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London Opens Up Long-Awaited 'Night Tube' Trains

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Tottenham Court Road. Change here for the Northern line.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

London's Tube, the world's oldest subway system, ran through dawn this morning. That's a first. It's part of a drive to turn Britain's capital into a 24-hour city. NPR's Frank Langfitt was on the inaugural runs early today. He joins us now from London. Good morning, Frank.

(LAUGHTER)

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: Why did London transport decide to make this change?

LANGFITT: Well, I think what they wanted to do is they really want to turn this place into a 24-hour city. And it's kind of surprising - you think of London, big cosmopolitan town, but the Tube lines tend to shut down between 12:30 and 1:00. And that has people kind of rushing out, often from the pubs. And it's a surprisingly kind of quiet town given its size. They figure - the officials in the London City government, they figure the nighttime economy here's about $23 billion a year, 700,000 jobs.

They think if they extend the hours of the Tube they'll get pubs to stay open later, nightclubs, add a couple of thousand more jobs, another $100 million to the economy. This is what they're hoping to do. The other thing is they've got to compete with other cities in Europe. Places like Berlin and Copenhagen, they already have all-night subways.

SIMON: What were the crowds like?

LANGFITT: They were pretty good and pretty well-behaved. You had full trains well past 2, and then things seemed to thin out. Most people were thrilled by this because they do feel that the city shuts down early. I was in the city of London - that's, of course, the financial district - and people were just much more relaxed. I was talking to a guy named Pahun Jain. He's an intern at an investment bank. He was having a pint outside a pub. And here's what he had to say.

PAHUN JAIN: If you're hanging out with your friends, you're not checking your phone for your maps or your timings. You can just go home whenever you want. I think that helps a lot. You're not pressed for time or you're not in a hurry.

LANGFITT: Do you sometimes just have to call an evening early because the Tube is going to shut down?

JAIN: A lot of times, yeah. You'd be surprised.

LANGFITT: Another thing is this was just convenience for people who are coming into the city at night or working in the city at night. I was riding this escalator with Leo Facili. He's a nurse here in the city. He'd just come in from Sicily, and he was so happy that he was able to use the Tube.

LEO FACILI: My flight is always in the late night, so normally I reach home at 4 a.m.

LANGFITT: Seriously?

FACILI: Now I can reach home at 2 o' clock, so this is amazing. I'm so happy.

SIMON: As we noted, Frank, the Tube is the definitive transit system in the world. It's the oldest subway system. It's been around since the 1800s. Why has it taken so long to run it through the night?

LANGFITT: (Laughter) That's what people here were asking. There are a few official reasons. One is it does go back - it's really Victorian-era, 1800s. Officials on the Tube and in the government say it requires a lot of overnight maintenance, so it wasn't easy to free up the tracks to do this. The other thing is this was announced three years ago, but there was resistance from the unions, understandably, from their point of view. These are tough overnight shifts that people didn't want to do.

And last night, one of the things that kind of came through was a sense of pride when you were talking to people. It was like, finally, we're doing this. We are this famous city that everybody knows and people love to come and visit, but it almost seemed like they were behind. And people actually talked about being able to compete with New York and catch up and continue kind of pushing the city forward. So they felt that this was long overdue, but they were very happy to see it last night.

SIMON: NPR's Frank Langfitt. Take a nap, man.

SIMON: I will. Thanks a lot, man. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.