Central Line at Bank station, a scary 375mm or 14.76 inches!
Going back to Oswald Laurence, in February this year, a short film Mind the Gap was shown at the London Short Film Festival which tells Dr McCollum’s story. The poignant film was written, directed and produced by Luke Flanagan with Eileen Nicholas played the lead role, and you can see it here. The main location for the tube shots was Barbican station which is in the open, and as the tracks are straight at the station, there is no gap, and hence no announcement is needed, but filming in the deep-level tube stations such as at Embankment would have proved difficult.
And here is the voice of Oswald Laurence again.