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An underground fortress of silence is breached

Beeping, ringing, and intimate chats – oh my! – now heard on Glasgow's subway. Next stop, the London Tube?

By / December 26, 2008

Always on: Walk-and-talk pedestrians in Glasgow, Scotland, where subway mobile-phone use was recently approved

Alfredo Sosa/Staff/FILE

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London's subway has its drawbacks: A lack of air conditioning makes it unbearably hot in summer and temporary line closures are frequent.

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However, in a country with more cellular phones than people (74 million mobiles for 60 million citizens), one major plus for a lot of riders of London's "Tube" is the lack of cellphone reception on large underground sections in the city center.

So it was with a sense of horror that many – myself included – greeted the news that even this subterranean refuge could soon succumb to the din of ring tones and other people's loud conversations.

The threat comes from the north, after a scheme was unveiled this month on the subway in Glasgow, Scotland. Commuters on the five busiest platforms are now able to send and receive calls, transmit texts, and, should they wish, engage in the all-too-common mobile-phone user behavior of publicly and loudly broadcasting intimate details of their private lives.

Few doubt that it will only be a matter of time before it comes to London, where transport authorities have been attempting to bring cellular-phone reception to the underground network for years.

A survey of 1,007 Londoners last year found a majority supported being able to use a cellphone in all parts of the Tube, although about a third remained opposed.

Ken Leach, spokesman for O2, the British phone company running the Glasgow project, said that it was launched in response to demand. The initial reaction, he says, has been "very positive."

But are Britons really ready for the impact that cellphone use might have on densely packed subway carriages?

The Japanese, who have been able to use phones on their underground rail networks for years, seem to be coping. That said, after years of announcements and campaigns urging them to switch their phones to "manner mode," most Japanese commuters just use their mobiles for texting, rather than chatting.

A note of caution on subway phone use was struck by Emma Short, from the University of Bedfordshire, who has closely studied cellular-phone behavior. "One of the words that people have been using recently in relation to cellular-phone use is 'interspaces,'" she told me, aptly enough, during a cellphone call.

"This can be somewhere like an underground tunnel or train, which acts like a little decompression space. It's an opportunity to 'come down.' "

Subways can be exceedingly crowded, Dr. Short warns: "If you are prioritizing people who are a long distance away from you on the other end of the phone over someone who is standing in close proximity, then that may lead, unintentionally perhaps, to antisocial behavior."

In addition, we are becoming all-too familiar with overhearing intimate and often inappropriate information during strangers' phone conversations. How is this affecting us, and are we ready for even more exposure?

Short recounted a recent train ride during which a woman on a cellphone became agitated: "After 30 seconds it became apparent that she was on the way to the hospital to see her dying mother, but she was too late to get there. This woman was in tears, and yet no one around her knew what to do. They were hearing all of this information but felt disempowered about how to respond."

And then there are the calls we just want to block out altogether – like the conversation that came courtesy of a slightly worse-for-wear office worker I found myself sitting beside one recent morning journey. In lengthy and painstaking detail, he recounted the gastric repercussions of eating an extremely spicy kebab.

Packed like sardines, my fellow passengers and I shifted queasily in our seats as the conversation took us back to our high school biology classes. When the doors finally opened at the next stop, traditional English manners took a hit as passengers rushed off.

It's an experience that is becoming all too common. Google "overheard awkward cellphone conversations" and you'll find 10,000 similar tales.

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